Friday, August 9, 2013

RIP Pixie Williams

About Pixie Williams

Pixie Williams was a shooting star of New Zealand music – a clear, bright magical voice, a brief luminous career, a brilliant flash of light that lives on as a memory for some - both distant and familiar.
 “No matter where you are, music will always have some meaning. When you have music in your heart, it stays with you.  Music will always live on."  Pixie Costello (nee Williams ), January 2010

The Early Years 

Pikiteora Maude Emily Gertrude Edith Williams was born 12 July 1928, in Mohaka near Gisborne in the Hawkes Bay.  Taken from her mother when only a few months old to be raised by her beloved grandparents (my “mother” and “father”) her happy childhood years were spent with them  and her love of music was born – singing around the piano most evenings and on the Marae from age three.
“Ours was known as the  musical house where everyone gathered to sing or play the piano and guitar.  It was a simple, but magical childhood – full of music and singing.” 
 With the death of her “father” in 1934 and “mother” in 1941 Pixie’s happy childhood years ended. She was 12 years old – and now under the care of her Uncle.
"Everything went downhill for me when “mother” died. Working on my Uncle’s farm,  I’d get up at 4.30am with my two cousins to milk 32 cows before school, all by hand, then have to race back home to do the afternoon milking and other farm chores.  To make it bearable we’d sing.  ‘Blue Moon’ was a favourite – the cows loved it.  They’d join in when we sung ‘Moooooon’.  We’d always sing that word as long as we could so they could all join in”.
By age 14 relatives stepped in.  Concerned at the way Pixie was being worked, they told her natural mother who came by one day and picked her up.
“Not much changed though, I still worked my butt off.” 
By age 15 Williams moved to Napier where she got a job cleaning at the hospital, followed by a six month stint housekeeping at the Masonic Hotel.
“I met Gladys Moncrieff there – a famous Australian soprano singer who was touring New Zealand.  Her voice was incredible.  She inspired me.  I loved to sing – and wanted to do it right, so I got some lessons from the Sisters of Mercy.”

The Move to Wellington

Williams and her mates 1949, YWCA, Wellington

At age 17, Williams moved to Wellington thanks to the same relatives who ‘rescued’ her at age 14.
They got me a job working at a factory.  I was so glad to leave, I never wanted to go back.”
Moving into the YWCA Hostel on Oriental Parade, her extraordinary voice came to the attention of songwriter and musician Ruru Karaitiana. At that time her talent was known only to the girls she shared lodgings with. Fellow resident and room-mate Joan Chittleburgh (whom Karaitiana later married) suggested Williams who was always singing in the shower and at hostel piano sessions.  Blue Smoke was one of the songs in Williams’ repertoire.
Ruru Karaitiana's Blue Smoke launched Williams' career.  It was a magical collaboration between artists that nearly didn't happen.
 Williams and the hockey team 1949
Williams twice turned down Karaitiana when he asked her to record his song.  After one final plea, two months after first asking, she agreed - on the proviso that the recording didn't interfere with her Saturday hockey games.

About the Music

The Making of Blue Smoke 

Blue Smoke was written on the British troop ship Aquitania, off the coast of Africa in 1940.  It was the first song Ruru Karaitiana composed.  A jazz pianist from the Ngati Mutuahi hapu (sub-tribe) of Rangitane, Karaitiana toured locally before the outbreak of World War II.
A member of the 28th Maori Battalion Concert Party, it was sung in the desert between battles and became popular at troop concerts and at home long before it was recorded. Evoking the emotion and sadness of parting loved ones heading to war, the song appealed to post-war sentiments.
The recording was a true DIY production.  It was Dallas who hit on the idea of connecting the electric guitar direct to the recording equipment instead of using a microphone – a practice that became the way recording studios worked internationally.
Jim Carter who played the lap-steel guitar introduction to Blue Smoke, made his own five-watt amplifier, having gone to night school to learn radio technology.   With no sound-proofing and the sporadic hum of a fridge next door being clearly audible, New Zealand’s first commercial recording took nine days to capture.
Originally released in early 1949, Blue Smoke was arguably New Zealand’s first pop song – the first song wholly written, produced and recorded in New Zealand. It was also a huge hit topping the New Zealand chart for six weeks and selling 50,000 copies. It was played on radio stations and juke boxes around the world and covered by a host of international artists, including Dean Martin.
The B side of Blue Smoke featured another Karaitiana composition ‘Senorita’ – which drew a single review that it was “a gay, inconsequential trifle written by the same composer in Latin American rhythm’. (source: Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918 – 1964).
In 2001 the Australasian Performing Rights Association (APRA) celebrated their 75th Anniversary by giving it's 3000 members and an invited academy of 100 other voters the opportunity to vote for the 30 best songs composed by New Zealanders in it's history. Blue Smoke was voted number 17.

More Williams/Karaitiana magic

After the surprise success of Williams’ first effort, she recorded a second hit for Karaitiana ‘Let’s talk it over’ in 1949.  An emotional and slow moving song about a relationship break up, it went on to sell 20,000 discs.  Recorded with the Ruru Karaitiana Quintette (the same musicians as Blue Smoke) the melody is technically more difficult than Blue Smoke, which Williams’ voice handles with ease.
Two more Karaitiana songs were recorded in 1949.  Ain’t it a Shame – a classic jazz number about lost love and regret and Windy City, a cultural classic about, where else, Wellington.

Samuel (Sam) Freedman (1911-2008)

Enter another pioneer of New Zealand popular music, composer Samuel (Sam) Freedman.
Well known for his arrangements and writing English lyrics for Maori songs, as well as for his own compositions, Maoriland was recorded by Williams in 1949. A song about the beauty and magic of post war New Zealand, it was the first of Freedman’s songs to be recorded in a career lasting right through the 1960s with more than 300 compositions. On the B side Williams also recorded Freedman’s Christmas song ‘Best Wishes’.
Today, his best known song is Haere Mai (thanks to Air New Zealand advertising)  written in 1952 possibly to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and her forthcoming 1953 tour of New Zealand.

Colin O'Connell

In 1950 Williams was introduced to Colin O’Connell who wrote two songs for her.  Recorded that same year Bell Bird Serenade is based on a folktale that when a courting couple hears the song of the Bell Bird they will marry and Sweetheart in Calico about memories of childhood love.

Karaitiana - 1950

Karaitiana moved to Dunedin with his family in early 1950 to be near his wife’s family, originally touring with Dunedin promoter Joe Brown. He soon penned two songs for Williams to record. The first, a tribute to Dunedin’s landmark Saddle Hill and ‘It’s Just because’ written in honour of the troops of K-Force departing for the Korean War.
In 1951 Williams and Karaitiana reunited for concerts at Dunedin’s His Majesty’s Theatre, and in the same year Williams went into the studios of 4YA Radio Station to record Karaitiana’s new songs with narration by radio announcer ‘Doug Harris’.  With his BBC radio voice, the inclusion of Harris's narration might possibly be considered the 1950's version of today's rap.

Two more gems

Little is known of the composers responsible for two other songs made before Williams left Wellington. Recorded with Allan Shand and his Orchestra, but not released until 1951.  Maori Rhythm, about a pakeha boy falling in love with a Maori girl and her tantalising sway, was composed by Dorothy M Vincent with lyrics by M E Purser.  On the B side Williams recorded Sailing along on a moonbeam by composer ‘Rayling’ – a lovely melody that takes you on a journey across time to a slower pace where the world was full of promise.
Information about the original recordings is as complete as possible. Please contact Blue Smoke Records if you have additional information about the composers and/or artists involved – we’d love to hear from you.

Pixie today - 2011

Pixie Williams couldn’t read music but taught herself to play guitar, ukulele, the banjo and piano accordion.  At age 73 she decided to teach herself the organ - for something to do.   After the death of her husband in 2006, Pixie left Dunedin 57 years after stopping in on her holiday for a week or two.
Today, at the age of 83 , she lives in Wellington and still loves to sing, whistle and hum her way through each day.
“Music – it’s what keeps you going through good times and bad.  It kept me sane in the hard times.  Forget the pills.  When you’ve got music in your life – you’ll be ok.” Pixie Williams
Anyone who knows Pixie, and her life, knows this to be true.

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