The King of the cowboys still sits high in the saddle
“He changed my life... the day I met Smoky Dawson I became a better person” Jimmy Barnes
While Smoky Dawson sprang from the loins of Victoria, his legend has become entwined with Sydney’s own. Smoky is Australia’s own singing cowboy, a real down under Gene Autry, so entrenched in the first half of the 20th century anyone of a certain age fortunate enough to share the Dawson surname would inevitably be handed the nickname “Smoky”.
Born Herbert Henry Dawson in Collingwood to a mother who died when he was very young, Herbie, younger brother Ted and elder brothers Peter and Les and sister Laura were raised by his alcoholic war hero father, who had served with distinction at Gallipoli. At home the mental damage of the battlefield took its toll and Smoky’s father, a chemist with showbiz aspirations, did not serve with as much distinction as a parent, beating his children mercilessly until eventually, they were made wards of the state.
Educated with the strap and the fear of God by the Christian Brothers, Smoky was adopted into a loving Catholic family, the Carews, whose love of Australian folklore and music allowed him to develop then exercise his showbiz aspirations. Once he’d come of age, Smoky set out working for local farmers. One day, at age 17, he even met the elderly Jim Kelly, younger brother of Ned.
At the height of the Depression, Smoky worked as a tanner and a professional cyclist before he and younger brother Ted formed a duo and cut a disc as the Coral Island Boys, and shopped it to record companies and radio stations. In 1932, 3KZ offered Dawson his first radio show, Pinto Pete, sponsored by Pepsodent toothpaste. It was the first show of its kind in Australia– a Western serial full of mimicry, imitating animals, and gunfire, all of it interspersed with songs.
Smoky signed up to serve during the Second World War in 1939 and was seconded to the first Australian Entertainment Alliance, and travelled through the jungles of Borneo, entertaining the troops, where he nearly succumbed to a nervous condition. Following his discharge in 1941, Smoky arrived in Sydney to record for EMI in the 1940s with his group, the Rocky Canyon Boys and enjoyed success with ‘I’m A Happy- Go-Lucky Cowhand’ (1941), ‘Mother, Please Open The Door’ (1942), ‘Just A Sprig Of Golden Wattle’ (1945) and‘The Lights of Cobb & Co’ (1948).
Smoky and his wife Dot travelled to the United States in 1951where his career briefly flourished as the star of a short-lived movie serial starring a kangaroo which escaped to terrorise a town in New Jersey, and as a singer contracted to the prestigious Acuff-Rose publishing company, where he met the great Hank Williams.
After a bad car accident in Nashville where he was recording demos, Smoky returned to Sydney in 1952, to find a huge crowd of well wishers welcoming him home. He took up a radio contract with sponsor Kellogg, initially titled the Adventures of Jindywarrabel and later known as the Adventures of Smoky Dawson. “Where the movies and theatres go with Gene Autry and Wild Bill, they were going to have Smoky Dawson. For the first time the drovers in Australia would be like me– they’d have their own cowboy.”
As the star of these serials, along with his trusty horse Flash, he became synonymous with a more innocent time in Australian history. Smoky’s face peered out from cereal boxes and comic books. Kids idolised him. Members of his fan club included former PM Paul Keating.
With Dot, he founded the 26-acre Smoky Dawson ranch at Ingleside in the Warringah Shire, where he stabled Flash and other horses he owned, and built a complete Western film set town on the ranch as well as patenting the famous and popular Smoky Dawson Reclining Chair.
Inducted into the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame’s Roll of Renown in 1978, Smoky kept recording, spending his time working for good causes, living modestly and raising money for community projects and charities.
Flash, Smoky’s trusty steed, lived to age 35 and died in 1982 – Smoky described his death as a “terrible wrench” and while it was the end of one of Australia’s longest standing show biz partnerships, Smoky had plenty more life to live.
He penned his life story A Life, in 1985, enjoyed a hit with ‘The Days of Old Khancoban’ in 1988 and was awarded the Order of Australia in 1999. At 94, he continues to record.
Smoky survived a hit and run accident in 2000 that had many writers readying obituaries, but as recently as 2004, he and Dot were still presenting their popular radio show on Chatswood’s 2NSB-FM while living quietly in Lane Cove.
As inaugural inductee of the ARIA Icons Hall of Fame in 2005, he appeared onstage sprightly as ever. He didn’t crack a whip, hurl knives or ride off into the sunset, but the glimmer in his eye said Smoky still honours his own code of the west.
1913 Born in Warrnambool, Victoria
1941 Records his first single for EMI
1943 Establishes the School of Country Music
1950 Stars in The Cowboy from Down Under
1952 Meets “long, rangy, deathly white” Hank Williams
1983 Awarded an MBE
1988 Appears in A Country Practice
2000 Survives hit and run accident
2005 Inducted into the ARIA Icons Hall of Fame
2008 Passes away on 13 February 2008 after a short illness