RURU KARAITIANA, PIXIE WILLIAMS & JIM CARTER
Ruru Karaitiana, Pixie Williams and Jim Carter are three of Aotearoa’s most formative musical figures. 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. It was written by Ruru Karaitiana (Ngāti Mutuahi/Ngāti Kahungunu) as he sailed across the Indian Ocean with 28 Māori Battalion on board the Aquitaniain 1940.
The sad and evocative tune became popular with the troops, being performed at shipboard concerts and informal singalongs across Egypt and Italy. Its popularity continued to rise after Karaitiana returned to New Zealand in 1943, and could be heard around New Zealand at dances, in woolsheds, on marae, and at formal occasions such as capping reviews and performances from the Maori Battalion dance band, and RNZAF band.
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.
It also had enough profile to be a plausible choice when Radio Corporation NZ and new record label TANZA (To Assist NZ Artists) needed a local artist with a song to record in their newly built studio, and test their new record press.
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.
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 was a 19-year-old from Mohaka, Hawke’s Bay, who had impressed Joan at hostel sing-alongs. Williams had no particular designs to be a professional singer or musician, and ‘Blue Smoke’ introduced the world to her dulcet tones in a way she never expected.
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, then in the US, and where 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’.
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: ‘One By One’, ‘Look What You Done (Lonely Blues)’ and ‘Pie-Cart Rock’n’Roll’.
All three were humble artists who never sought the limelight, and remained surprised by the success of ‘Blue Smoke’. 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.
“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.”
Watch the induction and tribute performance: