The Gary Shearston Story

by Zbig Nowara

Gary was born in the northern New South Wales town of Inverell in 1939 but the outbreak of World War Two saw Gary's father away on active service, with Gary and his mother moving to his grandparent's farm at Tenterfield. During this time in the early 40's Gary's grandfather did not have a car, so the family rode to town and church in a four-wheeled buggy pulled by a single horse. From the age of five, Gary rode two miles to school, leaving the pony at the blacksmith's in town during school hours.

Gary's introduction to music was his mother playing the piano and the family singing around it. When his father returned from the war he took up a fifty acre farm as a returned soldier-settler at Tenterfield, however, a prolonged drought saw the farm abandoned and the Shearstons moved to Sydney when Gary was eleven. He left school at sixteen because he "didn't seem to be learning anything useful". After a couple of short term jobs immediately after leaving school Gary joined United Press International where he trained as a staff correspondent and then worked running the night news desk.

Gary got a guitar at sixteen and was playing it and learning songs whilst at UPI. Gary had actually wanted to be a drummer but hadn't been able to afford a kit as a youngster - just the occasional jazz record featuring drummers such as Krupa. He got his start in show business by joining the Tintookies, the famous Australian travelling puppet show for a year. On his return to Sydney he continued with several jobs working puppets on kids' TV shows, I Name That Time on the TCN-9 network. He also joined the Hayes Gordon Ensemble Theatre, first as an actor then behind the scenes as a stage manager.

Gary had learned a repertoire of English, American and Australian folk songs and from the age of nineteen had become a professional singer. He worked the hotels and clubs before the 'folk boom' brought the coffee houses and folk club circuit. Gary sang at the Folksinger, probably the first folk club in Sydney, and then the famous Troubadour.

The Troubadour was actually opened by Shearston and American gospel and blues singer Brother John Sellers. Shearston and Heather Pitt, a jazz singer had already put in some time backing Sellers who had quite a profile in Sydney in local nightclubs. As his own profile grew, Gary appeared on the Bandstand and Teen Time music shows on TV. He enrolled at the Sydney Conservatorium for music studies and stayed for just under a year.

Australian folk songs grew to be the major part of his repertoire. Gary's main mentor in these days was Dr. Edgar Waters of the Australian National University who made available field recordings made by people such as John Meredith, Alan Scott, Dr. Russel Ward and Dr. Waters himself. Meredith and Scott were also members of the Sydney Bush Music Club where Gary met Duke Tritton, from whom he learned many songs.

In late 1962 Gary signed with Leedon (Festival) Records. A single and an EP were issued in 1963. Whilst these recordings helped raise his profile they were not big sellers. Following extensive negotiation Festival released Gary from his contract and he signed with CBS in late 1963. CBS, under the guidance of A&R manager/chief producer Sven Libaek, were developing a strong roster of Australian talent, particularly in the jazz and folk fields. The first two CBS singles were not hits but sold enough to warrant the issue of Sydney Town. This single was Top Ten in Sydney and sold well throughout the rest of Australia. The next single Sometime Lovin' also charted.

The first album Folk Songs And Ballads Of Australia followed the success of these two singles and was a big seller. Five more LPs for CBS followed in the next two years. Shearston had become a major artist in Australia and the biggest record seller of the folk music boom of the mid '60s.


For many of the Australian folk songs on these albums it was the first time they had become known to the public at large even though some had been recorded earlier (e.g. on the Wattle label in the late '50s). Many, such as Put A Light In Every Country Window (written by Don Henderson) and The Springtime It Brings On The Shearing have become staples of bush bands and country music performers all over Australia, even to this day.

 Gary had become popular enough to return to television with his own national folk music program 'Just Folk' on the Seven Network. He was now also writing his own songs. In 1965 Peter, Paul & Mary were on tour in Australia and heard him perform his own song Sometime Lovin' which they subsequently recorded on their Album LP and invited him to go to America.

In 1967 he returned to Festival Records for the Abreaction LP. On this album he moved away from his folk roots to incorporate elements of jazz and rock into his music. Unfortunately Abreaction was considered to be too avant garde and did not sell anywhere near as many copies as the earlier LPs. Shearston decided it was time to move on, expand his horizons and head off to the USA. However, US immigration officials were not impressed by this Aussie folk singer who had acquired an ASIO file because of his opposition to the Vietnam war and his involvement with the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and instead he waited in London for a year.

In 1968 he made it to the US and spent four years on the East Coast. The visa problems meant that he was unable to work (in terms of public performance) and a full album he recorded for Warner Brothers remained unreleased. (Several of these songs were subsequently re-recorded in London for the Dingo album).

Gary returned to England in 1972 and performed widely both within the UK and on the Continent. He tasted success again with a deadpan interpretation of the old Cole Porter song I Get A Kick Out Of You (in late '74) and two albums on the Charisma label. Over the following years he became involved in various research projects with the film industry (e.g. "Burke & Wills") and wrote articles for music magazines as well as continuing to perform live and write his own songs.

He then spent 18 months writing a lengthy novel entitled Balkenna which was published on his return to Australia in 1989. Somewhat to his surprise he found that despite an absence of twenty two years, people still remembered him from the halcyon days of mid 1960s folk and offers to play various folks festivals came in.

CBS and Larrikin reissued some of his old material, and an album of new material entitled Aussie Blue was released to critical acclaim. A song from this album, Shoppin' 0n A Saturday, won the "Bush Ballad of the Year" award at the 1990 Tamworth Awards. He also wrote a song The Newcastle Earthquake which was used nationally to promote the Lord Mayor's Appeal for the earthquake's victims.

Soon after this the Gary Shearston story took an interesting turn - he made a decision to undertake studies to enter the Anglican priesthood.

Gary had been baptised and confirmed in the Church of England, which subsequently became the Anglican Church of Australia. During the '60s Gary flirted with other faiths such as Tibetan Buddhism but became re-involved with Christianity on his return to England in the early '70s. Gary was ordained in July 1992 and served as an Anglican minister in Hay (NSW), then Bangalow (NSW), and finally in the Tenterfield (NSW)/Queensland border region.

Now in retirement, Gary still performs occasional concerts and is perhaps a more prolific songwriter than he has ever been, as his recent CD releases testify.

(Updated May 2011)

From The Australian Record Collectors Magazine,
Issue 24, pp. 8-9 Zbigniew Nowara 1997.
Revised November 2000. Updated by 2011.

An afterword by the author:

During the folkboom of the mid sixties there were many Australian artists who sold large numbers of records but who have never been acknowledged. This is due to a bad bias that the Australian recording industry has towards "rock" artists selling to the teenage market. Other genres, even if creating large sales volumes are not given any PR budgets. One only needs to think of Slim Dusty who has recorded a hundred LPs and has a housefull of gold records but has not been listed on a Best Selling album chart until a couple of months ago! So very popular artists who sold alot of records such as Gary Shearston, the Idlers five, The Twiliters, Tina Lawton, Sean and Sonja, The Wesley Three etc are not found in books on Australian popular recordings, let alone such artists as the Norfolk Singers, The Southern Folk 3, The Tolmen, The Liberty Singers, The Lincoln 3 etc who released the odd single or EP. The author welcomes comments or additional information on the Shearston story. Similarly if anyone has details of the lineups or press cuttings or knows the whereabouts today of any Australian folk performers of the sixties, particularly those who released any recordings please get in touch.
Z. Nowara, 48 Ryan St, Northcote, Vic. 3070

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