Born 12 July 1928 Pixie Williams was New Zealand’s first recording star. She resolutely had no intention of being one, but she was anyway.
In 1948 the commercial recording industry was just getting started in New Zealand (you can read about it in Chris Bourke’s Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964 AUP, 2010). There were plenty of studios, there was now a local pressing plant and local distribution infrastructure, so now there needed to be a song. That song was Ruru Karaitiana’s ‘Blue Smoke’, and while Karaitiana’s Quintette provided the instrumentals, he (on the recommendation of his then girlfried Joan Chettleburgh) chose Pixie Williams to sing it. Legend has it that she didn’t really see the point of it all, and didn’t really want to record, and certainly didn’t want a recording career.
There’s something incredibly, iconically New Zealand about our first recording ‘star’ really wanting to have nothing to do with it.
Pixie Williams did record a few more tracks however, 13 in total between 1948 and 1951 and then moved on with her life. She faded from public notice until her children were adults and they discovered what she was to the New Zealand music scene. In the 2000s they (in particular her youngest daughter Amelia Costello) began to gather together all her recordings to digitise, which culminated in the establishment of Blue Smoke Records, and the 2011 release For the Record: The Pixie Williams Collection, which returned the reluctant Pixie to New Zealand’s general musical consciousness.
After Pixie Williams passed away in 2013 Amelia began work on a new project celebrating her mother’s musical achievements. The New Blue: Pixie Williams Reimagined (Blue Smoke Records released 25 April 2021- Anzac Day) is a delightful celebration of both Pixie Williams singing and Kiwi pop music nostalgia.
The New Blue takes 11 of the 13 tracks that Pixie Williams recorded and captures the original romantic spirit of both the songs and Williams’ interpretations while, as the title says, reimagines them through the musical lenses of both young and established musicians. Like the original recordings these are, for the most part, short arrangements, as if they were still being recorded for 78rpm discs (the shortest 2.42, the longest 4.56), which certainly helps to evoke a sense of time and place. The arrangements also do not radically reimagine the songs, but rather expands the pallette to highlight the romance (in the broadest possible sense) of each song and might be what Williams might have chosen herself had she had the choice.
The album opens with vocal trio The Victory Dolls and their charming rendition of ‘Saddle Hill’ (Ruru Karaitiana’s tribute to Dunedin). The Victory Dolls are a close harmony trio á la the Andrews Sisters, and the arrangement certainly makes the most of that, going deep into 1940s small group jazz, with Freddie Green style guitar and Benny Goodman style clarinet (from Mark Sommoreville and Lucian Johnson respectively). Anna Coddington’s exquisitely delicate rendition of ‘Let’s Talk It Over’ (arguably Williams’ most popular song after ‘Blue Smoke’), Whirimako Black’s darkly sensuous, jazzy ‘Ain’t it A Shame’ and Rachel Fraser evoking a country-blusey-Billie Holiday approach in ‘Bluebird Serenade’ quickly follow suit, before the most expansive arrangement (and longest track) of the album with the reinterpretation of ‘Blue Smoke’.
Featuring delicate vocals by Lisa Tomlins and Kirsten Te Rito this rearrangement of ‘Blue Smoke’ translates the song into Te Reo and integrates the original recording with Pixie Williams (you can hear Jim Hall’s slide guitar coming through). It makes the most of the Stroma Flimworks Orchestra by really leans into a dreamy ballroom waltz (think dream scene ballet’s from musicals). It is a bewitching arrangement, ready to sweep the listener off their feet.
The second half of the album features the only two tracks interpreted by men. The first of which is George Rutherford singing ‘Sweetheart in Calico’. It is not the strongest of interpretations or arrangements, but he takes on the challenging melody with a sense of tender fragility. It sticks out particularly because it is sandwiched between the tour de force that is ‘Blue Smoke’ and Amba Holly’s strong dance hall-vocaliste interpretation of ‘Sailing Along A Moonbeam’, and partly because ‘Sweetheart in Calico’ is just not an easily placed song, especially translating it to the male voice.
Lisa Tomlins’ attack of ‘Señorita’ provides the most extreme change of pace in the whole album, both in terms of style and of tempo. Tomlins’ slightly breathy and breathless delivery is keeping with Williams’ own, but spices up the arrangement with a sensual emotional punch that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Kirsten Te Rito’s solo outing on a Te Reo translation of ‘Maoriland’ follows and takes us right back to the dream scene style arrangement from ‘Blue Smoke’, with lavish, delicate strings and piano. Te Rito leans hard into the slightly melancholy ballad, leaving the listener with a sense of sweet nostalgic loss that reaches across languages.
Deanne Kreig on Ruru Karaitiana’s tribute to the K-Force troops ‘It’s Just Because’, extends the sense the sweet nostalgic loss- a last waltz before a soldier had to leave their sweetheart perhaps. It is a straightforwardly charming arrangement that fits well into the overall theme of the album, without being cloying.
The final track on the album, ‘Windy City’ (that’s Wellington in this case, not Chicago, for my international readers), is sung by the second male vocalist on the album, neo-soul singer Louis Baker. This arrangement of the love letter to New Zealand’s capital is quiet and stripped back, and vocally challenging. Placing songs that suited Williams’ voice onto male voices seems to be more challenging than onto female. Baker does a good job, but again, it is not his strongest work. To be completely fair, neither ‘Sweetheart in Calico’ nor ‘Windy City’ were Williams’ strongest songs, and they pushed the edges of her vocal range if not her abilities.
The New Blue is a charming trip down New Zealand’s musical memory lane, and has an innocence and sweetness about it, much like Williams herself likely had when she was recording these songs (she was just 17-21). It’s value is in rememberance of New Zealand’s musical history and the potential to reimagine songs from our cultural past moreso than it is in the songs themselves. In this way it is a success and one perhaps that should be emulated, particularly of the thousands of musical arrangements and compositions that never made it to record. This is just a very small sample of what could be achieved with our national back catalog should talented and imaginative producers, arrangers and musicians be so inclined.