Zealander Tex Morton lived a life of breath-taking achievement. He
attained fortune and huge international fame in several
careers: a recording star (300 songs), singer-songwriter, stage artist
(touring sensation in North America, Europe, Australasia), circus
entrepreneur, best-selling comic writer, Hollywood screen actor, and with
a Doctorate from McGill University, a world
authority and renowned performer of hypnotherapy.
He was the top selling recording artist in Australasia in the 1930's, outselling Bing Crosby, Gracie Fields and the young Frank Sinatra; and in the 1950s was one of the most famous entertainers in North America. His one-man performances took him from Nelson, New Zealand, to Sydney, Darwin, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Montreal, Chicago, Boston, New York, Paris, London, Jamaica, Asia and a thousand points in between. He played with Chet Atkens, Hank Williams, Gene Autry and Floyd Cramer and came into contact with Errol Flynn. In the age before television and constructed media personalities, Tex Morton was pure talent: the entertainer as the real thing.
Life on the Lam: Early
Robert Lane began playing the guitar early, operated pirate broadcasting stations until stopped by the law and at 14, born to run, left home to launch himself into show business. His first attempt ended in him being found busking by police and he was promptly returned home. He then gained his marksman/sniper badge in the Territorials and by the age of 16 he was playing in a travelling band known as the Gaieties. At this time he made his first recordings "possibly the first hillbilly and western songs to be recorded outside America", according to the "Guinness Whos Who of Country Music". The twenty or so tracks were pressed onto aluminium discs, which could only be played with a hardwood or bamboo thorn needle. They were played extensively on New Zealand radio and are now collectors items.
In 1932 he took a new name,
Tex Morton, from a sign seen on a Waihi garage (it was
rumoured tat the time hat he was approached by a member of the local constabulary on
the lookout for one 'Bobby Lane') and toured the length of
New Zealand and at the end of 1932 departed for better opportunities in
Australia. he began as a busker in Sydney with an old
suitcase and a battered guitar, but Sydney was experiencing the effects
of the Depression and he did not do well. He was forced to find a
job - anything on offer. He found work labouring at Luna Park, and
on construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He also sang at showgrounds, outside bars and
at race-courses, and did stints as a drover and shearer. he was a strong
swimmer and became a member of the Manly and Bondi surf
Walk on the Wild Side
Hungrey for experience, Tex drifted up to Queensland. For three years he led a rough and tumble life, jumping trains, fighting for scraps of food and sleeping in the open. He worked on various roadshows - he was a star boxer, a sideshow motorcycle racer riding the "wall of death" and a wild animal tamer.
While consistently wondering where his next meal was coming from he was never short of a beer. He mixed with the entertainment set: at the Australian Hotel: the famous Skulthorpe family of roughriders, and young actors such as Errol Flynn and Peter Finch. But with all the excitement the 16-year old was still penniless and hoping for a windfall, and with guitar and swag he made his way to the Northern Territories, He rode the rail to Darwin, but was greeted by a railroad detective, who hauled him before a magistrate. Given the choice of six weeks on a road gang or getting out of town, Tex chose to leave. He was rescued by a rum-running bushranger called Healy and spent the next 18 months getting the feel of the territory.
In 1935 Tex returned to Sydney. As well as joining a circus (by the age of 23, with Lance Skulthorpe Jr, he would have his own travelling cowboy show) he hustled Tim Tyler, the A&R man at Columbia Gramophone Company, for an audition. He persuaded Tyler to give him a break and recorded a song called "Youre going to leave the old home, Jim", then talked a Sydney radio station into playing it. He won first prize in a 2XY talent quest and recorded eight singles (a few of his own composition) for Columbia Records.
personal permission from Banjo Patterson to record some of his works and
made the occasional spot as a performer, as well as continuing to busk. It
was not enough to keep the wolf from the door and he hit the road again.
He ended up back in New Zealand broke
and disappointed that his four year foray into the Australian
entertainment scene had been unsuccessful.
Our First Home Grown Star
In New Zealand, literally singing for his supper, Morton was confronted by the surprise of his life: life size cut-outs of himself in record stores all over the country, promoting "Tex Morton, the Singing Cowboy Sensation". "Hat on, head back, mouth open, and tonsils showing!" as Tex described it some years later. His recordings had become a success without his knowledge, topping the charts all over Australia and New Zealand. He found himself an idol, mobbed in the streets from Palmerston North to Perth. Described as "bigger than Sinatra", his concerts sold out instantly - the first one in Brisbane attracted a crowd of 50,000 people.
During the mid to late 30s Morton flourished as a recording star, a public speaker, and radio wit. Extremely prolific, he recorded 18 singles in 1936, 16 in 1937, 18 in 1938 and 16 in 1939. He took time to polish his marksmanship skills with Lionel Bibby, the Australian-born world champion marksman, developing his talent to the stage where he consistently defeated Lionel.
A tireless performer, Morton
toured with a group of actors, among them later legends such as Chips
Rafferty and Errol Flynn. He also joined up with the Skulthorpes circus
family in the late 30s to create a combined circus, rodeo, and singing show. It was the
biggest roadshow in Australia - 100 employees traversing the continent, in
a convoy of over 20 caravans and trailers and was a best-selling
touring extavaganza. It was common for fans to follow the show for several days - driving countless miles
each day and returning home to their farms in between for milking and
But Tex's sound was developing its own distinct context to the extend that Slim Dusty, Australia's present day legend of country music, would later proclaim, "Tex's early songs laid a foundation for a lot of us to follow". He was friend and defender of the Aborigines and many of them still sing songs of his such as "The Creamy", about the child of a white man and an Aboriginal girl. In his shows he had songs about Maori tohunga and Aboriginal mystics. He was fascinated by dreamtime (at numerous times in his life he would pursue his own 'walkabout'), by American Indian legends and by stories of voodoo from the Caribbean (leads he would explore in Jamaica when he later toured there).
Some of his most famous tracks were controversial and dealt with his earlier experiences (and those familiar to many of his fans) such as a "boundary-rider", or hitching free rides on the trains. The most notable, "Sergeant Small", about a ruthless Queensland policeman who tracked down fare evaders, was withdrawn from sale in Australia because of the subject matter, making it possibly the first banned Australian disc ever. The chorus contained the immortal couplet:
The Bugsy from Down Under
Tex was instrumental in the establishment of Surfer's Paradise, Queensland, Australia. A good mate, Bob Gerrahty, was a professional pianist, but his band went broke and Bob took work as a resident pianist in the Surfer's Hotel, then an area of tidal mangrove swamps. Inspired by his vision to develop the coast, Tex substantially financed Bob, who got working plans from Canada for draining swampland. The first marina sale financed work on the next and so on - eventually becoming Australia's version of the dream in the desert: Las Vegas on the Gold Coast. Bob died a multi-millionaire with, as Tex said, "a huge smile of his face".
During World War II petrol
rationing put Morton's Wild West Circus Rodeo off the road, so Tex toured military camps with
concert parties and entertained the troops instead. In 1941, at the peak of his
career, Morton stopped recording. The reasons are vague, but are
most likely due
to wartime economics and his loyalty to his band rather than the solo acoustic
guitar format that his recording company demanded. Although out of the musical eye,
he didn't languish in obscurity and after the war he reformed the road
show and published a series of comics,
"Tex Morton's Wild West Comic" (illustrated by one of
Australia's greatest cartoonists Dan
Russell), which reached circulation reached 100,000 a month in
Australia and New Zealand.
In 1948 his music career was resurrected
when his previously phenomenal record sales brought him to the
attention of American record publisher Ralph Peer I. Peer couldn't believe
that Morton not only topped the country charts, but regularly topped the
combined sales of all Australian artists in all fields outselling Bing Crosby, Gracie Fields, Frank Sinatra and Al
Peer became Tex's manager persuaded him to tour again and to write and record new material.
After a burst of successful touring through New Zealand and some frenzied recording, Morton set off
for America in 1949.
The Great Morton A North
He arrived in America and immediately fell in love with the place. He was met at the airport by showbiz legend Gene Autry and driven by limousine to Peers mansion in Hollywood. He mingled with the greats of American country music, "millionaires by the dozen" he later recalled, "and of course they took it for granted that I was one too. I'm not exactly certain, but I think I liked it for a while." Tex had a fondness for Cadillacs and toured in a customised fleet. One story has it that Autry, Tex and the boxer Maxie Rosenberg once checked into a New York hotel and asked the Cadillac company to deliver six limousines. From their window they chose the models they wanted. Gene got the blue one. Slapsie Maxie chose red and Tex bought the black one. Of course it was sheer coincidence that the black is the colour that infuses the edge. "They're the only car," he said, "that can stand up to the touring". Tex's lifestyle of swinging affluence was brought to an abrupt end when he was targeted by the US immigration authorities and given 24 hours to leave the country.
Forced north to Canada, Morton put together a one-man show predominantly of sharpshooting, hypnotism, poetry reading, whip cracking, mind-reading and magic, travelling under the moniker "The Great Morton". There was no singing, as the Australasian flavour of his songs was foreign to North American ears.
"To Hell with Hollywood" crowed Tex, "what's the next town
called?". As music historian Gordon Spittle notes in "Counting the
Beat", Mortons shows set box office records, first in Canada,
where he outsold "South Pacific" during a run in Toronto, then
(allowed back in the States) in Boston and St Louis. A photograph from the
period, shows a queue stretching round the
block for Mortons show in Montreal and this was after he had
been doing five shows a day for 20 weeks.
For Morton it was the beginning of a decade-long odyssey from Alaska to Jamaica. He became a legend in the process - side-splittingly funny and a daredevil to boot, famous for his publicity stunt of walking blindfolded on the parapet of the tallest building in every town he played. His aim was as sharp as his stage monologues: his sister Barbara, who worked on the show in Canada, remembers him shooting a five cent piece held between an assistant's fingers, shooting cigarettes out of the mouths of girls with his .22 rifle, and firing a live bullet across a stage to split a playing card in two.
He became one of the highest
paid touring entertainers in North America. He took his act to England,
France and other parts of Europe where he enjoyed similar
popularity. The Saturday Evening Post named The Great
Morton the greatest hypnotist of all time and the world's best
sharpshooter. Singing his bush
ballads, he twice played to full houses in Carnegie Hall, and in one early
1950's trip, toured Canada to earnings of US$250,000 for a six-week solo
Tex was also contracted by the FBI and US Police training academies to demonstrate his marksmanship skills covering the quick-draw, safety measures, and accuracy.
all-rounder, Morton fitted in six months opening for Hank Williams and
worked as a character actor in Hollywood. In 1953 he added to his vast repertoire of songs on disc by recording with
guitarist Chet Atkins and his band members Floyd Cramer, Tommy Jackson
and Jerry Byrd). The tracks included his own compositions and the album, recorded in the famous
studios at the Tulane Hotek in Nashville, found its way to Australia as
"The Tex Morton Story".
New Horizons: "The Drinks Are On Me"
Morton was never in it for the money. Explaining his theory of economics he said:
He became a figure of urban folklore by laying a suitcase bulging with banknotes on the bar at Sydneys Albury Hotel and inviting patrons to take what they needed. This was repeated in country areas on several occasions. Another legend has it that Tex and some friends took to sprinkling money like 4th of July confetti from the upper floor of a well-known New York hotel.
The one-man sensation could have
carried on as he was, touring North America and working in Hollywood, but his
omnivorous mind needed a new outlet. He
developed an interest in hypnotherapy and the paranormal
by studying at UCLA and other universities, gaining a BA in parapsychology.
He went on to gain a doctorate at McGill University in Montreal (where
fellow Nelsonian, Ernest Rutherford, had been Professor of Physics from 1898
to 1907) and became a world authority on hypnotherapy. Morton started a
private hypnotherapy clinic in Toronto, but was soon made restless through being tied to a
regular day job. Afflicted by wanderlust, he hit the road again, this
time as "The Great Dr Robert Morton
- the Worlds Greatest Hypnotist".
The Times They Are A-Changin'
Morton returned to Sydney in 1959 after ten years in North America. He went back on tour, but the advent of television had cut down the audience for the style of entertainment that had made him a sensation a decade earlier. Especially in the rural areas the guitar pick was losing out to the pixel.
Booker prize-winning author David Malouf, writing about Australian consciousness at the time, regards it as a time of change,
As Malouf goes on to write, it was a dying era and the nostalgia was double-sided: society was changing, becoming urban and anxious. For Tex, this meant a 'walkabout'. He spent a few years touring Asia playing American Army bases. Then, in the 60s, he made a sentimental journey to the Australian outback, taking his two-way shortwave radio and travelling in a station wagon with three companions - a cat, a terrier and a magpie.
Tex was a lifelong amateur radio aficionado, broadcasting as VK2AHZ and VE2AHZ (Canada). His ham radio call sign was well known to much of the US Navy as he never missed monitoring the astronaut recovery missions. US Navy members were encouraged to operate personal side band sets at sea, and on returning to earth were often given a taste of the 'tex stuff'.
1967 he returned to New Zealand and for three years hosted the top-rating television show "Country
Touch". Trying unsuccessfully to lose the tag Tex,
Robert Morton subsequently became a frequent actor on Australian
television and earned a reputation as one of Australia's best character
actors with roles like the prison governor in Stir and the crooked
politician in Goodbye Paradise. He continued to write and record songs, recording two EPs and
the "Tex Morton Today" album.
The Living Legend
Morton was the first popular music sensation to come from the edge and to promote a distinctively antipodean persona. He was a prolific recording artist, with over 300 songs on disc, around 100 of them his own compositions. In 1981, Festival Records released a selection of the best in the album "Tex Morton with Sister Dorrie - You and My Old Guitar". An early selection of his very first Regal Zonophone 78s has been re-released on tape, Vinyal and Compact Disc by EMI on tape, vinyl and Compact Disc.
He was the first person to be elected to the Australian Country Music Roll of Renown, and his status in any history of antipodean music is iconic. Well-known ABC radio presenter John Nutting has expressed a longing to turn back time, "so that I could hear live Tex Morton, Patsy Cline and Elvis". Acclaimed country music star Lee Kernaghan, as part of the hugely successful "Pass the Hat around Australia" fundraising tour, recorded an album of tribute songs to the pioneers of Australian country music, Morton, Buddy Williams and Slim Dusty.
On the cover of the the 1988 Roaring Days album by enduringly popular Melbourne band "Weddings, Parties, Anything" there is a collage that has Tex Morton and Australian bush poet Henry Lawson sitting at a bar, with a tattered Morton songbook, a glass of beer, and a butt-laden ashtray. The album opens to reveal another collage of the two, now sharing the bar with Brendan Behan and Punch, while a Broken Hill miner stands in the background. Of the songs on the Aria winning album there is a cover of "Sergeant Small", as well as a tribute by lead singer Mike Thomas to Morton's influence on him:
Country music is characterised by gems of home-spun wisdom, and Morton, the yodelling boundary rider with a doctorate from McGill, had his own particular theory to deliver, guitar in hand: "it is remarkable how often, when push finally comes to shove, the black sheep of the family turns out to be the sons with the hearts of genuine, twenty four carat gold." One of the first articulations of the edge?
Tex Morton died in 1983, aged 67, with his longtime companion Kathleen at his side. He was buried in Nelson, alongside his parents. At the funeral, actor and friend Tony Barry said of the edge bard something that should be stamped in the passport of every New Zealander embarking on their 'Overseas Experience': "He came across in 1932 looking for gold. What he didn't realise was he brought it with him."
Tex Morton's headstone is inscribed with
his own description of himself: "A millionaire in the experience of
Our sincere thanks to Tex's
sister and brother, Barbara and
Kim Lane of Nelson, and Graham Archer, for their
assistance with this story and photo permission.
The Last Ride of Tex Morton (The Father of Australian Country Music) was launched in Tamworth, Australia, in January 2001 during the country music festival. The documentary traces the story of the young Morton from Nelson and follows the adventures of his career through to his death in 1983. It includes the voice of Tex telling his own story with anecdotes from country artists and management, and concert performances including rare footage and photographs. Produced, written and directed by:
Album: showcasing the 'best of' recordings and featuring
extensive sleeve notes:
Spittle, Gordon. (1996) "When Tex Morton stopped still", New Zealand Musician, December 1995-January 1996
Turley, Alan. (1996) "Tex Morton", Nelson Historical Society Journal, 1996
Baysting, Arthur. (1984) "So long Tex Morton", Australian
Performing Right Association,
Mitchell, David. (1983) "Tex Morton much more than a country singer", Nelson Evening Mail, August 20
(1983) "Tex Morton dies", Nelson Evening Mail, July 25
Atkinson, Bill. "The Life Story of the Late Great Tex Morton", Nelson, Unpublished story.
Smith, Andrew. "Cowboys and Hillbillies Down Under: The First Wave of Australian Country Music", USA, Magazine unknown.
Order page for back issues of Country Music People, an American
magazine that profiled Morton, Vol. 22- 1991:
"The Big Golden Guitar", a gallery saluting the pioneers and
stars of Australian Country Music:
Site surveying the history of Australian Rock 'n' roll:
Booker Prize winning novelist David Malouf talks about the part Morton
played in his cultural experience in 1950's Australia, in "The
making of Australian Consciousness" (1988):
Exhibition featuring "Tex Morton's Wild West Comic", from the
State Library of Victoria Exhibition:
A fundraising album of Tex Morton and Buddy Williams tribute songs has
been released by top-selling singer Lee Kernaghan "Pass the Hat around
Australia" was released in January 2000:
Website for the band "Weddings, Parties, Anything": The famous
battered Tex Morton songbook, described in the main text, is shown on the
"The Roughrider", the story of Morton's partner in circus
crime, Lance Skulthorpe:
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