Russell Morris scrolls through his phone, looking for answers. "My two passions are history and astrophysics," explains the formerly flaxen-haired prince of psychedelic pop turned urban blues yarn-spinner. The long years between those two glorious career pinnacles comprise something of a black hole unparalleled in Australian music. At last, he reads aloud the final text in a recent astrophysical debate with Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. "The universe is a wondrous place," it says. He looks up and smiles.
Russell Morris and psychedelia are forever linked in the Australian pop narrative. How does that feel?
Well, it's ironic. I've only really done one psychedelic record. When I first got into music I was living in Richmond and my cousin rang me up and said, "I wanna play you something." So I jump on the train and go over and he plays me the Rolling Stones' first album, which was straight rhythm and blues, and it flipped me out. I thought, "This is it. I've found my nirvana."
The other key connection you made in the Sixties was a young guy named Ian Meldrum. How?
I joined this little band by default, because they had a singer [Ronnie Charles] who got poached by the Groop. The Groop felt so sorry for us they put us on at one of their gigs at Anglesea. Little known to them, I used to go to Anglesea to surf so the hall was full of everybody I knew and when we went on stage, the crowd went nuts. The Groop had this roadie [who said], "I would like to be your manager, I'd like to be your record producer, and I'd like to get you a record deal." That roadie was Ian Meldrum. Imagine the odds. First gig!
"The Real Thing" is often cited among the greatest singles ever made in this country: Johnny Young's song, Molly's production, your vocal and the Groop backing. Was there a fifth ingredient? Something mystical?
I'm not a God person, but I'm a firm believer that at the quantum level in physics, strange things happen. It was supposed to be a three-minute song but the drummer was so happy to have got through it that, at the end, he did a fill and went into double time and the band followed. Ian said, "Let them go, we'll fade this." Next thing he rings me up and says, "I'm gonna make this a six-minute record."
You seemed to be on a roll with "Sweet Sweet Love" and "Wings of an Eagle". What made you think your future was in America in 1972?
I was looking for my own identity, and that led me to one of the biggest career blunders I ever made. I got meetings with two companies in New York: RCA and Arista. I absolutely loved Clive Davis at Arista. He said, "Russell, I know your career, I love your voice, play me some songs." So I played these songs and he said, "I don't hear a hit. We've got some great writers here..." And he brings in the two guys who had written "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" [Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown]. So I signed to RCA. I think if I'd stuck with Clive, he would have eventually let me do what I wanted.
What was the lesson of your six years in LA?
I call it the Pied Piper syndrome. Somebody becomes big and everyone says, "We need someone like that", so you try and add a little bit of that into your songs. You're being seduced by this thing that you'll never be. You've got to find you. Find what turns you on and do it with love.
Back home, the Rubes and the Russell Morris Band were on the road in the early Eighties. Then things went very quiet.
I did five albums in the Eighties. Every one of them sunk without a trace because I was still chasing the Pied Piper. I tried to write TV commercials. I did everything. I was living on the smell of an oily rag. Then along came Darryl Cotton who was working at one of those disco places, Casey's, in Hawthorne. He said, "Listen, come down next week and sing five songs." I was so broke I said, "Shit yeah", and the crowd was absolutely fucking gigantic.
That evolved into Cotton, [Jim] Keays & Morris, which kept you on the RSL circuit for 10 years. What led you to make your Sharkmouth album in 2012?
Jim pleaded with me before he died [in 2014]: "You have to do another record." I said, "Why? It'll cost a fortune, I'll put it out and no one will hear it. What's the point?" He said, "It's what you do. It's your body of work. You're obligated." So I looked really hard at myself and thought, "What got you into music? Why do you play?" I thought back to the Rolling Stones and John Lee Hooker and Blind Willie McTell. So I started writing some songs.
The Australian history angle helped make it a platinum seller. Was that a light-bulb moment?
I'm in Sydney reading the newspaper and I came across these National Trust crime photos, and there was one [of 1920s gangster Thomas 'Shark Jaws' Archer] that just connected. It's almost like it just reached out and grabbed me by the throat and said, "You understand what blues music is about? It's not about the Mississippi. Your ancestors came and lived in this country. That's your blues."
So you found your calling in 1964, it just took you 50 years to answer?
Yeah. You can't see it sometimes when it's right in front of you. I think I only found it when I was mature enough to do it. My voice has become deeper and richer and you can put the character into that kind of song. I think the time was waiting for me.
From issue #789 (August 2017), available now. Photo, credit: Jo Duck.