On Monday, November 21st, family, whānau, friends and colleagues of the late Peter Skerrett - SIT Programme Manager (PM) in Contemporary Music, tutor, guitar exponent and ground breaker, gathered at SIT – Business Division of Te Pukenga in Invercargill, to participate in a memorial which celebrated his outstanding achievements over nearly thirty years in the Faculty.
The music area at Te Rau o te Huia centre for creative industries has been named in Mr Skerrett’s honour; a memorial glass cabinet has been installed, which features his favourite bass guitar and recordings. Hamish Small, Head of Faculty - New Media, Arts, Business and Computing, said “We would not have our School of Contemporary Music today if it had not been for the ongoing vision and drive of Peter. His outstanding work will never be forgotten.”
Current PM for Sound and Music, Doug Heath, said without a doubt, Peter Skerrett was instrumental in keeping the School of Contemporary Music running at SIT. “He would have taught and influenced more than 500 music students, and 200-odd bass players.” He was an in-demand session musician across three decades – the sixties, seventies and eighties - both here and in Australia. Mr Skerrett was strong in community work as well, taking on the role of Musical Director for Christmas at the Stadium (Invercargill) for eighteen years, Mr Heath added.
The Music Career – 60s, 70s and 80s
Mr Skerrett had already achieved a varied and successful career in music before being employed as a Music Tutor at SIT in 1990. Invercargill born and raised, he started singing onstage in 1957 at the age of thirteen with the Tansley family, who would tour Southland in a bus, presenting variety concerts at country halls. He sang in stage shows at the Civic theatre as well, and at fifteen he was already playing in local bands; in 1960 at age sixteen, Mr Skerrett moved to Auckland to pursue music and performing, and it was tough going forthe young man to make a living. However, after briefly playing bass for the Dualtones, he soon moved on to playing for the Keil Isles, who were described as a major band in early 1960’s Auckland.
He cemented his reputation as a bass player in 1962, when he toured NZ in the Keil Isles as backing band for Del Shannon and Bobby Rydell, and in 1963 it would be him playing bass on the timeless guitar hit, ‘White Rabbit’ by Peter Posa. Between 1964-1966 Mr Skerrett alongside brother and now SIT kaumatua, Michael Skerrett, formed the band The Drifters – Southland’s reponse to The Beatles. The young, well-dressed group performed covers from The Shadows and The Beatles, they recorded and released a 45 under the name of
The Victors, and also opened for Sandy Shaw and Jimmy Stafford – big-name artists of the sixties.
During this time he also toured New Zealand with Eden Kane, P J Proby and Wayne Fontana (1965) then he was with the P J Proby tour again in 1966, which included Dinah Lee
and the Chicks as well. It was in 1966 Mr Skerrett started playing for the Mike Perjanik Group, and moved with them to Australia, where by 1967 the group had accepted a residency at Sydney’s big nightclub, The Latin Quarter. In the beginning, the band provided backing for the likes Allison Durbin and Tommy Adderley.
Based in Sydney, Mr Skerrett had a productive few years; alongside studio work and live performances, he worked as a session musician, and also produced music for radio and TV advertising. Noteworthy recording sessions from this time were playing bass on the hit single "Hayride" by Flying Circus, "My Elusive Dreams", Frankie Steven's first album (1969) and "Armstrong" (1971) by Reg Lindsay. Mr Skerrett played with many other artists over this time, including: Gene Pitney, The Coasters, the Platters, John Farnham, Ricky May, Tony Williams, Wayne Fontana and Don Burrows, to name a few. In the early seventies, well-known Australian artist, Sandy Scott, toured and recorded; Mr Skerrett performed regularly with him over this time.
Returning to Invercargill in 1974, Mr Skerrett joined Vision, the legendary Southland covers band, but it wasn’t long before he was forming another band, this time a trio with guitarist Danny Johnson and Dave O'Connor and they became the house band at the Ascot Park Hotel, which was to last until a return to Australia in 1981.
Looking for fresh opportunities across the ditch, Mr Skerrett moved to the Gold Coast. He reconnected with friend Chris Lancaster, who was also an agent. Having worked together in the past, Mr Lancaster offered new work opportunities to Mr Skerrett and he toured with Amercian artists, Johnny Tillotson and Johnnie Ray. During the eighties he also played with the Manhattan Big Band.
Returning to Invercargill in 1990, he began teaching at Southland Polytechnic – now SIT – Business Division of Te Pukenga, continuing to grow and use his abilities as a teacher, mentor and experienced professional musician.
In the 1990s Mr Skerrett began working with the City of Invercargill Caledonian Pipe Band; they created ‘Pipin’ Hot’, a show which combined the traditional bagpipes and drums with a rock band. This was a critical and popular success; the equally successful offshoot of this in the 2000s was Pipeworkz, a smaller group with again, a hybrid of Celtic, Maori and contemporary music. With Mr Skerrett as Musical Director and bass player, they toured NZ, Australia, Canada, and Germany.
Mr Skerrett took on many roles over the course of his life; he was a session musician, a singer and backing vocalist, the bass player in numerous bands and backing bands, a musical director, a tutor, and a programme manager. He was also a loved father and grandfather; his son Asher Skerrett, who is connected to SIT through music as well, currently working part-time as a tutor on the Bachelor of Music programme, offered his thoughts on his father’s legacy.
“Dad loved music and teaching, he loved his students and loved his family, his children and his grandchildren. Part of his legacy is that his children and grandchildren have carried on with his love for music - they all play music.”
“My youngest son Nate has perfect pitch. He can hear the notes G, D, A, and D and knows that they stand for grandad - Dad loved this.”
Former SIT Chief Executive and MP for Invercargill, Penny Simmonds, said she has many special memories of Peter Skerrett’s lengthy employment at SIT, but his overriding legacy was the rapport he had with students, which was always so evident.
“The credibility and mana that Peter brought to his tutorial position as an acknowledged outstanding performer and his level of integration within the NZ music industry and the relationships that he brought to SIT, were invaluable.”
She added “On a personal level, Peter and I had a lovely understanding about how important the SIT choir was for performances at SITs special occasions and he always managed to find just the right music and mood.”
Ms Simmonds said Mr Skerrett offered more than just being a very talented musician.
“He was motivated to share his talent to grow and advance his students. Peter’s time at SIT overlapped with my time as CE of SIT and we both treasured the growth in both size and quality of the Music department and the success of the graduates.”
“SIT was very fortunate to have had someone of Peter’s talent and dedication anchoring the Music department for so many years,” Ms Simmonds said.
It seems fitting to conclude with the words of a long-time music collector who explained the importance of Mr Skerrett’s body of work. "Now and again, there are individuals who may not have had a solo career, but whose contributions are sufficiently significant to warrant noting as an artist because of how they shaped the history of New Zealand music - Peter Skerrett is one such person."