The Ray Columbus story

By Scott Kara

Surviving members of Ray Columbus and the Invaders (from left) Dave Russell, Ray Columbus and Billy Kristian. Photo / Greg Bowker
Surviving members of Ray Columbus and the Invaders (from left) Dave Russell, Ray Columbus and Billy Kristian. Photo / Greg Bowker

Ray Columbus believed he had the "greatest band in the world" in the early 60s and he didn't mind telling anyone who would listen.

With his determination and showmanship, and players like guitarists Dave Russell and Wally Scott, bassist Billy Kristian, and drummer Jimmy Hill behind him, it's no wonder Ray Columbus and the Invaders took Australia by storm in 1964. They became the first New Zealand band to have an international No. 1 hit with She's A Mod. The song stayed on the top of the charts for eight weeks across the Tasman at a time when Beatlemania was at its height.

That achievement alone makes them worthy recipients of this year's New Zealand Herald Legacy Award - and inductees into the NZ Music Hall of Fame - at tonight's Vodafone NZ Music Awards.

But in the group's short life - it was all over by 1965 - they achieved much more. They had toured with the likes of the Rolling Stones and Roy Orbison, introduced the Mod's Nod dance craze, scored many other hits and their swansong Till We Kissed won the 1965 Loxene Gold Disc - the first New Zealand Music Award and the forerunner to today's Tuis.

There are some voices missing - Wally Scott passed away in 1980 and Jimmy Hill in 2000. Eldred Stebbing, who signed the band to his Zodiac Records label in April, 1963, was not well enough to be interviewed. His son, Robert, who as a teenager was present at many of the Invaders' recording sessions, fills in for his father.

Here's how the story unfolded ...

The beginning

RAY COLUMBUS: I'd been a singing tap dancer. I latched on to Elvis and Sun Records really early because I worked in the Avon Theatre selling icecreams from when I was 9 years old. I got to see and hear things that a lot of kids my age wouldn't have got to hear. I just used to try and copy the songs, singing and moving like Elvis. It was just natural to go from a Fred Astaire childhood, which was my dad's dream, to all of a sudden dreaming about being old enough to switch to Elvis. I already looked like a cockatoo at that stage - with all my regalia, my hair looking all quiffed. I've always loved clothes, and I've always been a little runt - and I like to be larger than life, I suppose.

BILLY KRISTIAN: I met Ray in the late 50s when we were just school kids. I was oiling the chain on my pushbike and he came through the gate, I didn't know who he was, and he said: "I'm Ray Columbus". He was looking for a piano player for his band, and I played a little bit of piano, and he wanted to hear me play. I played and then I said, "Well, can you sing for me?" And that was us. But later I would join Max Merritt and the Meteors.

COLUMBUS: I was about 14, and Billy was about the same age, and one day [after their initial meeting] he came around on his bike to visit me and I was rapt to see he was wearing pink jeans. I already had a drummer and a guitarist, and so we had a fledgling group. But Max kept borrowing Billy, a lot.

The Invaders

DAVE RUSSELL: The Invaders originally came out of a Christchurch band called the Downbeats. Ray had recently joined the Downbeats as vocalist. My guitar teacher, Tony Athfield, was also in the band but was engaged to be married and decided to leave the band. I was Tony's top pupil at the time so he had recommended to Ray that he should check out this young kid guitarist. Ray was a few years older than me. He was the singer in a real band and I was still at school. In teen-terms, Ray was an old guy. He was as professional then as he is now. I was impressed.

COLUMBUS: I didn't meet Dave until I was 16. We were practising and Dave came in in a grey school uniform, with short pants, and I've always called him polar bear legs because he's got white hair. He was 14 and I said to him, "What can you play?" He said, "I dunno". I thought, "Hell, this is not going anywhere". I started singing Whole Lotta Shakin' and immediately he started playing and I'm going, "Wow". The original record didn't have that sort of playing on it. He was an original riff man, and instinctively knew what to play. He played the sort of guitar I'd always wanted. The bond has never been broken.

RUSSELL: We originally came up with Ray Columbus and the Discoverers, as in Christopher Columbus. We decided the name should be a little tougher and changed it to the Invaders.

Hometown heroes

COLUMBUS: We used to sit at Sumner beach until the sun came up talking and dreaming about our band and what we were going to do. No booze or anything. We'd just sit and talk and dream about it.

RUSSELL: Friday and Saturday night dances in halls around Christchurch. It was about music and dancing, real dancing, foxtrots, quicksteps and the all-new rock 'n' roll. Mostly young couples, first dates, gals and guys.

COLUMBUS: Howard Morrison, my dear old friend, was the one who saw the potential in us at the Plainsman Night Club [late 1962] and he said, "You get up to Auckland and kill 'em". He was right, and a year and a half later we were the top group in Australia. He was the one who gave me the confidence to go in, boots and all.

Auckland takeover

COLUMBUS: After we'd played at Christmas [1962] in Auckland, and taken the place by storm, we took the Phil Warren contract to open the Monaco in Federal St. And Phil also sold us out to other clubs so we would play some nights at the Shiralee, Thursday nights at the Oriental, lunches at the Bali Hi, and every Friday and Saturday night at the Monaco.

RUSSELL: We were the only "group" and had what you would call "a sound". The other bands around weren't groups as such but more so "bands" of the dance hall variety with saxes, pianos, etc. We were playing different material, some originals and songs of the all-new guitar combos.

ROBERT STEBBING: The recording studio was in the basement of our house before we moved to Jervois Rd in 1970. The Columbus group would come in one night and put something down, and they'd come in the next night and it'd be finished and in the weekend I'd be playing the master tapes to my friends. What was amazing was the amount of practice that the group put in. They were dedicated and musically the standard they achieved was right up there with the top guys in the world. They lifted the tempo and that makes the rock very exciting. It was electric when you saw them play.

COLUMBUS: Zodiac were ahead of their time. Sort of like Sun Records really.

Noisy rock 'n' roll

RUSSELL: Crowds were getting bigger so we got louder. Most things had to be played triple forte just to be heard. We would have our Fender Twin Amps cranked to the max with the treble blazing. Then when we returned from those early jaunts to Australia the music was getting dirtier, Stones, Pretty Things, R&B. The bright sounding Strats made way for grungy Les Pauls. It had to be noisy and the more noise, the better.

KRISTIAN: We were pretty loud. Roy Orbison reckoned we were the loudest band in the world. He said we were louder than the Beatles, and louder, in a different way, from the Rolling Stones. We were a clean sounding band, like the Shadows, but we had a bit of kick-arse rock stuff going on.

COLUMBUS: The guys were such great players, Dave Russell and Wally Scott were brilliant guitarists, Billy Kristian is still one of the greatest bass players in the world, and Jimmy was a great drummer. We were blessed.

Next stop Australia

KRISTIAN: I was in New Caledonia for two months working in cabaret where a lot of Maori showbands used to go and I got a phone call from Ray [in late 1963] saying he'd fired his bass player and would I join. They were a great band, they had the Shadows sound, and I was into the Shadows. The first show I played with Ray Columbus and the Invaders was Surf City [in Sydney]. It was just a picture theatre painted black with screaming girls. It was exciting stuff.

COLUMBUS: Eldred [Stebbing] saw the chance, bought our air tickets, we flew over, and from then on we did it. We were a typical rock band. We believed in ourselves. I was out knocking on doors. And it worked. Timing is everything and Eldred would always back us.

STEBBING: They had the goods. When my father went to Australia with them he had them in a cheap hotel for two weeks. He got nowhere with John Harrigan from Surf City. Then after two weeks somebody fell sick and Harrigan said, "Well, we're not going to pay you but you can play". My father and Ray got all the [radio] DJs, and the television shows of the time along, paying for their taxis, and got them to listen to them that way. Like I say, they had the goods, and they sold it.

COLUMBUS: I'd go out with my briefcase every morning and attach myself to a phone somewhere and call everybody: television, radio and magazines. I would call up and say, "It's Ray Columbus. I've got the greatest band in the world". They would say, "Don't be a bloody bighead". Word must've got around because one day I gate-crashed a press conference for a country singer who was returning from Nashville. I walked in, ponced around the place trying to latch on to people, and I had to go to the loo. I was standing at the urinal and right next to me a very famous voice says, "Hi, how ya going?". It was John Laws, the biggest guy in radio. He said, "Who are you then?", "My name's Ray Columbus". "Oh, I've heard of you," he said. Of course, I'd phoned him thousands of times and left messages. He said, "Come and see me tomorrow". Slowly things started to happen. Ku Pow had already been a hit on the surf scene there, I Wanna Be Your Man had done pretty well, and we were trying to get She's A Mod off the ground.

She's A Mod (released June, 1964)

RUSSELL: Back in the 60s the NZ record companies would get a tonne of songs from their mother companies in the US and Britain. Terry Beale and the Senators' She's A Mod was one of those in the not-to-be released pile. We were given it by our record company and the rest is history. It was the perfect single for us, image wise, pop song-wise.

KRISTIAN: It was a song we had never heard and it sounded good. In fact, I still have the original demo.

Conquering Australia

COLUMBUS: We played [radio station] 2UW's kids' dance and it was full of schoolgirls. We wore our best outfits, black satin suits, and we were all quiffed up, and from the moment I started dancing and the guys started shaking their heads, the girls just went crazy. Of course the Beatles thing was just happening, but these schoolgirls had not been exposed to anything like that. They mobbed us, chased us up Castleway St, and we had to take refuge in bars. From that night 2UW started playing She's A Mod, and then everyone started playing it, and it went into the charts.

RUSSELL: We didn't really think about it that much. It was just another boys' adventure. We had already had the Christchurch to Auckland adventure and now it was overseas to Sydney, the really big smoke.

COLUMBUS: The screaming was great. The only trouble was we didn't have foldback because it hadn't been invented yet. So you'd have screaming fans at the front, a loud band at the back, and you couldn't hear yourself sing.

The Rolling Stones tour, 1965

RUSSELL: We were on our way down from having our No 1 in October 64 with She's A Mod and the Stones/Roy Orbison tour kicked off in January 1965. Both the Stones and Roy knew this so even though we were the local support band we received a certain amount of respect from them. My fondest memory would have to be a hotel room jam with Mick Jagger and Larry Henley [of the Newbeats] and I thrashing out 'da blues on Brian Jones' 12-string acoustic.

COLUMBUS: Brian Jones would ring me up about 11 in the morning and he'd say, "Do you want some bubbles?". I'd never heard of the expression and I said, "Oh all right". I'd go next door and Brian was in a bubble bath covered in bubbles, drinking pink Champagne. I'd have pink Champagne with Brian and some of the crew. We all became pretty good friends. Keith and Mick were pretty hard to get close to but I was enjoying the company of Brian, Bill Wyman, and Larry Henley. Larry is still my best friend and the Stones actually made us blood brothers at the end of the tour - they slashed our wrists and made us blood brothers - because we had become such close friends. That tour cemented the whole thing. By that time we were huge.

KRISTIAN: I did two tours with the Rolling Stones. One with Ray Columbus and the Invaders in 1965. Then Jimmy Hill and I went and joined Max Merritt and the Meteors in '66, and that was my second time with the Stones. We already knew Bill Wyman and Stu, one of the roadies, and we had a good friendship the second time round. That's when Bill Wyman gave me the first Vox Teardrop bass ever built. I still have it and it stays in its case.

Till We Kissed (released mid-1965)

COLUMBUS: I love She's A Mod but I will always be immeasurably proud of Till We Kissed as a record because of the way the guys did the rhythm section, which was very much based on Motown, where they played melodies, and I was trying to do the Righteous Brothers. Billy played slap bass, and then there's the timpani intro where Billy's holding down the foot pedal to hit the perfect pitch while Jimmy hits it. It comes up perfect.

STEBBING: There was only a single door from the garage into the studio, and during the recording of Till We Kissed of course we couldn't record the timpani because it wouldn't fit through the door so we had to record it out in the garage.

End of an era, 1965

RUSSELL: I think, apart from the Rolling Stones, [being in a band] was a short-term thing. For us, survival was about gigging. We had done the rounds in both NZ and Australia, and by now more bands were vying for gigs, we were all married and our responsibilities were growing with us. The only thing left was the US market and by this time we did have the US contacts that pledged to be behind Ray Columbus and the Invaders. Unfortunately, working visas to the US were a no-no. After Billy Kristian and Jimmy Hill found this out they buzzed off to join Max's Meteors in Aussie. For a while I continued with Ray until Ray eventually landed a US visa, because his wife's father was American, and he went to live in San Francisco.

COLUMBUS: The band had tried to get work visas after we had big hits in Australia and New Zealand, and they turned us down, because the consular general said, "We need teachers and nurses, not musicians". I knew I could get a green card but I actually didn't want to go without the group. When Billy and Jimmy decided to leave the band and go to Australia because they thought they could make more money I wasn't even vaguely interested.

The legacy

RUSSELL: I would like to think because we left all those firsts behind us, that our adventures opened many doors for the bands that followed. All of us have proudly been ambassadors for NZ music and the talented artists and musicians our small country has produced.

KRISTIAN: We broke the Australian market. That was a big thing. But we were just having a good time. I think we would have all liked to be successful overseas, like the Stones, but it's hard to do from a small country. We just did our thing, had a good time, and it lasted as long as it lasted. That happens to all bands really. Unless you're the Rolling Stones.

COLUMBUS: The group brought musicality and I had this born and bred thing to be an entertainer and to actually do a show - because it was show business. Rehearsals were the hard work, the shows were fun. Go on stage and have a ball. I think that's why we were so successful, because people could feel that whenever we went on stage we were having fun.

- NZ Herald

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