ray woolf close up

Ray Woolf, Erna Ferry and the Rodger Fox Band

Masterton A& P Show, Saturday 18 February, 2017

By David Famularo

It’s not every day one gets to meet a musical living legend. For me it started with a phone interview. After a somewhat cagey conversation with Eddie Low about a year ago, I didn’t know what to expect.

After all, how easy can it be to maintain musical charisma when your career started as a 17 year old supporting a national tour by Helen Shapiro in 1966?

Would Woolf be hard and cynical from years of scrabbling a meagre living below the level of his talents by fact of living in New Zealand?

The answer was the opposite – a lot of energy and enthusiasm coming down the line as we discussed music, his life and having few regrets despite coming to New Zealand with his family just after he came to the attention of a leading booking agent in London.

“Make sure you say hello”, he said at the end of the interview after I told him I would be going to the Masterton A&P Show.

Which I did. Ray was talking with a circle of people when I walked over with a cup of tea in one hand and a plate with two scones with jam and cream in the other.

Dressed in a smart black leather jacket and creased black dress trousers, Woolf was capturing just the right look for someone whose career had spanned early sixties rock and roll, psychedelic rock (including rediscovered psych classic “The Little Things That Happen” which Woolf penned after listening to a little too much Jimi Hendrix), to his present jazz crooner persona.

I knew I would be interrupting him but didn’t think I would have a chance to talk after the performance.

“Hi”, I said. “I interviewed you for the feature.” He said hello back and went to take the cup of tea. I said I wasn’t bringing him a cup of tea and he said “No I’m going to shake your hand.” He took the cup to tea. We shook hands. And that was it. My brief moment in the personal space one of New Zealand’s greatest pop stars of the 1960s and early 1970s was seemingly over.

Retiring to a seat out of the rain under the veranda of the nearby historic kiosk, I settled in to wait for the Rodger Fox Band to get going. Possibly due to the closure of the Remutaka Hill which had stopped one band from making it to the Show,  they were running behind time but after a bit more sheet music shuffling, the band got rolling, supporting vocalist Erna Ferry with a surprising list of songs considering Fox’s heavy jazz leanings, including China Groove by the Doobie Brothers, Elton John’s Crocodile Rock and a Bill Halley/Jerry Lee Lewis/Chuck Berry rock and roll medley. Their best moment was when they got a disco groove with “I Love The Night Life.” Enjoyable enough.

ray woolf roger fox

And then Ray steps up the hay bales and on to the stage,  his leather jacket removed to reveal a stylish black suit.

Like I remember when 1950s RnB artist Screaming Jay Hawkins played a Wellington pub in the late 1980s, suddenly the energy lifted. I was about to be reminded why great live music gives you something a record never can.

Woolf was doing what all great entertainers do – summoning up energy out of nowhere and blasting it out into the audience.

His instinct to communicate immediately expressed itself with a promise to “take your mind of the rain,” later reminding everyone that “sh*t happens so just go with it and enjoy the music” – or something like that – before launching into Stormy Monday.

With every song I was become more in awe of his vocal skills. By Van Morrison’s Moondance both Woolf and the band were heading towards it, Woolf’s energy charging everyone else, with some particularly good solos coming from the tenor sax.

It was in this jazz pop vein that Woolf found his sweetest moments, finishing off the set with his version of Bobby Darin’s version of Mack the Knife,  one of his favourite songs from his youth.

The rain beating down harder than ever and the set over, I went up to the stage, looked up, and said “Hey Ray.” He looked down. “Those were awesome vocals.” I misinterpreted him putting his hand out toward me as him being about to shake my hand. We shook hands. He thanked me and added “I appreciated the story. It was a really good.”  Or something like that.