Russell Morris and I go back 45 years, which means I feel like I’ve known him my whole life, yet I only met him a few months ago.
It all started in 1969, a magical, musical time for a pop-obsessed 12-year-old. I could reel off the Top 40 faster than my times tables and knew every word of every Beatles song, even the “yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye” ones, to my parents’ delight.
Music was my world, and being a pop star was more than just an ambition, it was motivation and passion.
One day a new clip on Uptight (a Countdown precursor on glorious black-and-white TV) blew my pre-teen mind. It was The Real Thing (Parts I & II) by Russell Morris, a blond 20-year-old with a Prince Valiant haircut and a voice so sweet it made songbirds jealous and women swoon. It was an epic track, Australia’s Stairway to Heaven, and would cement Morris’s place in music history.
Some 15 years later I almost met Russell. I was living the dream on the pub circuit in Melbourne, fronting my own rock band, and we got to play support for his early-1980s outfit, The Rubes.
I remember thinking how amazing his voice was live, and how mighty The Real Thing sounded though a 3000-watt PA.
Another 30 years on, I find myself, finally, chatting with Russell Morris, sadly not back stage at a huge festival we’re both playing, but in a new Ford Transit van. I’m on the roadie again, taking Russell and his band to the Deniliquin Blues & Roots Festival.
A mutual friend, Russell’s wunderkind bass player and record producer, Mitch Cairns, had teed me up to be an honorary ‘roadie’ for the trip, so I’d snaffled a new Ford Transit Custom one-tonne van – the 2013 International Van of The Year in Europe, no less – to haul the band’s gear north.
And to show Russell what a mover and shaker I’d become, and what a fan I still am, I’d had Ford Signwave sticker the Transit with the cover art for his new record, <Van Diemen’s Land>, the second in his Oz blues/roots trilogy. It looks extremely cool.
But as I head for Mitch’s studio to pick up the band, my biggest concerns are how much gear they’re taking and how my back will hold up.
It’s more than 25 years since I lumped amps and PAs around the traps, so I’m less than thrilled to see a small mountain of speaker boxes, drums and guitars piled up outside the studio and Mitch grinning like a Japanese game-show host.
When Russell, guitarist Peter Robinson, and drummer John Creech arrive we learn that Van Diemen’s Land has made its debut at number four on the ARIA charts, knocking off a bunch of modern pop princesses. It’s a nice way to start the trip and the band’s high spirits are further lightened by the practical joke they’ve played on me.
Turns out they hardly take any gear to these big outdoor festivals as the promoters provide the ‘backline’ to speed up changeovers between acts. All we need are guitars, drums and a couple of beloved amps. My back weeps a silent thank you.
So the Transit, with its massive cargo area of 5.95m3, will be virtually empty. The heaviest thing on board is probably me.
Surprisingly, the big van turns out to be as easy to drive as a Focus, despite a non-substantial 93kW/350Nm of diesel power from its 2.2-litre four-cylinder. She’s got good brakes, nifty handling and a pretty comfy cab for a commercial, complete with iPod integration.
But it does have one major drawback for a tight-knit rock ’n’ roll; there’s no second row of seats, and you can’t option one. So, we’ll ride two-up in the Trannie and three-up in a Ford Kuga Titanium.
Russell, 65, joins me in the van and I begin what must seem like an incessant barrage of questions – about 45 years’ worth.
He grew up on the mean streets of Richmond in inner Melbourne, and I’m surprised to learn that the boy who cooed Sweet Sweet Love also liked to kick people’s heads in.
“I was a real hothead,” he grins. “I did karate for years and I wasn’t scared of anybody. I was very bad tempered and still can be. But I’m too old now to do anything about it.”
Russell had his first taste of stardom aged 18, in the band Somebody’s Image, after its single Hush became a hit. They’d been an R’n’B band, but with a hot record and a ‘pretty’ singer, they were promoted by svengali Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum to the teen market, and Russell became A Pop Star. Soon after, The Real Thing took the now-solo singer to the stars.
“It was a chaotic time,” he recalls. “Fame is really good but it’s also a nightmare. I lived with my mother and stepfather and I’d come home and there would be 13 girls out the front and inside there would be 13 more that my mum had made cups of tea for!
“I never got any peace. To get away I would go scramble riding in the hills with friends.”
I do my best to sound sympathetic for his awful, being-stalked-by-26-women youth, but I’m pretty sure I fail.
Touring in those days was also hard work for a solo artist – Russell often doing shows with ‘pickup’ bands of varying abilities – and the screaming fans who drowned out his shows, just like The Beatles.
“I played Brisbane Festival Hall once and the kids kept pulling my microphone leads out and I ended up singing into a mic that wasn’t working. But because the crowd was going nuts they couldn’t tell and I thought, ‘This is ridiculous, I don’t want to be like Davey Jones from The Monkees. I’m going to write all my own songs from now on’.”
From 1973 to ’78 he lived and recorded in the US and Britain but failed to get any traction, and after being ripped off by American managers he returned home to re-establish his pop career. He soon realised he was over that scene.
“I just wanted to do blues,” he says. “Not the most commercial way to earn a crust when hard-rocking bands like The Angels and Cold Chisel ruled and beer barn rock was reaching its zenith.”
Still, he joined the fray, firstly with the Russell Morris Band then Russell Morris & The Rubes. But record success eluded him and slogging it in the pubs, next to couldabeens such as me, lost its appeal. Then times got really tough.
“The ’80s were my starving years,” Russell rues. “After the Rubes broke up I struggled to make any money for a long time and was writing TV ads and trying to get odd gigs to stay alive. I thought it was all over.”
Fortunately, the misty-eyed baby boomers’ love of retro saved him and he became part of a greatest-hits touring sensation with two other ’60s stars, Darryl Cotton and Ronnie Burns.
“We were on the road for seven years, and when Jim Keays (Masters Apprentices) and Brian Cadd (Axiom) joined, it went for another nine years, but it was mainly living on the past,” Russell says.
Growing tired of looking back, in 2012 Russell was reborn as a blues singer, releasing Sharkmouth, which spent 18 months at the top of the ARIA Blues charts.
After a quick stop in Moama, Russell decides he wants to test the Transit; the last time he drove one was in the early ’70s, and they’ve moved on somewhat since. He’s instantly impressed at how quiet it is and how little it’s like the ones he used to rattle and bounce around in.
He’s pretty relaxed behind the wheel, like someone who is used to settling in for long hauls. I’ve been told he’s a lead-foot, though, who recently bought a new Mini but didn’t go for a Cooper S because he feared he might lack self control.
“Yeah, I’ve lost my licence for speeding [points],” he grins. “I was driving to the snow for a gig once and a cop booked me for speeding. Four weeks later I had to do the same gig and there he was again. He walked up to me and said, ‘Russell, Russell, Russell; what the hell am I gonna do with you?’ Then he booked me. Again.
We lob at the festival on time and park behind the twin stages, which resemble cut-down tin sheds and are also used for Deni’s other big hoedown, the Ute Muster.
The bigger “A” stage is for the international headliners such as The Doobie Brothers, Elvis Costello, and John Mayer. Behind the stages a corral of Portacabins serve as dressing rooms, and while Russell and Mitch do media, I scope the surroundings and spot Elvis – in shades, despite the gathering darkness – strolling around, looking sartorially splendid. Someone else sets up all my band’s gear on the B stage. So much for my roadie-ing.
Russell has a prime 8.30pm slot and the band kicks off with Van Diemens’ Land, the new album’s title track and a hard-drivin’ ode to Australia’s first convicts, and from the first bars the crowd is with him. As the one-hour set nears its end, Russell starts reeling off his big hits and leaves the ears buzzing with The Real Thing.
The band is pumped, it was a good gig, but now we have to hightail back to Melbourne. After a midnight stop for fuel and junk food we arrive at the studio in the wee hours and everyone goes their own way.
I have to admit to feeling more than a tinge of envy. It’d be good to strap the Fender on, crank up my Marshall, and hit the road with a band again but then fatigue, or the chill morning air, brings me to my senses. One last question, Russell: do you ever get sick of singing The Real Thing?
“Nah, it’s like being a pro ballroom dancer, dancing the foxtrot with different partners,” he explains.
“Each dance is different, even though the moves are the same. That’s how it is playing a song over and over, each audience is a different partner. I always considered myself a writer and there’s nothing better than doing new songs for people [otherwise] you’re living on your past. For a long time I thought that’s all that I would have and to be in this position [now] is such an incredible feeling. I feel like Lazarus.”
That’s a good name for a song, Russ, need another guitar player?