by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Ray Columbus

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Ray Columbus

Ray Columbus is the only man I know who has an OBE. He’s the only man I know who’s been a pop star all our adult lives. Ray Columbus was having hits here and in Australia 40 years ago. Some of his records even outsold the Stones! And he’s still on the road… always busy. Ray won’t mind me saying this, but he invented self-promotion. They didn’t have PR people back then. It is that same energy and savvy that has enabled him to have a career… a lifetime in music.

What was the occasion of this photo?

It was a celebration for my 50th birthday, November 4, 1992. I don’t remember who took it, we were at Abby’s Hotel in central Auckland.

What was your relationship to the others in the photo?

Ritchie (Pickett) I had mentored to and helped promote his original songs – especially Honkytonk Heroes in Nashville. Closest I came was to sing it live on Channel 4 TV in Music City. No one picked it up to cover though! I also produced his first album with The Inlaws at Stebbings. Always loved the man, his wit and his talent, still do. He arranged for Mike (Farrell) to do a duo jam that day.

Farrell I had met personally through Truda Chadwick. He had played on some of the sessions I produced, and while there connected with Murray Grindley and his Hot Jingles biz. One of the great guitarists anywhere, good writer too.  I recorded his great song Wings of Love for National Radio. Tried to get a Nashville cut on it for him also – still no joy! He died sadly (May 20 2000, aged 51), before his talent could really reward him. A tragic loss!

Tommy ‘Akkerman’ Adderley is a NZ legend. I worked with him in concert, on tour, in clubs, etc., since 1963. He could swing, blues-it, jazz-it, pop-it, and rock-it like no one but Ricky May and next Ray Woolf in NZ.  Played good harp too. A muso/singer, always modest and enthusiastic about the biz. He just arrived at my party, wanted to jam, which was a big surprise, one I won’t forget. He died unexpectedly, like Mike, soon after this pic was taken.

What makes this picture special to you now?

Tommy is such an icon… when the media phoned me early in the morning to get my reaction to his death, I hung up – king hit! Broke down and cried like a baby, right then I couldn’t say why.

I was called by media when Elvis, Sammy Davis Jnr, Dean Martin, John Lennon et al died, or were killed. But Tommy’s death really rocked me and I couldn’t explain it. As the day wore on, Linda, my wife, who I had only just eloped with on my 50th and knows me better than anyone, got it out of me.

I had always been a fan of Tommy’s and a close working colleague, but I never hung out with fellow performers in a ‘buddy’ way, especially after gigs. I would always skive off home to be with my family, because I was already away from them a helluva lot, touring NZ, Oz, Fiji and Tahiti, and doing biz around the world. I had also come from a big family (six siblings) who hardly ever saw their father. I was determined not to do the same. In retrospect it didn’t really matter – family eventually imploded, but it wasn’t my intention!

Linda and I worked out that I was so sad because I didn’t ever recall telling him how much he and his talent meant to me. I fixed that at his funeral before the (deservedly) huge crowd of friends and fans who attended.

It’s something I’ll never waste the moment on again when I’m with anyone I care about. I know I told Farrelli how I admired his playing and writing. Ritchie knows too! It’s my mission – Tommy’s death taught me that.

That’s why that picture is framed and in my Rogues Gallery.

What did you do to celebrate being awarded an OBE in 1974?

I was only permitted two guests at the presentation in Government House, so I opted to bring my mother and father together (they had been apart for years). It was a wonderful experience, but fog closed Wellington airport so I couldn’t go home to the celebratory dinner with my family. I was due in New Plymouth the following day for a gig, so I took a bus to join close friends in Wanganui, barged in on them for an impromptu party night and on to New Plymouth the next day. We had a family get together three days late, but the gloss had gone off it along with the disappointment.

What are you doing these days?

Same thing as ever… who wouldn’t have a life like mine? Forty-plus years of doing what I love when I like!

I’m working/writing and rehearsing on recording an EP for me, for once in my life! TV last week with good friends, at the home office rehearsing and doing phoners (promo) for the upcoming concert tour of NZ in August to celebrate 50 years of Rock ‘n Roll on BEST OF THE BEST, with Johnny Devlin, Sharon O’Neill, Larry Morris, Shane and Tom Sharplin.

What are your recollections of the music scene back when you started compared to now?

It was remarkably innocent but also exciting. We seemed to be in the right place each time, first in Auckland then in Sydney, all within a year of moving up from Christchurch in March 1963.

Our first summer beach dance at the Shiralee (now where the Downtown Mall is)… scores of girls in bikinis! We couldn’t concentrate – guitarists’ fingers wouldn’t play the right notes. It was hilarious!

If you knew then what you know now what would you have done differently?

Since Dad put me on stage at age six I have been brought up to do my best – practice, learn new material, nail it, then go on stage and do your best, and if it didn’t work out it’s not necessarily your fault.

So I have no regrets really about anything, you do your best and take what happens. For the most part it’s been great, whether I planned it or not.

One thing I may (in hindsight) have changed was when Jimmy Hill (now deceased sadly) and Billy Kristian gave us the ultimatum they’d leave The Invaders if I insisted we remain based in New Zealand.

I didn’t believe I could replace them, and so split the band formally and went solo – to everyone’s shock including mine. I put out a press release, so that was it!

The person most affected was Dave Russell, my great lead guitarist/riffman and co-writer who had been with me from before he left school. A guitarist admired by the Stones, the Searchers, Roy Orbison, Del Shannon, you name it.

Dave had always looked to me for business direction. He stayed with me as MD until I moved to San Francisco in July 1966. I couldn’t get him into the States (my first wife had claimed her citizenship there, so I could).

I learned almost immediately that as long as I sang the songs, did the Mod’s Nod, and the Swim, hardly anyone missed Billy and Jimmy – the best engine room in NZ/Oz without a doubt! What’s more, I got paid the same fees!

So I wonder from time to time what path Ray and The Invaders would have taken had I got a new bass player and drummer, and I’m sure Dave would have realised his potential or certainly my ambition for him.

He is still playing as great as ever in Melbourne for all sorts of artists, but not writing, so I guess we will never really know.

What is really sad is that right up until his death Jimmy regretted that fateful decision. Billy on the other hand still plays at the top of his craft with Ray Woolf and in sessions, and seems happy.  We still gig occasionally, and it’s still a buzz for me. No regrets!

Does age make you smarter?

Yes, but I’ve had one (enforced) rule I’ve lived by since being stranded in Perth with the guys in 1964. Learn from your mistakes and don’t make the same one again – i.e. when return travel to a gig is part of the deal, ensure that you get return tickets before leaving home.

Those two stories summarise as – don’t make hasty decisions that may affect others more than oneself – and always cover your ass! Both good advice for the future as a parent/businessman, whatever.

NZM’s Moments Like These column is curated by Trevor Reekie.