|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: February 8, 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.
Smoky, could you tell us about what you did in the country, when you used to travel around with your big shows and when you were involved in rodeos?
Well, what I used to do was throw knives. That was one of my main performances. I think I had the only type of knife throwing that's ever been in this country, because where everybody considered that knife throwing was about having a balanced knife - it had to be balanced, I was throwing anything that had a point on it: screwdrivers and even battleaxes. And I did this for something like three years, with the late Stan Gill who still walks tall in my memory.
How did you learn?
Well now all this had rubbed off from the islands. As you know before we came home we had all these commando knives - machettes, and all sorts of things, and during my spare time, in my earlier times, we used to all be throwing bayonets at trees. You know, sticking bayonets in. And I found myself getting very ... quite efficient with this. And when I decided to do this in the circus, I tried it out with one of my old commando knives. And I bought up a lot of them and took the handles off them - the brass handles. They're all made of surgical steel and so I just put leather handles on them, so that it would give them a good balance. And then I learnt to throw by the handle as well as the blade. First of all I started throwing at balloons and things like that. And Stan Gill's great rodeo ... I was partners with Stan 'til the day he died. And we were coming down through Bega, New South Wales and ... on the way to Melbourne of course, to match up with Dot again. This was post war. And I wrote and told her I was starting a new act. I was throwing knives. So ... and she wanted to know what I was throwing at so I said, 'Balloons'. So what we were doing, we were putting this board up inside the tent and putting balloons on them and just with kits throwing the knife and piercing a balloon. And of course it never went over everywhere. So ha, ha ha. So I didn't do the act - I decided to do it live. And Stan said to me, 'How are we going to start it? We'll have to get a volunteer', and I said, 'Well what say we try out one of the tent hands?' Now the tent hands ... we'd pick up fellers along the way who want a job, [to] put up the tent. And when they signed up they did all sorts of duties. Now to get them to volunteer to stand for me they were offered to be free of all those duties: be Smoky's target for the night. But first of all I had to prove that I was accurate, like splitting apples and all this kind of thing with a commando knife. I learnt it all. My artillery I had then were plough shears I had made into a double battleaxe, and machettes - anything that had a handle, and tomahawks. So it was quite an array. And the board was about that wide, [GESTURES ABOUT TEN TO FIFTEEN CENTIMETRES] - that thick rather. It had to stand the impact of a five pound battleaxe, which generally landed over the shoulders of the target. And the last one was the pumpkin on the top of the head which I split with a tomahawk. And they used to stand sideways with an apple with a dowelling put into the core - where the core is, held up like that [GESTURES TO HIS MOUTH]. And then what I used to do was, with a commando knife, split the apple just under his nose. That was some feat I can tell you, because I was running out of targets. The first volunteer just flitted the next night and never come back to the circus, so we had to rely then on audience. Today I would never even think about it because I'd have a writ on me straight away, just for upsetting their nerves at the thought of it. But the people that I used to call out to, to come down and volunteer to stand for me, and I said, 'I promise you I won't go even close to you. I'll just demonstrate on the board, throwing knives around you and make a lovely picture - be like a frame round you'. And they were all girls. The girls used to come down. The men wouldn't take it on. And I'd stand down there and Dot said, 'It's amazing. It seems like the girls have got more courage than the men'. I think it must have been the hormones really. [Laughs] They were getting turned on. [Laughs] However, by the time I got to Melbourne I had perfected my act and we were showing out at Ringwood and I invited Dot to bring Mum. Her mother was alive then. And her mother said, 'What's he doing?' and she said, 'He's throwing at balloons'. And I'll never forget it, they came in and we had this special seat for them and Dot looked up and there was a big policeman standing at the door. Well, we always had them in case we had louts in the show trying to take over. We always had a bit of a problem then, even then - travelling rodeos. And when they carried this big board out, she said, 'What's he going to do?' And then out came this young feller. We had a man do it this time. All dressed in white like he was an athlete. And we had this board painted black with just red jagged and white jagged edges around it, like the lid of a coffin. And he stood against this board. 'My God, he's not going to throw it at him!' And I said, 'Well ladies and gentlemen, I have never done this act before. [Laughs] This is my first time I've ever used a human target', you see. For the benefit of the audience, because it had to ... up to the time I was throwing at balloons at trying this out. Anyway he said, 'But this young feller here, he's quite safe and I assure you if you just hold your breath and nobody screams, everything will be all right'. So we played it along and I had all these things on a table. All these shiny axes. All chromium plated by the way, and I'd sharpen them all up. Then I'd dip my hand into a basin and put a pair of gloves on. I'd put on. Make it very spectacular, like a Buffalo Bill. R. M. Williams had made me a beautiful jacket, fringed jacket, like Buffalo Bill, which I still have to this day. And then I'd just wield this big axe around my head and say I was about to throw it. My God, you should have seen everyone putting their heads down. And then I'd proceed to throw all these were landing, not out like I had with girls, but right in close - pinning their clothes down. I used to go right 'round so the whole target was completely ringed. And I used to put knives underneath each armpit, and then I'd spread his arms out until he was right there. Then I'd put a knife across here from that angle and one across this way, (GESTURES A KNIFE GOING ACROSS THE THROAT TO ABOVE THE SHOULDER, AND ANOTHER ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE - CROSSING IN FRONT OF THE THROAT] so that he was completely laced in. And then I'd fill in the gaps here and there. And then I'd finish up splitting the apple in the mouth and hit the pumpkin on the head with a tomahawk. By this time the audience ... Some of them had recovered. Some people fainted. They couldn't stand it. And it was amazing. I never ... All the time that I've been throwing and I've been throwing a long time now, I have never hurt anybody, never hit anybody.
Did it ever cross your mind that you might?
No. Had I thought that I would have. And the old ... Of course the old cliche is, oh, 'Do you ever miss?' You know. 'Do you ever miss?' And I used to think to myself, Well gee, thank God I do miss because if you ... the problem is, you see, a lot of people think you put a target up and you throw at the target, but you don't try and hit him. And it's not like that at all. You don't even see the target. You don't see them. You stand them up there. I don't think they see you too. They're petrified. And they ... They just stand there and all you tell them is, 'Don't move. Don't move'. So by the time they get through it they feel exhilarated. That's marvellous and of course everybody wants to be in the act.
But you're very confident in your accuracy.
Accuracy is so much in the time ... When I started doing the big tours, travelling outback up to Queensland, down across into Victoria and South Australia ... We used to do national tours with this great travelling show with the late Stan Gill, a wonderful showman, dead and gone now. But the crowds were fantastic. Everybody came to see the shows. In the middle of winter they'd be there with their greatcoats on, sitting up there on these planks in the circus. We'd have circus acts too by the way. But the knife act was the one - the most sensational of all. And in between the buck jumping and we had this on. A real wild west. And the thing was, doing matinees and things like that I had done so often, I'd become ... I couldn't even get a thrill out of it myself. And I used to cook for myself in my caravan and they'd come and call me in the middle of a casserole. 'Smoky, you're on'. And then run in and there was my big board there and I'd march in and dinner half eaten, wanting to get back to it. And they'd stand them up, clonk, clonk, clonk, out and back I'd go and finish off my dinner. And it got that way in the end that, you know, I had to think of other things such as throwing with a mirror. That was the hardest of all - throwing backwards using, standing in front of a mirror. And so if you stand in front of a tall mirror as long as you can't see the target you stand in front of him, you're throwing away from him. So I was throwing tomahawks - all tomahawks these were. Because I'd seen a Mexican doing apples on the top of somebody's head, you know, with little knives, edgeways on. I never tried that. But I tried the mirror job. And then I started doing it through my legs - throwing it up in the air back to front, landing over the top of the head. And you'll see, if you want to see a few films of mine, where I was actually throwing from thirty feet - long shots, which I did for Channel 9 some years ago, for Brian Trenchard-Smith, where I did a series throwing from 10.30 in the morning till midday at one of the stunt men, who stood there all that time, getting different angles: close shots, long shots, slow motion shots, and throwing from different distances using the same procedure, same knives, either by the handle or by the blade, without having to mark out my steps. Everywhere I was I knew where to put a knife in. It was one of those uncanny knacks that I developed. And I took that act with me all the way to America.
So what happened with your radio show? How did that happen?
Ah, that was ... That was I suppose one of the greatest highlights of my life, bar getting married of course, to Dot: arriving in the United States on a seven year contract with options up to twenty-one. Until Dot cried and wanted to come home. She thought we were put into exile. We sold up everything and went away. And I took with me these great big trunk of battleaxes and the Customs said, 'You better come in and undo this trunk here', he said. 'We can't lift it off the platform, it's like it's nailed to it'. It was full of my armory. 'What's this for?' I said, 'Oh that's for ... it's a public relations exercise I'm doing. I'm doing a lecture tours around the colleges and the universities of America on Australia'. 'My God'. I said, 'Nobody gets hurt. We're just showing them what type of people we have down there'. Anyway things went very well for me in America. And as you know, it's one of the toughest places in the world. I think New York City is about the hardest city in the world. Like the rock it's built on.
Why did you want to go?
Well I'd run out of steam here. You know, I'd run out of all the glitter. The ABC were my greatest ... you know, the ones who give me the work, and my last show was in concert with the late and great Peter Dawson, who was my wonderful friend 'til the day he died. He always used to call me affectionately his 'illustrious nephew'. He taught me a lot about singing too. How to get the best out of my voice.
You weren't actually related though, were you?
We had a wonderful relationship, Peter Dawson and I. I look on him as one of the greatest Australians ever. And with that, and the snakeskin tie he gave me, that he autographed ... I wore that all the way to America. And as I say, I arrived in New York and looked up at the tall skyscrapers ...
But you still haven't told me, why did you want to go to America?
Yeah, I wanted to prove myself a little bit more because I playing to about seven or eight million people. And the buildings here were like two storeys and three storeys. When you looked across over there that seemed to be the land of opportunity. Where Australia was really the land of opportunity, but America was to any artist. They all have to go overseas to find whether they can work. And with me ... I took with me a kangaroo. In fact there were four ... four kangaroos, which were to follow me on Pan American and I was to do a lecture tour with these kangaroos on Australia. And I was signed up by an American showman, who ... a feller called John Calvert of the Falcon series in Hollywood - who was a great magician too. And he was down here, saw my talent and said, 'Boy if you were in America you'd be a multi-millionaire with what you do here'. I said, 'The population's too small for me', and you know, it's like comedians here, when you crack a joke you've got to think of another one because your joke's heard by everybody in one go. And it's a very hard way to exist. And to live in this country and still be a star in your own country in such a small population is most difficult. Which means you have to have versatility. You had to do more than one thing. Hence the knives, the axes, whip cracking, riding a horse, making dog noises, and all this kind of thing. You had to be versatile. And it paid off because when I got to America, if I fell down on one thing, I had another to fall back on. If I got laryngitis I threw knives. It was a dumb act - pretty dumb. Anyway, as I say, I landed in there with all the letters from Australia, from Ron Wills at EMI to say I was one of their top recording artists. And they sent a letter to Steven Sheltz (?) in New York City, who was in charge of RCA, would he consider recording me? And when I got there I handed over all my beautiful wax records that were all on 78s, he had a little bit of a laugh at the time, because they were looked at as museum pieces over there. We were so far behind. And he said, 'I don't know whether you'll get by in the south with your accent', he said, 'Because Australians aren't too well understood'. He said, 'So you better get down there and develop yourself an accent and create a demand for your records'. So Dot and I, after spending half our Australian income in one night in New York ... we headed down across ... under the Hudson and down the Pennsylvania turnpike all the way down there to Atlanta and into the Deep South. And I was under contract to Calvert to ... who were then to promote me for television and movie theatres. Think I'd make movies like Gene Autry, all this kind of thing, which didn't eventuate because half way through the thing I had a motor accident. This is a quick way to a thing, you know, that nearly ended my life, but down in the south, you know, when you talk as an Australian, you're not understood.
So did you develop the accent?
Yes I did. Dot was horrified, being the teacher of English. She said, 'They won't change me', but she had to explain a lot. When you come out on a ... These schools down there by the way, they're enormous. And of course you're billed across America just like you are in clubs here. All the schools receive your posters and it's like a theatre.
So you went on a sort of colleges and schools lecture tour?
Yes but I did it on my own bat, mainly. My manager fell down badly on it because he was going overboard. He was sort of overwhelming the way he'd go and talk to the principals of schools about me, and ask them what religion they were and all that, until they got to dislike him. And so he went down further. He couldn't get anything for me. He left me in ... He left me in Chattanooga and while I was there I developed a wonderful relationship with a Van Campbell, the manager of WAGC Chattanooga, which was on top of the Hotel Patten. And that was a wonderful place because I learnt all about the south and Rock City Mountain and the Battle of the Clouds and the North and South War. I become steeped in American folklore and the great wars. So I needed all this because what I wanted to tell them about how we were like them in many ways to the Americans, our American cousins. And I wanted to show them all about our Australian continent down here: the last frontier which I knew so well, the outback. We had all the ... all the songs that I'd written about the outback and we likened that to the great treks to the gold rush days to California as we did to the west here, in the Kimberleys too. Australia had a lot in common so I was a kind of Australian ambassador of goodwill.
What professional possibilities were opening up for you when you had the accident?
Oh dear, oh dear. Up to that time I was really proving myself because I developed this accent and I remember the first day if I may say so, before I get to the accident, I really had become quite good in Chattanooga. I was booked up everywhere. I was doing two and three schools a day. Twenty-five cents they used to charge the students to come in and they'd have a thousand in the assembly in one go, from all ages because I can talk from little children up to adults in the same go in a way that I could embrace everybody. And they would split the difference with me. The school would keep half and I'd have the rest. I made more money than I ever would make in television. And so that was the big thing. Schools are big business. And I had a kind of way to talk and when I came out of course Van Campbell had trained me a bit - changing my words to ... from 'them' to 'thayem' and 'because' to 'baycowse' and 'that' to 'thayet' and 'aye' instead of 'I' and get all that, because to them I sounded like a Cockney. So I can say, 'Howdy folks, I'm surely glad to meet you owll, you owll', and 'You loo'ik goo'ed' and I'd say, 'I'm sorry I sayed that' and 'Because of thaat I won't say ed again'. And bit by bit they said to me, 'You're gradually learning, but you sound awfully English'. And I never really got the southern accent right but now and again I can 'tawk like thayet' and they think I do have something - some little bit of possibility of learning a southern accent.
Did you do any recording while you were there?
Yes I did quite a bit of recording around in Nashville. But not in the commercial use, only more what they called 'demos'. They were to get me a contract with a wonderful organisation and the largest and greatest Country Music publisher in the world: Acuff Rose. And I'm talking about, and with great affection, that wonderful man, Fred Rose. Fred Rose, who started it all - Nashville's first publisher, who did a lot with Gene Autry. And it was he that took Hank Williams to try and keep him straight and keep him off the drink, that managed him, rewrote his work, did all that and heard my little effort of a song called The Last Supper after an accident that I had. And now to that accident, yes? Well, I had a call from my manager, who just as a last resort, went down to Shreeport, Louisiana to a station called KWKH, where that word you might hear from John Laws saying 'Hello world', that's where we heard it: 'Hello world'. And we had the Louisiana Hayride every Saturday night with Jim Reeves. And Jim Reeves wanted me on his programme and that was to be my first entrance. You had to go on the Louisiana Hayride before you went on to the Opry. Because the Opry ... the Grand Old Opry in Nashville was set aside only for native born ... for those born in the hills and steeped in that folklore and here I ... I didn't have even the accent. So I had a long way to go before I ever was to be a guest of Ernest Tubb, which I eventually did. But so, he sent me a telegram and said, 'Pack up, get down here as fast as you can. You're booked on Saturday night on the Jim Reeves Show. So I said to Dot, 'Oh my God, we've made it'. So I had a new Mercury ... Mercury car, all set up to go and that was about, oh, 2000 mile south, in the heat of summer. Dot said, 'Look, you go ahead and get some petrol in the car and I'll pack up. By the time you come back we'll be ready to go', because we were keeping house then. And I went down, got in the car and my mind was on this thing, you know, and I just on Channel 9 you know - cloud nine. As I went through the intersection there, the light was green then halfway across it turned red. And the next thing I knew there was a big Cadillac came up on my left and went right through me. And I was going ... tearing across the road heading for this great telegraph pole. Now in Chattanooga, that's where the power of the Tennessee Mountains, the Tennessee Valley Scheme, like our Snowy River Scheme, provides all the electricity for Chattanooga. And my thoughts on that short ... let's say my short ride across the road, got into my head was I was going to wrap around this and be electrocuted. Funny thought isn't it? But you know in seconds in your life when you think you've only got that to that corner, I was able to turn that car across the road and head straight for the corner, to a brick wall to avoid the post. At the same time, I could see Dot's face in front of me as clear as if she were there, and the thought's racing by that I'll never see her again. And do you know, it transported back to her because when the police came to tell her about my accident she hadn't even bothered packing, she knew something had happened. She's always been psychic like that. And do you know I even had time to think about not hurting people. The great fear of being killed had vanished completely. The adrenalin was so high with me I could even taste it in my mouth. My heart was just frantic. All that nervousness had come back, shattered that ... there was sort of a fear of not hurting somebody else. And the car mounted the footpath and I saw all these blacks running everywhere. And I hit this ... the wall on an angle and the engine came straight up onto the seat. I broke the steering wheel on my chest. My head hit the top of the ... the ... the ... the glass and my teeth ... come out through my teeth ... went through my lip. And my shin bone was just right down to the bone where I went underneath the dashboard. So there I was. I was spared. The engine there it was sitting on the seat and the whole thing was just in a circle of crushed metal. And I pulled myself out of that and my days of an army medical man ... shock: you need plenty of sweet, sugar in your tea, coffee, all that.
So you were a bit of a mess.
How long did it take you to get over that one?
Oh. It didn't take long. I love life you know. [Laughs]
But you were long enough recovering to miss out on your big night.
Yes I missed that one with Jim Reeves, who I worshipped. I thought Jim Reeves was such a wonderful singer. That would have been my great stepping stone to the Opry. And of course, I probably might have changed the course of my whole life. Instead of coming back to Australia I might have even stayed in America. So even these little things have some bearing of which way your life's going. You know you have command of your destiny but not your fate. And I always feel that these things are meant to be somehow. The good Lord wanted to spare me a little bit longer. But I did wake up in the hospital there, laying on a slab, with nothing on, just a sheet. I thought: Oh I must be in heaven somewhere, or in the morgue. And there was a policeman who wanted to arrest me for running a red light. And there was no witnesses. They said I run a red light. And he said, 'You run a red. You run a re'ad'. I said, 'I didn't run any re'ad. I got heet', in my best southern accent. He said, 'Well the good lady says you did, you did'. And I said, 'I didn't'. And anyway they were stitching up my mouth here while I was semi-conscious, stitching it all back and making it look up like this. And my chest was absolutely paining because, as I say, the steering wheel had smashed on my chest. Thank God, but I got a terrible whiplash out of it and my head was aching fearfully and I couldn't walk. So he said, 'I'm afraid we can't keep you here but I'm afraid I'll have to arrest you for reckless driving'. 'But I'm a casualty. You going to arrest me?' So then Dot came in, looked down on me and she said "What are you trying to do to him?" And all the people that I'd made friends with there in Chattanooga - Van Campbell, and all the civic clubs that I'd been made honorary member of, the Kiwanas, the Rotarians, the Optimus Clubs, of which I was an honorary member - all came to my help. They'd all heard about it on the radio. And there was the radio station there doing a broadcast about it and he knew a judge that would help me out. And the big welcome of course when you come in ... into the city in Nashville is 'Welcome South brother', it's a lovely warm feeling. Here I was being treated like this. Because they'd brought the black Moria up and he said ... and I remember this lovely lady, Rosemary, who had married one of the GIs, an Australian girl, who took me home and nursed me. And she was there too, crying her eyelids out and she said to Dottie, 'Dottie you're not going to let them put Smoky up in that are you?' And Dot said, 'I don't care if he goes on a dirt cart, so long as he can walk'. And the man looked at me, he said, 'You needn't get inside. Come sit up in the driver's seat with me'. So he gave me a little bit of respect. And down it went, down to the lock up, with this great cavalcade of cars following behind. And there was the recruiting officer from the Navy with his Southern flag flying on his big Cadillac, and Van Campbell and all friends and news reporters, and people looked in the street to see this strange procession going down. 'What is it?' 'I don't know, must be something important'. Then I got down there. It was only a few minutes then I was bailed out. I was bailed out for reckless driving. And I was put in ... I was sitting down there waiting ... waiting to be released, and I was sitting by a couple of fellers who were gun running and all sorts of things. And I often think back and think: What if I didn't know anybody? How would I have fared? I really would have had a terrible time.
Had anybody else got hurt except you?
No, except the lady driving the car. She was the wife of the Chief City Engineer of Chattanooga so you know whose side they were on. And she was on her way up to meet her husband at City Hall where the Police Department was, where the Mayor met, where everybody was, and the Crown Prosecutor. And here was me - not only an out of town driver ... Of course I was being arrested for reckless driving, but she was only cited because she lived there. But I was also an alien. And this is where you feel people coming to another land. Here I was - I wasn't an American. I was an Australian and I didn't even talk right. I did my best. [Laughs]
So was it the accident that decided you to come back to Australia?
That accident was to change the course of my life and my destiny you might say. Because when we went down to the court the judge looked at us once, and he happened to be at one of the big Kiwanas, a big meeting that I was a guest for and I was described as a Will Rogers. And he said, 'Mr Dawson,' he said, 'I never enjoyed so much in my life your wonderful speech', and he said, 'I wish I could help you', and I said, 'You can help me. Let me out of all this'. And he looked across at the lady, he said, 'What all happened?' She said [QUOTED IN A SOUTHERN ACCENT], 'I don't know. I was coming up the hill and there's this man coming by and I ... all I know is that the ... the light was green when I went and the next thing I'd gone right into him. And my mother had broken her shoulder, she hit it so hard'. Well, it stove the side of the car in. But the thing was, look at the double standards here. The same judge had prosecuted a man only about a week before because he'd been pulled up at the traffic light at the back of another car, where another car came in the back of him and crushed him. And so he said, 'You did the hitting'. Although he was pushed into it he did the hitting.
So did he let you off?
He said to me, 'Are you two people insured?' And we said, 'We all are'. And he said, 'Well I think I'll leave it to the civic courts to do that. Have a nice day Mr Dawson'. And so on my crutches I waddled out and one of the men from the Kiwanas came over to me. He said, 'I'm a lawyer and I would like to take up the case for you and we'll sue her for $25,000'. And he said, 'This case is not over yet'. Well by that time I'd gone - hitchhiked my way down there to Nashville with this record under my arm of The Last Supper and I met the great Fred Rose. And there were all these wonderful people there and he invited me in and his son, Wesley, who has died since. And Bud Brown, the accountant, who signed me up on a three year exclusive song writing contract and took my record and said, 'Smoky, we guarantee you a major label and you're under contract to us and the management will do the same as they did with Hank Williams'. I become the party of Acuff Rose, who have been the greatest friends of mine of my life. They're dead and gone now. Roy Acuff's gone and I got all my pictures of them. I've gone back to America so many times since then and been feted. They've joined me up among them as their Reunionaires along with the American All Time Greats and I've had some wonderful times. And so, you know, our American cousins and Australians are now in a bond of friendship which proves the universality of Country Music.
[end of tape]