Samoan NZ family group which evolved in the 1960s to a backing band for Herma Keil.
The Keil Isles’ place in New Zealand’s music history has often been understated, even though they were a drawcard in Auckland playing rock and roll well before Johnny Devlin left Wanganui.
Why? Possibly because they were mostly an Auckland phenomenon, or that cover versions dominated their set lists, or just that New Zealand’s rock history needed an iconoclastic lone ranger like Devlin to be its first star.
But the Keil Isles were local pioneers, just like the R&B groups in the USA who started rockin’ and rollin’ back in the late 1940s, well before Elvis. And while their legacy on record is dominated by those cover versions – even their biggest hit ‘The Twist’, which outsold Chubby Checker’s disc in New Zealand – there is no doubt that they were a phenomenon.
In October 1962 promoter Phil Warren placed an advertisement in the Auckland Star announcing that he had signed the Keil Isles to an exclusive contract; somehow word got out that the contract was worth £10,000 for 12 months’ work. He quickly advertised their availability. Every weekday, the band would appear at the Bali Hai club on Chancery Street at lunchtimes, plus Friday nights. Each Tuesday and Wednesday night, they played the Montmartre on Lorne Street. And on Saturday nights, they packed crowds into the sweaty Crystal Palace Ballroom on Mt Eden Road.
Those were just the Keil Isles’ residencies for Warren: On Labour Weekend at the Oriental Ballroom on Symonds Street they played a Sunday show starting at midnight, and the following day a show at 8pm.
The Keil Isles were hard workers, rewarded with crowds who kept coming back to their slickly rehearsed, energetic shows where they played the latest rock and roll songs just days after their release overseas.
The band’s origins date to 1951 when Olaf Keil arrived in New Zealand from Samoa. He was then about 18, and during his childhood had made ukuleles out of coconut shells, and enjoyed woodworking and electronics. In Auckland, he joined his uncle’s 14-piece band to play guitar. When rock and roll first reached New Zealand, Olaf was approached by his cousin Freddie to accompany him singing a few songs. By 1956, the Keil Isles had formed, with the addition of Olaf’s brothers – Herma on guitar, Klaus on drums and Rudolph on bass – and began playing at functions for the Mormon Church. Apparently, Mormon contacts in the USA enabled the band to import the latest instruments, and smart cowboy-style stage outfits.
Their first regular booking was at the Orange Ballroom in 1958, and the next year they added a weekly gig at the Jive Centre on Hobson Street when they replaced the Bob Paris Combo. By this stage Olaf’s sister Eliza was in the group as a singer, often performing duets such as ‘Deep Purple’ with Herma. Māori pianist Heke Kewene joined the group, a “gentle giant” who also liked to play Bach and Chopin.
In 1958 Tempo magazine described the Keil Isles as “one of the most sensational rock’n’roll groups to hit the Queen City”, and Australian Music Maker magazine reported that they were “a smartly dressed group with plenty of showmanship and a ton of rhythm.”