- 1 Early roots
- 2 Early personal and show business background
- 3 Early recordings and a television first
- 4 Country, skiffle and all that jazz
- 5 Little Boy Lost – Australia’s first country-rock song
- 6 Film clips, a movie, modern country music duos and more hits
- 7 Australia’s first on-stage gold record presentation
- 8 Bushrangers and Salvos
- 9 Breaking more new ground
- 10 Stage shows
- 11 50th Anniversary
- 12 Accolades
- 13 References
- 14 External links
In 1814, his great-great-grandfather and namesake, John Ashcroft, arrived in chains aboard the notorious convict ship Surrey. Therefore, Ashcroft is a descendant of a First Fleeter and a descendant of a convict.
Ashcroft’s showbusiness roots go back to Harry Ashcroft who first appeared with his orchestra early in the 20th century. Ashcroft started his career during World War II as Harry Ashcroft’s daughter, Gloria, was finishing hers.
There has been an Ashcroft or an Ashcroft descendant in Australian show business for nigh on 100 years.
Early personal and show business background
Ashcroft was raised under extremely poor circumstances. As a child growing up during the Great Depression in Australia, he lived in a bag shack with a dirt floor. An interest in indigenous cultures, in particular Australian Aboriginal culture, was possibly influenced by these humble beginnings.
During World War II, Ashcroft began his career by playing a guitar and singing mainly bush ballads. Back then, bush ballads were often called ‘hillbilly’ songs. Ashcroft’s first 78rpm, recorded in 1946, featured only one song – When I Waltzed My Matilda Away. It was distributed solely for radio airplay.
In the mid-1940s he traveled with vaudeville shows. While working in the Great Levante Show, he learned about show business traditions and the psychology of live performing from the Great Levante (Les Cole) and one of Australia’s greatest vaudevillian comics, Bobby Lebrun.
Early recordings and a television first
In 1954, Ashcroft laid down his first commercial recordings–six sides (three 78rpms) for Rodeo Records. These were recorded live. His mid-1950s Phillips ‘microgroove’ vinyl album, Songs Of The Western Trail, also recorded live with the Gaby Rogers orchestra, was Australia’s first vinyl C&W ‘Long Play’ (LP) record. Four years later the next Australian C&W vinyl LP made its appearance. Songs Of The Western Trail is ensconced in Australia’s recording history. And Australia’s very first trucking song, Highway 31, written by Ashcroft, enhanced its uniqueness. Eight sides (four 78rpms) were eventually released from this album.
Ashcroft was the first Australian C&W artist to appear on Australian TV. In 1956, as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (Commission) began transmitting from its tiny Arcon Studio at Gore Hill, Sydney, Johnny wrote and sang the show’s title theme, Crazy Cross. He also performed in the show, which was set in Sydney's Kings Cross. Gordon Chater was its anchorman.
Country, skiffle and all that jazz
In a career about-face, Ashcroft recorded a 4-track, traditional jazz, 45rpm extended play (EP), Dig That Dixie, with Graeme Bell. This 1957 offering is now a collector’s item. Before completely destroying his old image, Ashcroft recorded Gordon Parsons’s, A Pub with No Beer. This 45rpm was also released in the USA and during a beer strike in Canada. It was not only available on vinyl but anecdotally sold 110 000 copies in Australia, on plastic-coated cardboard records.
They’re A Weird Mob, recorded in late 1958, also included the doyens of Australian jazz: Graeme Bell, Don Burrows, John Sangster, George Thompson, Ron Falson together with Noel Smith from the Royal Ballet Orchestra. This skiffle song became Ashcroft’s first hit single.
Little Boy Lost – Australia’s first country-rock song
Although the term had not yet been coined, Ashcroft’s 1960 smash hit, Little Boy Lost, was Australia’s first country-rock song. Again, it was arranged and recorded by jazzmen, including guitarist George Golla. This song, written by Ashcroft from DJ Tony Withers’s idea, tells the story of Steven Walls who became lost from his parent’s property at Tubbamurra near Guyra, NSW. Five thousand people, seven aircraft, together with Aboriginal tracker William Stanley, searched the rugged bush country, which was rife with dingos and deadly snakes. He was found alive and well four days later. The search for the Little Boy Lost continues to be Australia's biggest.
At the height of Little Boy Lost’s success, Ashcroft withdrew his recording from airplay out of consideration for the family of 8-year old Graeme Thorne, the victim of Australia's first kidnapping. The one single element connecting Little Boy Lost to this tragedy was its title. Johnny Ashcroft thereby became the only singer/songwriter in the world to nobble his own hit. Despite its withdrawal, it topped Top 40 charts longer than the combined total of two other major hits of the same era: A Pub With No Beer–one week and Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport–three weeks (Little Boy Lost–six weeks).
Film clips, a movie, modern country music duos and more hits
In the absence of videos and DVDs, a film clip of Ashcroft singing Little Boy Lost on B&W TV was distributed worldwide by EMI. This was a first for Australia. In the early 1960s, a march-tempo song, The Girl Behind The Bar, written by Slim DeGrey in the infamous Japanese Changi Prison Camp during WWII, was Ashcroft’s third hit–again supported by a film clip.
His album Mostly Folk, recorded in the mid-1960s, served to confirm Ashcroft’s breadth of talent. When this folk LP was later released under its new title, Little Boy Lost, it went gold.
The modern country music album You And I Country Style, which Ashcroft recorded with Kathleen McCormack, went gold in record time. It broke the image that Australian hillbilly/bush balladeers and C&W artists (including Ashcroft) had bestowed upon country music. Importantly, it set modern country music apart and put it on the long road to the success it enjoys today in Australia.
Australia’s first on-stage gold record presentation
Ashcroft was the first country artist in Australia to have gold records presented on stage, when three were bestowed simultaneously before a live audience in Tamworth, NSW, in 1971. During the ceremony, Ashcroft suggested that Tamworth might consider annual country music record-award presentations in that city.
Consequently, two years later, in 1973, Tamworth began promoting itself as Australia’s Country Music Capital. With Golden Guitars designed by John Minson, Tamworth had started its journey to eventually become recognised as one of the world’s top ten music festivals (2002).
Bushrangers and Salvos
A bushranger album, They All Died Game, written by Ashcroft and Joe Halford in 1971, became an Australian record industry icon. Based on sound historical fact, it was fully researched and recorded with mostly jazz musicians, giving this unique album a unique sound. The melodies of four songs from They All Died Game were recorded and released in Italy. Al Caiola, famed guitarist of The Magnificent Seven and Bonanza, recorded Thunderbolt’s Lament (sub-titled Yellilong, I Love You) in the USA, for the giant worldwide music company, Muzak.
In 1973, Ashcroft and Gay Kayler (Kahler) became country music’s most unusual solo/duo artists. After working solo on stage to demonstrate and maintain their individuality, they then came together in duets. This format was extremely successful at the Sydney Opera House when, four months after its opening, Ashcroft and Kayler topped the bill in a country music show presented by the Australian Festival Of Performing Arts. Eight-weeks later they again starred in the Australian Variety Show in the main Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. Both shows were markedly different. They appeared eight times in this venue.
1973 was the year Ashcroft and Gay Kayler recorded their Faces Of Love album. Each featured in solo performances and duets.
That same year, Ashcroft recorded his fourth hit–an American pop song, Clint Holmes’s Playground In My Mind, which went to Number One on the charts. Ashcroft’s fifth hit, Holy Joe The Salvo, was written on the back of an airline sick-bag. It became the Salvation Army’s 1975 Red Shield Appeal Song. The ‘Sallys’ then became widely known as the ‘Salvos’.
No other Australian country artist appeared on Top 40 Charts as frequently as Ashcroft.
Breaking more new ground
Ashcroft also wrote Australia’s first female trucking song, My Home-Coming Trucker’s Coming Home, recorded by Gay Kayler. It became a country hit, which was also programmed into general airplay. His 1978 And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda LP, included a faithful cover-reproduction of Fredrick McCubbin’s 1889 painting, Down On His Luck.
In another departure from modern country music, Ashcroft appeared on the album, A Time For Change, as his disco-singing alter ego, the Baron. The LP also featured Gay Kayler, Ashcroft’s partner (and wife), as Lady Finflingkington, the Baron’s jazz-scatting eccentric consort. From this LP, the Baron released Sixteen Tons Of Hit The Road Jack–a 45rpm, 12-inch, disco single.
It’s more than a probability that no recording artist in the world and certainly in Australia, has stepped outside his or her safety zone of musical activity to record as many musical forms as did Ashcroft.
In summary, aside from country, this artist’s repertoire included big ballads with big orchestrations, pop, rock, skiffle, modern and trad jazz, R&B, folk and disco. These breakaways were recorded over a period of more than two decades. It conflicted with opinions that those working in this genre are so low in musical ability and talent that they can only sing and play country music.
In 1989, the milestone historical album, The Cross Of The Five Silver Stars, featured Ashcroft, Gay Kayler, Bettybo and their musical director, Rob (Shep) Davis. Coupled with They All Died Game and four bonus tracks, this LP was released on a Rajon Music 28-track double CD set, Johnny Ashcroft, Here’s To You, Australia! on 4 August 2007.
Ashcroft has performed in many diverse stage-show situations including: appearing with Roy Acuff in the ‘old tin shed’–Sydney Stadium at Rushcutters Bay; heading up shows with world stars on the giant NSW Registered Club Circuit, claimed by some as the world’s biggest entertainment circuit during the 1960s and 1970s; working with his show from a pontoon on Sydney Harbour (Port Jackson) to an estimated audience of around 110 000 people looking on from the harbour foreshores and the Sydney Harbour Bridge; many whistle-stop and repeated major city tours throughout Australia and New Zealand and an Air Niugini tour throughout Papua New Guinea with Gay Kayler.
Ashcroft and Gay Kayler’s original concept, The Imagine That! Australiana Show series and its offshoots, entertained over half a million adults and children during a 12-year run of live performances. Additionally this show featured on the ABC TV 7:30 Report and SBS (Special Television Service).
The immense popularity and resultant longevity of Johnny's song, Little Boy Lost, contributed enormously to the search for Steven Walls becoming part of Australia's folklore. In 2010, the 50th Anniversary of that saga fell on the same days as those in 1960, i.e. Friday, 5 February (when Steven was lost) to Monday, 8 February (when he was found alive and well).
During the 1980 Australian Variety Artists Mo Awards, Ashcroft received the first Male Country Entertainer Mo award–a performance award voted for by his peers. This was followed by a National Award For Service To Australian country music. He is to be found in Tamworth’s Australasian Country Music Hands of Fame and Tamworth’s Australasian Country Music Roll of Renown.
Johnny Ashcroft was awarded the Medal of the Order Of Australia (OAM) in 1990 and is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of History and Arts (FAIHA).
- Johnny Ashcroft Official website
- Gay Kayler
- Australasian Country Music Roll of Renown
- Australasian Country Music - Hands of Fame
- Little Boy Lost listing in No.1 Hits of 1960
- Johnny Ashcroft recordings in National Film & Sound Archives
- Little Boy Lost 1960 hit version in National Film & Sound Archives
- Johnny's Little Boy Lost song with clips from movie on YouTube
- Tamworth Capital News Editorial
- Oral History in National Film & Sound Archive
- Johnny Ashcroft’s suggestion gave birth to the Australasian Country Music Awards
- Kelly Fuller, ABC New England North West, interviews Johnny on 50th Anniversary 7 Feb 2010
- Spencer Howson, ABC Brisbane, interviews Johnny on 50th Anniversary 5 Feb 2010
- Tim Cox, ABC Hobart, blog re Johnny Ashcroft & Gay Kayler and 50th Anniversary 11 Feb 2010