Robert William Lane, better known as Tex Morton, was New Zealand's first country music star, and a prolific singer-songwriter. An amazingly versatile performer, he drew on the variety show tradition of vaudeville and combined his singing with daredevil stunts, sharpshooting, magic, and even hypnotism. Robert Lane was born in Nelson on 30 August 1916. As a teenager he was fascinated with radio and desperate to be an entertainer. He ran away from home several times before leaving for good at 16.
He lived as a travelling musician, playing on street corners and offering guitar lessons at a shilling a time. He's thought to have founded New Zealand's first country music club in Nelson.
Around 1932, twenty of his songs were recorded on aluminium disc by Wellington radio enthusiast Bob Bothamley. They were played on radio stations in Auckland and Nelson. According to the Guinness Who's Who of Country Music they were probably the first country and western recordings made outside the USA. Also in 1932, Lane took his new name, Tex Morton, from a sign he saw on a Waihi garage.
About 1935, Morton caught a ship to Australia and lived hand-to-mouth, jumping trains, sleeping in the open, and taking any jobs he could find. He worked on various roadshows as a sideshow daredevil. He also busked, and scored an occasional spot on Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio. However, country music had yet to gain much popularity in Australasia and, for a short time at least, his talents went unrecognised.
Morton's break came when he won first prize in a Radio 2KY Sydney talent quest, leading to an audition for Regal Zonophone records. In 1936 he recorded four songs for this label, and within two years 'Tex Morton, the Singing Cowboy Sensation' was topping charts on both sides of the Tasman, and giving sell-out concerts.
Morton toured Australia as the 'Yodelling Boundary Rider' with his own Wild West Rodeo show in which he displayed his sharp-shooting and whip-cracking skills as well as his singing. It was typical of the versatile Morton that he should also think of manufacturing a popular mail-order guitar.
Between 1936 and 1939, he recorded 90 songs. As time went on, he shifted from the American style of country music to a distinctively Antipodean version, mixing local themes with American country sounds. He often took folk songs of the bush or the ballads of local poets and set them to his own tunes. He also wrote many original compositions, like 'The Wandering Stockman', 'Pegleg Jack', 'Old Shep' and 'Freight Train Yodel.'
Some of Morton's most famous songs drew on his own earlier experiences as a hobo. His 1938 song 'Sergeant Small' was about a ruthless Queensland policeman who tracked down train fare evaders. ('I wish I was about twenty stone only seven feet tall/ I'd go back to Western Queensland and beat up Sergeant Small . . .')
With this song. Morton added to his growing string of firsts - it was the first record in Australia to be banned.
In the 1950s, Morton travelled to America and hooked up with high-living country music legend Gene Autry. For a few months, Morton partied hard with many greats of the music world. This decadent life came to an end when US immigration authorities gave him 24 hours to leave the country.
He went to Montreal and staged a one-man show as 'The Great Doctor Robert Morton'. His performance included singing, rope tricks, sharp-shooting, magic tricks, ESP demonstrations and hypnotism. He toured the show and, as a publicity stunt in each new town, walked blindfolded along the parapet of the tallest local building. The show set box office records.
After the tour he changed tack and pursued his lifelong interest in hypnotherapy. He graduated in hypnotism from the University of Toronto, and opened a private hypnotherapy clinic. But it wasn't long before he was hitting the road again, as 'Dr Robert Morton - the World's Greatest Hypnotist'.
He then joined up with the Grand Ole Opry gang at Nashville, toured six months with Hank Williams, and recorded with the Chet Atkins band for the Okeh label. In about 1959 he returned to Australia and headed a tour with Opry stars like Roy Acuff. However, Morton was no longer attracting the audiences he once did.
He disappeared into the Australian outback in a stationwagon, taking a two-way radio, a terrier, a tame magpie and his old yellow cat. He didn't reappear for five years. But when he did, he picked up his recording career where he'd left off - with the hit 'The Cat Came Back'.
In 1967 he returned to New Zealand and hosted the television show Country Touch. Travelling back to Australia in the early 1970s, he continued to write and record songs. In January 1976 he became the first person to be elevated to the Australasian Country Music Awards Roll of Renown.
Tex Morton died in 1983 aged 67. He was buried in Nelson, where his headstone is inscribed with his own description of himself: 'A millionaire in the experience of life'.
Some of the following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre, Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa collection items may be ordered from Images on Level 4.
Franklin, Rex 'How Tex Morton Became a Legend', The Dominion, 3 September 1983.
Spittle, Gordon (1997). Counting the Beat: A History of New Zealand Song. Wellington: GP Publications.
Spittle, Gordon 'Tex Morton 1916-1983' Dictionary of New Zealand Biography Vol. 5, pp. 359-360
Spittle, Gordon 'Country Music Pioneer', New Zealand Listener, 21 June 1968, p. 53