|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.
What was it that brought the radio programme, that promoted Kellogg's and also made Smoky Dawson a household name? What was it that brought that to the end?
Well, television - that monster that devours everything, material as fast as you make it. Now the radio show had had its time. It went ten years. And I was advised that I should get into television and I felt that because of the mistakes they were making in the early days of television I wasn't going to be the guinea pig. And although I'd had experience in the States on television, I decided that I'd like to keep that wonderful mystery, the wonderful feeling about radio, which has its own following and their own producers. So I didn't want to destroy that image where people might remember me as Smoky riding into the sunset and so just watch him come on television twiddling a gun and telling him, 'Now, kids, don't wear guns'. I didn't feel ... it wasn't my time for that. So I kept right out of television and everybody thought I was lost completely.
What did you do to earn a living then?
Well, Dottie presented me with about twenty-six beautiful acres up in a place called Ingleside which was to become the Smoky Dawson Ranch. And it was on my birthday and she gave me the keys to the gate. It was a beautiful place because it didn't have a building on it. There wasn't a house in sight and all was this wonderful mountains around, the Kuringai Chase and we had these lovely white rails that we put up, and a rodeo ground, and shoots and things and that's where I was to put my horse, Flash. At that time, Flash was down here at the council yards where he was sharing the meals with the old draft horses that used to pull the drays here. So we decided that he needed a better home than that. So, quite an expensive place for one horse.
When did you acquire Flash?
I got him as a two year old down at a place near Goulburn and he was running wild. He belonged to a fellow called Tex Mooney, and the Mooney family were wonderful horsemen, and they said, 'Well, if you like to catch him, he's spoiled. He's young and unbroken but he's a rebel'. So I went out there and got Flash and at that time I was advertised to appear at the Redfern Oval for the Smith Family. And of course there was a wonderful crowd down there at the South Sydney Leagues Club. And I put Flash on a float all the way from, oh, way up in Castle Hill. We came with Allen Dennis. He was the man who helped me put him on. He'd never been on that kind of a situation before. And this float I had was all beautifully done and pulled one horse, where I could watch him behind from driving my car and Kellogg's had written all over the back of it The Smoky Dawson Show, in great big black letters and the stockwhip on the side, and I had to be at the Redfern Oval in time for this big concert and to ride Flash around ... around the arena. And it poured raining, absolutely came down in torrents and I went for my life to get there as fast as I could and I could hear this horse whinnying behind me. He'd never been taken away from his home before. When I got down to the Redfern Oval all the police were out there and I think even the Commissioner of Police were there that day. The place was packed and Rolf Harris had run out of ... laryngitis really, from singing Tie Me Kangaroo Down, and everything had ceased on the showground. And there was about a foot of water. The maypoles had stopped going so they ... I grabbed the saddle and put it on his back and we never realised when we went in that he wasn't mouthed. Now I had these two forty-five Colts and I raced around the oval with him and fired off my guns. As I came around, there's Esmond Tester came forward with a film crew, to welcome me in and I pulled the horse up, but nothing happened. I said, 'I'll get you on the next round'. And I might tell you, I went close to that fence, so close to it, I thought I was going to go over the top. And Dot was standing back with all these kids behind this ... this railing fence. And the horse was on its side like a drrrrrrrrr, just like a car on two wheels. I did four laps and the ol' horse just petered out.
And that was the beginning of Flash, but why did you need a real horse for a radio programme? Well, we had to. The programme we did with Kellogg's demanded that Smoky Dawson have a super horse. He had to be a horse that would follow me for the rest of my life. He'd be a pal who would understand when I'm in danger and he was a horse that would always carry me away to safety. And therefore, we needed a horse with intelligence and he had to be a beautiful Palomino, of course. We couldn't let Roy Rogers have it on his own. I might say, he had four Triggers and four Triggers in the life of one Flash. Which was something of a record because nobody could understand why a place like Australia could only afford one cowboy and a horse, but then of course, they don't get Kellogg's every day, do they? Sponsors of that magnitude. Yeah, well, we had to have a ranch and that's where Flash went.
What did you train Flash to do? What did you train Flash to do? What could he do?
Well, he did some unusual things. First of all he was a bit of a rebel like I said, and I put him in the show ring to see how much talent he had, and they opened the gate and he just came charging straight at me with bare teeth. Open mouth, this big monster tearing down, galloping at me and I cracked my stock whip around him as he got near and he just bucked off and just missed my ear with his back heels by about that much. And then he went galloping around the ring and I cracked my whip a few times and he come galloping up to me, put his head on me shoulder, [and] decided that it would be safer to be near me than too far away. He didn't know what was coming from that ol' whip. But I might say, I never hit Flash once in my life with a stock whip, but did a lot of cracking around him. And I taught him to do all his turning right and left with a forty-five Colt blank in his ear, so if I wanted to go left I just put the gun up and gone bang and he'd go this way. And you could ride him with just a shoe string around his nose. Other than that ... but you couldn't pull him up. He was very tough on the mouth, unbroken and John Denver almost found out to his cost. He wanted to get on him and he bolted and nearly decapitated him under one of my pine trees up there. And ol' Flash: yeah, a wonderful horse. Lived to thirty-five. I had him all those years. Taught him wonderful tricks because they had to be in keeping with what I did on ... with the Kellogg Show and Flash was The Wonder Horse.
Was he more popular at your public appearances than you were?
Yeah, he was. You know the old cliche is never fly ... [never] follow an elephant act or any animal or a kid, but Flash stole the show and I think he'd be the only horse that ever walked down into Nock & Kirby's. Went down in their lift in York Street and walked through the ladies underwear department without soiling them and put him in a little corral there and met the people and then McDowell's had them ... [PHONE - SLATE]
What kind of things did you get Flash to do with you for publicity?
Well, we did a lot of unusual things. Matter of fact, we used to have a race. I used to do all these things up on the ranch to amuse the kids. We'd have the finishing line and we'd both get down ready to go, and I'd run and he'd follow me but he'd never ever pass me. I always taught him, so I always won. And I taught him to do scenes for films where you might be looking a young attractive lady - the cowboy and the lady situation and very embarrassingly, you know, introducing yourself and the horse comes behind and fixes it all for you by shoving you into her, nudging me in the back so my arms go around the girl and there we go on the ground. Very embarrassing situations at times. And he'd also do the Spanish Walk. He did all those wonderful dressage movements. He could jump, he'd do the Back and Forward. He could even play the guitar with his tongue. I used to play the chords and he'd just lick the chords. I think he thought there was something sweet on them but he was very good. We appeared at the Hordern Pavilion: the only time ever that, that a horse ever appeared on the Hordern Stage just after the Liberace Show and I did this for Kevin Jacobson. And the place was packed out. Col Joy's band was on stage and Flash ... I rode Flash up onto the stage, dismounted and then from one side I directed him to march to me just by hand signals, and when he got to the centre, he turned in and went to the mic and bowed, put one [hoof] down and bowed to the audience. Then I'd join him and then I stood beside him and we played a little game called 'the cowboy isn't speaking to his horse' and the caption there was, the lady kissed the horse but not the rider, so the cowboy isn't speaking to his horse. So I turned away from him like this, and he turned away from me, and of course then he tried to make up with me, knowing I had a little carrot here but nobody knew that, so he'd put his head right around there like this, and it was a beautiful scene. And I know that the people went crazy about this golden horse. He stole the show from me that day. But after four days there, without making a nuisance of himself, he couldn't help ... he couldn't contain it any longer. And I looked round and there's his tail going up with a spotlight on it and somebody starts, 'By God's sake get a box someone', because here it was coming down. Kevin Jacobson had a drummer in that day and this was about to fall on his drum. Oh, talk about ... it was the greatest bit of fertiliser you ever saw. And what do you think I did with it? I turned it into a part of my act. I auctioned it to all the ladies for their roses and I got five dollars and we put a bouquet around it with a little flower on the top so Flash wasn't actually disgraced. That was one wonderful episode. Another time too, was riding up King William St. or up William St. rather. I'm back in Adelaide. In Sydney here, to the Hyatt, to the Outback Bar, where I had to ride my horse down into the bar and meet the President of Hyatt International and there, of course, they put out a news flash that any of the journalists that would like to come along and join Smoky between ten and twelve, they'd have free drinks. [Laughs] That was one way of getting the media there. And I had to ride down the steps and it's all done up like an Outback Bar with the tin shed and fly marks on the wall, and we went up to there and ordered a beer. I think there's a photo of that somewhere of me, with Flash, having a beer. It wasn't really adopted. The horse had one look at it and turned away. I think he knew his master wasn't much interested in alcohol.
And when Flash died, that must have been a big loss in your life?
Yes, it was a big loss, because you must understand that, apart from anything else, one of the big highlights of my life with Flash, on air when he was just, you know, a two year old and he died at thirty-five. It's a long time to have a horse. You know, some people don't have their wives that long and, you know, well, Flash and I were invited to lead the Waratah Festival, which went eighteen years and in that course, that Flash had bowed to something like four Governors: Sir John Northcote. He was the first Governor and that was where they went a little overboard and had me lead the whole parade with this horse doing his marching act in front of the armed forces and the police horses. They found that protocol had been breached. I was not supposed to have taken the salute from the Governor, but Flash went over and bowed to him, and the Governor got up and saluted and he liked it so much he kept on doing it. I couldn't get him up. [Laughs] That was right in front of the Town Hall. Then it become the usual thing, every year, everybody congregated there to see Flash make his bow, but only after the police horses and the army had passed, so protocol was observed, but Flash was remembered by many thousands. Along the way, I remember some years later just at the end of that Waratah Festival Parade, I took my horse across from one side of the street to the other bowing to people with my horse and firing off my gun and a lady said, 'Oh', to me, she said, 'Would you look down to my little girl', and I said, 'Why sure'. And she said, 'Do you know', she said, 'Years and years ago, when I was a little girl, you bowed to me', and I realised how long we'd been leading that parade. It was a wonderful time with Flash and, I might say,it was very sad time when I lost him because he indeed was a wonderful friendship and all that came with that horse was friendship. He was almost like a human being. He had his own little thing and everybody loved him.
How did you use the ranch to make a living?
How did you use the ranch to make a living?
Oh yes, we became very inventive. We had to do a lot of things that a lot of people didn't do and that's work a bit harder. We went on to an empty piece of land and we built a complete western town there. The idea was that we could in this western town we could accommodate people so in the Saloon or the Barber Shop there'd be a bed [Laughs] until the Council took a dim view of it and said, 'You can't do that'. And they said, you know, 'You got a plan for this?' and I said, 'They're only temporary structures', he said, 'I think you still need a plan. They don't look temporary to me', and I had to convince them that there's nothing permanent in life. Everything was temporary and I tell you what, it proved it because when the bushfire came it all went. No, we had a wonderful time up there. We put about thirty years into it and Dot, God bless her, she looked after all the kids, because everybody found: oh, we'll take our kids up there, let Smoky and Dot look after them. Although we didn't have children of our own we soon found them, and in all the years we were there we were putting kids to bed. We were teaching them the good values of life I might tell you too. And they loved it. And anybody who had asthma lost it when they got up there and got it when they were going home. [Laughs]
So it was like a holiday camp?
It was more than a holiday camp. It was a training school for most everything. It was a venue for some of our greatest films and series. The Grundy organisation used my place extensively and they also used me as their technical adviser and I was also a horse master. I did a lot of stunting for them. I taught horses how to fall, with just the shot of a gun, where they were using trip wires and that was ... Bill was the first and only horse to ever do a fall by a shot, but of course there was a problem there too because every time a car backfired and there was a kid riding him, he'd fall down and the kid would think he was dead and there was quite a lot of commotion. Yeah, we had that and being film sets and riding school, teaching dressage, hiring out horses - very limited though because nobody would insure you on a horse. You know, it was like walking the tightrope when you ride a horse. You can be insured to be kicked by one but not riding it. So I think the ranch provided us with a lot of revenue in many ways. We also had a stunt team headed by Herbie Nelson, the late Herbie Nelson, and they used to use the land for their stunting and we'd put these things of an afternoon when people came to congregate up around the barbecue and they'd all dash past ... past the western town and there would be fellers falling out of trees and the gunshots and the horses would fall down of course with the gun and so it had a lot of use. And then we'd hire it out for birthday parties and I'd go along and sing happy birthday and then we'd have the little kindy kids coming in with their mothers and I'd sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with my little guitar and cut the birthday cake with the kids. I involved myself with children entirely from babies all the way up to grown ups. We put a lot of big seats on saddles that should never of been on them. That's how I got a lot of my back problems, by trying to be nice with ladies who were a little overweight and trying to carry them on to the horse instead of letting them get on themselves. I had a couple of horses that went swayback with some heavyweights.
Who looked after the business side of it?
Dot, my wife, is actually a great mathematician. She's always been a great bookkeeper and she's the one in charge of the money and I always feel that if I hadn't had Dot, maybe I wouldn't be as safe as I am today, financially. She's been a wonderful person and everybody went to her and she'd tell them when their time was up and take the money and away they went. Everybody was happy.
From the beginning, it's been a very strong professional partnership, hasn't it, your relationship?
Oh tremendously, yes. Yes in every way. We've been ... This is a wonderful thing. We do everything together, you know. It's ... Everyday is like a deadline too - talk about getting a news item out. We do everything together. We do a couple of radio shows a week and she's always with me, remembering the days when she had to change a needle on every record when she was at KZ Melbourne and now we do it today and everything is so easy, you know. We just push a button and you've got a CD going and it's so easy today and communication has changed magnificently.
So you're still doing radio shows?
Oh yes yes.
Well, actually FM stations. One of them is on a satellite of a 110 stations. I do that every week. That's 2RDJ Burwood and we have shares in the company. Also at Northside - 2MSB. We celebrated our ten years on air the other day. Robyn Wood from the ABC and the Symphony Choir, well known for all that. He and I and the Mayor of Willoughby went into this to start that station and we were with them right from the start when it opened in a little cottage up ... up there near the station in Willoughby. And it's absolutely magnificent now. It's a great station with a lovely feel and we talk to our people out there. The reason for doing this of course, I run a Country Music Showcase, Australian talent only, because I mean, [it's] one way that we can get it around, is for me to tell them all about what Country is, and give the artist their airing, and FM provides all that so we do two of those a week. That's about two hours of our showcase, so doing plenty of that.
Oh, yes, eighty? Even when you say it quickly, it's a lot, isn't it. Yes, I never realised I'd turn eighty, but here I am.
Smoky, with the beginnings of the whole idea of Country and Western in Australia, it was very much derived from an American tradition wasn't it? When you go back to the beginning of it ...
Oh Sure, yes yes ...
... you wear a hat that's very American and even ...
... It's a symbol.
... And even when you weren't in America learning to use those vowels, you still had modelled yourself on the American Western heroes. Why was that do you think? Was that part of a lack of Australian confidence or was it ... Where did that come from?
Well not really. I think if you look at the Australian character in general, you have either got to look where are we ... are we ... are we wearing the same things as Americans do or are we using things that come from England? Our ... We don't have a true Australian dress. Everything we have, either we go back to bowyangs and concertina leggings and then boots and things like that and moleskins and be very English, or use what has come from America. And let me say, I've got some old photos that show in Hooves and Horns many years ago a picture taken in Australia of our drovers and also on the Santa Fe trail in America, and they both wore the same thing. They both wore the waist coat and the big hat. The hat was only there for, of course, the intense heat that we have in the Outback and everybody today, if you are looking at Country Music, you're looking at the universality of it, because it has spread it's wings all over the world. The origin of Country Music was in America by the one and only Jimmy Rogers, the late Jimmy Rogers, and he was more or less a traditionalist and a folk singer and his songs, of course, are still alive today. But they don't have the appeal that is in the category of Country Music as needed in the marketplace of today, which is very sophisticated and therefore, the symbolising Country Music now is the hat. If you look at part of my gear that I'm wearing now, there's not much part of it is American. These boots that I wear here are bought in Tamworth for thirty-five bucks and I'm going all over the world and everybody [says], 'Where did you get those buckskin boots?' And the belt I've got there - a Magnusson belt there, see - was made for me something on 1939, the outbreak of war ,by a fellow working at Fisherman's Bend, on the aircraft, and that little buckle belt there was made from Geralium. That's what they made aircraft out of. And don't talk about my wealth and my jewellery but they're still there. I carry it everywhere with me. It's totally Australian. Sure to God it's Australian. This is Australian [TOUCHES NECK] and the hat: this is the only part that isn't Australian. It's a beaver. It's a J. It's a real John Stetson and I like it very much because it was given to me when I was over in America and the one thing about these sort of hats too, is they never go out of shape. You know, haven't you seen those movies where the cowboys fight and their hat never comes off and their guns never ... are always full and never empty? Well, you are looking at a hat that stays on when you're riding. But you use one of the old wool ones we make here and they blow off on the first ride and you've got to tie them down. No, the character of Australia is here because if anybody today thinks he's dressing like an Australian, he's not because he's ... first place those wearing jeans. All those who advocate we should be totally Australian and wearing Australian dress, are walking around in these running shoes that are all American. They wear American jeans and rodeo is the same. We are affiliated with the world in rough riding. In the early days of rough riding, the Australian's had their own type of saddles. The Americans had a different one entirely - always had a better one than we had. And we bought them, and we won, so we had a lot to learn from our American cousins and that's what we have to do now. We have to open our minds and let it go and whatever comes into your mind, go with it.
Were you criticised at all for being like a Yank?
I was by a few but you get a few people along the way who are really obsessed. You know, like, you know, in the case of people like in the wilderness, you know, I'm a moderate. I think that when you come to the point where you ... where everything has to be this and that, you know, it causes argument. I walk away from it. But I have been described by only one person, that Smoky unlike Slim or Buddy Williams and what, has had the American influence thrust upon him and he's more followed in the American cowboy tones in all his dress. Well, that's a lot of rot, you know, because when I came back from America I came back as an Australian. I never came back with an American accent although I had to adopt one over there. And I was ... I provided them with their first hero and the hats I wore had been worn by the drovers. They all wore them. The first time they were heroes too and Jingles, God bless him ... The late Allen Herbert was Jingles by the way, in case you didn't know. Allen Herbert's passed ... is gone now but his counterpart was Andy Devine in America with Wild Bill Hickock. Wild Bill Hickock and Jingles for the same [?] company. Here was Smoky Dawson and Jingles. So there you are. Jingles was a big character but he wasn't by any means Americanised and my accent in all those radio shows was purely Australian, backed by great Australian actors.
What aspects of the Country tradition, that we follow here, are really peculiarly Australian and different from America?
Well, if you go back to moleskins you will. You can still buy those sorts of things but there are very few things now that are not American, or come from another part of the world. All our fashions are decided in Paris, whatever. People don't go dressing like that do they. The only thing I can identify, you go in the Outback and see them wearing the big hat. Although they are being made in Australia now you see. But ...
But I mean in the songs that you sing in the Country and Western tradition in Australia, the songs you've made up, that you've written and recorded ...
So could you describe the way in which that happens.
Yes, and I might add to being called a cowboy is a phrase that's been carried on and on. I never call myself a cowboy. I've always been called a cowboy and the rough riders are never called rough riders. They have always been cowboys. The cowboys. It's just a term that has been nationalised around the world. And for that matter, then, things like songs now, in the early parts, I wrote a lot of songs that were American songs. I sang a lot of American songs and today I'm asked by a lot of my fans to sing some of the old favourites. And now, what is wrong with Cool Water? What is wrong with You are My Sunshine? Now all those that advocate you shouldn't be singing American songs, you should be singing Australian songs, they all sing You are My Sunshine and never realise that that's an American song written by Governor Jimmy Davis, who I knew very well. So, you've already started singing American songs when you start singing You are My Sunshine. Now I mix it up because people like to hear some of the those old great standards - Classical Westerns. And I am known more as a Westerner than I am as a Country. And a lot of people object to the word hyphenated: Country-Western. We don't want the Western. They don't realise that the Western was once the one that cradled Country within it. All the sorrows of a cowboy and his hardships and his love-making behind closed doors with spurs on, all came from the Western and now it's Country, but of course it's been sophisticated to make room for the Pop people. Now Australian songs: I'm writing a lot of them and you can't get anything better than The Days of Old Khancoban or High Country, can you?
How many songs have you written and recorded?
Well, I just can't go into numbers but there are quite a number. I've got a lot there that I still haven't had published yet, although I have my own publishing company and I'm writing songs practically every day, but I don't record them every day because it's very very expensive putting down a record. My last, The Road to Anywhere, cost me in the vicinity of $42,000. Well some people don't have that much money to put down on a house and you know, to think that you'll put that down on your own ... Now I make my own records and I lease them out to whatever record company require them for a period of two years and then I get them back again. And away they go again, you know, compilation set up and they've been on Macca's programme. They've gone on ABC Records and Khancoban has gone around the world. In fact High Country has been played in Beijing, China, introduced by 2CH Sydney. And now EMI have released Khancoban - EMI in England. So two great Australian songs. Not American.
So in the heyday of your recording though, you did record with a lot of the big recording companies. Who did you do most of your recording with?
Oh, well, it was known as the Columbia Graphaphone Company. Graphaphone. A lot of people call Gramaphone, and of course, I often pass the old place down there. If you go down Parramatta Road at Homebush, where I first went there many, many years ago back in 1941. I wandered in and saw Arch Kerr and did my first recording session of six sides in one morning. And I was horribly sick going out on the train. I was so poor I couldn't afford to come on a plane. [Laughs] Come over on the train, put up at the YMCA, and went out the next morning and when I got there, they said, 'Right, we've got two and a half hours to do six songs and no rehearsing', and we had a couple of microphones and it went directly onto wax. They did all the cutting there. They did the balancing up first. All the balancing was done and we had the best musicians you could find. I think of some of the boys from ... from the Trocadero - Ted McMinn on fiddle and Abe Remain's boys, and I had Charlie Lees from the Prince Edward Theatre - at that time, the greatest guitarist there was in Australia. They weren't just Country artists, they were straight up musicians and, as I say, I was brought up as a musician. I learned to read and ... read music and write it and I had all my songs all written out there and we'd get into a studio at Alberts, in a little room, crowded in there with a bass the night before, and go out there and they had to learn it off by heart. And we'd stand in front of the microphone and have terrifying moments and they'd just say, 'Okay, no coughing. No, nothing. Just wait', and we'd look through at the panel there, the control room, and they're all ... It was so clinical - EMI in those days, you know. Everything was spit and polish. Everyone running around with white coats on like they were doctors or something. Arch would look through the window at me, hoping I'd do a good job and then on would come this little red light and then a beep, beep, beep, then beeeep and we'd all jump, take a deep breath [Laughs] and away we'd go. And you couldn't hear yourself back because there was no tape in those days and you just projected straight into the microphone and in two months time you got a test record. I might say that those records are being released this year: Smoky in the Forties, and they are still very good.
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