The Delltones have been a household name for many years – larger than life, colourful and renowned for their high energy performances and stunning vocal harmonies. The legendary Ian (Peewee) Wilson is looking forward to visiting Port Macquarie as a part of the Wintersun 2011 line-up …
Going right back to the early days, when you and the boys were all surf lifesavers – how did the Delltones get established?
You’re quite right – that was the origin of the group. The late Noel Weiderberg and I were both active lifesavers at the time. We were doing duets and singing at the local surf club [Bronte Surf Club] socials.
One night there was a Col Joye dance, and Col was already established as one of the up and coming stars in Australia. We were listening to him and there was a group there called the Sapphires – one of the guys was Warren Lucas. And to cut a long story short, we found ourselves in the shower room of the surf club harmonising with Warren. He was planning to leave the group he was with, and he said he hoped to find another guy after Christmas, get together with us and form a quartet.
He did exactly that – he came back to us from his holidays with Brian Perkins. And it was at another Col Joye dance, we got together in the shower room and harmonised – and we realised then and there that we had something with possibilities! All of us fell in love with harmony. I certainly did – it was an epiphany for me. To hear harmony for the very first time in that raw setting really blew me away.
Apparently, the way you guys happened to get your first gig is a fascinating story …
Harmonising was something we would just do anywhere – any opportunity we had, we’d break into harmony. One of the activities we’d do before we turned professional was to jump into our car and drive down to Kings Cross, park the car, jump out and start harmonising on the street corner. Before long we had a couple of dozen people listening to the harmonies we were doing. We only had a repertoire of 3 songs!
A manager of a club asked us to come and sing a couple of songs for his audience – and we were grateful to have any sort of audience, really – particularly as they had microphones and speakers! He paid us gratuitously with spaghetti & beer – which we were very grateful for!
What kind of impact did Johnny O’Keefe have on your career?
He had a huge impact on a lot of careers; he was a mentor to quite a few early pioneers. We were introduced to him through the Disc Jockey of the day, Bob Rogers. Johnny O’Keefe at that time already had a relationship with the promoter Lee Gordon. We met them in the office and were offered the job of doing the vocal backing for the actor Tab Hunter, who at the time had a couple of hits on the charts. That started a relationship with O’Keefe, and that of course was cemented when we joined him on his own show on television, Six O’Clock Rock.
We had no idea at the time what kind of impact television would have. This was in 1959, and television had only been around for a couple of years. A show like Six O’Clock Rock led us into a whole new market. They were very exciting times, and he was a very exciting guy to be around.
During the ‘60s, you started churning out some hits like Come a Little Bit Closer and Get a Little Dirt on your Hands. What was that feeling like?
The very first song we had was called Gee, that was a hit on the eastern seaboard. All of us were not only keen surf club members, but keen surfers as well. I was a board rider, and the other boys were body surfers. I remember being in the late Noel Weiderberg’s car and driving up to have a surf on the northern beaches. We just happened to have the radio on and were listening to the music – and all of a sudden, our song Gee came on. We stopped the car – and we almost cried! It was just overwhelming.
And from that moment on, from 1959 to 1964, we had those songs you mentioned. The most outstanding song, I guess, was Get a Little Dirt on your Hands, which was commonly known in the Pop business as a ‘cradle to the grave song’. It was so ironic, because we lost Noel Weiderberg in a car accident, and that was the last record he made. It’s a sentimental favourite of mine.
It was the early days of television and the early days of Australian Pop music, and we were all caught up in that whirl. And of course, we had people telling us not to give up our day jobs; it wouldn’t be a career and the music would fade away very quickly. We ignored all that and gathered rose buds while we could!
How big an influence did the surfing culture and lifestyle have on your music?
That’s an interesting question. We, at that time, were members of the surf club. It was therefore seen, more or less, as the establishment – because it’s a wonderful institution and to be part of that surf club movement … even today I have an affection for it, and I stay in touch with members and go to reunions and so forth. It was such a privilege to be in such an altruistic institution.
But at the time, there was another movement coming along, which was the ‘surfee’ movement – a distinction from the ‘surfer’. This was borne out of the development of new boards – like the Mailbu. There were two distinct cultures developing – one of course was already established – the surf club institution. But up the other end of the beach were the surfees, who were more or less the ones who didn’t want to join the surf club and be a part of that institution, but just wanted to enjoy surfing and surfboard riding.
The song Hangin’ Five was basically the only song we had that was a surfing hit – even though we did do an album of covers and surfing songs we’d collected. We didn’t embrace the surfee movement; we basically stayed with Pop music, and consequently along came Come a Little Bit Closer and Sitting in the Moonlight.
The instrumentals Pipeline and Wipeout were all from around that period, but I just want to make that distinction that surf culture as we know it today didn’t come out of the surf club movement – which is interesting. We came out of the establishment – we were doing our patrols and competing in surf club carnivals.
Tell us about your touring days …
Vietnam was something very special. We were very young, and in my case, I was terribly naive politically. I went over there with the other guys, and for us it was an adventure – unlike most conscripts of the time. We went over there knowing we would always come back home.
It had a profound effect on me. We went over there first of all doing gratuitous shows for the Australian Army, and when we went back we were split between working commercially for the American bases and also doing the shows for the Australians. We spent 4 months there, and it was an eye-opener. Our naivety and immaturity started to fade away, and we started to get an idea of what was going on in Vietnam.
On the other hand, we also had our eye on getting across to England. To be in London in the late ‘60s was something very special. It was right in the middle of the music revolution. One of the highlights was working at the Playboy Club, which was astonishing for 4 young guys full of testosterone! It was something I couldn’t wait to get back home and tell all my friends about! Of course, I met my wife Carla in London, and we fell in love. The whole London trip was quite remarkable.
Unfortunately, it fell over. We had a single released and it was being played on British radio. We did television in England, on Top of the Pops. The record was Pick of the Week, we got airplay in America, it was released in Europe and in America and we were touring Europe. It looked like things were going to happen for us! But we started to squabble among ourselves, as groups often do, and we started to squabble with our management. We came back to Australia to think about how we’d get back over there, and we never did – we never followed through.
You personally had a bit of a break from the music world between 1972 – 78 and took up farming. That was an interesting change! But ultimately, what made you decide to reform the Delltones in ’79?
To be quite honest, we were getting suggestions from Johnny O’Keefe to come
back and do a revival, and he wanted to do a tour; it was going to be a nostalgic tour. And you know – we did need a new tractor [for the farm]! We decided we’d get back together with exactly the same group that broke up and go back on the road again – but only for a short stint. I fell back in love with the business again, but unfortunately old issues came up, and the group began to squabble amongst itself. I realised then that there was no way we could continue the way we were, which was as a vocal group, splitting the money four ways and managing ourselves.
There was an acrimonious split. I thought if I was going to survive in the music industry, I had to reinvent the band and reformulate it. I had to incorporate musical instruments and get new musicians and singers, but retain the original harmonies.
It was pure luck that the revival happened. We happened to get invited onto a nostalgia show with Little Patty. It just took off from there. Next thing we knew, we had a revival album at the end of 1983 called Bop Til Ya Drop. It all came thundering back!
It’s interesting … it was right in the middle of the digital revolution of music; we had all the hair bands around, and in the middle of that we had the Delltones revival going on! Because there were so many changes going on, I think many people latched onto something that was stable. They were good times – there was lots of euphoria around in the ‘80s. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But I think this also happens to illustrate the fact that the survival of the Delltones really depended not only upon the nostalgic original audience, but the audience who were introduced to the band in the ‘80s. A whole new generation came on board.
You’ve been to Port Macquarie before, of course. Are you looking forward to performing at Wintersun?
We’ve been to Port Macquarie a great many time over the years. The Delltones have been around for over 50 years, and we’ve seen towns develop into cities over the years.
The east coast is particularly endearing, and this will be the first time that we’ve worked at the theatre, so we’re looking forward to that. We hear it’s a fantastic venue.
To borrow a quote of yours, how long do you plan to ‘keep raging to stop the ageing’?
(Laughs). Raging can mean different things to different people! Of course, the ‘raging’ I mean is the raging against the ageing stereotype. You can still really enjoy yourself as time goes on! It’s quite ironic that in those very early years that none of us in the band ever thought about the future.
Money was never an object; we just wanted enough to enjoy a few beers after the show – and this was in an environment where everyone was telling us we’d never make it a career. That set the agenda, I think, for the rest of the Delltones’ career.
Retirement’s never really came into it; I’m still doing what I love to do, and I’ll continue to do it as long as I’m still active and the Delltones are able to perform an energised show. It’s not unusual for us to get three generations in our audience, and that’s really satisfying. And while it’s satisfying, I think the Delltones will keep on going!
Interview by Jo Atkins.