Creators of 'Blue Smoke' - NZ's first pop song to be inducted into Hall of Fame

By Jessica Tyson

Three of New Zealand's formative musical figures, Ruru Karaitiana, Pixie Williams and Jim Carter – who gave Aotearoa its first homegrown pop hit – will be inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame at the 2019 APRA Silver Scroll Awards.

Together, they created the waiata Blue Smoke, which in 1949 was the first song written and recorded by New Zealanders to be manufactured domestically and released on a New Zealand label named TANZA.  

Blue Smoke was written by Karaitiana, of Ngāti Mutuahi and Ngāti Kahungunu, as he sailed across the Indian Ocean with the 28th Māori Battalion on board the Aquitania in 1940.  The sad and evocative tune became popular with the troops, being performed during shipboard concerts and informal singalongs across Egypt and Italy.

Blue Smoke. Source: Jono B, Youtube

New Zealand music historian Chris Bourke, who wrote the 2010 book Blue Smoke: the Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music, 1918-1964, says if there is a “big bang” moment in New Zealand’s music history, it was made by three artists who created Blue Smoke.

“It was a massive hit and it marks the real birth of New Zealand’s indigenous record industry.”

Ruru Karaitiana. Source: File

The song’s 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 Māori 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 te reo Māori.

The song was eventually covered by luminaries including Dean Martin, who struck a correspondence with Karaitiana after recording his version.

Ruru Karaitiana with record. Source: File

Jim Carter and Pixie Williams

Though Karaitiana was an accomplished pianist, he wanted the recording to have a Hawaiian feel, so he approached lap-steel guitarist Carter to ask if he would play and lead his band on the recording.

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, of Ngāti Kahungunu.

Pixie Williams. Soruce: APRA

Williams was a 19-year-old singer 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.

The song was officially released in June 1949 and radio play and sales escalated quickly. The first pressing sold 20,000 copies, and the second pressing a year later sold 30,000. 

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 and Pie-Cart Rock’n’Roll.

Jim Carter, Doug Brewer, Bill Hoffmeister, Pixie. Source: APRA

Today

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 new recording of Blue Smoke he did with Neil Finn for Anzac Day in 2015.

While Karaitiana and Williams have now passed on, their respective children Ruma Karaitiana and Amelia Costello will be accepting the awards at Spark Arena in Auckland on Wednesday 2 October 2019 on their behalf.

The other awards presented on the night are APRA Silver Scroll Award; APRA Maioha Award; SOUNZ Contemporary Award – Te Tohu Auaha; APRA Best Original Music in a Feature Film Award; APRA Best Original Music in a Series Award.