The Pixie Williams Collection 1949-1951
"The discovery and restoration of Pixie Williams’ recordings is an important event in the history of New Zealand music. It will make available to the public fantastic works that would have otherwise been lost forever." Stephen O’Hoy, Amplifier
Released on 12 July 2011 on Pixie's 83rd birthday , the digitally remastered collection of Pixie Williams' songs has been a labour of love for the team at Blue Smoke Records.
13 songs in total, including Williams much loved, and best known recording of Blue Smoke, the sound quality of these recordings is outstanding. Each instrument is now clearly audible and mixed back together to support Williams outstanding voice perfectly. Recorded 60+ years ago, these songs have never sounded so good.
Blue Smoke - the beginning
In 1948, Pixie Williams gave voice to one of the most enduring popular melodies of the twentieth century, Blue Smoke, composed by Ruru Karaitiana.
In the years that followed, she recorded a collection of songs mixing universal themes and international musical styles with an unmistakeable flavour of Aotearoa New Zealand.
In 1951 New York music trade magazines described Blue Smoke as one of the major hits of the year – a ‘musical jackpot’ with both jukebox and radio listeners. It was covered by a host of internationl artists, including American crooner Dean Martin who phoned Karaitiana from the US seeking more songs.
The New Zealand National Film Unit recreated the making of 'Blue Smoke' for a news reel to show in cinemas at the time of the albums release in June 1949. Unfortunately, Pixie Williams was absent for the filming. This wonderful piece of New Zealand music history is available to view here. It went on to sell 50,000 records.
Following the success of Blue Smoke Williams went on to record twelve more songs, with another Karaitiana song, Let's talk it Over also becoming a hit selling over 20,000 records.
At the launch of the remastered collection in 2011, RIANZ presented Pixie Williams a Triple Platinum Award for Blue Smoke, and a Single Platinum Award for Let's Talk it Over.
Through For the Record – The Pixie Williams Collection we have managed to digitally remaster all of Williams' original recordings and 60+ years after they were first released, they will be brought back to life as a complete collection and record of Pixie Williams’s music.
What could have been?
My name is Amelia Costello. My mother is Pixie Costello (nee Williams).
I grew up listening to all the jazz/blues greats and watching all the musicals of the 40's and 50's. My female favourites (to name a few) - Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday, Nina Simone and... Pixie Williams. To my unprofessional ear, I always thought Mum’s unplugged voice sounded just as good as any of the great divas. But why did the hits stop at Blue Smoke and Let’s Talk it Over? Why didn’t she have success with her other recordings?
In 2006, following the death of my father, I was spurred to start this project - while Mum was still with us. Releasing the entire collection of Pixie’s recordings was only part of the job. For the record, I also wanted to capture the story of the people involved.
In 2010, I was fortunate to have a conversation with the publisher of Sam Freedman’s works (who wrote two songs recorded by Mum). He revealed that when he was the Radio Section Head at the Radio Corporation, responsible for the TANZA recordings, the plating department discovered an issue with the early masters and stampers. Chemicals were used in the pressing process. After each pressing the masters and stampers were washed clean under unfiltered tap water, before being stored for the next pressing should demand require it.
What they hadn’t realised was that lime present in the unfiltered water corroded the stored masters – and many early recordings were ruined. Unfortunately for Mum and composer Ruru Karaitiana – this meant the many of their recordings made in 1949 were lost after the first pressing and therefore never realised their full distribution potential. For whatever reason, Radio Corporation did not want the artists and composers to know of this mistake so they kept it quiet. In 1957, having left TANZA to start his own publishing company, Sam Freedman’s publisher arranged with Cole Wilson and the Tumbleweeds to re-record some of their TANZA hits like ‘Maple of the Hill’, as well as Bill Wolfgramme and Daphne Walker among others.
Unfortunately for Mum and Ruru, none of their titles were re-recorded. Finding this out was a revelation, and has made what we're doing even more important.
Digitally remastering the Pixie Williams Collection
“It is a thrill to be involved in a preservation project of such cultural significance and to imagine that new generations of New Zealander’s will be able to enjoy these beautiful songs now and forever. It is also a fitting tribute to a reluctant and humble star.” Tim Fraser & Mike Gibson
In the spirit befitting New Zealand's original music recording pioneers, Tim Fraser engaged the services of New Zealand's leading mastering engineer, Mike Gibson of Munki Masters. Renowned for his attention to detail and empathetic approach, Gibson spent several weeks trialling the world's latest restoration equipment and talking to global leaders in the industry before deciding on the best approach for this project.
"Absolute care and respect were the cornerstone principles in the remastering of Pixie’s work. We ensured we kept the impact on the music, through the remastering process, to a minimum – wanting to illuminate rather than change the music."
Without the original masters to work from, Gibson had to create the new masters from much loved and played Shellac 78s. From these mono recordings, unwanted noise was removed to reveal the overall quality of the music and then painstakingly the layers of static, pops and scratches were unpicked to be transformed into quality recordings for today's listeners. Pixie Williams’ incredible voice can now be clearly heard, as can each instrument, brought together again in perfect harmony as if the band were performing, and being recorded, today. It has been an incredible feat of patience and skill.
"I thought Mum’s voice, these songs, were stunning as they were - with the scratches, pops and skips of age simply adding to their beauty. Initially I didn’t want them cleaned up – but Tim suggested I listen to one song Mike had re-mastered, as close to the original as possible. Well, the tears just ran. I was speechless. I could visualise Mum and the band in the room with me, an unbelievable moment! This is an amazing gift to us all! I don't believe anyone who listens to these tunes won't be affected by them.” Amelia Costello