In grayscale Wellington he worked in manual jobs: operated cranes, installed toilets, built batteries. But in 1968 he took a job in the record department of Vanvi’s and found his calling. It would be the start of a career in record retailing that continues to this day.
On lower Cuba Street, the shop had been started by A J Wyness, managing director of HMV (NZ) Ltd, primarily as an outlet for HMV products (the Wyness family had overseen the UK-owned company since the 1920s). At the back of the store, beyond the whiteware, was the record section. Under Colin’s aegis, this became the place for discerning young listeners to discover and buy new music. For teenage music lover Susy Pointon it was the destination of her Friday night pilgrimages from Karori into the city. Colin would play her the latest blues records and she would meet like-minded enthusiasts such as Midge Marsden, also hanging out there to broaden his musical education.
Colin’s particular interest in blues led to his publication of a short-lived blues magazine, Good Noise, which helped expose the blues section of the store. He also produced a series of local blues recordings for Dene Kellaway’s Tree label, some of which appeared as singles and all of which were gathered together on the 1969 compilation In The Blue Vein.
“COLIN MORRIS RAISED THE BAR IN EVERY WAY” – FANE FLAWS
The Wynesses also owned two smaller record shops, in Manners St and Lambton Quay, known as The Record Specialists. With his knowledge and enthusiasm Colin was soon supervising the record buying for these stores as well.
But he never got on with the Wynesses. One night after a movie he took his date back to the Vanvi store for “a quick snog in the backroom” but forgot to lock the front door. Next thing he knew, two policemen were shining their torches in his face. Though he was able to satisfy the cops that he worked there, word of his indiscretion must have got back to his employers. When he called in sick a few days later he was told not to bother coming back.
Curious to learn more about the wholesale side of the record industry, he went to work as a rep for Wellington-based PolyGram Records, under John McCready. For part of his time at PolyGram he held an A&R (artists and repertoire) position, choosing overseas titles for the company to license and release. Among these was the Rodriguez album Cold Fact. Though never well-known in America, it became a cult hit in New Zealand thank to Colin’s canny ear. Forty years later, the Rodriguez legend was the subject of an acclaimed documentary. “When I saw Searching For Sugarman I thought okay, where am I?”
Colin was then sent to work in one of PolyGram’s Auckland stores, but found himself up against a manager “who couldn’t say no to reps: 350 copies of Jethro Tull’s Stand Up in a bottom drawer! The shop was haemorrhaging money so I got out of there.”PolyGram, who owned Philips electrical goods stores, decided to turn some of their outlets into record shops. Colin, returning to retail, was put in charge of the Courtenay Place shop, Tiffany’s. Its off-street situation made it hard to attract customers, but Colin was inventive. “One Christmas Eve I managed to get hold of a Genesis film on reel to reel. I put a screen in the window and everybody sat outside in the hallway, must have been 50 or 60 people, and as soon as it finished I showed it again. I don’t think I made a single sale that night which did not please my boss. But I was always trying to do something a bit different.”
Back in Wellington he went to work with Ode Records’ founder Terence O’Neill-Joyce, who had a store (sometimes called Ode or simply The Music Shop) in the Perrett’s Corner complex, on the corner of Willis and Manners streets. It quickly became clear to Colin that the shop was too small, so in 1974 he found premises in Mayfair Chambers on The Terrace and opened his own shop. He credits Auckland record retail veteran Murray Marbeck with teaching him the finer points of the business.
“I went to Auckland and I went to see Murray Marbeck and said I’m opening this store in Wellington and I really don’t know much about it, can you give me some help? And he was fantastic. When he died I wrote a really long letter to [his son] Roger and said as far as I was concerned he was the godfather, he was the man.”
It had never been Colin’s ambition to see his own name on the door, but he was talked into it by a long-time customer with a retail background. Like Marbecks, Colin Morris Records had separate classical and popular departments; the classical records were in the quieter upstairs area. “Buyers of classical prefer a sort of library atmosphere, that hushed reverence,” he told Lindis Taylor in a 1987 profile for Agenda.
Situated in the heart of Wellington’s white-collar district, the Terrace store thrived until a law change in 1980 introduced Saturday trading. Realising his shop was about to be in a weekend dead zone, in 1979 he opened another store called Rainbow Records at 236 Lambton Quay, opposite the DIC department store. About a year later he relocated into the new Quay Point complex. Things went well until EMI opened one of their stores immediately in front of him. Colin’s expertise and loyal client base were no match for EMI’s high visibility and aggressive discounting. What’s more, Quay Point wouldn’t let him out of the lease. They finally relinquished a week before Colin would have declared himself bankrupt.
“I could open a CD-only shop and do very well,” Morris said in 1987, “but I like vinyl.”
Bloodied but unbowed – and with a $25,000 loan from PolyGram – he opened a new shop in Willis Street, began to pay off debts and rebuild his stock. By now the compact disc had arrived. “I could open a CD-only shop and do very well,” he told Lindis Taylor at the time, “but I like vinyl, I like 7-inch singles, I still like cassettes.”
In 1998 he went into partnership with Seamus Kavanagh at Fish Eye Records on the ground floor of the former James Smith’s. With the two veterans’ combined expertise, the shop was briefly a haven for the deep music seeker, but record retail was in decline and the shop was short-lived. Colin then took his marketing expertise to Unity Books where he worked until he retired; among his tasks was the compilation of eclectic mix-tapes to create an atmosphere for the book browsers.
Fifty years after entering the Wellington record business, Colin’s enthusiasm for music remains contagious. A great raconteur, he can tell of his encounters with visitors such as Muddy Waters, Quincy Jones, BB King, and Cleo Laine, and support his anecdotes with his photo album. He continues to sell records to a mail-order clientele, while also reviewing music and concerts for Radio New Zealand.