Graham Reid | | 5 min read
In his often courageously candid 2011 autobiography The Modfather – subtitled “the life and times of a rock'n'roll pioneer” and co-written with journalist Margie Thompson – New Zealand cultural legend Ray Columbus didn't exactly deal the dirt.
But then Columbus always came across as a genial, generous professional and – given he lived straight during the Swinging Sixties, knew his shortcomings when it came to booze but smoked 80 a day for decades – there was probably very little dirt to be dealt.
As he wrote, “I thought, who would want to read about my life? I've never done drugs, I've never cheated on people or even had an affair. I don't rob banks, I didn't namedrop. I won't reveal anything about what happened on tour with the Rolling Stones, or with Tom Jones and Herman's Hermits, or any of the stuff that's not already common knowledge.
“I wouldn't exploit a situation to make good reading for someone.
“I'm Mr. Clean, and I know that makes me very boring.”
On the contrary of course, because he was all of those boring things he is a fascinating figure in New Zealand music.
Ray Columbus – his real name – came from an earlier tradition and in his book he insists he was never a pop or rock star, he was always an entertainer, “which means I have no boundaries. If I like the music and the songs, that's all that matters to me. Doesn't matter if it's Elvis or Al Jolson”.
For decades those final comments would have seemed seriously unhip, but today when many young people's ears are wide open to the long history of popular music they seem refreshingly contemporary.
And by always knowing he was an entertainer – he grew up with tap dancing lessons and was going to be Fred Astaire before Elvis arrived in his world – meant he would happily shake his head and invent a little on-the-spot dance when appearing with the Invaders in the early Sixties (the famous Mod Nod as seen in the iconic clip for their chart-topping She's a Mod) but move effortlessly into television in the Seventies and front the enormously popular That's Country show on prime time.
“It's all entertainment. When one door opens, there's always another one opening, and I've been blessed with the courage to walk away when something is no longer right for me. I just morph into my next role, always using the skill base that I learned growing up in Christchurch way back in the 1940s and 50s.”
That self-awareness and candour, and his ability to “morph” accounts for the distance Columbus travelled in just half-a-dozen years in the Sixties.
He went – as many did – from Beatles-influenced pop star to psychedelic rocker . . . without the lashings of whisky'n'Coke or LSD. He liked the sounds of the music he was hearing and so, being an entertainer, opened another door.
Columbus' recording career was effectively over by the early Seventies but in recent years there have been valuable collections of his music, notably the '09 double disc Ray Columbus and the Invaders; The Definitive Collection and the single disc Ray Columbus; The Solo Years of five years previous.
Both of those collections were overseen by collector and enthusiast Grant Gillanders (also responsible for excellent collections of New Zealand psychedelic music, and numerous compilations of bands and solo artists).
Gillanders is behind the new Ray Columbus collection Now You Shake which scoops up 11 songs from Invader days, then solo material and – here's the nub of it – material Columbus recorded when in San Francisco during those heady days of acid-pop and psychedelic rock.
While there Columbus – who didn't indulge we remind you – delivered some minor classics like the proto-punk single Kick Me (with the Art Collection who seemed to style themselves visually on the Blues Magoos).
Kick Me sounds like a bad trip but Columbus says it is “about fear of flying, whether it's tripping or travelling”.
The other Columbus/Art Collection song is Snap Crackle Pop, a decent slice of folk-influenced psyche-rock (which Columbus, ever the entrepreneur pitched to Kelloggs because he'd appropriated their famous breakfast cereal slogan).
For a man who didn't do drugs, Columbus could effectively work in the psyche-rock/folk-rock genre of the era, as witnessed by songs like Polka Dot Resistance, the ballad East Pinkerton Street and the more soulful I'm Good For You (with the band Fire).
In fact adopting and adapting was Columbus' gift.
That classic hit She's a Mod with the Invaders was a minor British song which Columbus heard and knew could be re-jigged into a slice of up-tempo Beatles-styled pop. It opens with the chorus like She Loves You and also includes the catchy “yeah yeah yeah” He also heard Arthur Alexander's Where Have You Been differently.
It became the enormously successful Till We Kissed in Columbus' hands.
On My Mind from Invader days was another cover, this one moulded into something akin to Boys as sung by Ringo in those Beatlemania days. Of course they knew how to do that, they'd faithfully covered the Beatles' I Wanna To Be Your Man (another Ringo-lead song) to great chart success . . . greater than the Beatles' original and the Stones' version.
In that autobiography Columbus says he was never a prolific songwriter.
But the brackets of originals on Now You Shake prove that when he turned his hand to writing he could come up with the goods: the slightlydelic In Memory of Today and his superb Happy in a Sad Kind of Way, the autobiographical Los Angeles (very spirit of '67 via the Association) and of course Traveling Singing Man: “I roam from town to town . . . from Sydney to Auckland, Hawaii to LA, up to San Francisco and down to San Jose . . . I entertain a sea of faces, they come to watch my style, a thousand miles for tears and smiles makes the challenge worth the while . . . kamate kamate”.
As noted, there have been earlier Ray Columbus compilations but Now You Shake -- 29 songs including a second take of Kick Me -- pulls together his journey and musical diversity through just a few fast-forward years.
It is the aural story of a man who walked through doors when they opened and let others close behind him with no rancor or regret.
Towards the end of The Modfather – which telescopes the last few decades of his life into a couple of chapters – he reflects on his long life and asks himself: “Where does Ray the rock star fit into all this?”
“It was a moment along the way – a mode of my entertainment. I love making music, and it was always my passion to do so, but above all that, I love to entertain.
“I'm a prolific entertainer. I'm unstoppable, in any medium.”
It was quite a moment, and Ray Columbus was quite an entertainer.