The Reluctant Star
BORN TO SING
Pikiteora (Pixie) Williams was born on July 12th, 1928 in Mohaka, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand.
Of Ngāti Pāhauwera (Ngāti Kahungunu), Pixie was taken from her mother when only a few months old to be raised by her beloved (grand) parents. Her childhood years were happy and her love of music was born - singing around the piano most evenings and on the Marae from age three.
With the death of her (grand) parents, Pixie's happy childhood ended. She was 12 years old and under the care of her uncle who put her to work on his farm alongside her cousins. To make it bearable they'd sing.
By age 14 relatives stepped in, concerned by the way she was being worked, and arranged for Pixie's birth mother to pick her up. Not much changed, 'I still worked my butt off', and by age 15 Pixie moved to Napier where she got a job cleaning at the hospital and housekeeping at the Masonic Hotel.
"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, until my (grand) parents died."
THE MOVE TO WELLINGTON
A Magical Collaboration
At age 17, fed up with everything, she 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 at 360 Oriental Parade she was introduced to song writer and musician Ruru Karaitiana, by his girlfriend and later wife, Joan Chittleburgh. Pixie and Joan shared a room at the hostel, becoming close friends. When Ruru mentioned he needed a singer, Joan suggested Pixie, who was always singing in the shower and at sessions around the hostel piano.
Blue Smoke was one of the songs in Pixie's repertoire.
Ruru's Blue Smoke launched Pixie's career. It was a magical collaboration that nearly didn't happen. Pixie turned down Ruru twice when he asked her to record his song. Two months later, after one final plea, Pixie agreed - on the proviso that the recording did not interfere with her Saturday hockey games.
Photo above: Pixie Williams, 1945
Photo below: Centre: Pixie and her work hockey team, 1948
"One Saturday morning Pixie didn't turn up and I was sent to find her. Pixie was going to play hockey when I found her. On the way back she complained of a sore throat because she'd been out with the girls the night before.
So I made her a coffee while the guys kept practising.
I can still see Pixie in her hockey gear, the striped socks, singing away.
And Ruru looking very serious. He always looked serious."
John Shears, Radio Corp Technician
THE MOVE SOUTH
Out of the Limelight
Following Blue Smoke's success, Ruru produced a flurry of songs, including another hit for Pixie he was more proud of than his 'poor first effort'. Another waltz, Let's talk it over sold over 20,000 records with a melody that took more risks than Blue Smoke, but which Pixie handled with confidence. She recorded a further four songs by Ruru, and another six by other song writers, but her days as TANZA's leading pop vocalist were quickly over when, humbled by the attention she was attracting, she left Wellington for a break and working holiday.
It was the summer of 1951. The first stop was tobacco picking in Motueka for a few weeks before travelling down the South Island, finally landing in Dunedin. Meeting up with Ruru in Dunedin, where he'd settled with his family in 1950, they reunited for concerts together at His Majesty's Theatre. Pixie also went on to record two more of his songs at the studios of 4YA Radio Station.
Pixie didn't return from her 'holiday', and chose to settle down in Dunedin,
slipping away from the limelight she didn't enjoy.
Photo above: Pixie on holiday in Motueka with friends, 1951
Photo below: Pixie Costello (nee Williams), 2011
THE LATER YEARS
While in Dunedin, Pixie married Irishman John (Paddy) Costello, raising four children together but still delighted in singing and making music at family parties, singalongs and at her local Returned Services Association (RSA). For Pixie Costello (nee Williams), her recording and singing career were very much for the love of it. Like most of the musicians who recorded Blue Smoke, she was never paid for her work then, or for later recordings. The popularity and poignancy of Blue Smoke followed her down the years, much to her surprise and, at times, annoyance. Pixie couldn't read music, but taught herself to play guitar, ukulele, banjo and piano accordion. At age 73 she decided to teach herself the organ. With the death of her husband in 2006, she finally left Dunedin 57 years after stopping in on holiday for 'a week or two', and returned to Wellington to live with family.
On 12 July 2011, on her 83rd birthday, For the Record was released and Pixie was presented with a triple Platinum Award for Blue Smoke and a Single Platinum Award for Let's talk it over by the
Recording Industry Association of New Zealand (RIANZ).
On August 2, 2013, Pixie passed away peacefully aged 85 and was taken home
to Dunedin to be buried alongside her husband and oldest daughter.
Watch an interview with Pixie here in 2011
In August 2019, Pixie was recognised with an Iconic Lifetime Contribution to Māori Music Award by the Waiata Māori Music Awards Charitable Trust.
Later that year, alongside Ruru Karaitiana and Jim Carter, Pixie was inducted into the
New Zealand Music Hall of Fame for giving New Zealand its first homegrown pop song.
They were also recognised for the significant contribution they each made throughout their lives
to music, and the key impact they had inspiring local artists to see there was an important role
for them to play in our popular culture.
Watch the induction and tribute performance here: