Jim Sullivan is in conversation with early New Zealand singer Pixie Williams who, aged 18, featured on 'Blue Smoke', the first record to be composed, recorded, pressed and commercially released in New Zealand.
"The whole of the village, the whole area used to come to our home. They had a piano room and the whole family used to gather there on a Sunday and have a sing along and it sort of went from there.
I was only young in those days. It was mostly the elders that were singing, and us kids used to sit around at their feet listening to all the music that was going on. Because when you're a child, you just don't understand. Music sort of goes through one ear, and out the other. But we used to have all the popular music of the time, and just follow the elders when they sang. My relatives at that time they played piano music and all that. That was in the family.
I was brought up by my grandparents you see, and my grandmother died in 1941, then I moved from there to an uncle's home. He had five girls, and they were all singers. So we used to make a choir, with the singers and dancers at home. It’s a farming district, and we all congregated at anything that was going in the hall, we all sang there. ‘Night and Day’ was one of the songs we used to sign while milking the cows.
And what sort of musical accompaniment would you normally have at the dances there?
Well they had piano. Piano and guitar mostly. Some of the guys later on started to get on the sax, and things but it was mostly piano. It just came naturally. There was no disharmony or anything out there. Everybody just seemed to get their notes right, and none of us read music.
Did you have any thoughts that time that you might like to do more in music?
No, no, no. I never thought about it at all. I never thought about recording or anything like that. You know, it was just a musical thing with the family. I stayed at home for a while for about two years, then I came to Wellington when I was 17. I came to Wellington to work. I was at the girl’s hostel. Joan [Chittleburgh, who later married Blue Smoke composer Ruru Karaitiana] used to live at the hostel where I was and we used to always have a musical evening there because a lot of the girls came from all over. And we’d have a singalong with Maori, Island, and, this was war time and we were getting a lot of refugees from Whenuapai or Ohakea or whatever. And they used to come and stay there to learn English, and so we got them from all over the world.
How did you feel about moving from the country to Wellington?
I missed the family. It's like being plucked out of your environment and going to something different. It was just a different atmosphere from home.
Did You get homesick?
I did. Yes. Yes.
We had a lovely group of girls there. Everybody joined in. It was a two-story building and the hall was at the bottom, the lounge. We used to all gather there on a Sunday and have a sing along or play ping pong, you know, whatever you wanted to do.
Did the singing at the hostel lead to anything more?
No, no, we never gave it a thought. It was just when Joan got engaged to Ruru Karaitiana. And it was her that told him that I could sing, that I had a voice, so she said. So, they came to me and asked me and I said, “Oh, no, no, I don't want it. I don't want to make a record or anything like that”. They were looking for somebody to sing his songs, you know.
Had he established quite a reputation by then as a composer of songs.
Apparently. He used to do a lot of work for dance bands and things like that around Wellington. And I think further afield. But he was always into music.
They asked me if I would be willing to make the record. I said oh no! I said you better find somebody else. Because I panicked, you know, oh my god, what's happening?
You didn't think of yourself as being in that league.
No, no, never. Never.
So, what happened? How were you persuaded?
Well, they did look around apparently, and only about four weeks later, four or five weeks later and I thought oh well they’ll have found somebody. And the next thing they come out with “Oh, we want you to sing, to make this record”. I said “but I can’t sing!" and they said “well you can, we’ve heard you” and I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it or not. Utter panic. I thought oh my god, I hope I’ll be able to do it right.
[It was] Just a microphone standing in the in the center. And the guys used to have to sit around in one of these seats.
I took the music home and, not being able to read music, [I was] just memorizing the music and the tempo etc. So I said, right, I'll take it home and read through it and memorize everything and go back again and we’d do it. It was about a week or more before we really cut the record. I thought was slow. But as we got further into it, I thought “Oh well, perhaps it's going to turn out fine”.
Once you’d recorded Blue Smoke, were you happy with it?
Yes, but I thought I had a terrible voice. Every time I heard it I said “Oh dear, here we go again”, you know? But everybody seemed to like it, so it was just left at that, we got quite used to it after that.
No matter where you are, music always has some meaning doesn’t it? I always feel when you have music in your heart, it stays with you. Music will always live on.