Ray Columbus always had the last word - even for Gerry Brownlee
OPINION: I liked Ray Columbus. He was a real gentleman, but he had a wild, rock 'n roll streak and a great sense of humour, too.
Why don't we give more space to the elder statesmen and women who helped weave our nation's rich musical history?
With this in mind, over the last 10 years or so, I'd often sought Ray out to hear his stories. I had some grand ideas about keeping them safe for a generation that might want to hear them.
Luckily for me, Ray was always generous with his time and shared many memories of his experiences in the New Zealand music scene.
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We didn't talk often, maybe once or twice a year, but when we talked it was for hours.
He had achieved a lot but he wasn't up himself about it. I liked him all the more for that.
Whenever we spoke, Ray always liked to have the last word.
"Man plans, God laughs," I'd hear a voice say down the phone and it would be Ray, face down on a treatment table at the doctor, ready to share some memories.
He liked that saying very much. It pleased him.
"I've got an hour on this doctor's table, let's chat," he'd say and I'd scramble for my voice recorder.
I always wondered what the medical expert treating him thought of our conversations where he'd regale me with tales of his youth in Christchurch.
It seemed like a foreign land to me. Milk bars? Putting a crease down the middle of your jeans? Buying records from American servicemen?
In turn, usually with hilarious consequences, I attempted to explain such concepts as memes and dabbin' to Ray.
"In the 60s I was known for the way I moved my head," he said earlier this year in response to my dabbin' explanation. "I'm not moving my arm like that now."
On February 1, 1965, Christchurch's Isaac Theatre Royal shook to The Rolling Stones and Roy Orbison.
Opening acts were The Detours, Ray Columbus and the Invaders and the Newbeats.
Ray had a lot of time for members of The Rolling Stones and I know that they too respected him.
Ray Columbus and The Invaders was the first winner of a New Zealand Music Award for its 60s hit Til We Kissed. Formed in Christchurch in 1959 as Ray Columbus and The Drifters, the band moved to Auckland in 1962, changing from Drifters to Invaders in the process. The band took the Auckland scene by storm and within two years had their first hit, She's A Mod.
While Ray would talk about his health problems he didn't complain.
"My own personal earthquakes," he once said of his many debilitating strokes.
I'll always remember standing next to him and Dinah Lee at the 2010 Band Together concert in Christchurch.
I got the feeling that I'd been left to "deal with the oldies" but, listening to them chat, it quickly became clear to me that those two were the most rock 'n roll people backstage. After all, Dinah once toured London with a young David Bowie. Ray was smoking by the time he was a 6-year-old, a habit he later came to disdain.
Ray went through a lot during his 74 years on Earth. His book, Ray Columbus: The Modfather - The Life and Times of a Rock 'n' Roll Pioneer, is well worth reading.
During their careers, both Ray and Dina had been presented with keys to Christchurch and I stood between them at Band Together as they discussed where they kept them in their homes.
"I don't have a key to the city," I said somewhat awkwardly, when they both turned to look at me.
Ray flashed a smile and patted my hand the way a grandfather might.
"I have a feeling one day you might get a key," he said. "Christchurch is a special place that will always be home to me. Of all my awards getting that key was very important."
Later, I watched Ray as he left the stage. Ever the perfectionist, he was disappointed with his performance. Most people recovering from a major stroke wouldn't dream of getting on stage to sing in front of more than 100,000 people. But Ray did it because he wanted to do his part and sing for the city which shaped him.
Despite his ill health, Ray kept a keen eye on the Christchurch music scene and worked in the background helping many with their careers.
Once, after I posted him a vinyl copy of the Lyttelton Records 2012 album Sad But True – The Secret History of Country Music Songwriting Volume 1 by Delaney Davidson and Marlon Williams, Ray sent me a text expressing his delight.
I knew he liked the album because it always struck me that he didn't like to use text messaging unless he had to.
He was very fond of Delaney Davidson's music and gentlemanly approach to his career and the pair struck up a friendship.
"I nicknamed him Del, like Del Shannon."
When Ray described the Lyttelton music scene as: "the Seattle of the south" in an interview, some scoffed.
But, judging by the worldwide success of the likes of multiple award-winning Marlon Wiliams, Ray may well yet be proved correct.
I know Ray was proud that Marlon will be supporting Bruce Springsteen at his Christchurch concert in February.
Ray always liked to have the last word.
For that reason, when we did our last interview together earlier this year (and somehow I knew it was the last time we'd talk and I cried after I'd hung up the phone), I promised him I wouldn't write this until he'd gone.
In 2013, I wrote a story about Christchurch talent quest stars the Manetti Brothers, Gerry Brownlee and former schoolmate Richard Holden.
The pair performed a unique mix of country and western and jazz cover songs around Christchurch bars from 1980 to 1986.
Towards the end of their career, the Manetti Brothers auditioned in front of Ray Columbus for a TV show.
"He subtly told us we were crap," Brownlee told me in 2013.
He went on to describe the audition as a "cock-up" on Columbus's part.
"It was the most appalling thing. We went to the second floor of the now demolished TVNZ building to audition," said Brownlee.
"Ray Columbus was there, very small he was. I had to look down to see him, and he said 'show us what you've got'. We only got a little way through our act and he said 'that's enough, you guys'. I'm not bitter about it but it was a cock-up in my opinion."
Oh how Ray laughed when I read Brownlee's quote to him.
That year, Brownlee's "cock up" quote made the top 10 quotes of the year list.
"All right," Ray eventually agreed when I suggested he should have right of reply. "But you can only print this response when I'm gone."
As I said, Ray did always like to have the last word.
"I may be short, Mr Brownlee, but at least I could sing."