|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: February 9, 1994
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
So Smoky in all those years of singing and writing, what was your favourite song?
The Days of Old Khancoban, although there was another favourite of mine that went back to the Kellogg's days and that was the theme, Riding with a Smile and a Song, which is actually my theme wherever I go now because that's what I do in life: sing and smile. [Laughs]
Now it must be pretty hard always to smile, given the way that your life started, with so much violence surrounding it. A lot of people who have childhoods like the childhood that you had, with all of that pain and suffering and encounters with really terrible violence, themselves become violent people. Why do you think that you were able to avoid that?
Well the only ... the only thought there that I've had why I'm like that is probably, the attitude that I've adopted: seeing so much suffering of other people, knowing that I wasn't alone with this. And like when I wrote that book about Herbie, I wasn't just writing about Herbie, I was writing about a million Herbies. And the suffering in the world today, maybe I was able to capture that and to know that I was just part of one. It's a part of life which probably has been, probably less painful than many others have endured, so I feel very fortunate indeed that I have lived through it all and therefore I can afford a smile. A smile and I've had it always returned. It's one of these things, you smile and the world smiles with you.
Do you think that you had to learn to control your own violent impulses? Have you ever felt aggressive yourself?
Oh yes, I have felt very, very angry and of course when I was younger I had to the point of hate - like for my father because ... and my fear but we mature you know and I think that it's part of life of who you may meet, that changes all that, and you have to believe in some spiritual force within you. Otherwise you're lost, you can't go through your life in a negative attitude without having a soul. Materialism is a never a real satisfying part of your life because you always want a bit more, like money, you want more and more and there is always that bit of ego to achieve this and that, but behind that there is a spiritual force of where you have contentment. That's the only thing you have in life that balances it up for you.
What happened to the hatred that you had for your father? You were plotting revenge. You wanted to grow up and become a man so you could back and teach him ...
Oh true, yes.
You never did.
No, I never did. As a matter of fact, I was walking up Bourke Street with Dot arm and arm one day and of course, this was when I became Smoky, and I saw this old man walking down towards me, half staggering along, a mop of white hair, the wavy hair. He always kept a good head of hair like me and I said, 'Oh my God, there's my dad'. And Dot just walked on. She ... she never really got to meet him. She couldn't really in her heart forgive him for what she knew he did to me and the moment he looked up and saw me, he just wept and he grabbed me. Here we were standing in the middle of the street embracing each other - people walking by looking at us and this old man weeping on my shoulder and crying out, 'My little baby boy, Herbie, and now you're Smoky', and I shed tears too. I mean, it came then. I felt so sorry for that man. He was in one of those old men's homes and he was suffering, but I remained in touch with him 'til the day he died. We used to send him a little money now and again, and Dot allowed me to do that. And I still have some letters that he wrote to me and poems that he wrote to me that I still treasure ... [INTERRUPTION]
You felt you were a lot like your father in many ways. Why don't you think you were like him in relation to the violence?
Well, I think it was a different lifestyle, you see. You got to understand when he was born the world wasn't such a great place too. We had a war that was supposed to end all wars and he was one of the first to get up and go away to fight and of course, being wounded as he was, he had a terrible life after that, with the drink and that. Which is evident today among broken homes and things like that. So my father had a different lifestyle to me although he was brought up in a world of entertainment too. It was all cinema [sic], you know, and theatre and he was a great actor and of course he could even do that in normal life. He was always putting on an act. I can't say the same for myself. Oh I suppose you could put it in as Act One, Act Two, Act Three in your life. This may be Act Three: the final one.
I'm interested in the fact that you often talk about yourself in the third person and it's almost as if Smoky was created to be the opposite of what Herbie might have become. Herbie growing up so violent, in such a violent atmosphere and full of fear and lacking confidence and perhaps with a lot of feelings of aggression himself, and Smoky was created as this totally happy person ,who just wanted to please everybody. Do you think there might be something in that? That the invention in a way of Smoky gave you a way of getting over your childhood?
It was. It was real magic. It was one of those like searching for the pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow but it came my way and I think it ... to me it seems to be pre-arranged, programmed, all things, everything born is programmed and I think that maybe it was meant to be that way. Smoky was my salvation but I might say the great, the most indestructible industry in the world, which is show business - that no matter how hard things are, it survives even better - is a world in which we are able to survive in. But the conflict of the war with my father, and to what was to follow, the Great Depression, was a different kettle of fish to my lifestyle because I met happier people. Mine was a very short reign in the terror you might say is a childhood. In fact, it was a lost childhood, one that I got out of very quickly. And so, it's been one of adventure for me and I've seen both sides of the coin. I've seen a lot of hardship and sadness but a lot of wonderful mateship too. You see, people have done that for me. People have been so good to me. They made up for all that and they had love and understanding, so Smoky was the one to change.
What part do you think Dottie played in the recovery of the horrors of your childhood?
Yes, well she did fill the gap in understanding because I had to tell her. My grandmother said, 'You'll have to tell her you know. You must tell her. Otherwise, she may not want to marry you into that kind of situation or that kind of family'. I might grow up the same way. It might be in the genes. But I think that I took after my mother really. She was very soft. My brother took mainly by my father, more square jawed and heavy built. My more oval face is more like my mother and my sister Laura. Yes, I think that had a lot to do with it. And then I was, of course, a Piscean too. I was a great dreamer - building bridges which turned into realities. Some didn't, and I was always being [told], 'Oh, you're always dreaming', you know. Pisces do that you know. I'd always been a little Pollyanna. You know, the sun's always shining. You just have to get above the clouds and say, 'There you are, you know, I told you, it's been there all the time'. And I think this is what Dot took to me for, because she could realise that she had something to work on, something to mould and she did make a wonderful job. [Laughs] She's managed me very well really.
What was it that you think you needed so much from her because you worked so hard to win her and she seemed to mean so much to you?
Yes. I did miss a mother because I can't remember having felt the affection of a mother. I know she was there to embrace me but I can't really feel it. With Dot, when I start looking for a girl: I'm going to get me a mother first and she supplied all that for me, she being much more mature than me, very much mature [more] than me. She always looked at me as a little boy. And ... No doubt about it too, because you see Dot had a wonderful father and he died during the Great Depression, too. He worked very hard and built up a big business there, in a foundry, which she had to carry on when he died. He died of pneumonia in a short time. A man that helped everybody and when he died, she had to stand on her own feet and always helping the members of the family too. So she had that in her to get up and do things, always with a broom in her hand too. I've got pictures of her when she was a young girl with a broom still sweeping. But, yeah, Dot did the same with me. She started managing me and I felt here was something that I would have for the rest of my life. She was my first girl and she'll always be my first girl and only. I wrote a song called My Sunshine Girl. That's the only time I've seen a few tears come into her eyes when I sing. [Laughs] No, it's been a wonderful life with Dot.
You've had no children?
Everybody else's children, millions of them. Yes yes, we've had children. No, well, let me tell you: the climate wasn't right. First of all there was Dot's age to me at that particular time. Secondly, we were just getting out of the Great Depression: two couldn't live for the price of one, although I had saved up my gratuities and that one and six a day helped a little bit. And ... but ... The other thing was when I came back I was medically unfit and work wasn't so plentiful. We had to start all over again and we ... It's only with Dot's help and helping to feed me have I been able to return to her to the strength that she expected from her father. So it's a give and take today, although as the little boy, we had that embrace and I wanted to be hugged and loved and all that, she too likes a nice shoulder to lean on. So I've always been upright and standing and felt that six feet tall knowing that Dot can depend on my strength. So I do supply to her, I feel, something of strength like her father because she still thinks of him, and she in turn provides that which I miss in my mother. So it was a wonderful situation, wouldn't you think?
What happened to your young brother? After you had that band together, he seemed to drop out of the story.
Yes, Ted was more for jazz and the night life in clubs - Neverready's Night Club with Billy O'Flynn. [Laughs] And goodness gracious they'd be out all hours of the night. He was always a bit of a comedian, Ted. I miss him very much. And he pulled out. He didn't think there was any great future in what they called Hillbilly Music. That's why he got into the others. And of course he didn't realise how far we would go with Smoky Dawson. Smoky Dawson was a name that we all shared, I might say. When we had that team, we used to share ... We only got five pounds from Pepsodent per week for all our efforts and there were seven in the band, so it didn't go far and of course, if anybody wanted to get a ... or had another job and they felt well, they couldn't do it because they had another job that paid more money. I'd give him half of mine. I was always cutting myself down for the sake of the band. But Ted pulled out in the end and he went that way and I continued on on my own and I was to ... I opened up a school of music and I had a vocal trio - the Smoky Dawson trio. And we got on to great things, like the Star Lydal ? on the ABC with Paul Jacklyn and we got into the rhythms - rhythm section too. We did all this wonderful Swing Music and it went for years and years. But I miss Ted very much. He went on and on and eventually got himself a job in a Vacuum Oil Company and then become an electrical engineer. He worked with the State Electricity in Melbourne, become a full fledged electrician. He wanted to wire up my ranch. We used to bring him up there and he'd look around and breath in all the scent of the gum leaves, but unfortunately he ... he took a heart attack, a massive heart attack, although he's two years younger than me. He was my little brother. So Ted is gone and I'm just carrying on as Smoky and if it wasn't for Dot, I'd be like the Lone Ranger. [Laughs]
Now do you think that musicians and artists were rather exploited in those days, given that you were paid so little for your work in the early years?
[Laughs] Oh yes, I've had that said to me too. 'Oh, boy the publicity you'll get out of this, you've no idea what value publicity is for you son. Everybody in the world is going to be there to see this and who knows where you might be?' Well after about ten years down the track, I'm still doing it, you know. RSL's for nothing, choking in their smoking fumes and beer, but you did it. Everybody did it and a lot just were used. Yes, I was used over and over again and I'd always be caught but I always had that word trust and I always had a little philosophy, you know: that you've got to trust somebody, but first of all you have to trust yourself. And if you don't trust somebody, then life's not worth living. Along the way there is somebody that you can trust and you've got to give somebody a chance and many of the people that did me dirty turned out to my advantage later on. I've had many cons that were ... fell down in the industry that were really using me to get somewhere, but although they went down, through them, I rose to fame. So you never know do you? I mean, the horizon is always something is exciting for me. I never know when the sun comes up, what's going to happen the next day.
Was there ever a stage of your career where you really made good money?
I don't think I've ever made millions. I've been, one, content to live on what I can eat on. Having been through it all, money is not all the things we need in life and I think we've done a lot of bartering in our time, like they did in the good old days when the plumber would come along and do a job for the dentist [Laughs] - here's me spouting for a set of teeth. We do a lot of this along the way and I find that that comes in the name of good will. I don't think the taxation look on that very lightly though. Some ... We've got to find the balance of how much the teeth are worth and what the spouting is worth, but I have done a lot of bartering and I think this is more or less my pointer into what we should be doing.
Do you think that the violence that you encountered in the early years of your life still affects you?
In some ways it doesn't worry me, but when I hear the news on what is about now about violence, and all the things that are happening to kids, it does bring it back to me, so you are never really rid of it because it's grown to such proportions now it's part of life, isn't it? Every day there is some kid getting bashed up and when you see so many kids still going on the street, no place to sleep, it brings it home to me, my life again.
Do you sometimes feel when that comes - there was this period during the war, where a lot of it came back to you and it sapped your confidence and your energy. How do you prevent that happening?
Oh, I think you have to get on top of it. I think, I become .. I did mature and I had so many things in my life and goals to reach and that, I just put it behind me. My main thing was getting home to Dot. In fact, when you are overseas, that little strip of water, you know, doesn't matter how far away it is, is an enormous gap. If it had been New Guinea, there'd still be a gap, but it would be Australian territory you see. So when I did have those moments, when I thought of Dot, of course, I thought of my early years again. With all these lovely letters I get too with 'Dear Honeybunch ...' l[Laughs] As soon as I say that now ... must tell her about that. Honeybunch.
You're a very skilful man. You've got so many skills. You are able to do those extraordinary calls and sounds that you used to use on your radio programme. [Smoky laughs] Where did you learn those?
Oh in the bush mainly. Well, it's like everything. You know the mind takes everything ... everything that is sound and in life is stored in the brain and it never forgets. And it's off and on recall at times when you least expect. You can call on it. And of course the tragedy always come forward first, doesn't it? But I've always been tied up with wildlife and all that, and that's where my heart has always been ,and therefore my shows have been full of it too. And I've always injected it it into my ... into my performances when I go on stage and do my act. I always do the gallop of a horse and re-enact those early days and echoes from the past, you know of Flash galloping down the trail and the people love it,you know. Matter of fact, I always, wherever I go, I always carry a coaster, you know. I must have a thousand of these that I carry around with me and I'm never without it because if I see a kid in the street, I go up to him and put it to his ear and I say, 'Would you like a little adventure son?' And I do this: [MAKES A GALLOPING SOUND WITH HIS FINGERS ON THE COASTER] This is an old coaster: whee, whow, [FOLLOWED BY DOG BARKS AND DONKEY BRAY] and so we have material laid on: sound effects. [Laughs]
What gave you the idea that knife throwing would be a good thing to pursue? It seems to me like as if you were ... That's very controlled violence, isn't it? It's showing that you can very much be in control of something that you throw at the other person.
That's right. I think knife throwing came out of the war itself. I had a collection of these commando knives, which I brought back with me and I took over ... a lot of my mates gave me all their weapons too. And my truck is still filled with them out there. No, it was something that when I joined the rodeo, I went with Stan Gill. Let me tell you about Stan, because he couldn't read or write, but he was a great bushman and but with me we clicked straight away and we had a small rodeo that grew in time to become one of the biggest on the road. And of course, western rodeos and circus always attract a lot of people and it was sort of escapism too from the city. Once we got into the Outback with this big travelling show with all this great string of caravans and horses on the float and even a bucking camel, which we got at Maree [?], we injected something that would be the real wild west. Now most people do sharp shooting acts. Tex had a wonderful sharp shooting act. He, in himself, in my recall about Tex and pay tribute to him was a flamboyant, delightfully rude person and I loved him very much indeed. We understood each other, same as the late Buddy Williams. We were the first of the three in the first wave of Country Music, as it was known then. In our big tent shows, we never crossed each other's corridors. We advertised each other, wherever we went. Tex had a sharp hooting act and I said, 'Well, I'll make mine a knife throwing act'. And there was a man called Estaban Callebanto [?] that came out here with the Sidney Kidman, a big international rodeo and with the great Yak Kemat [?], who I was to meet some years later over in Hollywood and interview him for the Stockman's Hall of Fame. He was the man who taught John Wayne how to walk like a cowboy and always played a part of an Indian - a great stuntman. Cowboy Number One. Rode with Teddy Roseville's rough riders back in 1901. You see, I'm really steeped in ... in ... when it comes to other people. He'd been to Australia and he was loved and was very affectionately known among the rodeo circles. And the Gills and Scuthorpes [?] were like the Martins and the Coys, always fighting to be who's the best. Stan Gill will always work ... will always be say six feet tall in my life. An unfortunate accident happened during a show up at a place called Gayndah in Queensland, just after I came back from America to rejoin the rodeo and we were going great guns. I came back to do another episode with Kellogg's and in the meantime, there were a couple of very bad characters living eight miles out of Gayndah that came in the Saturday night and started shooting up the town and they came down to the circus and they wanted to get in and of course, Kitty Gill, who was Stan's wife, was in the ticket box and she wouldn't admit them. She said, 'Unless you've got the money, you can't go'. So they came around the back where we brought the horses in. Well, of course we've had a lot of skirmishes in the rodeo. The Darling River, the back of Bourke - I can remember many a fight there, people trying to burn down our tent, and the king pole nearly coming down and I turn up Colonel Bogey as loud as I could on ... to make the music so loud the audience couldn't hear the fight outside. It was one of survival but this is how it ended. This feller came around the back and, of course, the fight was on. They jumped Stan as he came out and he clowned the whole three of them. Down they went, one with a broken jaw. So we had to pull the tent down and the trucks were moving in to put the ring on and all the equipment to go on to the next town, and this feller had gone home and got a rifle. He came back intent to shoot everybody in the show. Now once again, God spared me because I was always with Stan telling yarns and he was leaving the side of the rope arena where we bucked the horses and this feller came at the back of him and said, 'I'm going to kill you, you bastard'. And before Stan could even measure him up, he turned around, he had a pipe in his mouth and smiling ... As he turned around, the bullet went straight through there [POINTS TO BETWEEN THE EYEBROWS]. And it was so ... The reflexes didn't even change beause he ... he just fell down with the pipe still in his mouth and a smile on his face. His brother, Jack, came running out and grabbed the rifle and ran ... across to the tent and said, 'You bastard, I'll take you on', so he started shooting across at him and here comes this great gun battle. Talk about a shot from the Wild West. And there you are, and he went over to his brother. He fired at this feller and he's fired it back at him. Bullets were exchanged and the feller came shooting from the hip with two bullets in the thigh and still came on shooting, and then when he found that he was bleeding, he made for the sidewalls where young Johnny West, one of the tent hands, was pulling out the tent pegs and he pulled up the side of the tent and looked. As he saw this feller out with the blood streaming from him and the rifle in his hand, he just picked up the iron tent peg and hit him over the head with it. And all he did was drop the gun and he went 100 yards before he fell down. Do you know that feller survived and got life with hard labour. Probably out by now. So Stan went and [that was] the end of the Wild West Show but I was spared because usually I was with him. So it's another episode of violence in your life. I wasn't there to see that thank God, but I did go to the cemetery at Rookwood, where all good cowboys go, and there Stan was laid down to rest in Rookwood. And the great and wonderful Lance Scuthorpe, the pioneer ... the man who started buckjumping shows in Australia, wept over the coffin and said, 'Stanley Stanley, you little boy, that used to sit on my knee ...' And a month later, Lance died too and I went to his funeral. Seems like I've going everybody's funerals and I always say nice things when I go there, like 'Three cheers for the man who can tell the best yarn', and in fact, when Jack Gill died, not long ago, like his brother, [he] died with his boots on. He was in Victoria and a car ran him down - crazy drunk driver while he was leading his horses across the road. Both men died with their boots on: the Gill boys. And so I had to go out there to Rookwood again and their son said to me, 'You've got a way with words Smoky. Will you say something nice for dad, because the pastor knows nothing about him'. And all the showmen that we knew for years and years - Greenall [?] and Jackson and they were all around there and Tex Morton was there - all dressed up with their best cowboy hats on and I said, 'This is a celebration day. We meet in the place where old friends meet in one way or another, so three cheers for Jack', and Happy said, 'Do you mind if I do one last thing?' And the ... the minister looked across at the funeral director and said, 'This must be the strangest funeral that I've ever seen'. And as the coffin lay on the planks waiting to be lowered down into the grave, he put on a little cassette and played Bill & Boyd, Put another Log on the Fire, [CLAPS HIS HANDS] and everybody did this and it was the greatest funeral we ever had been to. [Laughs]
Why do you think the rodeo used to attract such bad types? You were always having fights on those ...
There was always be the bad boys. We've always had the violence, in the back box [sic]- boys at the back. But we always had good supporting people like the police. All the country towns in those days, the police were always horsemen and they love horses and our rodeo was well and truly protected. And only for that well, we could have been in a lot of problems but you know Dougie Ashton, too, he had the same problem. And of course even worse, but they used to have the elephants, see. [They'd] bring out the elephants when they had the mobs and the elephants would pick up the chains on a whistle blow and they'd just sweep them down like ninepins. Well, we didn't have elephants but we had a lot of fists and I can tell you what, we had many a fight out the back of Bourke. [Laughs]
In order to survive you've had to be very versatile and develop a lot of different abilities and skills. Which are you proudest of? Your riding, your singing, your sound effects, your knife throwing? Which do you feel is the real you?
The real me is the writer, the ... I love singing. Singing is a way of expressing your emotions, how to say something nice about somebody or don't say it at all. And you can do it in songs and I think that singing to me will be always number one. The other paths are part of a PR exercise, you know - draw attention to what you do. It's also a survival kit because when you go to a place like America you have to do more than just sing. Which I proved my point and I was able to do strange things like going in, playing that understudy to Ted Scott and playing Petruchio and cracking the whip and taking the top off a bottle, and never done it in my life before, but the Lou and Leslie Great Agency booked me up and they wanted me to do a tour with the late ... should I say, folk singer, Burl Ives, who was in Australia at that time, and he was going to do a tour of America when he went back and we were to start off at Music City Hall and they wanted me to do all my whip cracking and knife throwing, and then I had a party at Paint your Wagon.
You developed a lot of these things, as you say, as part of an extraordinary PR achievement. Smoky Dawson was created, developed as an icon in Australia to represent something that everybody recognised and everybody could respond to. Was that done by you or done deliberately by Kellogg's, or what was it really? Have you always had a great ability for instinctive PR or did you plan it?
No, it was something that was spontaneous. It'll be ... I always had a thing that there is nothing in the world you can't do or be what you want to be. In fact I even wrote it and said, 'It's all written in the golden book and it's all written there for free'. [Laughs] A man can be himself but versatility comes into it. To survive in Australia, it is very difficult because it's such a small population. It's getting better now because we have a lot of migrants and a lot of people coming into the country and we are getting a bigger population. And ... but there again, there were a lot of meal tickets to go around, a lot of artists that are not sharing and they are amazed that I am still around, you know. Whereas in America you have countless millions and you can go around the world there in one act because by the time you come back, there's another million babies born. Here in Australia, it's a different kettle of fish. You had to do more than just sing. So I put it this [way]. Let's say for argument's sake I had a dose of laryngitis, which I did have not long ago during the bush fires. Well there again, see, my knife throwing act would have come in very handy then. I could have done the dumb act instead of sing, or speak for that argument sake. So in terms of being versatile, it's very necessary to do anything that you can think, that comes into your mind but there's always those who bring it to you. Kellogg's wanted me ... expected me to be something that was more of an icon, a word which has only crept into our vocabulary in the last few years ...
Well they would have said a star, wouldn't they? Well they would have said a star, wouldn't they? You were turned into a star.
Star. Now that's another, oh ... something I was very disappointed to hear, from the scientific point of view, as a burnt out satellite. Scientifically, if you look at the stars, you're looking at what they were because they are dead. If you are looking at them ... and of course life is like that, like a million light years away and to look in the galaxies ... See, I'm one of these people too that often probe the universe too, and the enormous space out there and why doesn't it have side walls to it? Where's the ending and where's the beginning? And of course, when you start looking at that, your mind gets boggled down because two and two don't make four, you see. Mathematically, it's argument.
Are you still a Catholic?
No, but I respect the Catholic religion. I got a lot of friends in the Catholic religion but you see, of course, I ... I join the fraternity of the Brotherhood of Masons, which I'm very proud of and our Grand Master is doing a wonderful job.
Why did you do that?
I was invited in to by another great Mason too, that's Ron Wills, who used to be at EMI. For years he was going and producing my records and he said to me one day, he said, 'You belong to the craft don't you?' I said, 'Craft?'
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