At barely 21 years old, Australian rocker Russell Morris recorded “The Real Thing”, a psychedelic rock single that skyrocketed its way to the top of the Australian charts in 1969, becoming the continent’s biggest song that year, and earning airplay in some U.S. markets. More hits followed, prompting Morris to seek his fortune in the States in the 1970s, but as the adage goes, timing is everything, and it was not Morris’ time.
“We were kind of behind the 8 ball when it came to promotion because I was on a small label, and the majors at the time were making it hard for independents to get radio play and distribution. We couldn’t really fan the flames, and I couldn’t go out and work because I didn’t have a green card, there was no reciprocal arrangement or free trade agreement,” Morris recalls. “In the meantime, the landscape changed, Australian acts started making it here, and the governments finally worked out an arrangement where Australian acts could tour the States. Acts like INXS and Men At Work broke here, The BeeGees had a revival, and it just kept growing,” he adds of the subsequent Australian invasion. “The talent has always been there, but we didn’t always have an avenue. Once there were a few doors kicked in and people realized, ‘Hey! These guys actually sing in English!’ it got better,” he says with a laugh. Even so, Morris, who ended up on the heritage tour circuit in Australia, never thought he would have another hit in the States. “I didn’t believe anyone was interested in hearing anything new from me, everyone always wanted to hear the old songs,” he says. “Then, after releasing four or five albums that had sunk without a trace, I decided to do what I really wanted to do—to make the kind of music I grew up loving, blues and roots music. People tried to talk me out of it, saying it wasn’t commercial enough and that people wouldn’t like it. I did it anyway.”
So, Morris tried to write songs in the styles of Leadbelly, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker. “They just weren’t right,” he admits. “I was trying to copy my heroes, but the songs just weren’t working.” Then, one afternoon while reading a newspaper in Sydney, Morris spied a mugshot from 1916 of a man named Thomas Archer, am Australian gangster known as Sharkmouth, whose dark-eyed sideways glance transfixed the writer. “It’s like it reached out and grabbed me, and spoke to me—it said ‘Write a song about me. Tell people I lived and breathed.’ So I wrote about this man, and once I did, the light came on,” he explains. “I realized I couldn’t write songs about Mississippi and picking cotton and New Orleans because I had never lived there or experienced those things. I realized I had to write about my blues and my roots.” He set out to write about things to which he could relate—songs about Australian gangsters and criminals, thugs and ne’er-do-wells, fictional stories of historic figures. “People’s stories are universal, the emotions are the same no matter where they live,” he says.
No one expected the album, called Sharkmouth, to make any waves, and Morris heard the gamut of excuses when he shopped it around. Finally, one label agreed to work with him, but assured Morris that his record would go nowhere. “It ended up being the best selling album in Australia in 2013, and won best blues album of the year in Australia that year,” he says with a laugh, and explains that Sharkmouth will celebrate its U.S. release on September 30th. “I thought my day in the sun was over,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes. “It was a great surprise.”
Purchase Sharkmouth: https://russellmorris.lnk.to/SharkmouthAr