Peter Posa: Picking through the Past
Author: Mark Bell
Ask just about any reasonably well-informed New Zealander between 45 and 80 what they know about Peter Posa, and chances are you'll get a slightly distant look as the memory banks are trawled. Then, "Oh yeah...", followed by, "Didn't he have a bit of a problem with the booze or something?" Never. "Didn't he once do a tour that sold out for eight weeks?", or "Wasn't he made an honorary Fijian chief?", or "Didn't he make 20 albums or something?". Just the booze thing.
Which is why the occasion of the completion of his first studio album in 25 years is such a nice opportunity to finally meet the guy who rubbed shoulders with Frank and Deano in Vegas. The guy who discovered The Chicks, who hung out with some of the guitar greats in Nashville, and who churned out a staggering 24 instrumental singles with that trademark staccato echo guitar before it all turned to custard.
It's also a nice occasion to hopefully shed some light on a life that has scaled such heights and plunged to the sort of depths that those of us less blessed and less cursed can only try to imagine.
Growing up in 1940s Henderson valley, the young Posa was cultivating his musical ear, trying to learn licks off his parents 78rpm records. Artists like George Jones, Tex Morton, Hank Williams and Cole Wilson, artists he still ranks up there with the best. By the age of 12 he at last got his hands on an amplifier, and by the time he left school he was the leader of his own band - the Peter Posa Combo.
Clearly not lacking in enterprise, he approached Eldred Stebbing of the Zodiac label about making a record. While the band was of no great interest to Stebbing, Posa's multiple-overdubbed and echoed guitar style (he was greatly influence by the great Les Paul at this time) appealed as a technical recording challenge. In 1959 Sweet Georgia Brown/Some of These Days heralded the launch of Peter Posa, Solo Artist.
Success was not long in coming, with 1961's remake of the Stringalongs' hit 'Wheels' providing the impetus to get Peter on a national touring bill with English songbird Helen Shapiro. But the song that really got things cracking was a little ditty called White Rabbit, penned by Auckland musicians Bill Ivory and Graham Rosling. 1963 and '64 became a blur of touring, the apex of which saw Posa clocking up 363 gigs in 365 days, a record that in all likelihood still stands today.
When Ron Dalton of Viking Records arranged a release for White Rabbit and a bunch of live work in the USA, it looked like the hot-pickin' boy from Henderson was on his way, as indeed he was. Some good things happened Stateside. Posa spent time in all the major studios in Nashville, played on the 'Hollywood Palace' TV show with jazz guitar maestro Herb Ellis and met his hero Chet Atkins and other greats.
But throughout this amazing time (he was even offered a job as session guitarist with the giant RCA label), Posa became increasingly troubled by homesickness and the stirrings of the depression that has plagued him throughout his life.
As he points out during our interview: "I was on my own. I made a lot of friends over there and did a lot of good gigs, but I was 24. That's pretty old now, but in 1964 24 was pretty young."
After six months he packed it in and came home, where he continued to record and gig prolifically until a fateful day in 1970 when his car left the road and Posa suffered severe whiplash. The recurring and chronic pain from his injuries led to a whole slew of knock-on effects, the most serious of which were his retreat inside the bottle and severe depression.
At one low ebb Posa sold all but two humble nylon strings of his irreplaceable collection of 13 guitars and gave up, packed it in and set off further downhill.
Which is why it's such a pleasure to be welcomed into a tidy but un-fussy suburban bungalow by a now-sober Peter Posa and his wife Margaret, to see two drop-dead gorgeous acoustics astride their stands and a late-model acoustic-dedicated amp at the ready. But it's especially gratifying to see Posa's eagerness to pick one of them up and play. He says he now practices two to three hours a day - this man who last recorded 25 years ago!
There are two people in this story who have been pivotal in the resurrection of Peter Posa. Most importantly his wife Margaret who he met at a church healing meeting and married in 1991. By 1992 he was off the bottle and starting to pick up the guitar again. The other is Jim Wallace, whose sons Alex, Robert and Jimmy accompany Posa on the two-CD, half country/half gospel album 'My Pick' recently released through BMG.
Posa takes up the story. "I met these Wallace boys through their dad. I heard them on a radio station one night (the song was 'Loving Chains' by Jim Wallace and Sons), and I thought they were an American group. I thought 'Gee, these guys are good, I wonder where they come from.' Then the announcer said they come from Whangarei, so I rang an old friend who said 'Yeah, they're my personal friends...'
"We just started off with phone conversations every couple of weeks, then Jim came down and had a few sessions with me and we became great pals. He gave me a lot of inspiration."
Posa was also greatly encouraged by the gold sales he achieved with a BMG-instigated compilation album of his '60s material released in 1998. "It went beyond anyone's expectation of sales, so I just went to them (BMG) and said 'I wouldn't mind doing a record actually, and country and gospel would be a good combination as a double CD'. They were very enthusiastic about it, they said 'Yeah, we like the idea, go ahead, let's do it.'"
'My Pick' was recorded at Music Mayhem, a small digital studio in Kamo, Northland, in an incredible two weeks - one per album; plus another week for mixing.
CD1 is 17 tracks of country classics, melancholy through brash that includes two medleys and just one song written by Posa himself. CD2 is 15 gentle gospel tracks, kicking off with Amazing Grace and closing with a scripture song medley. No surprise that Jim Sutton of ZB's 'Nostalgia' show gets a credit for support, his show will provide an obvious outlet.
Between them there's not a vocal track not a trace of the trademark Peter Posa electric plink and twang. It's all acoustic and all but three of the tracks were done in one live take!
That fact is the more remarkable considering that Posa is not as match-fit as he would like to be and still suffering on-going health problems. Guitar overdubbing would seem to be the obvious option, but he wanted to capture the spirit of a live group playing together in real time.
It's for reasons of the same search for immediacy and expressiveness that he switched to acoustic. "I just wanted to do something different. All of a sudden I just played around with acoustic and I liked the sound of it - the expressiveness, you know, tone. I mean you can't really bullshit with acoustic, what you play comes out."
"I'm using a lot more jazz chords now, just because it makes me more versatile, gives me more scope to enjoy myself. In the '60s I felt a bit limited with the 'Peter Posa sound', I felt like I couldn't express the whole of myself."
Sadly, at a time when we might again have seen Peter Posa charm a live audience with his virtuosity, come December he and Margaret are shifting to Margaret's family property in Te Awamutu. They've had a gutsful of Auckland and its traffic and are looking forward to calmer times.
On what the future will hold he's about as certain as anyone can be these days. "What'll happen, whether I'll get back on the road again or whether I'll just do one-nighters here and there or form a group and play - I'm facing a situation I don't really know..." Whatever that situation might be, Peter Posa will be in an infinitely better position to cope with it as long as he's got one of his healing guitars at hand.