When Ray Woolf ran wild

By Scott Kara

Actor, singer and ex-rocker Ray Woolf relives his 60s heyday with a re-release of his back catalogue, some of which he struggled to remember.

Ray Woolf is looking back to his sixties hits. Photo / Ben Fraser
Ray Woolf is looking back to his sixties hits. Photo / Ben Fraser

Most people know Ray Woolf as the tuxedo-wearing showman of the 70s and 80s. The one with the beaming smile, the show hands, often being fawned over by a bunch of chorus girls. These days he's to be seen in Nothing Trivial as the dad of Shane Cortese's Mac, as well being a stage musical regular and cabaret/jazz singer. But back before he became Mr Showbiz and a regular feature on the country's TV screens, Woolf was a 60s pop and rock 'n' roll star.

And a new 28-track album of his songs from that era, Ray Woolf - The Sixties Collection, is about to be released.

Funny thing is, Woolf struggled to remember with much clarity what his prolific recording career - not to mention his busy gigging schedule - was like during that time.

"It was all a bit of a mystery to me too, because it was 40, 50 years ago," he laughs. That was until music historian and album producer Grant Gillanders started unearthing many Woolf tracks that even he'd forgotten.

"When Grant came up with the idea, I didn't really take much notice. I thought, 'well, maybe they'll find 10 or 12 tracks - and how the hell are they going to sound after all this time anyway?' But then they found 30 tracks. I couldn't believe it."

The album is dominated by a mix of pop, soul, rhythm and blues, and rock 'n' roll tunes including Ray Woolf and the Avengers' first single La La Lies from 1967, the beautiful pop whimsy of Crystal Ball, and his version of It's The Same Old Song, which does the Four Tops proud.

But perhaps the biggest gem of all is heavy psych-rock tune, Little Things That Happen, also recorded with the Avengers in 1967. Let's just say it's not something you'd expect from Ray Woolf.

As well as being on the album, it is also getting reissued as a seven-inch vinyl single with La La Lies on the B-side.

"I honestly didn't remember the song," says Woolf with a laugh. He had to be played it to jog his memory. "I think it came out of a time and I still can't remember where but we were at a house and we spent the whole day listening to Jimi Hendrix. I think when we got back to Auckland a week or so later and went into the studio, that influenced that song."

That song, and a similarly cosmic track called Bengal Tiger, which he recorded with 60s psychedelic freaks The Brew, shows just how diverse Woolf's musical repertoire was during this decade.

"It was an amazing time of change," he says of the 60s, "and music was obviously a big part of it for us and maybe that's why we chopped and changed with all sorts of genres of music. We were all over the place, I've been through so many different moods and changes musically."

Despite Woolf's fears the old songs might sound shoddy, they "came up pretty good" after being remastered at Stebbing Studios in Auckland. This, in a way, took things full circle for Woolf because it was the late Eldred Stebbing who helped launch his career in New Zealand in 1962.

But more on that soon, because it was a 17-year-old Woolf who got himself his initial break into the industry. The story goes that soon after his family emigrated to Auckland from Essex ("they felt like a change; Mum had a couple of relations out here") young Ray hit the town.

"I was pretty sure of myself is one way of putting it," he says. "When you're that age you're pretty stiff and staunch and I was fairly determined in what I wanted to do."

And inspired by his love of rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues, and skiffle music - "Lonnie Donegan blew me away when I was a kid. I remember seeing him on black and white TV and he almost jumped out of the television he had so much energy" - he went to the Oriental Ballroom in Symonds St to see the Keil Isles play and asked the band if he could sing a few songs.

They said yes and he was asked back the next week - which was when Stebbing first heard Woolf.

"From there we signed up and started making records and all that sort of stuff."

They also hit the road, with Woolf's Saturdays taken up with three performances. Stebbing would pick him up in his Ford Fairlane ("he always used to import these flash cars. I think it was probably a 61, or 62 Fairlane") and the pair would do a round trip from Auckland to play Te Kuiti, Te Awamutu, and Hamilton all in one night.

Later in 1962 he hit the road with British singer Helen Shapiro, and the two young singers had a hoot on tour, though Woolf got into trouble with Stebbing for getting "sloshed" a couple of times.

In Gillanders' album liner notes, Woolf recounts: "For my punishment I was relegated from Eldred's Fairlane to the tour bus, which was a lot more fun."

His rise happened very quickly, with Stebbing having Woolf on the "teenage idol pop trail", playing numerous gigs and recording eight singles for his Zodiac label, including Just Like Eddie with the Invaders (minus Ray Columbus) as his backing band. But while it got his career off to a flying start Woolf wasn't ready for it and took time off.

"I was uncomfortable with that situation and once I got back into a band in '64 I felt much more comfortable and [that] this was where I should be, rather than charging round the country doing three gigs on a Saturday night.

"And in the end," he resolves, "I think I was a bit too hard to manage, a bit too full of myself, and we parted ways."

When he got back into music he started the next phase of his 60s musical experience with the Newsounds, who played a mix of soul and rhythm and blues, and later the Avengers, which Gillanders refers to fittingly as Woolf's "late-60s paisleyed mod" period.

By the end of the 60s, and with a family to support, Woolf had made the move on to the cabaret circuit and was starting to make regular money.

"Which hadn't happened throughout the 60s because it had been pretty piecemeal," he says.

Then his television career took off, with shows like Happen In, Playschool, and The Ray Woolf Show, among others.

"It was all about keeping the money coming in rather than looking at a career path as such. But having these [60s] songs out there, as time has gone by my wife and I have been saying, 'wow, this is getting serious'. My recording career since the 60s has been very sparse. I did one album with the Roger Fox Big Band, which is a great album. But [this new album] is a real buzz. It's huge."

Lowdown
Who:
Ray Woolf

What: The 60s pop and rock star who later became Mr Showbiz

Listen to: Ray Woolf - The Sixties Collection, out soon. Also available seven-inch vinyl single, Little Things That Happen/La La Lies.

Playing: Pt Chevalier RSA, Sept 4, from 7.30pm; Golden Dawn, Ponsonby Rd, Sept 6, from 8pm

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