Frank Gibson Jr still keeping the beat after almost 70 years: Video, Photos

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Kiwi drumming legend Frank Gibson Jr has been wowing crowds for almost 70 years. He’s played with the best in the business, and there’s not much he hasn’t seen, as David Skipwith reports.

As far as first gigs go, playing the Auckland Town Hall is a pretty good feat. Especially for an 8-year-old.

That’s where drumming protégé Frank Gibson Jr got his start, back in 1954. He remembers his minders worrying that the big occasion might get the better of him, but after strolling out in front of the big crowd – alongside his father and musical mentor, Frank Senior – the little drummer boy impressed everyone, keeping both his cool, and the beat, to begin what would become a lifetime in music.

“I was playing noughts and crosses backstage because they thought that would take my mind off what I was going to do,” Gibson says.

“They all thought that I would be really nervous, but I just remember walking out with dad and doing this drum duet that we’d worked out, and I wasn’t nervous at all.”

Now 75, Gibson Jr is regarded as one of New Zealand’s greatest drummers and most respected jazz pioneers.

His reputation as New Zealand’s go-to drummer-for-hire saw him play both here and abroad with some of the best in the business; from Leo Sayer, Dusty Springfield, Dione Warwick, The Temptations, Four Tops, Diana Krall, Rick Wakeman to Milt Jackson, Ronnie Scott, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Byrd, and many more.

Frank Gibson Jr has played with the likes of Dusty Springfield, Leo Sayer and The Temptations.
CHRIS MCKEEN
Frank Gibson Jr has played with the likes of Dusty Springfield, Leo Sayer and The Temptations.

“It’s taken me all over the world, which has been wonderful,” he says of his colourful life behind the kit.

“The first thing, of course, is I was able to make a living out of it.”

It’s difficult to list all of Gibson Jr’s achievements, but when it comes to New Zealand jazz, there’s not much he hasn’t seen or done.

His recorded legacy is just as extensive, featuring on over 500 recordings – including more than 250 albums – and on more than 250 radio programmes throughout the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand, while his time spent in the UK saw him play on countless TV shows and specials.

But it all started when he was still at school.

A poster advertising Frankie Gibson Jr's first appearance at the Auckland Town Hall in 1954.
SUPPLIED
A poster advertising Frankie Gibson Jr’s first appearance at the Auckland Town Hall in 1954.

Three years after first wowing the audience at the Town Hall, Gibson Jr was riding the first wave of rock and roll, playing with teenage band, The Juvenolians, when he was just 11 years old. By 18, he was playing professionally, making a good living, packing out bars, clubs, restaurants and venues around Auckland and beyond.

With that kind of musical pedigree, he was never destined for a normal day job.

“I left high school and began working in a bank. I was playing gigs every night and couldn’t stay awake at work,” he says.

“I did have another day job at Lewis Eady’s [music store] for a while, but I was still playing nearly every night.

“I was just too tired. You get in at 1 or 2am, and you’ve got to be up at 8am. I couldn’t do that.”

Frank Gibson Jr is one of the longest playing and best jazz drummers in New Zealand.
CHRIS MCKEEN
Frank Gibson Jr is one of the longest playing and best jazz drummers in New Zealand.

Better opportunities to play live and win regular work took him to Australia in the late 60s, but it was in the UK through the late 70s that he capitalised on his talent and growing reputation as a world-class player.

“London was unbelievable, really. There was so much work – if you could play,” Gibson Jr explains.

“We’d be working six, seven nights a week, and doing studio work two or three times a week, or every day.

“That’s the only time I’ve been able to save money.”

Frank Gibson’s NewBop Quintet are playing the Tuning Fork in Auckland on June 15.
CHRIS MCKEEN
Frank Gibson’s NewBop Quintet are playing the Tuning Fork in Auckland on June 15.

After three years away, Gibson Jr was back in New Zealand – “I was able to come back and put a deposit on an apartment” – and adding to his growing legacy within the local music industry.

He formed the first Kiwi jazz/rock band, Dr Tree, which won Rock Record of the Year in 1976, and the first jazz/funk band, Space Case, while his name is also attached to many seminal local jazz recordings.

One of his most high-profile appearances on these shores came at the opening ceremony of the 1990 Commonwealth Games at Mt Smart Stadium, where he performed This is the Moment, that summer’s sporting anthem, penned by Ray Columbus & The Invaders’ bassist Billy Kristian, and sung by Chris Thompson.

The normally confident Gibson Jr admits this was a rare occasion where he felt some pre-gig nerves.

“That was like being terrified almost,” Gibson Jr recalls.

“I don’t know how many people were there – it was probably the biggest audience I’ve ever played for.”

Beyond the 90s, Gibson Jr maintained a busy schedule, and the Auckland jazz community will fondly recall his weekend residency slots playing at the old London Bar. He also passed on the things he’d learnt over the years, tutoring some of New Zealand’s best drummers including Pluto’s Michael Franklin Browne, Paul Roper from The Mint Chicks, Paul Russell (Supergroove, Bic Runga, Che Fu), and Ricky Ball (Hello Sailor), to name just a few.

And after spending five years in Perth in the late 90s as a full-time lecturer teaching music at Edith Cowan University, Gibson Jr added a University of Otago Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) degree to his resume in 2017.

These days, Gibson Jr continues to wield his influence on the local scene, most recently as part of the Auckland-based Newbop Quintet, who last week appeared at the Wellington Jazz Festival, ahead of their upcoming show at the Tuning Fork in Auckland on June 15.

Frank Gibson Jr will perform with the Newbop Quintet at the Tuning Fork in Auckland on June 15.
CHRIS MCKEEN
Frank Gibson Jr will perform with the Newbop Quintet at the Tuning Fork in Auckland on June 15.

“It’s bebop/hard bop music of the 50s and 60s, but it’s still played all over the world today,” he says of the group that explores the jazz styles pioneered by greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

He formed the Newbop Quintet in 2019, and warns the group – a collection of New Zealand’s finest jazz musicians – treads the line between structured and ad-lib playing.

“It’s an interesting band, with lots of good people,” he explains.

“And it’s a fun band to play in. You never know what’s going to happen on the day. That’s the wonderful thing about playing improvised music – you learn the tunes, but the improvisations happen in the moment.”

Frank Gibson Jr is one of the longest-playing and best jazz drummers in NZ.

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