RUSSELL MORRIS PART 2 – 2012- 2019

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Black Dog Blues (R Morris/J Keays) and Sharkmouth (J Morris/G Paige) and The Drifter (R Morris/G Paige) (w Renee Geyer) and Squizzy (R Morris/G Paige) – Russell Morris 2012

In March 2001 Russell took part in the “Gimme Ted” benefit concert, held in aid of his old friend Ted Mulry, and gave a memorable performance of The Real Thing with an all-star band consisting of Kevin Borich, Harry Brus, Mark Kennedy, and keyboard player Clayton Doley. In the same year The Real Thing and Wings of an Eagle featured prominently in the Australian-made movie The Dish and Midnight Oil released their own version of The Real Thing as a one-off single. In 2002 Russell took a place of honor among his peers as part of the hugely successful Long Way To The Top concert tour, and coinciding with LWTTT, Undercover Music released the definitive 2CD Russell Morris anthology, The Real Thing, which included the long-overdue re-issue of all the tracks from Russell’s classic Bloodstone album, bolstered by a career-spanning selection of Russell’s best tracks, ranging from Hide and Seek through to recent recordings with Burns, Cotton & Morris.

There had always been a high level of esteem and affection for Russell Morris among the Baby Boomers who had bought his records and made him a star in the 60’s and 70’s, and although radio stations now refused to play his new songs, and regarded him as uncool, his live performances were always impressive, his engaging tenor voice had lost none of its power and clarity, and had even acquired a timbre and patina that made it even richer and more engaging. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s Russell had seen how several of his former contemporaries – John Farnham, Jimmy Barnes, Darryl Braithwaite, Paul Kelly, and James Reyne – had successfully launched or re-ignited their solo careers and found new music and new ways to express their creativity, while connecting with a new group of like-minded collaborators, as well as a vibrant fanbase. In 2005 Russel was inducted into the Australian Songwriters Hall of Fame, it was a nice honor to have, but a hit record was uppermost on his agenda.

In 2007 Morris recorded the album Fundamentalist, an acoustic rendering of his earlier hits, which was not released until 2013 and was a minor hit, in 2011 Russell teamed up with his close friend Brian Cadd to record songs they would pitch to Nashville, where Cadd had strong connections, but they ultimately released the songs on their album Wild Bulls and Horses which was again a minor charter for the two amigos. In 2008 Morris was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame along with Dragon, Max Merritt, The Triffids, and Rolf Harris (subsequently delisted), and he was joined on stage by a supergroup comprising Steve Kilbey and Tim Powles (The Church), Jak Housden (The Whitlams), and Lachlan Doley (Powderfinger) in a performance of The Real Thing, that was described as stirring and unforgettable.

The recording career of Russell Morris to this time was one that was firmly anchored in the past, he had dominated charts in the 60’s and 70’s but by 2012 he was 64 years- old, twice-divorced, his last five albums had flopped, he just seemed to be recycling or repackaging past hits, he couldn’t write a pop hit for an Idol winner or an X-Factor one -hit wonder, and his chart-topping days seemed to be far behind him. He had visibly aged and his incipient baldness had encouraged him to adopt a succession of different styles of headwear down the years, the baseball cap, the Cowboy Stetson, the Panama, the Fedora, the Pork Pie Fedora, the flat cap, the Homburg, and briefly a “Leon Russell- style” minstrel man’s top hat.

So, the fresh-faced, gangly youth with the interesting voice, was now an aging heritage performer, still a great vocalist and a capable musician with a tried and proven repertoire of golden oldies, but now seemingly incapable of stirring the hearts of record-buyers, old or new. Morris would have to discover a genre and find a creative spark that would rejuvenate his career. Despite his fame and talent, he had always been a modest, self-effacing person, with a genuinely warm and approachable public persona, no superstar histrionics, or tantrums, he was also a perfectionist, and regarded by many in the industry as “a singer’s singer”, but had been reduced to singing cover songs for the past seven years, to make a living.

He had collaborated with many fellow performers, and enjoyed creative partnerships with Brian Cadd, Ronnie Burns, Darryl Cotton, Jim Keays, Johnny Young, Rick Springfield, and many others throughout his career, but the moment for Russell Morris’s musical salvation would arrive in 2012, when he embraced two of his passions, blues music and Australian history, to create what would become his biggest hits.     

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In an August 2013 interview with Michael Smith of, Morris recalled: “I originally did four tracks, Blackdog Blues, Ballad of Les Darcy, Big Red and Sharkmouth and I thought I’d see if anyone was interested. We did the rounds and went to all the record companies, and all of them said no.”. Morris continued with the recording, “I went back offering not only the album but also the publishing on the album and my old publishing, on songs like Wings of an Eagle and Sweet, Sweet Love, but they still declined to release it.” Morris pressed 500 copies of the album and began performing it at gigs when Robert Rigby from Ambition Entertainment said he’d release it under the FanFare label. Below L-R Mitch Cairns (bass, keyboards), Adrian Violi (drums), Shannon Bourne (guitar, dobro).

The project was inspired after Morris had read about a 1920s gangster from Sydney, Thomas “Shark Jaws” Archer, a petty criminal, and con man, who would appear on the cover of the album Sharkmouth, accompanied by his arresting detective, and this song would become the title track. This was the driving force behind a desire to create an album including Australian characters from the 1920s and 1930s era. Bass player and producer Mitch Cairns explained: “To our knowledge, most ‘Australiana’ characters have been portrayed in a traditional colonial folk sense, so we wanted to find a way to deliver the stories in a more mainstream vein whilst still placing them in a ‘vintage era’. A blues style seemed to be the perfect genre to imbue these stories with the rootsy vividness and carnality required to bring them to life. Morris continued “We tried to keep the vibe of the album raw and honest with lots of textural instruments and sounds, but above all, it had to be simple and spacious.” As usual Morris had no difficulty recruiting a stellar team of session musos and several special guests including Troy Casser-Daley, Mark “Diesel” Lizotte, James Black, and the late Renee Geyer. Russell was recapturing the communal vibe and sense of camaraderie on a passion project, as he and Meldrum had done back in the 70’s. But this time the spacey vibes, ooo mow maa mows, and studio trickery, were being replaced by swinging shuffles, delta grooves, and gritty stories, in the tiny Rooftop Studio and Red Jet Studios in St. Kilda Rd.(Melbourne), where they went about resurrecting the career of a living legend.

Black Dog Blues has become a highlight of Russell’s live shows in recent years, musically it broke the drought for him, and was a fitting tribute to the co-composer, the late Jim Keays.

The first track on the album was the gritty Black Dog Blues, written by Morris and former Masters Apprentices front man Jim Keays, and lyrically and musically it was the portal to the rest of the album. Opening with slide guitar chords (Shannon Bourne), subtle percussion (Adrian Violi) and resonant bass (Mitch Cairns), it underscored the depression-era lyrics about economic, and emotional depression, “I got the low down, spell bound, let down, unsound/ Underground, run down, by the hell hound/ Black dog blues/I got the all pain, no gain, hard rain, no brain, insane/Novacaine, ball and chain, black dog blues…”. Below- Jim Keays


Unlike many of the songs on the album which profiled famous or infamous people, this focused on the everyman, who is out of work, bored, depressed, and can’t even afford to buy enough beer to drown his sorrows, The tenor cadences that were characteristic of Russell’s earliest hits are unrecognizable here, his vocals are deeper, growling, menacing, unadorned, and perfect for this song “ Well the car won’t start so its sitting in the drive/ So damn hot I’m barely alive/ Ain’t got no beer, so I don’t know what’ll do/ I’m in this back room with the black dog blues.” There was an urgency too about recording this song, as co-writer Jim Keays had been diagnosed with myeloma (cancer) in 2007, and he would pass away in June 2014, less than two years before the album was released. Russell had been moved by the stories of Depression-era Richmond (Melb) as told by his family, the hard times and alienation experienced by working-class people, and in Black Dog Blues he found the words and music to recapture his family’s oral history.

The late Renee Geyer brought her unmistakable soulful authenticity to this song in just one verse, and in so doing she raised the creepy drama up a few notches, and ultimately owned The Drifter.

The Drifter was set in the dingy and dangerous sly grog/gambling haunts of Sydney, and was inspired by a card sharp, an accomplished deceiver, and card counter of the time, named Franz Klaus. Musically the dramatic stakes were raised here by Chris Wilson’s mournful harmonica and the brilliantly brassy, creepy, guest vocals of Renee Geyer “The game they played was slow hand poker/ Four nights and three long days/ And round the table five men but one/ One would not walk away/ On the third night Sam the Buzzard said “I have had enough”/ And the Snake he hissed/And said “My God”, this game is too tough…”. It was mesmerising storytelling about an urban legend, and his apparent death, but the listener was left to speculate about the final demise of The Drifter, as ghostly guitar chords and a wailing harmonica, headed for the outro. Below “Squizzy” Taylor

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Joseph Theodore Leslie “Sqizzy’ Taylor was the most feared gangster in Melbourne in the decade 1917- 1927; although diminutive in stature, he was a vicious career criminal. Taylor honed his nefarious skills during the gangland wars in Melbourne around Fitzroy, Collingwood, Richmond, and Carlton, and predictably met his fate at the age of 39 in a gunfight with thug “Snowy” Cutmore in a house in Barkly St. Carlton in 1927. Russell Morris’s grandmother could recall seeing Taylor and his mob standing on the corner of Bridge Rd and Church St (Richmond) outside his sly grog/gambling den, always a snappy dresser, but Grandma Morris recalled how short and apparently insignificant he appeared. The song Squizzy opens with acoustic strumming, and Mark Lizotte delivering both lilting bluegrass banjo chords and deep, vibrant cello, as Morris adapts his vocals to heighten the drama of the story “The Yarra River runs down/ Down into the sea/ Carries the sins of this town/ Hidden somewhere so deep…” Mark “Diesel” Lizotte is a brilliant  musician and a guitar virtuoso, but Morris invited him to play banjo and cello on this song, and he ultimately set the whole tone for the track. As the song ends the brutal killing of Taylor inspires the gangster’s mantra – live fast and die young “ And I’ll die where I stand/ And I stand where I’ll fall/ And I’ll walk but I won’t run/ With a loaded gun/ My name is Squizzy and my shadow is tall”

Sqizzy was perfect material for Morris, jazz era Roaring 20’s Melbourne, gang wars, a local gangster who lived around the corner from his grandmother in Richmond, a gunfight to the death, and Diesel on cello and banjo – absolutely inspired!

Sharkmouth was a true Australian first, featuring songs about icons, characters, and bygone eras from the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s- Les Darcy, Squizzy Taylor, Phar Lap, Thomas “Sharkmouth” Archer, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Great Depression, and Mr. Eternity (Arthur Stace) who lived in Sydney in the 50’s & 60’s. It was a uniquely Australian record that defined our version of the blues genre, as producer Mitch Cairns noted “It has a certain edge to it. The groove pushes forward a little bit. We play blues like it’s pub rock… like it’s a pub fight. Americans can’t do that.” It gave Russel Morris his biggest selling album with current sales in excess of 70,000 copies and his first ARIA Award for the Best Blues and Roots Album of 2013, it remained in the top ten on the album chart for three years, and Russell would continue his journey of discovery and creative fulfilment with two more albums of bluesy originals, that would become his trilogy of late-career hits.

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