Johnny O’Keefe 1935-1978

Johnny O'Keefe

Johnny O’Keefe

John Michael O’Keefe was born in the well-to-do Sydney suburb of Dover Heights on 19 January 1935.

O’Keefe had sung as a soprano in his school choir, studied piano, contested Radio 2UE’s Australian Amateur Hour.

O’Keefe and the Dee Jays signed with Festival Records, using Bill Haley’s ‘You Hit the Wrong Note, Billy Goat’ as their debut release.

From February 1959 O’Keefe and the Dee Jays captured a vast new audience as the resident stars of the nation’s first TV rock show, the ABC’s Six O’Clock Rock.

 

The wild one

‘Here in Australia, right up there and coincidental with the first great spate of rock ’n’ rollers,
Johnny O’Keefe led the way, inspired by the belief that in Australia was musical talent as good as any in the world. Including his own. It seems hard now to understand why this was such a revolutionary notion then. We now expect our great talents, in all forms of performance, to stride the stages, and the screens, of the world. But in 1955 such possibilities were few, for most of us, mere fantasy land. But not so JO’K.’ – Director Richard Wherrett, in his program notes for Shout! – The Legend of the Wild One,the 2000 musical based on Johnny O’Keefe’s life.

John Michael O’Keefe was born in the well-to-do Sydney suburb of Dover Heights on 19 January 1935. His father was an amateur jazz musician, but this was secondary to his furniture business – which his son was expected to join. He did, in fact, work there for a few months, and dabbled in an economics course at the University of Sydney.

O’Keefe had sung as a soprano in his school choir, studied piano, contested Radio 2UE’s Australian Amateur Hour, and formed a vocal trio with two of his school mates. His debut as a solo performer came in 1953 when he entertained fellow national servicemen at Richmond RAAF base with impressions of the sobbing balladeer Johnnie Ray. It was the music of Bill Haley, featured in the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle that seduced him into the world of rock ’n’ roll. In September 1956 he formed his own band, the Dee Jays (Dee was Dave Owens and Jay was O’Keefe), which attracted a following at Stones Cabaret at Coogee. Soon they were playing for four suburban dance dates a week.

O’Keefe and the Dee Jays signed with Festival Records, using Bill Haley’s ‘You Hit the Wrong Note, Billy Goat’ as their debut release. In October 1957 Lee Gordon booked them to appear in one of his Big Shows. Up until then Gordon had relied entirely on imports, but ‘Johnny and the Dee Jays’ held their own with Little Richard, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. Early in 1958 O’Keefe with Owens and others wrote the iconic ‘Wild One’. Released by Festival, it was the first Australian rock recording to reach the national charts, and its success encouraged O’Keefe to abandon the security of his father’s business. As artist and repertoire manager for Gordon’s record company, he recruited and wrote songs for artists such as Lonnie Lee, Barry Stanton and The Crescents.

Meanwhile O’Keefe’s career as a performer skyrocketed. His short stature and unremarkable voice were unimportant: his stage presence was electrifying. His unflagging energy and his Presley-like overt sexuality were what won the crowds. ‘It didn’t matter how you sang the song,’ he said, ‘it mattered what you did.’ Nevertheless, he promoted rock as wholesome entertainment and some of his biggest hits were ballads, such as ‘I’m Counting on You’ (1961).

From February 1959 O’Keefe and the Dee Jays captured a vast new audience as the resident stars of the nation’s first TV rock show, the ABC’s Six O’Clock Rock. Before long, O’Keefe was compering the show, and his career accelerated. He toured Australia with international headliners such as Paul Anka, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and Ricky Nelson; his fee for the latter was a return air ticket to the United States. With bumbling boomerang demonstrations to gain publicity, ‘The Boomerang Boy’ tried to crack the American market, but his two tours were disappointing. He returned home broke.

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Biographical references

Warren Bebbington (ed.): ‘Johnny O’Keefe’, in The Oxford Companion to Australian Music, Oxford University Press, 1997
John Bryden-Brown: JO’K – The Official Johnny O’Keefe Story, Doubleday, 1982
Damian Johnstone: The Wild One – The Life and Times of Johnny O’Keefe, Allen & Unwin, 2001
Ian McFarlane: The Encyclopedia of Australian Rock and Pop, Allen & Unwin, 1999
Noel McGrath: Australian Encyclopaedia of Rock, Outback Press, 1978
Michael Sturma: ‘Johnny O’Keefe’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 15, Melbourne University Press