For the next 40 years that was what he remained, invariably upstaging anyone brave enough and/or privileged enough to perform alongside him as he progressed from country boy to rock and roll revivalist to prog rocker to honky-tonk hero to prolific songwriter.
Ritchie Pickett joined Think just before they became the first New Zealand band signed to WEA Records and had their album We’ll Give You A Buzz released on the Atlantic label. Later he redefined New Zealand country music with Gone For Water, an LP as much lauded for its songs and performance as it was maligned for its production.
Those who saw him live knew there were hundreds of his songs lost in the ozone.
When he passed away in 2011, Pickett left behind just three albums bearing his own name and another two as a member of bands, but those who saw him live – and he played everywhere in New Zealand – knew there were hundreds and hundreds of his songs lost in the ozone.
Lost also was that passionate, lived-it song delivery and the stage banter and one-liners that could put an unsuspecting punter in his place or have them asking a fellow patron, “Did he really say that?”
Ritchie Francis Pickett was born in Morrinsville on February 16, 1955. His earliest influences were in country music and he banged a homemade snare drum at family jam sessions until forming his first band, The Lymit, aged 11.
During his school years he moved from drums to singing to bass guitar to organ in many different bands, but he only lasted a month as the commuting piano player for a Hamilton group upon leaving school in 1971. A stint as a whiteware salesman lasted just a few weeks longer.
After moving to Hamilton, Pickett met university student Glenn White, a guitarist, and they formed a rock and roll revival band called Graffiti, with Pickett on guitar and piano. Bass players and drummers came and went until they settled on Bill Wilson (bass) and Steve Osborne (drums).
Things really took off when Graffiti were teamed with, in Pickett’s words, “failed ballad singer” Tom Sharplin for a New Year’s Eve gig in Kawhia in 1973. Billed as Tom Sharplin & Graffiti, they worked every day on the calendar except Good Friday and Christmas Day for the next couple of years.
When the band burned out, Pickett joined songwriter Rod McAuley’s South Auckland band Hot Ash, who were signed to EMI. When he was sacked following a backstage bust-up, he re-formed Graffiti, this time taking the glam approach with dresses, make-up and teased hair.
In 1976, prog rock band Think invited Pickett to join them. They were the band of the moment in New Zealand, opening for both Deep Purple and The Doobie Brothers at Western Springs that summer, but lacked a true frontman.
The line-up of Allan Badger (bass), Phil Whitehead (guitar), Don Mills (organ) and Neville Jess (drums) believed Pickett’s inclusion on vocals and rhythm guitar would relieve the pressure on main vocalist Badger to be Think’s focal point.
Think became the first New Zealand band signed to WEA Records.
Popular on the provincial hotel circuit and with a repertoire heavy on their own songs, Think became the first New Zealand band signed to WEA Records. The company put them together with veteran producer Julian Lee to record their album We’ll Give You A Buzz at Stebbing Recording Studios. Blind from birth, Lee would tell vocalists Badger and Pickett apart from the jangling of their bangles.
Five of the album’s songs were credited to the entire band – the sixth to former member Kevin Stanton, later of Mi-Sex – with Pickett’s biggest contribution assisting Badger with the lyrics of ‘Look What I’ve Done’.
The closing track ‘Our Children (Think About)’ won TV One’s Grunt Machine songwriting contest and Think won the nationwide battle of the bands, the prize of which was a P&O cruise of the Pacific with them as the entertainment – a great way to transport a big PA system to Australia.
P&O were happy enough with Think jumping ship in Sydney and claiming the rest of the cruise later, but WEA had failed to notify Warner Brothers that Think were arriving. After a stint in communal rooms in Kings Cross they were given a little advance money and moved to Bondi.
Life in Sydney was a struggle for Think and Pickett soon became bored with the long-winded soloing and was sacked. He’d discovered the music of Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and The Sex Pistols and he’d also discovered hard drugs.
His short-lived band Snuff was managed by “one of the head honchos in the Mr Asia organisation”. When Pickett fell ill in 1980, his father made a mercy dash to Sydney and brought him home. He was invalided to Waikato Hospital where he was diagnosed with liver cancer.
Pickett spent the next two months in bed before swapping hard drugs for hard liquor, becoming reacquainted with the piano and writing songs that harked back to early influences like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell and more recent finds such as Merle Haggard.
When he recovered, he produced records for Janice Ramage, Celine Toner and Gerry Merito. His own Ritchie Pickett Band – Pickett (piano and guitar), Bruce Dennis (drums), Pete Bell (bass) and Geoff Martin (guitar) – recorded a single of Gary Stewart’s ‘Your Place Or Mine’ b/w Pickett’s ‘Country Nights’.
Along with guitarist Dave Maybee, Pickett toured with and backed such artists as Brendan Dugan, Gray Bartlett and Patsy Riggir. From there he joined the cast of TVNZ’s That’s Country, where he caught the eye of host Ray Columbus.
By early 1983, Pickett and Maybee were making noises about a permanent band and started working as The Inlaws or Double Anything before naming the band Ritchie Pickett & The Inlaws, capitalising on the That’s Country recognition.
Ray Columbus got them a Jim Beam sponsorship worth tens of thousands of dollars and a contract with RCA.
With a settled line-up of Pickett, Maybee, bass guitarist Jimmy Wallace, second guitarist Kevin Coleman and drummer Noel Lamberton, the band began touring under their own steam and Ray Columbus got them a Jim Beam sponsorship worth tens of thousands of dollars and a contract with RCA.
Ritchie Pickett & The Inlaws recorded their Gone For Water album at Stebbings’ brand-new B studio with Columbus producing. It featured nine songs written or co-written by Pickett, including ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’ and ‘Last Night I Let The Bottle Get On Top’, and references to the King Country, coal ranges and Hank Williams.
Although Pickett would never say anything against Columbus, the rest of the band were disappointed with the production. Their views were mirrored in Bryan Staff’s Rip It Up review, which suggested, “Perhaps producer Ray Columbus has fondly remembered recording techniques from his own heyday and used Stebbings’ computerised multi-track studio to curiously emulate that effect.”
Despite the demise of That’s Country a month after the record’s late 1984 release, country music was still big business in New Zealand, albeit mostly in the form of Urban Cowboy/country pop copies. With Gone For Water and its twin guitar attack and honky-tonk piano, Ritchie Pickett & The Inlaws had returned country music to a more traditional place two years before Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle would do the same in America.
But the line-up was not built to last. The alcohol-fuelled constant touring took its toll, particularly on Pickett and Dave Maybee’s relationship, and the band split after laying down demos for a follow-up album.
Pickett formed The Jones Boys with former Human Instinct and Salty Dogg bass player Chris Gunn and former Rayders and Dave Miller Set drummer Ray Mulholland. There was a revolving door of guitarists including former Inlaw Kevin Coleman and Geoff Martin, and at times The Jones Boys went out with three horn players and two female backing singers!
Their repertoire included Pickett’s ‘Angela’, which appeared as the B-side to Ray Columbus’ re-recording of ‘Till We Kissed’ on Pagan in 1986, and ‘Nadine’, which would later appear on Midge Marsden’s Burning Rain.
The Jones Boys continued into the late 1980s before Pickett undertook a brief liaison with Narcs keyboardist Liam Ryan in The Ryan-Pickett Band and then a fleeting seven-piece unit called The Disturbance based around Pickett and Tauranga songwriter John Terry.
There were tours with Tom Sharplin, one with Sharplin and Bunny Walters, and Pickett increasingly worked in a trio, sometimes ironically called Ritchie Pickett’s Unfeasibly Large Band. There were other silly band names along the way such as Stingray Martini’s Excellent Duckbeast, The Riddled Liver Band and Ritchie Pickett’s Swinging Drool.
In 1998, after more than a decade of demoing songs and shelving them because he deemed them unworthy, Ritchie Pickett finally released All Strung Out In A Bunch on Boatshed Records, featuring the instant classic ‘3am Hamilton Sunday Morning’ and songs dating back to The Inlaws (‘Thought I Heard A Heartbeat’) and The Jones Boys (‘More Fey Ray’).
A live album called The Wicked Piano Pumpin’ Pickett “escaped” on Barking Records in 2004. Mostly recorded at a show at the King’s Arms, Auckland, the year before, Pickett was unhappy with his performance and went out of his way not to sell the album at subsequent gigs, but fans were happy to have recordings of newer songs ‘Chameleon’ and ‘The One I Love’.
In 2007, after around 25 years of “letting the bottle get on top”, Pickett collapsed at a gig and was rushed to hospital.
In the meantime, he had met Cambridge songwriting team Alf Pinfold and Steve Mitchell, who had both lived in South Africa. With Pinfold on drums and Mitchell on guitar, they pulled in Pickett’s long-time bass player Simon Elton, late of The Furys, and started recording an album, recruiting former Knightshade guitarist Rik Bernards along the way and christening themselves The Rattler.
In 2007, after around 25 years of “letting the bottle get on top”, Pickett collapsed at a gig and was rushed to hospital. His internal organs were shutting down and he was given just days to live, but somehow he pulled through and booked into rehab.
The Rattler album, The Leaving, was completed the following year and named after one of Pickett’s most beautiful ballads. It also included the old Jones Boys song ‘Paranoid Waltz’, which Pinfold had helped Pickett revamp.
There were sporadic gigs and occasional guest spots but Ritchie Pickett never fully recovered. He passed away peacefully at his Cambridge home on March 13, 2011, one month after his 56th birthday.
In the years since his death, some of those songs lost in the ozone have seen the light of day on the misleadingly titled White Horses – The Best Of Ritchie Pickett (Rajon Music Group) and Just Desserts (SDL Music), but gems such as ‘Small Town Flirt’, ‘Stories And Melodies’, ‘The Ballad Of Jack The Ripper’, ‘The Choice’ and ‘Jenny-Lee Does The Horizontal Foxtrot’ remain consigned to stretched cassette tapes collecting dust in someone’s cupboard or locked away in studio vaults.
In 2017 a biography of Ritchie Pickett was written and published by Graham Clark of Tauranga: Thanks for the Clap: the Extraordinary Life and Times of New Zealand's Wildman of Country Music, Ritchie Pickett. For more details, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
When Ritchie Pickett doused his piano with lighter fluid and lit it at the Norfolk Island Country Music Festival in 2001, he didn’t anticipate the heat generated would burn a hole in the marquee and cost the organisers their hefty bond.
In the mid-1980s, Ritchie Pickett’s song ‘The Choice’ was put on hold by Cher’s management but it came to nothing.
Rajon Music Group