50 years on, Peter Posa's still on top

VICKI ANDERSON
Last updated 05:00 11/08/2012
Peter Posa
WHITE RABBIT: Peter Posa

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The man responsible for the No1 album at the top of the Kiwi charts right now is a pensioner living in Te Awamutu.

At the age of 70, Kiwi guitarist Peter Posa has hit the top of the Kiwi album charts this week.

Five decades since the release of his first album, Posa's career-spanning retrospective, White Rabbit: The Very Best Of Peter Posa has debuted at No1 on the New Zealand album chart in its first week of release.

His original multi-platinum selling debut album The White Rabbit was released in 1963, three years before the start of the first official New Zealand music chart, which began in April 1966.

Posa's magical hit was released in Australasia, the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Pacific Islands and established him as a household name. Ask your gran.

Fifty years later, he remains one of our most recognisable middle of the road  instrumentalists - his signature sound indicative of the early 60s, think of The Shadows' Apache as a signpost.He's a little shocked to be top of the pops now.

''I have never had a reaction like this since the release of The White Rabbit in 1963,'' Posa says.

''It has been overwhelming, people seem genuinely excited. People have even been pre-ordering. I'm over the moon.

''During the 1960s and early 1970s, the prolific Posa released 28 singles, 15 EP's and 23 albums, and had a hectic international touring schedule.

One year, he recalls, he only had two days off.''From 1962 to 1965 I toured continuously here, Australia and the Pacific Islands ... I was young and thought I could conquer the world.  It was crazy to even attempt it.

''The Fijians loved his music so much he was made an honorary chief and was known as King Peter.

Posa followed his white rabbit to the United States in 1964 where he brushed shoulders with big stars.

In his lounge in Te Awamutu are pictures captioned ''Vegas 64'' showing him with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

He describes the meeting as the biggest highlight of his life.Viking Records boss Ron Dalton and Peter's manager Jim Haddleton had arranged for him to spend six months there touring, recording and promoting the record.

He worked in  some of the world's most famous studios and meet American artists he admired. In Nashville he met Chet Atkins, and in Los Angeles appeared on Hollywood Palace accompanied by jazz guitarist Herb Ellis.

''Sinatra was such a nice guy considering he was mixed up with the mafia and everything,'' Posa recalls.

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''He asked me about my career and he seemed genuinely interested. Dean Martin was standing beside him. I was thrilled, I was a fan of Sinatra when I was a kid. I always had one ear on Hank Williams and the other on Frank.

''When The White Rabbit was released, its album cover that shows Posa checking out a woman dressed as a Playboy bunny caused much controversy.

''I remember one of the headlines at the time was something like 'Whatever you do, don't show it to your grandmother'.

The controversy  sold more records, of course. It was rather cheeky.

''One of his favourite annual tours during these times was with the Miss New Zealand pageant.

The contenders would tour the country strutting their stuff and Posa and other entertainers like Eddie Low and John Grenell would perform to packed town halls.

''In those days it was one of the biggest shows there was here. The tours were annually for seven years.

''Now, when you hear about Miss New Zealand, it's just to tell you who has won. They seem to have problems with jealousy and picking the wrong girl, that didn't happen in those days.'

'Posa's 50-year love of music began as a child. Growing up in the Henderson Valley, he started playing the ukulele at seven and would search the family vineyard for pieces of wood to carve into model guitar shapes.

Once he cut the clothesline wire and used it for strings with nails in place of tuning keys. Mum wasn't too pleased.

Receiving a real guitar on his ninth birthday was sublime. He took it everywhere he went and would tuck it gently under his bed at night.He took guitar lessons with Walter Smith, who wrote the song Under The Maori Moon.

Smith had an office on Auckland's Queen Street. Twelve lessons were booked but he only attended five.

''I gave up because I was scared of the guy. I never learnt how to read music, I taught myself how to play and I'm pleased I did.

"It gives you a lot more scope, you have to learn to improvise. I think that's how I've got so many different guitar sounds.''

At 18 he formed the popular The Peter Posa Combo, playing functions around West Auckland, before auditioning for Eldred Stebbing and signing to his Zodiac record label in 1960.In the early 1970s, after a bad car accident that ''wrecked'' his neck, and exhausted from touring, he decided to slow his life down, playing in restaurants around Auckland, something he says he enjoyed tremendously.

Every day since the car crash he says he has battled chronic headaches.The only thing that helps with the pain is playing the blues on his guitar.

''The blues pours your heart out more than anything. I have a history with depression after the accident. I've got to take painkillers to keep me going but the best therapy is music.''

In 1976, he first turned his hand to producing other people's albums and these skills came in handy for his own greatest hits album, which he produced.

''I love it, being on the other side of the looking glass.''The White Rabbit was recorded in one take, live in the studio using a two-track recorder.Posa doesn't think computers should be involved in the musical process.

''It is like having a computer as a back-up band, you don't get any atmosphere or feeling. It is very clinical sounding now. I hate all those computers.''

Although he would have loved to have done an album tour this time around he simply ''doesn't have the stamina'' but believes he's playing better than ever.

The Christchurch Town Hall was the scene of many of his favourite gigs because of the venue's famed acoustics.It was also home to his many appearances on That's Country, a TV country music show fronted by Ray Columbus.

''It was heaven to play at the Christchurch Town Hall. The better the acoustics the better you play.'

'The lasting satisfaction from five decades in the entertainment business was knowing that he had inspired other guitarists around the world.

''Tommy Emmanuel, the Australian guitarist, and I are great friends. When I first met him, he said I was one of his mentors. That's what I get a kick out of the most in my career.

One time unannounced he got me on stage with him. I played three songs, and got a standing ovation, which made me feel just great.

''But not as great as he feels right now - perched atop of the Kiwi charts on the eve of his 71st birthday.

■ Peter Posa's album White Rabbit: The Very Best Of Peter Posa is out now. 

- © Fairfax NZ News

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