It was a NSW police forensic photograph taken in 1916 of the arrest of petty thief and scam artist Thomas "Shark Jaws" Archer published in the colour supplement of a Sydney weekend newspaper that, two years ago, caught 60s pop legend Russell Morris' attention.
"I've always been an old photo buff and this picture was so fantastic I took it home with me to Melbourne," recalls the Aussie singer songwriter who shot to fame in 1969 with the Ian "Molly" Meldrum-produced psychedelic rock classic The Real Thing. "I thought this guy was so fascinating that I wrote a song about him and when I finished it felt like I'd almost opened up the door on a different era.
"All of a sudden all of my grandmother's stories came flooding back to me. We grew up in Richmond in Melbourne and my grandmother, who lived to 93, would see Squizzy Taylor standing on the corner of Church Street and Bridge Road. She'd talk about what she went through in the Great Depression and I thought this is what I should do - talk about Australian history in a blues idiom."
The photo of "Shark Jaws" Archer graces the cover of Morris' astonishing new album called Sharkmouth, that chronicles a procession of Australian legends, including notorious Melbourne-based gangster Squizzy Taylor, heavyweight boxing champion Les Darcy, Sydney pavement graffiti artist Mr Eternity and thoroughbred racehorse Phar "Big Red" Lap.
Even before he formed his first group Somebody's Image and rose to prominence in 1966 with a local version of Joe South's song Hush, Morris was a fan of the blues. An early fascination with the debut album by the Rolling Stones led him to explore the history of Chicago and Louisiana blues. "The guy who turned it around for me was John Lee Hooker with his lowdown voice and that driving primitive beat," he says.
Unperturbed by the fact that he's best known for his string of fondly remembered 60s and 70s singles - in particular the audacious seven-minute epic The Real Thing, Wings of an Eagle and the haunting Sweet Sweet Love - on Sharkmouth Morris takes his powerful voice in the direction of rootsy acoustic/electric blues and rockabilly.
"I don't care what anybody thinks, that's what I really want to do and it's what I love. At my age I can do what I want. So on stage now I'm playing the songs from the new record then taking a break for 10 minutes and coming back on and playing the hits."
Some of the vastly different territory he charts on the new album include the atmospheric The Drifter, about a gambler who is murdered in a backroom poker games that features contributions from Renee Geyer and harmonica player Chris Wilson, also the earthy ballad Squizzy with Mark "Diesel" Lizotte on banjo and the thumping up-tempo, rockabilly- flavoured Walk My Blues. "There's a whole history of American music in the blues but as far as I'm aware this is the first time historical Australian tales have been told in a blues way," says Morris. "They've never been done this way before."
A number of the songs were co-written with Morris' long-time friend Garry Paige, who penned such massive hits for Geyer as Heading in the Right Direction and Words Are Not Enough.
The first track on the album Black Dog Blues was written in collaboration with former Masters Apprentices frontman (and touring partner in Cotton, Keays & Morris for a number of years) Jim Keays.
The album's authentic instrumental blues sound is because of the playing of much-in-demand Melbourne guitarist Shannon Bourne, who has released two independent solo albums.
"I'd originally played the guitar tracks," says Morris, "but when Shannon came in and started to play I said to the engineer 'Can you find a bin to put my guitar parts in'. He's just got the best feel for the blues."
'As far as I'm aware this is the first time historical Australian tales have been told in a blues way'