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Cottoning on to the Big Beat Ball

Redmer Yska · 24 September 2016

The music life of 1960s teenager Susy Pointon was transformed by the subterranean sounds of a New Zealand broadcaster singer Gene Pitney called 'the oldest teenager in the world' – who would be acclaiming the first Ramones album at the age of 75.

Arthur Pearce and Duke Ellington

Arthur Pearce, aka Cotton-Eyed Joe, with Duke Ellington. Image: Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand

One dark night in the 1960s, the wild, electric Chicago blues came a’ knocking on the door of teenager Susy Pointon, in the sleepy Wellington suburb of Karori. She’d never, ever be the same.

Blame a veteran broadcaster named Arthur Pearce and his weekly show Big Beat Ball. Going under the pseudonym Cotton-Eyed Joe, he’d always stood out from his peers on stuffy, dull Kiwi radio: playing the cool stuff, the swampy stuff, the way below the radar stuff.

Pointon’s vivid, often-hilarious account of first hearing the blues on Pearce’s show as a buttoned-down 14-year-old was earlier this year adapted and played on RNZ National’s Nine to Noon show. The four-part series, Cotton-Eyed Joe, chronicles the experience of encountering genuine, stonking musical ecstasy, in her case Howlin’ Wolf’s signature classic Smokestack Lightning:

Something strange is coming out of the tiny chrome speaker, a sound menacing and mean, loping steadily towards me down a long dark corridor from a place I’ve never been. To my innocent ears, tuned to sentimental ballads, brass bands and harpsichords, it sounds as though an enraged housewife has taken the pots and pans out of the cupboards and is hurling them at the wall.

So who was this Cotton-Eyed Joe? At the time Pointon tuned to the Big Beat Ball on Wellington station 2YD, Pearce was a cardigan-wearing 60-year-old. He’d been spinning discs for half his life, his eclectic tastes spanning jazz, country, funk, blues, even surf. Between songs, he’d provide a commentary laced with terrible puns. American singing star Gene Pitney, a regular visitor to New Zealand and occasional guest, famously and rightly dubbed Big Beat Ball “the weirdest show I’ve ever heard in my life”.

Arthur Pearce

Image: Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Born in 1903, Pearce spent most of his working life as an importer’s clerk, a job he’d held down from the age of 18. Born to an affluent Wellington household, he’d acquired his first phonograph record at six and learned piano. But it was the rhythms of jazz that changed his life. He turned himself into an authority on a musical style seen as marginal, even dubious. As radio took hold in the mid 1930s, he began broadcasting his own jazz show on the station 2YA under the pseudonym ‘Turntable’.

By the Swinging 60s, the point when Pointon found Pearce, he’d quit his day job, assuming a new hipster-cool identity as Cotton-Eyed Joe, opening every show with the same stark question: “Any rags, any jazz, any boppers?” She still recalls the way he announced the Chicago Blues that night: “Let’s start the Big Beat Ball rolling all the way from South Side Chicago. Check out Howlin’ Wolf with those great sidemen Hubert Sumlin on guitar and Otis Spann on piano. Take it away, boys!”

Pointon’s description of experiencing Smokestack Lightning in her quiet suburban bedroom is worth quoting:

It begins with a harmonica, surging, moaning, shivering and shaking, followed by an insistent guitar riff, biting through the static like a knife. Then comes a rolling, liquid piano and a bass like a big black panther, swaggering and rolling through the jungle, then the snare crash and finally a voice howling and wailing like a banshee, a monstrous demon. I feel an involuntary shiver run down my spine.

Train I’m riding

Shining just like gold

Can’t you hear me crying?

Woo hoo.

After her first, ecstatic meeting with the blues, Pointon was hooked. Cotton-Eyed Joe tells how she then boldly penned a letter to Pearce, begging him to play more Howlin’ Wolf. Recognising her as a serious fan, Pearce offered her a bunch of records from his collection, imports from the United States, rare and highly prized. And when the schoolgirl and the announcer finally meet, Pearce proves a sober gent, not the eponymous drunken ratbag of the traditional Appalachian jig Cotton-Eyed Joe.

Armed with her collection of blues rarities, Pointon gained status among fellow blues fans and musicians. Her account underlines the loneliness of the mid-century female blues fan: most pimply afficionados were male. She records her visits to late-night smoke-filled music venues in central Wellington such as The Oracle, all the time trying to keep her controlling parents at bay.

Pearce, meanwhile, continued broadcasting Big Beat Ball until 1975 as he entered his seventies. By that time, Pitney, a close friend, called him “the oldest teenager in the world”. As Chris Bourke records in his excellent entry in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Pearce even embraced punk at the age of 75, acclaiming the first Ramones record. He died in 1990, still in love with the music.

Susy Pointon

Teenage Susy Pointon in the 1960s.

Pointon continued to wear out the records Pearce had given her, as she explains: “I treasured those LPs for 20 years and lent them out to many musicians but had to leave them with a friend in Sydney when I relocated to the USA in the early 1980s. I do still have the Howlin’ Wolf one which I lent to someone back then and it was only returned last year!”

In time, she’d experience first-hand the wild sounds of the Big Beat Ball. After formative years in local television drama and features, she won a fellowship to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where she studied directing and screenwriting. She’d meanwhile married a rock musician. It was the start of a long and successful career writing and making films in the US and Australia. Returning home in the late 1990s, she studied film history at the University of Auckland and ran the New Zealand Writers Guild. After teaching screenwriting at tertiary level, she moved to the Hokianga in 2004 to research a screenplay – and stayed. A collection of her writing, Warm Milk, including Cotton-Eyed Joe, is to be published by Steele Roberts. The piece ends with a warm tribute to Pearce:

This all happened ten years before I climbed on a plane and went searching for the world Cotton-Eyed Joe had opened up to me; long before I crouched, mesmerised on the side of the stage while Muddy Waters stormed and raged through a set that transported me into howling ecstasy; long before I stood spellbound in a club in Nashville,Tennessee, while Buddy Guy serenaded me with his shivering, transcendent runs… long before I knelt in a church pew in Alabama and thrilled as an old woman rose to praise the Lord. And it was a long time before I stood in the cool of my own back porch in West Virginia after midnight and listened to the box cars of the Chessie night train rolling by rhythmically for what seemed like hours, leaving behind a mournful harmonica wail that hung in the air and drifted down softly, just like smoke.

Discover more

Cotton-Eyed Joe by Susy Pointon, read by Michele Amas on RNZ National's Nine to Noon, part one, part two, part three and part four.

Susy Pointon on RNZ National's Country Life.

Chris Bourke on Arthur Pearce in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography/Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand (including audio of an interview with Pearce).

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Redmer Yska is a writer and historian whose books include All Shook Up: The Flash Bodgie and the Rise of the New Zealand Teenager in the Fifties and, most recently, Truth: The Rise and Fall of the People's Paper.

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