I’ve driven past Taupiri Mountain countless times and thought “one day I’ll go and see Billy T. James”.
Billy was the face of New Zealand comedy until his untimely death in 1991. He could tell jokes and write original material, he could act, he could sing, he could play the guitar and the saxophone at professional level, he was an accomplished artist and his impressions of celebrities were spot-on.
In 1985 he was named New Zealand Entertainer of the Decade, the following year he was appointed to The Order of the British Empire for services to entertainment. In 1990 he was presented the prestigious Benny Award from the Variety Artists Club of New Zealand for a lifetime of excellence in the performing arts. He truly was a legendary variety performer in every sense of the word.
Coming back mid-afternoon from performing a magic show in Hamilton, I thought that now was as good a time as any so stopped at Taupiri Mountain and set off to find Billy’s burial site. A quick check of Google confirmed that yes he was buried there, but provided no indication of where. What surprised me first of all was just how many graves were on the mountain; driving past you really get no idea of how many people are resting there. The vast majority are not visible from the road and the mountain goes up, and up, and up with dozens upon dozens of sections.
There didn’t seem to be any sort of structure to the layout of the sites; graves from the 1930s sat alongside graves from the 1990s, some were only accessible by steep climbs or dips; there were a total lack of any steps or pathways leading to some of the sections. As I was stumbling up dirt tracks and slipping down loose gravel I couldn’t help but think that if this was in Auckland someone would have broken an ankle and demanded the council put in handrails and concrete pathways. And probably wheelchair access.
Finally I stumbled across the 1974 gravestone marking the final resting place of Ruby Taitoko. I immediately recognised the surname, it was Billy’s mother. Billy was buried in the next plot.
His original marker from 1991 is pictured below. Notably, it only mentions his birth-name, William James Te Wehi Te Toko. Billy was known was Te Wehi as a child, the stage name Billy T. James only came about when he was touring internationally with the Maori Volcanics showband, as “it was something the Aussies could pronounce.”
Pictured below is the much newer carved Hinuera stone sculpture of Billy, which was unveiled in March 2000 by his uncle Bill Awa. It was originally holding a ukelele, which was presumably taken by someone as a souvenir. The uke was replaced by a can of beer, somewhat apocryphal as Billy very rarely drank during his lifetime. The text reads “In Loving Memory of Te Wehi William Taitoko, Billy T. James, A Great Entertainer Loved By All. Arohanui Na To Iwi”.
The third and newest marker, the distinctive white shell-like stone, appeared mysteriously on the mountain shortly after the sculpture of Billy was unveiled. It’s thought to have been placed there by his step-daughter Cherie, but this has never been officially confirmed. The text on this gravestone reads “In Loving Memory, Billy T. James, 17 Jan 1949-7 Aug 1991, Dearly Loved By His Family.”
If you’re passing Taupiri Mountain and wish to visit, Billy is located on the lower slopes. The white stone is quite visible from the road, even when driving past. Enter the main gate and follow the path to the right while keeping an eye out, you’ll spot Billy’s burial site quite easily.