Ray Columbus was won over by rock'n'roll while selling ice creams at Christchurch's Avon Theatre. He began working there age nine. The job allowed him to imitate and "absorb the very latest images and sounds" seen on screen — Elvis in Love Me Tender and Jailhouse Rock, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. "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."
From the age of 14, Columbus began putting together bands. Around 1960 he was offered the lead vocalist job for dance group The Downbeats. As the group's line-up changed, their sound edged closer to rock'n'roll, partly thanks to the influence of American servicemen in the audience.
Columbus debuted on Christchurch television in 1961, performing solo on early light entertainment showcase Time Out for Talent. American producer John Nash suggested Columbus might host a new show; but he thought the band need to change their name. The following February the newly-minted Ray Columbus and the Invaders began fronting four episodes of Club Columbus, which was syndicated throughout the country. Columbus was 19.
Keen to move into behind the scenes work, he was advised by Christchurch station head Peter Nesbit to stay on screen in the meantime; because "the camera likes you". Whether as host or performer, Columbus would be a staple part of local music and variety shows for at least the next two decades, including the popular C'mon, which went live to air, Sing, Happen Inn and That's Country. The Invaders also cameoed in John O'Shea's moody 1964 feature Runaway.
After catching the Invaders in concert, Howard Morrison encouraged the group to go to Auckland. "He was the one who gave me the confidence to go in, boots and all," Columbus told Herald writer Scott Kara. Eighteen months later the band had taken Auckland by storm, and topped charts on both sides of the Tasman. Their success was partly thanks to the showmanship of Columbus, matching zoot suits, and pink Fender guitars — not to mention their embrace of the American rhythm and blues sound, shortly to conquer the planet thanks to The Beatles.
Columbus proposed a stint in Australia. On arrival he and Zodiac Records boss Eldred Stebbing began contacting television, radio and magazines. Said Columbus: "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'." The Invaders appeared on Australian shows Bandstand and Sing Sing Sing. When they returned home in February 1964, their fourth single, a cover of Lennon and McCartney track 'I Wanna Be Your Man' had entered the Australian Top 40, the first time a NZ recording charted overseas.
Sixth single 'She's a Mod' did even better, as a Kiwi band finally topped the Australian charts. Initially the song, a remake of a track by Brit band The Senators, made little noise in New Zealand. Columbus perfected his own 'mod's nod', and audiences went wild. A lipsynched performance, originally shot for Bandstand, helped the contagion spread; Columbus persuaded the director to let him keep the dance in. 'She's a Mod' has now been remade at least four times — including a punk version, another by the Mint Chicks, and a chart-topping 1990 collaboration with rappers Double J and Twice the T.
In 1965 The Invaders toured New Zealand alongside Roy Orbison and The Rolling Stones. Invaders guitarist Billy Kristian recalled Orbison labelling The Invaders "the loudest band in the world". Their wall-of-sound version of 'Till We Kissed' proved their biggest hit, winning the first Loxene Golden Disc Award in 1965. But by year's end The Invaders were no more. Debut solo outing The Ray Columbus Album appeared the following year.
As Columbus writes in his autobiography, two years in San Francisco saw him bringing more of his own personality into performing, turning down a faustian Mafia-inspired offer to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, and recording alongside r&b band The Art Collection. The band were once ordered off stage during an encore by headliners The Animals.
After mulling over offers to work on American television shows, Columbus returned home to work on C'mon, and host A Girl to Watch Music By, a show which concentrated on local female singers. During this period, together with entertainment legend Phil Warren, he began managing, recording and sometimes composing for varied late 60s acts — including The Chicks and popular C'mon singer Shane.
Columbus was also continuing to release his own material. His self-penned single 'Happy In A Sad Kind Of Way' got to number six in the Kiwi charts. Four years later the anti-nuclear title track from album Jangles, Spanners and Banners saw him sharing an APRA songwriting award with pianist Mike Harvey.
His solo recordings were collected in a 1974 greatest hits album, and on 2004 CD Ray Columbus - The Solo Years. In 1974 Columbus he was made an OBE (an Officer of the Order of the British Empire), and appointed to the board of the QE11 Arts Council.
With the birth of a second TV channel, Columbus fronted musical comedy series My Name is Ray Columbus. As he says in this interview, negative reviews saw it canned after five episodes. The public later voted it the year's best light entertainment show. Though Columbus still had talent show Ray Columbus Presents, he was starting to cut back on his TV appearances (which had at one point numbered 140 in a single year). Columbus later told the Sunday Star-Times that "too much television exposure affects record sales, it affects credibility." Behind the scenes, he was continuing the "de facto" talent scouting he'd begun doing for the NZBC; he was talent co-ordinator for contestants appearing on Opportunity Knocks, and negotiated deals with overseas performers guesting on local shows.
Asked by producer Tom Parkinson to host That's Country, the formerly country-shy singer agreed so long as the show featured a broad range of sub-genres, and played in a variety format. Over seven years, the high-rating programme showcased many local and international acts. A primetime hit on Saturday nights at home, That's Country played three times weekly on America's TNN cable network — at least until, as he said, "Robert Muldoon makes a political football out of the show and axes us".
Two decades later, a pair of That's Country DVD/CD highlights packages proved a hit, as did a live tour in 2012, featuring Columbus and many of the show's original Kiwi stars. The tour had been put back after the death of That's Country musical director Murray Wood in the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Columbus also toured NZ with performers from late 60s series C'mon (as chronicled in documentary C'mon: on the Road Again). The success of the tour spawned further 'best of the era' style shows on both sides of the Tasman.
In 2009, Ray Columbus and the Invaders were presented with The Legacy Award at the New Zealand Music Awards, and inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame. Two years later Columbus provided many new angles on his life story, with the release of his book Ray Columbus - The Modfather.
Columbus had a heart attack in 2004 and a stroke in 2008 — he told NZPA he was lucky to survive the latter. In this 2010 interview, he spoke passionately of being a "TV animal", and still loving the medium in his 68th year. Columbus finally passed away on 29 November 2016, after extended battles over immunity issues. The tributes included a number of musicians who talked of his generous support.
Profile written by Ian Pryor
Updated on 29 August 2018
Ray Columbus and Margie Thomson, Ray Columbus - The Modfather. The life and times of a rock'n'roll pioneer (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2011)
Ray Columbus website (broken link). Accessed 2 July 2013
'Ray Columbus - creator of the Mod's Nod' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Uploaded 21 September 2011. Accessed 29 August 2018
Murray Cammick, 'Ray Columbus and the Invaders'. Audioculture website. Loaded 20 November 2013. Accessed 29 August 2018
Tom Cardy, 'Ray Columbus a country music convert' (Interview) - The Dominion Post, 16 March 2012
Karl du Fresne, ‘Keeping a Low Profile’ (Interview) in TV People (Wellington: INL Print, 1978)
David Gadd and Mike Alexander, 'Musician Ray Columbus has died at 74' Stuff website. Loaded 29 November 2016. Accessed 29 August 2018
Anthony Hubbard, 'Ray Columbus: no regrets' (Interview) - The Sunday Star-Times, 26 June 2011
Scott Kara, 'The Ray Columbus Story' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 8 October 2009
'Stroke nearly killed me: Ray Columbus' (NZPA Interview, broken link) TV3 website. Loaded 2 October 2008. Accessed 2 July 2013