At the upcoming Apra Silver Scrolls Awards three hugely important, yet largely unknown, figures will be inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame for the part they played in the production of the historic song Blue Smoke.

Songwriter Ruru Karaitiana, vocalist Pixie Williams and lap-steel guitarist Jim Carter will all be honoured at the ceremony on Wednesday, October 2, at Spark Arena.

Blue Smoke's importance to New Zealand music can't be overstated. It is the first local song that was ever recorded, manufactured and released here.

Essentially, it was the first local pop song. Even if it's not as recognisable now as it perhaps should be.


And although these days it's possible to record a No. 1 hit in your bedroom with just your laptop, it hasn't always been so easy for New Zealanders to get their music out around the country, let alone the world.

The story behind Blue Smoke is inspirational. Karaitiana, a dance-band pianist, wrote the song on board the troop ship Aquitania in 1940 as he travelled across the Indian Ocean with the Maori Battalion in World War II.

On deck, a sergeant commented on the smoke pouring out of the ship's funnels behind them that it was, "going the right way - back to New Zealand". The line inspired Karaitiana who said, "he put the song in my lap," and wrote the lyrics within half an hour. Two days later he performed Blue Smoke for the first time on the ship.

The troops loved it and it became a regular singalong for the Maori Battalion, eventually being performed by the Maori Battalion's dance band, the RNZAF band and Dunedin's Dick Colvin Orchestra. Karaitiana also continued performing it when he returned home in 1943.

The song was selected to be recorded, manufactured and released by the record label Tanza, an acronym for To Assist NZ Artists, although how it came to decide on Blue Smoke as its first release remains unknown.

Despite Karaitiana writing the song on the piano, he wanted the recording to have a more exotic Hawaiian feel, which is how Carter got involved. His lilting gentle playing wafts through like the tune's titular smoke.

Through a stroke of luck, Karaitiana's girlfriend had heard 19-year-old Williams singing at a Wellington hostel. Before appearing on record her singing had been restricted to hostel singalongs and the showers. The song introduced her to the world.

Blue Smoke was an instant hit, selling "at least" 50,000 copies, a remarkable achievement then and even now. The song resonated beyond New Zealand and musicians around the world began covering it. The most famous of these was the legendary singer and rat pack member Dean Martin, who found the song so inspiring he even called Karaitiana in Dannevirke from the States to ask if he had any more songs available.


New Zealand music historian Chris Bourke describes Blue Smoke as "a big-bang moment" in our musical history.

"For a delicate song, Blue Smoke carries a lot of weight," he says. "It was a massive hit. And it marks the real birth of New Zealand's indigenous record industry".