Three of Aotearoa’s most formative musical figures – Ruru Karaitiana, Pixie Williams, and Jim Carter – will be inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame at the 2019 APRA Silver Scroll Awards.
Together, they created ‘Blue Smoke’, which in 1949 was the first song written and recorded by New Zealanders to be manufactured in New Zealand and released on a New Zealand label. They gave New Zealand its first homegrown pop song.
The NZ Music Hall of Fame recognises the significant contribution they each made, starting 70 years ago with ‘Blue Smoke’, but also throughout their lives with many more songs. They also made a key impact by inspiring local artists to see there was an important role for them to play in our popular culture.
The story behind ‘Blue Smoke’ is filled with happy coincidences, but also incredible tenacity.
Ruru Karaitiana (Ngāti Mutuahi/Ngāti Kahungunu) was a dance-band pianist who was born near Dannevirke in 1909. In May 1940, he was with 28 Māori Battalion on board the Aquitania, which was taking New Zealand soldiers to World War II.
It was a sergeant who inspired him to write the song as they were crossing the Indian Ocean, commenting one day on the smoke trailing from the funnels: “It’s going the right way – back to New Zealand – and we’re steaming farther from home!”
It was pure luck, Karaitiana said later of the sergeant’s comment. “He put the song in my lap. It was a natural.” The image of the blue smoke drifting back to their loved ones was sad and evocative. Within half an hour he’d written the lyrics to a melody he already had composed. He called the song ‘Blue Smoke’.
Two days later he sang it in a shipboard concert. Later in the war, there are reports of the Māori Battalion performing the song in Egypt, Italy and at informal singalongs. By 1943 Karaitiana was back in New Zealand, performing ‘Blue Smoke’ around Wellington, Hawkes Bay, and Taranaki. He continued to tinker with it, stopping into Begg’s Music in Wellington and using their piano to work on it, but the song seemed to take on a life of its own after becoming known through its wartime performances by the Maori Battalion dance band, and subsequently the RNZAF band, and Dunedin’s long-established Dick Colvin Orchestra.
It became popular around New Zealand, in singalongs, at dances, in woolsheds, and on marae. A sextet played it at a student capping revue in Dunedin in 1945; it was performed for an NZ Broadcasting Service mobile unit by a 17 year old soprano named Jean Ngeru in 1946. By late 1947 it had gained enough attention to be published as sheet music by Begg’s, in a piano and vocal arrangement, with lyrics in English and Maori, transcribed by pianist Allan Shand and arranged by George Winchester (Karaitiana did not read music).
Fortuitously, around the same time, Radio Corporation NZ was building a new studio with the intention of recording and pressing commercial releases for local artists, and acquiring presses to do the job. They were also starting a record label for local musicians – TANZA (To Assist NZ Artists) – and needed a local artist with a song to record.
Exactly how TANZA came to choose ‘Blue Smoke’ is unclear – it seems that Karaitiana put his hand up, and borrowed some money to pay for the recording. His next task was to work out who would sing and play the song.
Though Karaitiana was an accomplished pianist, he wanted the recording to have a Hawaiian feel, so he approached lap-steel guitarist Jim Carter, to ask if he would play and lead his band on the recording.
Carter grew up in Lower Hutt after emigrating from Britain as a five year old. He first picked up the lap-steel guitar in 1936 at the age of 17. He aspired to be a dance band guitarist, so took lessons on rhythm guitar and joined a band called Gerry Hall and his Orchestra, playing in a church opposite the Basin Reserve. During the Second World War, he was in the army for a year, but tuberculosis kept him away from the action; instead, he worked as an army chef and often performed at concerts held in military camps such as Trentham.
After the war, the dance band scene was booming, with regular dances taking place in halls around the country. Carter also joined the 2YA Orchestra, who played “pop music of the day”, accompanying a female vocalist broadcasting live-to-air from the station’s Wellington studio.
Karaitiana was leading a dance band in Wellington in the late 1940s, and often asked Carter to sit in with them. When the opportunity to record Blue Smoke came, he turned to Carter to get that Hawaiian sound he was looking for.
When it came to finding a vocalist however, it was Karaitiana’s girlfriend Joan Chettleburgh – later his wife – who suggested a friend at her hostel as the singer. Pixie Williams (Ngāti Kahungunu) was a 19-year-old from Mohaka, Hawke’s Bay, who had impressed Joan at hostel sing-alongs. Williams wasn’t interested at first, but then reluctantly agreed.
Williams had moved to Wellington at 17, and loved singing in the shower and sessions around the hostel piano, but she had no particular designs to be a professional singer or musician. ‘Blue Smoke’ introduced the world to her dulcet tones in a way she never expected.
Recording the song was not an easy process – as one might expect, there were technical teething problems, and many tiny glitches which meant they had to start over – but after a month of weekend sessions in late 1948, they had the finished product.
It was officially released in June 1949 (although advanced copies had already gone to radio and press), and radio play and sales escalated quickly, The first pressing sold 20,000 copies, and the second pressing a year later sold 30,000.
It was a remarkable achievement, and a mark of the song’s cultural resonance. But that wasn’t the end of it either. The song soon garnered attention around the world. First in the UK, where it was sung on a BBC variety show, and became nearly as popular as ‘Now Is The Hour’. Then a publishing company started plugging the song in the US, and versions were recorded by Leslie Howard, Al Morgan, Teddy Phillips, and Dean Martin. Martin even ended up phoning Karaitiana from Los Angeles to ask if he had any more songs.
After ‘Blue Smoke’, Williams recorded a dozen more songs for TANZA, including several of Karaitiana’s songs, including ‘Let’s Talk It Over’ (which sold over 20,000 copies), ‘Ain’t It A Shame’, ‘Senorita’, and ‘Windy City’. They were strong collaborators, but not too long after the release of Blue Smoke, Williams followed her heart to the South Island, while Karaitiana moved to Dannevirke with his wife Joan. They managed to reunite in 1951 when they were both based in Dunedin, for a series of concerts at His Majesty’s Theatre, where they performed together, including some new songs from Karaitiana like his tribute to Dunedin, ‘Saddle Hill’, and ‘It’s Just Because’, written in honour of the troops of K-Force departing for the Korean War
Jim Carter’s contribution to New Zealand’s pop music history didn’t stop at ‘Blue Smoke’ either. In the same year, he played rhythm guitar on Ken Avery’s ‘Paekakariki’, and in the mid-1950s he played on several pivotal recordings by Johnny Cooper: his biggest hit ‘One By One’, his originals ‘Look What You Done (Lonely Blues)’ and ‘Pie-Cart Rock’n’Roll’, and his version of ‘Rock Around the Clock’.
All three were humble artists who never sought the limelight, and remained surprised by the success of ‘Blue Smoke’. Karaitiana once called it a “poor first effort”, and Williams preferred ‘Let’s Talk It Over’. Carter disagreed about the songwriting – he thought it had something special – but described his own lap-steel playing as “pretty ordinary.”
But it’s clear that they made something very important and influential together, and it’s a great privilege to be able to recognize that contribution to New Zealand’s musical history, 70 years on.
“If there is a “big bang” moment in New Zealand’s music history, it was made by the gentlest of melodies” explains New Zealand music historian Chris Bourke, who wrote the 2010 book Blue Smoke: the Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music, 1918-1964, and should be credited for much of the research and writing above.
“For a delicate song, ‘Blue Smoke’ carries a lot of weight. It was the first song written by a New Zealander to be recorded and manufactured in New Zealand, and released on a New Zealand record label. It was a massive hit. And it marks the real birth of New Zealand’s indigenous record industry.”
Jim Carter turned 100 in March this year, and lives in Nelson. Lap steel, guitar, and music have remained a key part of his life, including a beautiful new recording of ‘Blue Smoke’ he did with Neil Finn for Anzac Day in 2015.
While Karaitiana and Williams have now sadly passed on, their respective children Ruma Karaitiana, and Amelia Costello will be accepting the awards on their behalf. Costello has been working to keep the music of her mother and Karaitiana alive for some years. It started with a project in 2010 to ensure these songs didn’t disappear because they were only available on shellac records. 13 songs were remastered and re-released on CD and digitally, for Williams’ 83rd birthday in 2011 as For The Record – The Pixie Williams Collection, meaning they’re available to be heard by future generations.
Now there’s a new project to give the songs a fresh spin, with new recordings produced by Riki Gooch and Lisa Tomlins, alongside executive producer Mike Gibson. The album is currently being recorded, with 12 songs in total being re-imagined, including some in Te Reo. They are currently fundraising to complete the album via a Boosted campaign, which you can read all about HERE.
There is also a documentary for Maori TV in the works which will explore the life of Williams, and the story of ‘Blue Smoke’.
Ruru Karaitiana, Pixie Williams, and Jim Carter will be inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame at the APRA Silver Scroll Awards at Spark Arena in Auckland on Wednesday 2 October 2019.
The New Zealand Music Hall of Fame was created in 2007 by APRA AMCOS and Recorded Music NZ, and has paid tribute to many iconic and groundbreaking Kiwi artists and acts, including The Topp Twins, Shihad, Hello Sailor, Herbs, Moana Maniapoto, Supergroove, Bic Runga, Jenny Morris, and Upper Hutt Posse.
The other awards presented on the night are:
APRA Silver Scroll Award
APRA Maioha Award, celebrating exceptional waiata featuring te reo Māori
SOUNZ Contemporary Award, celebrating excellence in contemporary composition
APRA Best Original Music in a Feature Film Award
APRA Best Original Music in a Series Award
The awards are proudly supported by Hallertau and Soho Wines.