© John Low
The so-called 'folk boom' of the 1960s in Australia brought to public notice a number of very fine musicians. One of these was Adelaide singer Tina Lawton who, before her tragic death in 1968 at the age of 24, achieved national attention with three critically acclaimed LPs. She is now largely forgotten and the albums remain unreleased on CD. A singer with a voice of great beauty, she certainly deserves better in my opinion.
Christine Elizabeth Lawton was born in Adelaide on 23 rd March 1944, the fifth child in a family of five girls and one boy. Nicknamed 'Tina' by her father, she grew up in a musical family in the affluent, middle-class Adelaide suburb of Hawthorn. Her parents became aware of her talent as a singer early, her mother recalling that “her voice was like a bird's from the moment she discovered a tune”. She was undisciplined in her application to piano and violin lessons, but always enjoyed singing both at home with her brothers and sisters and at church. She also showed an early interest and ability in art and would fill page after page of blank notebooks with her drawings.
After attending Walford House Girls Grammar School and later Unley Technical High School, she enrolled at the South Australian School of Arts in 1961. While studying art she continued to sing in the Churches of Christ Youth Choir, enjoying especially their annual light opera performances. She also began singing with a friend at 'The Catacombs', a newly opened jazz and folk venue in Adelaide and it was at this time that her deep interest in traditional folk music blossomed. Her inherent desire to sing had finally found its most appropriate form of expression.
With this commitment her life changed. While holidaying at Victor Harbour she took part in a charity concert and was asked by the compere, Roger Cardwell, to audition for his new television program, The Country and Western Hour. The show went national and she became a popular and regular guest, her classic voice and traditional folk songs an interlude between and somewhat at odds with the dominant country and western.
As her popularity grew she appeared on other television programs including the Marie Tomasetti Show, Adelaide Tonight, In Melbourne Tonight, Bandstand, The Lively Arts, a number of children's programs for the ABC and folk music shows like Just Folk, Jazz Meets Folk and Dave's Place. A journalist of the time wrote about her television appearances: “Tina exploits that forgotten art these days of throwing her mouth wide open and transmitting full voice through it for her own sheer joy of singing.”
By 1964 she was probably the most popular folk singer in Adelaide and, in August of that year, was chosen with ten other folk singers for a 'Four Capitals Folk Song' tour of the east coast, beginning in Brisbane and including concerts in Melbourne, Wollongong and Sydney. The group included Gary Shearston, Martin Wyndham-Read and 'Duke' Tritton. An LP was recorded in Melbourne to commemorate the tour, to which Tina contributed two songs. In Sydney her face appeared on posters all over the city, advertising the country's first folk music festival at the northern beach suburb of Newport.
Local engagements increased and interstate trips became more frequent. When Peter, Paul & Mary visited Australia, she travelled with them to Adelaide, befriending Peter Yarrow and taking him home for dinner with her family.
In 1965 David Zweck, an Adelaide director for the ABC, produced a series of Tina Lawton Interludes which appeared on the ABC in prime time and did much to increase her national popularity. She was accompanied on these segments, each of which presented songs of one particular country, by flautist David Cubbin and harpist Hew Jones.
Then, in December 1965, her first eponymous LP record was released, a beautiful album that received wide critical acclaim and on which, according to one review, “she concentrates on the purity of her unmannered voice and applies it to a handful of songs from the British Isles”. The musical arrangements were handled by the Welsh harpist, Hew Jones, who was then playing with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Her supporting musicians included Jones (harp) and Andy Sundstrom (guitar). The review quoted above concluded with the comment that “Miss Lawton is no flash in the folk-singing pan …[she] would have happened, [folk] boom or not, and she has a style and quality which will endure.”
In August the following year (1966), Tina was invited to appear in The Restless Years, a film that used folk music to explore the early history of Australia from 1790 to 1855. It was produced in the ABC's Sydney studios and was directed and compered by Peter O'Shaughnessy. Playing the role of a convict girl, she sang songs like 'The Convict Maid' and dueted with fellow folksinger Marion Henderson. The film was awarded second place (behind Czechoslovakia) in an international folklore competition held in Dublin.
While all this was happening, she was also becoming more serious about developing the capabilities of her voice and enrolled at the Adelaide Conservatorium for singing lessons under the guidance of Nancy Thomas. She also, according to her mother, began to toy with the idea of composing songs of her own and spent hours playing and writing down her ideas.