Mavis Rivers has been described by many of her peers as one of the world’s great female jazz singers, and she attracted an international following among jazz purists. Frank Sinatra is said to have described her as the ‘purest voice’ in jazz, comparing her to Ella Fitzgerald. Her New Zealand recordings are little known to the outside world, but they form an important part of the history of recorded music in this country. Although she spent much of her life in the United States, Rivers holds a special place in the hearts of many New Zealanders, who warmly remember her as this country’s finest jazz singer.
Mavis Chloe Rivers was born in Apia, Western Samoa, on 19 May 1929. One of 13 musically gifted children; she performed in a series of family musical evenings that soon made their home an entertainment centre. Some of these were broadcast on Western Samoa’s first (short-wave) radio station. As the Second World War started in the Pacific, the family moved to Pago Pago, in American Samoa. She sang at the army bases backed by her father’s band, a special switchboard telephone hook-up enabled soldiers and marines to listen in from further afield.
The Rivers family’s next move, in 1947, was to Auckland, where she successfully auditioned for nightclub work. In 1948 she branched out into radio work on stations and she soon became one of the most popular female singers in New Zealand and in 1949 made her first 78 rpm record with the newly formed TANZA label. Mavis went on to record over 40 songs with TANZA, as a soloist, in duets, and as a guest singer with many popular bands of the era. She later recorded on the Zodiac label, another pioneer of the New Zealand music industry. Although she initially recorded mostly Polynesian-style music, she quickly showed her versatility by doing jazz numbers with astonishing skill.