Noel Coutts - Queenstown’s legendary ‘Rockacowblues’ crooner

4 minutes read
Posted 10 July, 2024
Noel at home in the Wakatipu copy

Noel at home in the Wakatipu

Music runs through the veins of the Coutts family line, but it took some wild teenage tamperings and a few risky adventures for long-time Queenstown musician Noel Coutts to find the right note.

That was more than 50 years ago and since then he’s launched five albums featuring his own songs, playing guitar and performing in the UK, Poland – his second home, and New Zealand. He’s also multi-tasked as Manager-Dad taking his three kids - 16, 14 and 12, on tour through the US.

Raised in Paekakariki, the son of a Wellington dance band pianist, Noel “ran wild” after high school, joining a bikie gang and getting into trouble with the law before heading to the high country to work on stations. After a stint in Australia, he joined a ship bound for Hong Kong – one of seven crew of different nationalities, the only one who spoke English. “The Vietnam War was happening, and we transported arms from China to the war in East Pakistan (Bangladesh).” Dodgy work.

In England, after a stint on ships in the North Sea, he began performing music, with his future Kiwi wife, Julie, and a Frenchman. Working for a shearing gang on the likes of the then massive Hakataramea Station, Noel had picked up the guitar for parties, but in England he found his niche. “We were 1970s hippies living a commune of abandoned council flats in London for free rent. There was lots of music, sex, drugs and rock n roll.” However, the lifestyle took its toll, so Noel built a house truck and they escaped to Norwich before heading home through the Middle East and Asia, Noel contracting hepatitis along the way.

Eldest son Stephan was born back in New Zealand where Noel first worked on the Manapouri dam. They then scraped together the money to buy and renovate an old Invercargill house, the first of many. Noel joined two others there, including Maaki Goodwillie, performing at pubs and parties. “For a while our name was ‘Out Of Our Trio’, then on a gig in Queenstown we became ‘Cecil Peak and The Remarkables’, he grins. In 1987 they moved their four little kids to Queenstown where Noel found his musical family in the likes of drummer Kevin Thomas and guitarist vocalist Dean Hetherington. Noel also played Skyline where he’s been a popular entertainment fixture for decades and still performs solo today, his unique style, dubbed ‘Rockacowblues’, still in as much demand as ever.

The Coutts name has been synonymous with the Queenstown music scene since then, daughter Jessie first hitting the stage at 10, the following year performing a duo with 9-year-old brother Oliver. Little brother Joseph picked up the short scale guitar at seven. “He could hardly lift it, but he had the right timing, just not the notes,” Noel says. “Ned Webster helped him a lot.” By 16 Joseph was rocking it with Dad’s band. The kids’ teenage band, ‘3 of a Tribe’, became Queenstown’s Partridge Family, performing gigs at local skifields and Winter Festivals before Noel found them sponsorship to tour US schools, through Queenstown’s Sister City Aspen. “I was musical director, driver, father and cook!” They were billeted out in smalltown Ohio and played in Cincinnati and Las Vegas before hitting the big time in Memphis, Tennessee. “Elvis Presley changed my life, so I took them to Graceland and Sun Studios where I met the producer who was interested as they were so young.” The kids recorded at Sun and Noel contemplated moving the family to Memphis. “Then I found out it was ‘check your guns in at the door’!”

In 2007 an old friend who was touring Porgy and Bess with opera company New York Theatre and Arts asked Noel, then doing gigs in NZ, to fill in for a cast member as a ‘mean old southern Sheriff’. “I’d never done opera, but she said I looked as mean as hell, so I toured with them.” That led to an invitation to tour Eastern Europe with the show, joining the cast in Philadelphia. “We played with the best orchestras in the world and in Warsaw on the last night of the season I found myself at a party in the flutists’ dressing room.” Here Noel met and fell in love with Polish wife of 14 years Ela, a highly qualified and accomplished flutist for the Polish National Opera Orchestra. Noel proposed soon after and ever since they’ve spent back-to-back summers between Queenstown and Poland where he’s teamed up with talented musicians. “Poland’s been good to me musically.”

Noel’s latest album – ‘Noel Coutts and The Hetheringtons – The Empire Sessions’, was recorded in the West Coast’s Empire Hotel in Ross, the album sponsored by the publican. It features ’29 Ghosts’, Noel’s moving tribute in honour of the lost Pike River miners, a friend’s son among them – a song that earned Noel an audience with the Prime Minister.

Noel and wife Ela performing together

Noel and wife Ela performing together

Noel back in the day

Noel back in the day


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