Johnny O’Keefe 1935 – 1978
- Johnny O’Keefe 1935 – 1978
Johnny O’Keefe 1935 – 1978
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 Junglethat 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.
There were more setbacks. To create an illusion of affluence, O’Keefe drove everywhere in an ostentatious Plymouth Belvedere, bought on hire purchase. On 27 June 1960, near Kempsey in New South Wales, he fell asleep at the wheel and collided with a truck. Extensive plastic surgery eventually corrected the scarring on his face. A third unproductive American visit and a disastrous foray to London culminated in his collapse from nervous exhaustion.
Back home O’Keefe had a major hit with the ballad ‘I’m Counting on You’ in August 1961. From October 1961 he fronted the big-budget Johnny O’Keefe Show on the Seven Network. This featured not only local rock scene ‘regulars, but gave a break to many promising newcomers whose careers O’Keefe encouraged.
In mid 1962 a nervous breakdown put O’Keefe in the psychiatric ward at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for two months. When he returned to television, Seven renamed his show Sing Sing Sing in honour of another of his hits, ‘Sing’. His contribution to ‘Entertainment for Youth’ earned him a TV Week Logie Award in 1963. Early in 1964 he had another major chart success with the ballad ‘She Wears My Ring’. In March that year promoters J.C. Williamson’s, Kenn Brodziak and Jack Neary were so confident of O’Keefe’s cross-generational appeal that they booked him as a ‘support act’ for the veteran American comedian Jack Benny, who was to appear for them at the Theatre Royal in Sydney and Comedy in Melbourne. Backed by the Tommy Tycho orchestra, O’Keefe had his own spot in the second act, during which, The Herald noted, he ‘worked like a Trojan to win a Festival Hall response from a square dress circle.’ He also joined with Benny for an increasingly ad libbed comedy routine. The two became close friends.
The rise of the Mersey Beat tended to marginalise hard core rock, and the Beatles’ tour for Kenn Brodziak in June 1964 reinforced this. Unlike most of his contemporaries, O’Keefe refused to adapt; he even banned Beatles style haircuts on his show. His record sales declined. In November he was back in hospital. Sing Sing Sing was cancelled a few months later. He described 1964 ‘the biggest downer’ of his career.
Stuck in his rock ’n’ roll time warp, O’Keefe battled on. He found work in cabaret and leagues clubs, and in 1966 even sang in side show alley tents at agricultural shows. He told showground entrepreneur Frank Foster, ‘When I did the Big Shows for Lee Gordon, they’d whisk you away in a car as soon as the show was over and the people would scream and yell, but you never actually got to meet them. But this way you just walk out and they ask you for your autograph. It’s really great.’
In between, and often during, gigs, O’Keefe struggled with alcohol, drugs, a divorce, and another car accident. From January to November 1967 he fronted Where the Action Is on the Ten Network. In 1969 he entertained Australian troops in Vietnam.
By 1970 O’Keefe began to reappear in the record charts. In 1973 he appeared before an initiallyhostile audience of 35,000 hippies at a Sunbury rock festival, and eventually won them over. The year 1974 brought him his last major Top Ten hit – ‘Mockingbird’, a duet with Margaret McLaren. Later that year he assembled a show package called The Good Old Days of Rock ’n’ Roll, featuring his old friends Johnny Devlin, Lonnie Lee, Barry Stanton, Jade Hurley, Tony Brady and Laurel Lea. It premiered at St George’s Leagues Club in August 1974 and played to packed houses all over Australia. In October 1975 Johnny O’Keefe was honoured on This is Your Life. He was also instrumental in establishing the entertainment industry’s annual ‘Mo’ Awards, and chaired the steering committee.
O’Keefe’s idol, Elvis Presley, died in August 1977. His fans organised a granite memorial in Melbourne General Cemetery, which O’Keefe unveiled a few months later. The Good Old Days of Rock ’n’ Roll was still going strong when O’Keefe himself died of a drug overdose in Sydney on 6 October 1978. He was only 43.
O’Keefe’s enormous legacy of recordings has been transferred to CD. His daughter, Vicky, who was 17 when her father died, has developed into a charismatic popular vocalist, and continues to sing many of her father’s old hits. His nephew, Andrew, is a familiar television personality.
‘My act is not an act,’ Johnny O’Keefe had said. ‘It’s me. I’m the sort of guy who is what he sings.’ It was undoubtedly this inherent honesty, this ingenuousness, that endeared him to his thousands of fans, and that has helped keep his legend alive. Equally important was his gutsy determination to succeed, to show that an Australian performer could command star status in his own country. His achievements have paved the way for the performers who have followed.
His memory has been honoured in two biographies; in the 1986 TV mini-series Shout! The Story of Johnny O’Keefe, with Terry Serio in the title role; in his selection as a foundation inductee of the ARIA Hall of Fame in 1988; in Real Wild Child, a tribute exhibition at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum in 1994; and in Shout! – The Legend of the Wild One, a major new musical by John-Michael Howson, David Mitchell and Melvyn Morrow, presented by Kevin Jacobsen Entertainment and the Victorian Arts Centre from December 2000. David Campbell played O’Keefe. ‘The musical will be remounted at the Arts Centre in January 2008.
In 2004 a statue of O’Keefe by Alex Sandor Kolozsy was unveiled at Coolangatta–Tweed Heads Twin Towns Services Club.
Two of O’Keefe’s flashy stage outfits are preserved in the Powerhouse Museum. One is a bright yellow shawl-collared jacket and trousers, trimmed with black velvet and diamantes; the other is a bright red suit with a leopard-print velvet trim. It was reputedly made by O’Keefe’s mother, Thelma.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
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