February 2, 2002

Peter Dawson: The World‘s Most Popular Baritone.  By Russell Smith and Peter Burgis.  Strawberry Hills, NSW, Australia: Currency Press, 2001.  334 pages.  ISBN: 0 86819 603 7. $19.00.  Publisher’s website: www.currency.com.au.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

The brash title of this new volume may come as a surprise to U.S. readers, who might reasonably assume that someone named Crosby or Presley might be considered the “world’s most popular baritone.”  To Aussies and Brits, however, especially older ones, the title belongs to one man and one man only–the remarkable Peter Dawson–whose extraordinary, 60-year career included recordings from the cylinder era to the days of stereo LP’s.  The statistics invoked to prove his importance–3,500 titles recorded!  13 million records sold!–may seem a bit quaint to Americans used to Gigantic Numbers, but there is no question that he was a major figure in the British and Australian recording world during the first half of the 20th century.  Surprisingly, this is his first book-length biography.

Dawson was born in Australia in 1882, to a “strict but generous Presbyterian family.”  He moved to England in 1902 to pursue his dream of singing professionally, despite parents who were predictably opposed–do all famous entertainers have parents who tried to squash their dreams?  He began recording in 1903 or 1904 (the date is uncertain) for a variety of labels, becoming an exclusive solo artist for the Gramophone Company in 1904, a relationship that would last until 1955.  There is interesting detail here about his dealings with early labels, and his attitude toward the gramophone, which–initially at least–he characterized as “an instrument of torture.”  As one critic wrote,

The owners of the Gramophone rejoice

To hear it likened to the human voice.

The owners of the Human Voice disown

Its least resemblance to the Gramophone.

Dawson’s preferred repertoire was classical arias and drawing room ballads, including such forbidding stuff as “O Ruddier than the Cherry” from Handel’s Acis and Galatea.  But the record companies wanted to use his deep, booming baritone and precise enunciation on a much wider range of material, and Peter obliged, recording everything from “Bedouin Love Song” to “The Sheik of Araby,”often under pseudonyms on budget labels.  From the inception of his career to the end of the 1920s he was one of the most prolific recording artists in England.  His best known songs were the thundering, manly ballads that characterized the British Empire in its glory days, songs like Kipling’s “On the Road to Mandalay” and “Boots” (a particular favorite).  The authors’ nominee for his most popular record of all may come as a surprise.  It is none other than that prototypical Australian song “Waltzing Matilda,” which he recorded in 1938 and which both locals and visiting American troops adopted as kind of an anthem during World War II.  It was one of the few Peter Dawson records released in the U.S. (Victor 10-1025).

Dawson was, in truth, a devoted and very proper son of the Empire and in later years became something of a living vestige of the long-gone Edwardian era.  He even looked the part.  Photos taken in the 1940s show him still wearing a vest and old-fashioned wing-tip collars, while surrounded by men in contemporary clothes.  He looks as if he had been transported into their midst by some sort of time machine.  Not only did he refuse to adapt to the times (he dismissed Bing Crosby’s crooning as “mooing”), he relentlessly stuck to the old songs sung the old way, which is exactly what his large, loyal, and aging audience wanted to hear.  His last studio recording, in 1955, was a medley of settings of Kipling’s “On the Road to Mandalay,” called “Mandalay Scena.”  He continued to make radio and television appearances even after that, up to a year before his death in 1961.  Some of these have been released on LP.

The authors trace all of this in meticulous detail, drawing on extensive files that survive in Australian and England as well as on interviews with people who knew Dawson.  Smith is a musician and Burgis an archivist, so between them they should have a pretty good insight into the man and his career.  But while all the facts are here, the writing is at times rather dry and seemingly unfamiliar with the larger musical world in which Dawson lived.  Why was there never any serious attempt to introduce him to America?  Why, as the authors lament, is he “hardly known to post-World War II generations” in his own country?  When the authors allude to larger trends, they sound a bit out of touch themselves, as in the following reference to the 1930s: “Taste in popular music was changing: American music, with its pervasive Negro (sic) rhythms, was invading Europe and gradually replacing the Dawson-style English ballads” (p. 144).  I think musical change in Europe began much earlier than that.  Dawson, it might be argued, occupied a rather specialized niche practically from the time he began recording, at the turn of the century.  Then too, he did not lead a particularly exciting life, which makes this more a chronology than a musical adventure.

Nevertheless his recording career was spectacularly successful, at least within the British Empire, and for that reason alone we should be thankful for this first detailed biography.  (Dawson’s memoirs, Fifty Years of Song, were published in 1951, but like most autobiographies they are strong on color and a little shaky on facts.)  Smith and Burgis have done an exemplary job of laying out Dawson’s life and career.  Factual statements are carefully sourced (thank you!), and the text is complemented by advertisements, documents and photos, including revealing family snapshots.  The book ends with a 60-page “Song Title Discography,” organized alphabetically by title and listing original issues under Dawson’s own name and some 28 pseudonyms.  Not included are anonymous recordings in ensembles and choruses.  There are about a thousand entries. (What happened to those 3,500 titles?)  While it may not offer the discographical completeness and detail (takes, accompanying artists) some crave, it is a respectable start at documenting Dawson’s recorded legacy.

A more complete discography has come to my attention via a review in the Hillandale News No. 236 (Winter 2001).  Compiled and published by Mike Comber, it contains 1,800 titles and full discographic detail, and is available from Comber at 8 Livesey Street, Preston, Lancs., PR1 4JQ U.K.

Despite the fact that Dawson’s fame did not extend to North America, he has many fans among collectors on both sides of the Atlantic (and Pacific), to whom this new biography will be of great interest.  It may be a bit dry and proper, but then so was he.  It’s a shame the publisher couldn’t have offered a CD of his music to go with it so that all those generations who are unfamiliar with him could hear the voice of “the world’s greatest baritone.”

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