After the Second World War Ruru Karaitiana’s song ‘Blue smoke’ provided a welcome-home theme for the returning troops, and later became the first all-New Zealand hit record. ‘These things are simply a matter of luck’, its composer later recalled. ‘We were on the troopship Aquitania in 1940 off the coast of Africa when a friend drew my attention to some passing smoke. He put the song in my lap. It was a natural’. Within a day or two Karaitiana had completed the lyric and melody in his head, and performed the song for a shipboard concert.
Born on 4 March 1909 near Dannevirke, Rangi Ruru Wānanga Karaitiana was a member of the Ngāti Mutuahi hapū of Rangitāne, and of Ngāti Kahungunu. He was the son of Hineiwhakaarahia Ngārāma Karaitiana and Heketā, and was raised by his elderly maternal grandparents, Wirihana Kaimokopuna Karaitiana and his wife, Irihaāeti Tūhokairangi, at Tahoraiti. He belonged to a prestigious family of Rangitāne chiefs who were among the first Māori in Hawke’s Bay to convert to Christianity. He was educated at St Joseph’s Convent School, Dannevirke, leaving when he was 12 to work as a seasonal labourer and musician. At 15 he played rugby for a Hawke’s Bay representative team, and he also boxed as a lightweight. He spoke Māori as his first language, but was fluent in English. Ruru had started piano lessons at the convent school and began performing at the age of six, when he played at Saturday night dances; he needed an apple box to reach the keys. Mostly self-taught, a decade later he was performing regularly with bands between Palmerston North and Wellington, variously playing the piano, trombone, ukulele or guitar.
During the war Karaitiana served in the Middle East as a private with the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion. He was hospitalised several times and eventually discharged as physically unfit. He led the battalion concert party, and was one of the few survivors of its 17-member choir. Back in New Zealand, in 1947 he assembled a quintet, and in October 1948 in Wellington they recorded a version of ‘Blue smoke’ with singer Pixie Williams. The backing music was Hawaiian-style, and instruments included guitars, ukulele and lap-steel guitar. The 78 rpm disc was the first record wholly produced in New Zealand from composition to pressing, and provided a début hit-seller for the New Zealand-owned TANZA (To Assist New Zealand Artists) record label. Although Karaitiana considered it ‘a poor first effort’, ‘Blue smoke’ topped New Zealand radio hit parades for six weeks, and sold more than 20,000 copies within a year.
The song attracted strong overseas interest. English duo Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth met Karaitiana and recorded a version. In the United States covers were released by Dean Martin, Al Morgan, Teddy Phillips and Leslie Howard. In 1951 New York music trade magazines described ‘Blue smoke’ as one of the major hits of the year, a ‘musical jackpot’ with both jukebox and radio listeners. Dean Martin phoned Karaitiana from the United States seeking more songs.
Ruru Karaitiana wrote more than a dozen songs, including ‘As others do’, recorded by Netta Haddon, and ‘Let’s talk it over’, ‘Windy city’, ‘Ain’t it a shame’ and ‘Sweetheart in calico’, recorded by Pixie Williams for TANZA. In the early 1950s he wrote and recorded ‘It’s just because’, a tribute to the Kayforce serving in the Korean War, and ‘Saddle Hill’, about a Dunedin landmark. In 1952 he became the first New Zealander to gain an Australasian Performing Right Association award of £25 for sales of ‘Blue smoke’ and ‘Let’s talk it over’ (which sold more than 10,000 copies).
On 27 October 1949 Karaitiana married secretary and model Joan Charlotte Franzeska Chettleburgh, first at the Wellington registry office and then at Tahoraiti marae. They were to have a son, and adopted two daughters; they also informally adopted more than 20 other children. Karaitiana was a Catholic, and also held a strong belief in the value of Māori traditions and education. The family lived at Brighton, near Dunedin, until the birth of their son in 1951, and then returned for two years to Tahoraiti, before moving to Woodville. Ruru continued to take seasonal jobs as a freezing worker and shearer.
Karaitiana was known for his love of exotic cars and his good manners. Small in stature, he was a quiet and private man, but was transformed when on stage. His proudest moments were hearing ‘Blue smoke’ performed by the National Orchestra, and a version sung in Māori on radio. Ruru and Joan were divorced in 1964, and he died at Wellington on 15 December 1970, survived by his son. He was buried at Tahoraiti. ‘Blue smoke’ remained his biggest success, and in the early 1990s it featured on the soundtracks of a series of New Zealand films, including Ruby and Rata , Bread and roses , and An angel at my table .