Billy T. James is one of the original national treasures of New Zealand, a club comedian from the cabaret circuit who became a household name for his long-running TV sketch comedy.
This live LP from 1985 finds him in fine form. Recorded at ‘Pips’ in Whangarei and backed by a live band, his act shows how much of an all-round entertainer he is. Opening with a performance of Lionel Ritchie’s Running With The Night, the audience seem reserved at first before he starts to win them over with his stand-up.
Being half-Maori and half-Scottish (“I’m half Maori and half Scots. Half of me wants to go to the pub and get pissed, and the other half doesn’t want to pay for it”) most of his material revolves around being from a racial minority, and all other minorities – Chinese, Japanese, gays (“poofs”), immigrants – are fair game. Different times, and all that.
I first laughed out loud at a routine in which he did an note-perfect impression of Bunny Wailer singing She’s A Lady for a TV commercial, with the lyrics changed to:
Well she’s all you’d ever want / She’s the kind they’d like to flaunt and take to dinner / She’s got style, she’s got grace / She’s got herpes on her face…
In 1988, Billy T. suffered a heart attack and underwent a quadruple bypass, followed by one of the first heart transplants in New Zealand. While the operation was initially a success – leading to a return to the stage in 1990 – his health deteriorated and died from heart failure in 1991.
Since arriving in New Zealand over ten years ago, I’ve found much of the art and culture here is a watered-down version of what I knew from the UK (and in some cases, the USA). Billy T. is a different prospect though – he’s naturally funny, and the equal of the great British comedians of the 1970s and 1980s.
Hit: Running With The Night
Hidden Gem: The Band