I was a fan of the Howard Morrison Quartet from the moment I heard their record on my homemade crystal set.
When I saw their screen debut on AKTV2 and then saw them play on CHTV3 (Christchurch) in 1962 they were even better than their records. New Zealand's Platters I thought: silver sharkskin suits, slicked back hair, Gerry's comedy, Noel's Bass, Wi's alto. And then the handsome, smooth Howard fronting them as lead vocalist, with his soaring tenor and tongue-in-cheek smile. A star was here!
In 1963 the Quartet were starring at the Majestic Theatre in Showtime Spectacular. We — Ray Columbus & The Invaders — were playing two shows a night across the road at The Plainsman, a nightclub catering mostly to US servicemen from Operation Deep Freeze [the US Antarctic programme].
Howard and the boys were looking for somewhere to go after their show to wind down. They asked John Hart, the manager of the Majestic, and he told them about my group and the The Plainsman. Howard and his entourage came over and caught our late show. Timing is everything in the world of show business, and after we performed Howard came backstage (well side-stage actually) and told me that I had to take the group to Auckland 'cos we'd "kill 'em" ...
He was so generous in his praise I was stoked. We already had an offer to go north and I followed it up the next day. Why would Howard — a big star in New Zealand — give such a step up to another group who might be competition for the same dollar in the future?
Anyway I took the advice. His prediction was correct and within 18 months we were number one in Australia and New Zealand. I told that story on [TV tribute] To Sir With Love because I wanted it known, and I wasn't able to perform as my singing voice wasn't well enough after my stroke. As our mutual friend Max Cryer says, “always remember who helped you on the way up”. In other words: pay your dues.
Since 1962 Howard and I have been very dear friends. We never lived in each other's pockets, but there was mutual respect and, certainly on my part, admiration. He was a master entertainer and I agree with what Max said in his book Town Cryer — that Howard could have been a star anywhere he chose (besides Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines etc, where he was).
His voice, humour, ability to ad-lib, his X-factor brand (which I think was iwi based) ... made him unique anywhere.
There were so many magic moments where we connected. We both were awarded the Order Of The British Empire (OBE) within a year of each other, and were invited to john the board of the Sir Robert Kerridge Foundation in 1975/76. I waited in the lobby of the hotel where we had arranged to meet before the first board meeting, when a voice that I knew could only be Howie's said in my ear, “bookends again eh Master?” ... as always he cracked me up.
By then I had been onstage countless times with The Master. Sometimes officially and mostly spontaneously. One night in Auckland after I had finished my show, I crept into the audience at Tommo's Place, the cabaret at The Station Hotel where Howard (and I) often performed. I loved catching his act because it was never the same twice.
He must have cracked a joke, and I laughed. As my wife Linda often says “Ray’s not quiet!” Howard hushed the crowd and said, "Columbus is here, point him out!" I was sprung, and once again took the stage as part of his act, unrehearsed, for at least a half hour. By then OBE had became 'Overly Beige Entertainers', and of course we milked it for all it was worth.
Whenever I was officially there for his shows he would phone me and say, "be there!" I always was. The last time was 18th August 2009 for his birthday special on TV One's Good Morning show. He called me a few days before and told me what was happening; “be there!” was the order.
So I had a few days to get my voice up to scratch. I adapted Fred Neill's ‘Everbody's Talking’; changing a few lines. “You've been a star for most of your life.” I was pleased to see a smile and I believe, a tear, on that noble face.
I was proud to be there. Earlier during the show (filmed live) I was crouched down next to his seat and I whispered, “it's going great Howie”. His retort? “That's because I'm in control.” “Damn right”, I added.
That sums up The Man. He was his own man. Especially onstage, and in taking charge of his career. Lady Kuia was always in charge behind the scenes. There were many times I wanted to tell him to get up to Primary Heartcare at 524 Parnell Road for some EECP treatment (google it), as I was concerned for his wellbeing. I had at least three calls about his 'passing' from radio, months before he actually died.
But one didn't tell Sir Howard what to do. After the last birthday show we were sitting in the Koru Lounge at Wellington Airport: Lady Kuia, daughter Donna and Howard Jnr were there. I noticed there was black gaffer tape around his ankles. “What's that for Howie?” He pulled his trousers up a bit more and I was horrified to see bandages up to his knees.
“Oh they won't operate on my knees ...” He’d just had his hips done, so I wasn’t surprised. I should have said (it's so smart to be clever in retrospect) “I can get you EECP therapy — it'll help your healing in the hips and help your knees too”. But the subject was closed. I missed my moment. I've never carried regrets around as baggage in my life but I would have liked to have another shot at that moment, knowing what I do now.
A few days later Chas Toogood was shooting a feature on me after The Invaders and I were presented with the NZ Herald Legacy Award. The interview was for TV One’s Sunday current affairs show. Chas told me Sir Howard had agreed to talk to Ian Sinclair about me for the segment.
I talked to Chas a day or so before; he said he had spoken via phone to Sir H, and he’d sounded pretty tired having just flown back from Rarotonga. “Are you up to this Sir Howard?” Chas enquired, and The Man said “yes, I want to do this for Ray”.
I'll take that with me to my grave. The next day Chas got a call in Matamata en route to Rotorua for the shoot. "Sir Howard Morrison had died in the night” I had had at least three calls that morning telling me the news. I hung up each time, thinking it was another mistake.
But sadly it wasn't. I couldn't talk to any reporters for days; such was my grief. I'm so glad we (Linda, Chas and I) went to the funeral. I was too sad for the tangi, but the funeral was wonderful.
My friend would have been so proud of his children and his whānau. They did him proud, and New Zealand mourned him for days ...
RIP Sir Howard Morrison.
Ray Columbus OBE, CM