Vale Johnny Ashcroft 1-2-1927 / 19-5-2021

On 21 May, 2021, Gold Coast Radio 4CRB 89.3FM put to air a Tribute to Johnny Ashcroft.

Listen to the station’s Executive Director, Steve Stuttle, deliver Highlights of an Illustrious Career written by Gay Kayler.

Gold Coast Radio 4CRB 89.3FM -
Highlights of an Illustrious Career

Johnny Ashcroft
Johnny Ashcroft

Johnny Ashcroft was an innovator, a humanitarian, and a loving man who lived his life with integrity.

In the world of showbusiness, he was a real pro – an entertainer, gag-man, musician, hit-song writer and recording artist, scriptwriter, educator and producer, with an impressive list of firsts to his name.

In 1788, Johnny Ashcroft’s great, great maternal grandfather, Marine Corporal John Gowan, arrived in Australia aboard the First Fleet’s Flagship, HMS Sirius.

In 1814 his other great, great grandfather and namesake, John Ashcroft, arrived in chains aboard the notorious convict ship, Surrey. Therefore, Johnny was a First Fleeter and the descendent of a convict.

Generations later Johnny, a Great Depression kid, lived in a bag shack mid appalling poverty. Who could guess he would one day be awarded an Order of Australia Medal for service to the entertainment industry and the community–and for his support for Aboriginal rights. An interest in Australia’s First Nations people–the oldest living culture on earth, was possibly influenced by these humble beginnings.


Laying comprehensive and solid foundations

Johnny climbed onto the rafters to release the tent for another season in the next town.
Johnny climbed onto the rafters to release the tent for another season in the next town.
Even at that young age, Johnny believed entertainers should dress for the occasion.
Even at that young age, Johnny believed entertainers should dress for the occasion.

Towards the end of the Vaudeville era, when Johnny was twenty, he joined the Great Levante Show, the biggest travelling show Australia had ever seen. This sophisticated production boasted an igloo-shaped ‘big top’ that held an audience of two thousand people.

The Great Levante, the master performer, took Johnny under his wing and taught him stagecraft and the principles of showbusiness. This strong foundation, coupled with his innate talents, enabled Johnny Ashcroft to successfully build a broad career that would last for more than fifty years.

Johnny also had voice training from the famous, Bryson Taylor.

In 1942 – aged 15, Johnny wrote his first factual song, Lonesome Pal, which he performed on the nationally broadcast radio show, Australia’s Amateur Hour, in 1944. He came second.

Two years later, singing the Overlander Trail on that show, he came first.


The Beginning of a Long List of ‘Firsts’

In 1948, during his first overseas tour, he became the first country and western artist to have a programme on New Zealand’s classical national radio network. The eight-programme series, emanating from Wellington, was re-broadcast for three years.

Shirley, Johnny, Mark, Tracey and John (standing).
Shirley, Johnny, Mark, Tracey and John (standing).

That same year, he married his first wife, New Zealander Shirley Williams. They had three children, John, Tracey and Mark.

Around 1953, he wrote and performed in Songs of the Homestead, a series for ABC Radio.

Johnny’s first commercial recordings were six sides on 78rpms for Rodeo Records, in 1954. In 1993, two of those tracks, Castaway and the Farmer’s Song, were released by EMI on a 3-CD set, Country Music in Australia 1936-1959 the Regal-Rodeo Collection.

Around 1954, he performed in the first, in-house, experimental, pre-TV test at French’s Forest, Sydney.

Joy McKean, Slim Dusty, 3TR announcer, Barry Thornton and Johnny Ashcroft.
Joy McKean, Slim Dusty, 3TR announcer, Barry Thornton and Johnny Ashcroft.

Johnny toured all through 1955 with Slim Dusty’s first national tour.

During that year, he wrote Australia’s first trucking song, Highway 31, spearheading a lucrative area in the Australian Country Music market.

In 1956, Highway 31 was featured on the first Australian vinyl micro-groove country and western album, Songs of the Western Trails, on Philips.

Also in that year, Johnny was one of the first artists, and the first country and western artist, to appear on Australian television. This was on ABC Channel 2, Sydney. He also wrote the theme for the show, Crazy Cross, about Sydney’s King’s Cross.

Dig That Dixie became a collector’s item.
Dig That Dixie became a collector’s item.

In 1958, he recorded his first Dixieland record, Dig That Dixie, with the legendary Graeme Bell.

Also in 1958, he recorded his first hit song, They’re a Weird Mob based on John O’Grady’s book, in skiffle style.

[At this point in the programme, you’re listening to Johnny singing They’re a Weird Mob – written by Australian country music stalwart, George Dasey.]

Though often dubbed ‘just a country singer’ in these formative years, his ability in many genres found him conquering one of the world’s greatest live-show entertainment circuits (the NSW club circuit), reaping moments of fulfilment, while this solemn gold-standard applied: ‘the show must go on’!


The Song That Became a Part of Australia’s Folklore

In 1960, he wrote and recorded Australia’s first ‘soft’ country-rock song, the smash hit, Little Boy Lost. It was promoted world-wide with a film clip introduced by Roger Climpson; and was covered by overseas recording artists, including Jimmy Dean in the USA and Michael Holliday in the UK, and by several Australian artists.

Little Boy Lost topped Australian charts longer than a Pub With No Beer and Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport combined and became one of Australia’s biggest hits. It is now part of our folklore.

Four-year-old Steven Walls, the real life Little Boy Lost.
Four-year-old Steven Walls, the real life Little Boy Lost.

This history-making song earned Johnny the first Australian 45rpm Gold Record, which he asked EMI to present to Steven Walls, the Little Boy Lost. This Gold Record is now the centre-piece of the Steven Walls-Little Boy Lost display in the Guyra Historical Museum.

Johnny’s recording was also awarded the first Gold Record in New Zealand.

Country music identities, Nick Erby, Johnny, Gay, Max Ellis, John Minson, Ann Minson at movie premiere.
Country music identities, Nick Erby, Johnny, Gay, Max Ellis, John Minson, Ann Minson at movie premiere.

It sparked a movie, released in 1978, with a fresh version of the song, recorded with Gay Kayler. The Little Boy Lost movie received the Catholic Award for Decency in Germany, amongst other accolades.

The original hit version of Little Boy Lost is on YouTube, with clips from the Little Boy Lost movie; and the Sir Sidney Nolan painting, Little Boy Lost, hangs in the Broken Hill Art Gallery.

[At this point in the programme, you’re listening to Johnny singing his composition, Little Boy Lost, and Steve Stuttle talking about his special memories of Johnny.]


Joining the Fight for Rights and Justice

In 1964, Johnny, Shirley and their children became the first non-Indigenes to be accepted as members of Sydney’s Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs. When Johnny realised how colonisation had engulfed First Australians, he became an entertainer-activist, fighting for Indigenous rights and social justice. Even racist attacks on-stage failed to silence him.

In 1970, Johnny worked on a pontoon in the middle of Sydney Harbour to his largest audience – 110,000 people gathered around the foreshores and on the Sydney Harbour Bridge for the Bi-Centenary of Captain Cook claiming the east coast of Australia for England.


Some Industry Firsts

Backstage – Johnny always had time for his fans.
Backstage – Johnny always had time for his fans.

In 1971, as part of Radio 2TM’s 36th anniversary, Johnny was presented with three Gold LP Records before a live audience at Tamworth Town Hall – an industry first. During the show, he suggested Tamworth should hold an annual Awards night. It was taken up in 1973. By 2001, the Tamworth Country Music Festival, with its Golden Guitar Awards, was officially recognised as one of the top ten festivals in the world.

In 1973, Johnny had a life-threatening melanoma successfully removed.

In 1974, under the auspices of the Australian Festival of Performing Arts, he starred with Gay Kayler in the first all-Australian country music show in the Sydney Opera House, three months after it opened.

When they headed up the Australian Variety Show in that same prestigious venue only two months later, it established Johnny and Gay as leaders in the popular arts.

In 1975, Johnny wrote the first Australian female trucking song, My Home-coming Trucker’s Coming Home, for Gay Kayler to record.

Also in that year, he wrote and recorded the Salvation Army’s Red Shield Appeal song, Holy Joe, the Salvo. He was the first commercial recording artist to receive permission from the Salvation Army to record with an ‘Army’ band. This smash hit was so influential that the ‘Sallys’, as they were then known, have since become the ‘Salvos’.

[At this point in the programme, you’re listening to Johnny singing Holy Joe, the Salvo – introduction by the Hurstville Salvation Army Citadel Brass Band.]

Johnny at the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea.
Johnny at the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea.

Again in 1975, Johnny Ashcroft became the Inaugural President of the Tamworth Songwriters Association; and he and Gay toured Papua New Guinea, during its Year of Independence, co-sponsored by Air Niugini.

In 1977, Johnny Ashcroft was imprinted in the inaugural Australasian Country Music Hands of Fame.


PCMAA ‘To Promote and Enhance the Image of Australian Country Music’

In 1979, he was elected the Inaugural Vice-President of the Professional Country Music Association of Australia.

After two approaches by others, Johnny successfully represented the PCMAA to have country music accepted as a separate entity in the Australian Variety Artists Mo Awards.


Raising Awareness and Pride in Australia’s Rich History

Also in 1979, Johnny and Gay Kayler researched, wrote and produced the successful Australian series, the Imagine That! Australiana Show. This highly acclaimed production ran for eleven years, showing to adults, and to over 750,000 children, in modified programmes accredited by the NSW Education Department for Kindy to Year 7. Their aim was to instill pride in the minds of Australian children, and to heighten their awareness of Australia’s diverse history. Johnny, Gay and their Imagine That! presentations were featured in major TV segments on SBS and the ABC’s 7:30 Report.

Gamilaraay elder, Barbara Flick, said Imagine That! was ‘ground-breaking in Australia’.
Gamilaraay elder, Barbara Flick, said Imagine That! was ‘ground-breaking in Australia’.
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Barbara Flick, a Gamilaraay Nation elder and Centennial Medal holder, said these performances were ‘ground-breaking’ in Australia, in their presentation of Australia’s First Nations people, both traditional and present day. She also said, ‘Johnny Ashcroft is a man many Murris and Kooris are proud to call Brother’.

Oongi Barbara Flick and her husband John Nicol often visited Johnny and his wife Gay Kayler in their home on the Gold Coast. They had many discussions about the experiences of First Australians and their fight for justice. Oongi and Johnny became very close and she adopted him into her Gamilaraay family.

[At this point in the programme, you’re listening to Johnny and Gay singing Imagine That! – with heartfelt delight.]


Major Recognition of Johnny Ashcroft’s Expertise

Johnny Ashcroft, Frank Ifield and Gay Kayler backstage after the presentation and a ‘standing ovation’ performance.
Johnny Ashcroft, Frank Ifield and Gay Kayler backstage after the presentation and a ‘standing ovation’ performance.
Johnny Ashcroft and John Minson, two great friends, fittingly together on the rock.
Johnny Ashcroft and John Minson, two great friends, fittingly together on the rock.

In 1980, Frank Ifield presented Johnny with the first Australian Variety Artists Mo Award for Male Country Entertainer.

In 1981, Johnny received the Queensland Country Music National Male Award, presented by the Honourable Bill Hayden.

He married his second wife, Gay Kayler, in 1981, and gained a second son named John.

In 1986, he was elevated to the Australasian Country Music Roll of Renown, which states, ‘the Johnny Ashcroft Show pioneered the breakthrough into the metropolitan registered club circuit. He was instrumental in establishing country music in this substantial market’.


A Unique Recording History

The Baron, Johnny’s alter ego, made disco charts and ‘killed ‘em’ on stage with Lady Finflingkington (Gay).
The Baron, Johnny’s alter ego, made disco charts and ‘killed ‘em’ on stage with Lady Finflingkington (Gay).

Johnny’s compositions have been commercially released on hundreds of recordings.

From 1958 to 1975, more songs that Johnny Ashcroft wrote or co-wrote and sang appeared on general charts than any other Australian C&W artist.

He is the only Australian to hold Gold Records in the Folk, Country-Rock and Pop-Country music categories.

His recordings, as a multi-award-winning artist, prove he is the only Australian to have commercially released successful bush-ballads, folk, trad jazz, calypso, trad and modern country, pop, and even disco (albeit disguised as the Baron).

His breadth of talent wowed them in the Sydney Opera House, at Melbourne’s packed-out Sidney Myer Music Bowl, and even at Australia’s Cow-Chip Throwing Championships!


A Proud Legacy

Johnny and Gay with NSW Governor, Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair AC and Shirley Sinclair.

In 1990, Johnny was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia.

In 1995, he was appointed a Fellow of the Australian Institute of History and Arts, in recognition of ‘…his many years work in the field of Australian Performing Arts, whereby he has proved that he is an acknowledged leader….Future generations of Australians will forever be appreciative of this work, which has greatly enriched the archives of our country.’

Much of Johnny Ashcroft’s work is preserved in the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, also in the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame Museum in Tamworth.

Johnny Ashcroft daring to be different!
Johnny Ashcroft daring to be different!

Johnny was a lateral thinker, a great survivor, an innovator and a loving, compassionate man standing his ground by daring to be different.

[At this point in the programme, you’re listening to Johnny, Gay and Bettybo proudly singing the title track of the album, Here’s to You, Australia! – written by Johnny and Bettybo.]


Lord’s Chapel where Johnny’s funeral service took place.
Lord’s Chapel where Johnny’s funeral service took place.

Johnny’s private funeral was on 27-5-2021 in the beautiful Gothic-style Lord’s Chapel, built in 1880 at Seven Hills, NSW.

Back in 1992, Johnny Ashcroft asked Barbara Flick, a Gamilaraay Nation elder, Centennial Medal holder and close friend, if she would perform a Smoking Ceremony at his funeral. She said she would be honoured to do so.

The following video is of Barbara Flick acknowledging that Johnny’s funeral was being held on what has been the Deerubbin people’s land for 100,000 years. She told the congregation that, because she adopted Johnny into her Gamilaraay family years ago, Johnny is a Tree Goanna man and he was going to be released from this earth and let go on to the next part of his journey – with love.


Johnny Ashcroft, Gay Kayler, Johnny Nicol, Barbara Flick in happier times.
Johnny Ashcroft, Gay Kayler, Johnny Nicol, Barbara Flick in happier times.

This video is of Barbara Flick performing Johnny’s Smoking Ceremony, as he requested. Her husband, Johnny Nicol – Australia’s legendary Indigenous Jazz singer and musician, is playing the Clapping Sticks. Johnny Nicol also sang How Do You Keep the Music Playing (the Music Never Ends) during the service.

© copyright 2021, Johnny Ashcroft & Gay Kayler.