For those going out to popular music venues or at home watching TV in the 1970s and ’80s, Ray Columbus was a very familiar figure. A fantastically versatile performer and unusually great Kiwi showman he was a staple of televised entertainment shows, and one of New Zealand’s few real stars of the time. A pop star first maybe, but he far transcended that genre.
Such popular stars can often be impossibly cool and equally impossible, or at least too daunting, for Joe Citizen to talk to. Not so Ray – his enthusiasm for life and music bridged all those kind of artificial boundaries. He was a voracious gig goer himself, often seen out keeping in touch with the latest in music.
Leesa Tilley would have been too young to know of his national icon stature back then, but as an adult had the opportunity to work closely alongside him for more than a decade. She kindly shared this very personal recollection of Ray, the music businessman, mentor and friend, as NZ Musician’s tribute to a true giant (even at five foot six and a half) of the country’s entertainment industry.
I first met Ray about 15 years ago when my company AgentX organised a tour for ZED. The group had been signed to Interscope in the US, a deal Ray had helped broker. Ray was excitedly looking to expand his artist management company ENZED Music Brokers and asked me to 50/50 partner with him in a business he named Ray Columbus Organization.
Our first meeting at Universal Music’s offices in Auckland saw Ray talking and gesturing enthusiastically as he explained how passionate he was about nurturing new talent and, from all my business emails and phone calls and ‘gut instinct’, had formed a favourable impression of me as someone he wanted to mentor.
I’d owned a music store, played in bands, run a venue, tour managed, written about and photographed musicians, worked as an audio engineer, in event management and as a booking agent. Artist management was however something completely new to me and I wasn’t quite sure what was involved, but I knew I wanted to be part of whatever this captivating compelling man, was offering. Arts management courses, the MMF, IMNZ and MIC didn’t yet exist, but Ray had lobbied governments and anyone that would listen to invest in talent, including me that day.
Our agreement was simple – total honesty, integrity above all things and loyalty. He talked about ethics, equanimity (as being the glue that held bands and business partners together) and it felt like the sun on a chilly day. I was then still recovering from time in the hard side of the industry where things like getting paid could be a challenge, even after a profitable tour.
Ray quickly become like a father to me. He often called me his daughter and was there for all my family events, donating his time to play at my mother’s 70th and to MC my son’s 21st Birthday. We talked every day those first four years and signed a number of fledgling artists including 4Eulogi, Kat Theo, Salisha Taylor, plus some established acts like Tim Beveridge, Annie Crummer and Lucid 3.
I remember him adding a riff to a 4Eulogi song that was as brilliant as Rick Rubin’s addition to Danzig’s Mother. And that song charted, made the NZ On Air Hit Disc and won a Juice Award!
There were tours with Robert Lamb/Chicago and Jeffrey Foskett/The Beach Boys, TV deals, corporate shows, publishing and licensing contracts. He threw me in the deep end and then tossed me a life jacket or fished me out if I started to struggle. It was fun.
One day, I was on a business call and Ray was tap dancing and singing in the lounge with Tim Beveridge and Oska, my dog barking and running around madly. He knew how to make everything fun.
He was a trailblazer, full of charm but also an eccentric individual who could invent the craziest and most brilliant solutions to any problem. But best of all, was the special Ray wisdom, tricks he’d learnt as an experienced music professional and business man and an unwavering belief in you that was so fierce that it rubbed off until you were totally convinced and believed it too…so many things that changed me and that I will never forget.
Ray loved all types of music and I remember him being excited to hear NZ hip hop like Scribe’s first tracks – he’d been listening to Eminem who he thought could be as influential as Elvis. He sang with rock bands Shaft, Rock N Roll Machine and The Situations at The Kings Arms’ Get a Haircut show and loved having The Mint Chicks cover his music for the RIANZ Music Awards when Ray And The Invaders won the Legacy Award.
In 2007 Ray, his wife Linda and his children Sean and Danielle, took over RD6, a restaurant near Matakana, North Auckland and I took a full time role as a music promoter and publicist (and became engulfed in organising the first Raggamuffin music festival).
Ray helped me with The Who concert at North Shore Stadium in 2009 and, although we no longer had time to manage a stable of artists we kept developing business projects – including plans to start a music foundation and after his 2012 health scare, the Cardiovascular Foundation, with Ray as Chairman and myself Secretary. There were other business ideas, some totally removed from music but all involving creativity in bucket loads.
The last four years were tough. He’d ended up in hospital a dozen or more times and even woken to find a priest standing over him giving him the last rites. Ray yelled determinedly, “I’m not dying,” and sent the priest away.
Linda nursed him with love and all sorts of miracle potions and we had a few final outings – the Summer Concert Tour (featuring Pat Benatar and America), fish’n chips in Orewa and the Count Basie Orchestra concert. There was a final visit just a week before and one last phone call to say good bye at 3.45am on Monday at the end of November. Then his red coffin in a Catholic church – not a full religious service but surrounded by song and by those that loved him. Ray did things his own way.
Ray Columbus was honest, generous with his time and energy, a passionate advocate for the arts and for artists, patriotic and one of the kindest men I’ve ever known. He had the ego necessary to perform and promote himself and others, but he wasn’t a snob. He took risks, he stood out, was eccentric and had an outrageous sense of humour.
He was a tap dancer, a singer, songwriter, actor, TV star (C’mon, Club Columbus, That’s Country and Happen Inn) and music manager. He won every major award in NZ show business including being the first pop star in the Commonwealth to be awarded a Queen’s OBE.
He toured with Roy Orbison, The Rolling Stones, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Gladys Knight, Ben E King, The Hollies and many more and, along with his band, The Invaders, had 14 hit records including, She’s A Mod, the first NZ song to make #1 in Australia. He stylishly modelled himself on James Dean and Elvis and, at his peak, was one of the hottest pop stars around – pursued by Sinatra’s record label in the US alongside David Bowie, and asked to join the Rolling Stones.
But behind the scenes were some of Ray’s greatest achievements for NZ and for the industry. He had a sharp mind and business acumen that served him well as a member of the QE11 Arts Council (Creative NZ – where he helped finance Split Enz’ first tour of Australia) and the board of APRA for more than two decades. He organised entertainment for NZ Rugby and managed and mentored acts including Shane, Suzanne Lynch (The Chicks) and ZED.
He toured the US and made sure that everyone knew where NZ was and how much talent resided there. He lobbied the NZ government (both sides) for arts funding…and the formation of institutions like the Music Industry Commission. He believed a united industry would be good for everyone…that the arts should work together and share information and that petty competition stopped collective progress. He shared his knowledge and expertise with people like me – basically anyone that he took a liking to – he had no time for those he didn’t like!
Thank you Ray. You believed in us before we believed in ourselves. You were the Modfather and a Godfather to the music industry, a father figure to me and my son, and we are all better off for knowing you.