Australasia's First Superstar - Tex Morton


Amongst the rose bushes at Nelson’s Marsden Valley Cemetery can be found the humble brass plaque that reads “A millionaire in the experience of life”. It marks the remains of country music pioneer Tex Morton, a man whose career had many lives, stories and accomplishments, all starting from his boyhood town of Nelson.

Australasias First Superstar Tex Morton 1

Tex Morton Australasia's First Superstar. Image supplied by author

From humble beginnings Tex went on to bask in the limelight of show business, inspiring  many musicians on the way. In an era when the majority of recorded New Zealand vocalists were either opera singers, such as Christchurch’s Frances Alda and Blenheim born Rosina Buckman, or Māori artists such as Ana Hato and the Rotorua Māori Choir, Tex Morton offered something completely different.

Tex left New Zealand for Australia at a time when American artists such as Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry were at the forefront of radio air time in New Zealand. Inspired by them, he went on to become the father of country music in Australasia.

Born Robert (Bob) William Lane in Milton Grove (probably corner of Collingwood St and Riverside) Nelson in 1916, to parents Margaret and Bernard Lane, Tex credited his early musical influences to his “Great Grannie”, an early settler to Nelson who sang songs of her childhood, brought out from England by other pioneers. He was also an accredited boy scout, becoming at one time one of the most decorated in the country. The Boy Scouts provided him with one of his first audiences, as a guitar player and singer. He soon bacame well known in  Nelson.

Sitting on the Nelson waterfront, Bob would play guitar while listening to the sailor's stories as they rested on the quay side. These sailors, as well as “the local Māori boys” taught Bob chords and songs which helped develop his repertoire, allowing him to perform in charity bands during the Great Depression or during hop picking around the Tasman District. Although the "apple of his family’s eye", Bob would frequently leave school and attempt to run away, dreaming of making it big. The police would often find him before he could get too far and his father placed him back at Nelson College.

As country music started to become popular, Bob took inspiration from the musicians being played on the local radio stations - artists such as Harry Torrani and Goebel Reeves, but his absolute idol was Jimmie Rodgers, whom he learned to imitate.  However, Bob did not want to be just another imitation of the late great musician, he yearned to have his own unique sound. At the time much of the guitar playing that was seen locally was in the Hawaiian slide style. He began to play guitar like Rodgers, in what was then called the “Spanish guitar style”. Although this was different from what most local people were used to, he became popuar. But recording opportunities were near non-existent.

Driven by his passion, Bob left Nelson on board the RMS Monowai, bound for Sydney, Australia with his guitar and a case full of records. In Sydney, Rob began performing and befriending as many people as he could, attempting to get his foot through the door of the music industry. Jack Davey, one of Australia’s pioneering radio personalities, jokingly began calling him Tex, a name which stuck, and helped him become more widely recognised. 

Sydney presented few opportunities for Tex however. Heading to the outback, he found work on stations and doing general mustering and labour jobs where he learnt bush poetry from fellow workers, as well as songs and guitar pieces which he used when he decided to return to Sydney.  With radio became increasingly popular, Tex applied to be a part of radio 2KY’s amateur talent trial, where he won the novelty vocalist award. He continued to perform regularly on 2KY as well as other radio shows along with live performances in and around Sydney. Tex also found some success in putting some of Andrew Barton "Banjo" Paterson's works to music on the ABC bush poetry sessions. Banjo Paterson is best remembered as perhaps Australia’s greatest bush poet with his work ‘Waltzing Matilda’ being labelled as Australia's unofficial national anthem. Tex admitted when meeting him some concern that Banjo would be displeased with having some of his works done in this way on radio however, Banjo encouraged it, stating how great it was that this new age of recording would allow the continuation of what he saw as integral pieces of Australian history and doing it in a way that they could survive with the times and touch far more people then they could as spoken word.

As Tex’s popularity grew, songs and poems were sent in to him and Tex's guitar intros were soon recognised on the radio even before he started singing. In 1936 Tex Morton was signed to the Regal Zonophone label, easily identified by their red and green logo. Regal was the main producer of American country records for Australasia. On the 25th of February Tex recorded his first songs, thought to be perhaps the first country songs recorded outside of the States. These records were recorded under the name ‘The Yodelling Boundary Rider”. Tex stated he didn’t believe anything became of it and returned to Nelson where he found himself busking outside a record store, inside of which a cutout of a man in a cowboy hat was standing. Thinking to himself how lucky that bugger must be, he read at the base “the sensational singing cowboy, Tex Morton”.

Tex Mortons Cowboy Roadshow

Tex Morton's Cowboy Road show. State Library of NSW.


Tex returned to Australia where he continued to record, sometimes in conjunction with singer Sister Dorrie. In 1937 he recorded “Black Sheep”, his own composition. It is reported to have sold over 80,000 copies. “Old Shep”, an American song written by Red Foley, became his most requested song and another of his best sellers. Over the next seven years Tex recorded ninety-three songs for Regal Zonophone. The years that followed saw Tex develop his travelling show “Tex Morton’s Circus & Rodeo” which frequently sold out in each town it went to. Accompanied by circus acts, sharp shooters and his backing band the Rough Riders, Tex’s show drew crowds from all over. Although Tex would sing in these shows it was his sharp shooting and stockwhip skills that had audiences yearning for more. Accompanying this, Tex had a large amount of merchandise sold in Australia and New Zealand with Ted Morton song books and mail order guitars being very popular. All of these aspects kept Tex Morton popular, even when he stopped recording for Regal Zonophone in 1946, after a dispute with Arch Kerr. Not long after this, he toured New Zealand and was approached to go to the States where he continued to perform shows. One of his new acts was to walk blind folded around on top of the tallest building in the city he was visiting. It was also recalled that while driving in the States he would purposely stall his car, covered in self advertisements for his shows, at the busy intersections for the free publicity.

Tex Morton

Bust of Tex Morton, Bicentennial Park, Tamworth, NSW. Wikimedia Commons

After overstaying his visa, Tex headed for Canada where for five years he worked out of Montreal as “The Great Dr Robert Morton – the World's Greatest Hypnotist”. His show developed into “The Great Morton Show”, a two and a half hour show that included all his skills from yodelling to hypnotism to shooting which saw him tour as far off as Hong Kong. For over a decade Tex toured his show, alongside some of the biggest names in music and entertainment, even claiming to have toured alongside Hank Williams, perhaps the most influential of all country musicians. He starred in stage shows and plays and continued to appear on radio and television.

Tex returned to Australia in the late 1950’s with Roy Acuff and a Grand Ole Opry Show. At this time Slim Dusty had assumed the mantle of top country act in the country, largely due to his 1957 hit “A Pub With No Beer”. Tex took up touring again in Australia for the first time in over a decade, bringing with him his good friend and fellow musician Athol McCoy, performing as “The Mortons and McCoys”. Following this he returned to New Zealand where he graced the televisions in homes throughout the country with his music show “The Country Touch” which ran for the final years of the 1960’s. In 1973 he also had a hit on the Australian Singles Charts with “The Goondiwindi Grey” which remained on the charts for thirteen weeks. “The Country Touch” was the first of a new locally driven career for Tex in the television and film industry. He regularly appeared on television in advertisements throughout the sixties and seventies and appeared in Australian TV dramas such as “Matlock Police”, “Homicide” and “Case For The Defence”. He also appeared in films, his most notable role perhaps being as the landlord Ralph Williams in the critically acclaimed drama “We of the Never Never”, released just one year before Tex’s death.

Virtually all the country musicians that emerged in the years following in Australia and New Zealand were inspired by Tex. Les (The Otago Rambler) and his brother Cole (Cole Wilson And His Tumbleweeds) were both heavily influenced by his music as can be heard from their songs. In Australia he inspired stars such as Buddy Williams and Slim Dusty. In Dusty’s words, he was “Australia’s first superstar”. Dusty released a song on his 1990 album ‘Coming Home’ called ‘Tex Morton’ and in a 2001 documentary, Dusty stated, “People say to me, who did I idealise, or base my style on. It was only the two people. There was the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, in America and Tex Morton.” Other homegrown talents such as John Hore (Grenell), Dusty Spittle, and Peter Posa all derived inspiration from Morton’s records.

At his last major performance Morton recited his poem “You’ll Never Be Missed”. Spoken with all the sincerity that often went hand in hand with all his works, the crowd erupted into applause at the close of his poem. Tex passed away at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney in 1983 at the age of sixty-six, thus ending a busy, adventurous, and exciting life as Australasia’s first superstar. Before his death he was recognised for his contribution to country music through his induction into the Australian Roll of Renown in 1973 and his inclusion on the Australian Country Music Hands of Fame. His plaque in Marsden Cemetery says enough and expresses his humility:

“There are some who are born pound foolish, and some pennywise. But six feet of earth makes us all the same size”. - Robert William “Tex Morton” Lane. Rest in peace.


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