Today we’re going way back, some 65 years, in fact, to “New Zealand’s First Record,” which is called “Blue Smoke.” It was written by written by Ruru Karaitiana and sung by Pixie Williams.
At the top of this post is the embed from Bandcamp, which sells a remastered album of songs sung by Pixie Williams. “Blue Smoke is track 13. I decided to include the whole thing because I’d never heard all those songs, and I bet most Kiwis haven’t, either.
NZ History Online, which is run by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, has the interesting history of the song. They explain why it’s New Zealand’s first record:
“In February 1949 a 78 rpm disc featuring the song ‘Blue smoke’, written by Ruru Karaitiana and sung by Pixie Williams, became the first record wholly produced in New Zealand from composition to pressing. It provided a debut hit-seller for the New Zealand-owned TANZA (To Assist New Zealand Artists) record label.”Prior to this, while some music was recorded in New Zealand, the actual records were made overseas and shipped back here. The Museum of New Zealand – Te Papa Tongarewa has more on this.
NZ History Online also covers the history of the song itself:
“Karaitiana wrote 'Blue smoke' on the troop ship Aquitania, in 1940 off the coast of Africa, when a friend drew his attention to some passing smoke. During the war he served in the Middle East with the 28th New Zealand (Maori) Battalion. He led the battalion concert party, and he was one of the few survivors of its original 17-member choir. Although it was performed at troop concerts during the war, ‘Blue smoke’ was rejected by London publishers.In those days, 20,000 copies sold meant it would have been a huge hit. As still happens, this NZ song received overseas attention. NZ History Online again:
“Back in New Zealand, he assembled a quintet in 1947. In October 1948, in Wellington, the quintet recorded a version of ‘Blue smoke’ with singer Pixie Williams. The backing music was Hawaiian-style, and the instruments included guitars, ukulele and a lap-steel guitar. Although Karaitiana considered it ‘a poor first effort’, the song topped New Zealand radio hit parades for six weeks, and it sold more than 20,000 copies within a year.”
“The song attracted strong overseas interest. English duo Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth met Karaitiana and recorded a version. In the United States covers were released by Dean Martin, Al Morgan, Teddy Phillips and Leslie Howard. In 1951 New York music trade magazines described ‘Blue smoke’ as one of the major hits of the year – a ‘musical jackpot’ with both jukebox and radio listeners. Dean Martin even phoned Karaitiana from the United States seeking more songs.I’d never heard of “Let’s talk it over” until I found the remastered songs online. Another reason I decided to embed the entire track list.
“In 1952 Karaitiana became the first New Zealander to gain an Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) award of £25 for sales of ‘Blue smoke’ and a later hit, ‘Let’s talk it over’, which sold more than 10,000 copies.”
“Blue Smoke” is done in an Hawaiian style, something that was popular at the time, just as a generation later reggae would be popular (and about a generation after that, it would be hiphop).
The point of this wade through New Zealand’s music history is that everything’s connected: The production of “Blue Smoke” made it possible for a homegrown recording industry to take off, an industry that’s still vibrant. It’s important for a people to remember their roots, and it’s also important for a country and industry to know where they’ve come from, too.