Christchurch born-and-bred, Murray Wood began playing piano at the age of five, and at 11, had launched rock’n’roll band Murray and the Puppets with his only sister Lynda. Soon after, he began assembling amplifiers after school for a company in Christchurch.
In 1972 he started an epic residency at a local hotel the White Heron (over the years, a number of famed Kiwi musicians would join in with the band on Sunday nights). The 18-year residency roughly paralleled Wood’s time working for the state broadcaster. Wood began in television by performing on some of the NZ Broadcasting Corporation’s talent and variety shows.
Promoted to become a TVNZ musical director by the early 80s, his wide-ranging instrumental talents proved invaluable. Wood composed or arranged music for most of the productions coming out of Christchurch, including a weekly musical number for the long-running McPhail and Gadsby. He often played piano and keyboards. Director/producer John Lye, who writes about his memories of Wood below, says that overseas musicians on international hit That’s Country often ended up preferring Wood’s arrangements, to the work of their own bands. Wood also composed the theme music for kidult classic It is I, Count Homogenized, and for many years took on the sizable task of handling music for the Christchurch broadcasts of Telethon.
He was also a longtime musical director and producer for country singer Suzanne Prentice. She later paid tribute to the "huge part" Wood played in her career, and mentioned as an example of his generosity, the Steinway piano he donated to a Christchurch music conservatory.
Wood's interest in synthesizers and technology would lead him to launch successful sales company MagnumMac, and co-found national technology-training college Nat Col. After selling MagnumMac (now Yoobee) he moved to Canterbury Television, where he would spend seven years as managing director, and continue to apply his musical skills.
Following the quake of February 22 2011, Wood was one of 115 people to die in the collapse of the CTV Building. A Government report released the following year revealed that the building failed to meet building standards from when it had been built in 1986.
Fundraising concert the Flaxton Festival was renamed Flaxwood in honour of Wood, who was to have been the festival’s musical director.
Producer John Lye remembers Murray Wood:
My first recollections of Murray are from my early days working at the Christchurch CHTV-3 Studios in Gloucester Street — now sadly gone forever. The first time I worked with Murray on a regular basis would have been on the That’s Country and McPhail and Gadsby series which I produced and directed during the 1980s.
Murray was the consummate musician; his virtuoso instrument was the piano and later the electronic keyboard. But he could make music with anything.
He was the musical director and keyboard player for all seven series of That’s Country. His ability as an arranger was such that several of the guest performers from America and Australia preferred his arrangements of their songs, rather than their own recorded versions – high praise. Unsure of the quality of Kiwi musicians, several guests insisted on bringing their own lead musicians with them (Americans Stella Parton and Ed Bruce spring to mind). But always when it came to show time, they would ask for Murray’s That’s Country band to back them.
One American performer whose name I cannot recall was a virtuoso harmonica player who wanted a saxophonist to accompany him on a particular number. There were only two in Christchurch at that time who could play in the required “country style”, and they were both busy that night.
Saxophone and bagpipes were probably the only instruments Murray did not play. Undaunted, he borrowed a sax, learned the difficult piece overnight and had the audience rocking in the aisles when they played the harmonica/saxophone duet. The guest said it was the most fun he had ever had on stage!
On another programme featuring Malcolm McNeill and Beaver, the Cole Porter number ‘Riverboat Shuffle’ had a particularly fast and furious piano solo in it. The pianist was the late Dave Fraser, a very accomplished musician. Dave couldn’t get his fingers around the keyboard quickly enough and had to drop out some notes. Murray, who was in the backing band, had one rehearsal, and managed to nail it.
Every one of the 109 episodes of McPhail and Gadsby featured a musical segment, usually a parody of a current event set to some well known song. Murray’s challenge was to retain the familiarity of the original music at the same time as keeping us out of copyright court. Not an easy task, but he always managed to achieve it. Because of their complexity, the musical segments were usually pre-recorded and Murray was always there to make sure the integrity of his arrangements was upheld. He coached the vocalists, played several instruments, then supervised the final sound mix.
One occasion I remember well: I was with Murray in his “studio” — or rather his living room — working on a musical number for McPhail and Gadsby. I wanted a big ending to the song. Murray, always willing to oblige, plugged in his new synthesizer, and played an enormous chord. Not big enough I said.
OK try this ... still not enough — give me more. He did — several times, but still I wanted more. Finally he leaned back from the keyboard and said quietly but firmly “there’s 12 bloody symphony orchestras playing that – I can’t give you any more.”
The times I spent making music with Murray Wood were some of the happiest and most memorable in my broadcasting career. He was more than a fantastic musician – he was a superb technician and sound engineer. He had perfect pitch, could sing well and play most instruments. He enjoyed a good joke and sometimes a “bad” one as well.
I spoke to Murray only a few weeks before the dreadful event that took his life. By now he was the boss at CTV. We talked about old times and how the industry was not so much fun these days, and of his big plans for the future. He also told me — after a large truck had rumbled past outside — that the CTV building was shaking a lot these days and hadn’t felt right since September 4. I miss him.