The first time Jim Carter heard the sound of a steel guitar he knew it was the instrument for him. “There was just something about it,” the Richmond man who turns 100 this week says, “there’s nothing like it.”
Jim was only 17 years old at the time and he loved the sound so much he started taking lessons in Wellington as soon as he could. It was about a year later that he started playing gigs with bands in halls around the capital and Hutt Valley on Friday and Saturday nights, and from there he moved into radio broadcasts, joining the 2YA orchestra, playing in it for seven years.
“They were all top musos apart from me,” he says with a smile.
“I learned a lot from them,” talking of the big band that broadcast over the airwaves from a Wellington studio every week.
“Radio had only just really come in,” Jim says. “We had gramophones to play records but there was no TV. We always went to the movies once a week.”
Back in those days music did not pay the bills, so Jim spent more than 40 years working for the Post Office in a variety of roles. “If it hadn’t been for that (music) I don’t know what I would have done,” he says. “My wife used to love dancing but I was absolutely hopeless at it, so she danced and I played in the band.”
Although he played on many records during his 35 years of making music, it’s Blue Smoke that will be remembered most.
Not only was the 1948 release a huge hit, selling more than 50,000 copies, it was the first record to be recorded and manufactured in New Zealand – and then released on a New Zealand label.
Blue Smoke was given a new lease of life in 2015 when Neil Finn, once of Split Enz and Crowded House and currently touring the States with Fleetwood Mac, recorded a new version of it with Jim in Jim’s lounge. Neil wanted to do something for Anzac Day, Jim says, and he thought Blue Smoke would suit. “He found out I was still alive and came down here. I was really chuffed,” he says.
The feeling was mutual. Neil, contacted by the Waimea Weekly last week in Philadelphia during the Fleetwood Mac tour, wished Jim a happy birthday. “What an amazing milestone to turn 100 years old,” Neil says. “It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life to meet you with my son Liam and spend an afternoon in your company, and to get to play Blue Smoke with you was simply magic. “I left Nelson feeling very inspired by your kind and thoughtful presence, your natural charm and enthusiasm for music. I hope I can make it so far with so much style.”
Jim moved to Richmond with his wife June in 2000. Unfortunately, June died in 2011 after the couple had been married for 67 years. A photo of her still takes pride of place in his home. Since then Jim has lived independently at his Richmond home, happily looking after himself, and still driving.
Although he’s the first to admit “present-day music is just a mystery to me”, that’s not the case when it comes to using up-to-date technology, with an iMac providing a valued connection to the music he still loves, allowing him keep in touch with the world of steel guitar by watching clips on YouTube of new exponents of the art.
As for his birthday, there will be a gathering at his home, and while he might not like to play in public any more, it’s more than likely one of those steel guitars will come out and those there will be treated to some sounds performed by the last living connection to a time when New Zealand rock ‘n’ roll music moved into a new era.