Peter Dawson 1882-1961

Peter Dawson

Peter Dawson

Peter Smith Dawson was born in Adelaide on 31 January 1882.

On 28 July 1900 he made his concert debut in the Adelaide Town Hall. Five months later he was bass soloist there in Messiah.

He published his first song and made his first recordings in 1904.

 

The ballad king

‘Singing a duet with Peter Dawson in Adelaide was the greatest experience of the whole tour,’ recalled veteran Australian country music star Smoky Dawson. ‘We did Hal Saunders’ marvellous favourite “Old Cockatoorali’ and the house tried to lift the roof. From that day Peter became my “Uncle” and I his “illustrious nephew”. One morning in Martin Place, Sydney, I met him crossing the road. “Just going off for an hour with my vocal coach,” he said. “Never miss when I’m in town. Stops me getting into bad habits.” Perhaps this had much to do with his once being the most recorded singer in the world as well as one of the greatest baritones of all time. One morning, near the end of his time, I went to see him in hospital. He was pale and drawn with pain. Then he looked up at me and sang in that warm, rich voice, with all its old-time charm and beauty, “Clancy of the Overflow”. I like to think he, too, went a-droving to some pleasant place.’

Peter Smith Dawson was born in Adelaide on 31 January 1882, the youngest of the nine children of an Adelaide ironworker and plumber. Following a rudimentary education he was apprenticed to his father. Always musical, he had early success as a boy soprano then learnt singing from Charles Stevens. On 28 July 1900 he made his concert debut in the Adelaide Town Hall. Five months later he was bass soloist there in Messiah. The following year he won the bass solo section of the Ballarat South Street Competitions. Away from the concert platform, Dawson was a typical young tradesman: he smoked, swore and gambled, but drank abstemiously. He also had an early penchant for tattoos; these were said to commemorate various amatory encounters and proved embarrassing later in his life. And he was pretty handy with his fists.

Encouraged by his teacher, Dawson sailed for London in 1902. The eminent baritone Charles Santley accepted him as a pupil and arranged for him to tour the west of England with the great soprano Emma Albani. It was on this tour that Dawson made his professional debut – at the Guildhall in Plymouth.

For a while Dawson was engaged as a ‘turn’ in London music halls, where he was billed as ‘Hector Grant’ with a repertoire of Scottish songs in the style of Harry Lauder. He published his first song and made his first recordings in 1904. His virile baritone, with his impeccable diction and his never-flagging ebullience, reproduced superbly even on primitive disc and cylinder equipment. He eventually recorded around 3,500 titles and sold more than 13 million copies in a recording career that started in the cylinder era and concluded in the stereo age; many of his recordings are still available on CD.

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Biographical references

Peter Dawson: My Life of Song, Hutchinson, London, 1951
Herbert Henry [‘Snowy’] Dawson: Smoky Dawson: A Life, Allen & Unwin, 1985
Fred W. Gaisberg: Music on Record, Robert Hale, London, 1946
James Glennon: ‘Peter Dawson’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 8
Russell Smith and Peter Burgis: Peter Dawson – The World’s Most Popular Baritone, Currency Press, 2001
George Thomas: ‘The Song of Peter Dawson’, in Quadrant, May 2002