Thursday, May 25, 2017

Johnny O’Keefe (1935 - 1978)

John Michael O'Keefe was born in 1935, the second son of Thelma and Ray O’Keefe and grew up in the middle class Sydney suburb of Dover Heights east overlooking the Sydney harbour. He was educated by the Christian Brothers sang in the choir and studied piano whilst at school. As an older teenager he completed a first-year certificate at the College of Retailing, before registering at Sydney University to study economics. Johnny did an imitation of Johnnie Ray, and after he appeared on radio 2UW's 'Australian Amateur Hour' he was smitten with the idea of becoming an entertainer. Once he heard Bill Haley singing Rock Around the Clock in the film Blackboard Jungle in 1955, he decided to become a rock'n'roller. In 1956 he and Dave Owens (saxophonist) formed the 'Dee Jays' with Johnny Green, Lou Cash, Keith Williams and Johnny 'Catfish' Purser. The band soon established them as a popular act. And played at endless gigs and sock hops. Johnny O’Keefe released his first single “You Hit the Wrong Note Billy Goat”, which was written by Bill Haley. The single did moderately well for 1957.

Determined to make himself be successful he sought out entrepreneur Lee Gordon a shady character that came from North America and settled in Australia. Gordon had successfully rented stadium previously used by boxing promoters and engaged headliners like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Ray and Frankie Laine to appear. This was phenomenally successful so Gordon continued to bring in the new stars of Rock’n’Roll. Gordon was completely ambivalent to local talent but when Johnny O’Keefe kept pestering him to be on the bill with his hero Bill Haley, he eventually relented. Johnny was only 5' 8' but had a James Brown style about his performance and would appear overtly sexy on stage handling his microphone in a suggestive manner. He won over the crowd and got himself a new manager. Now working for Lee Gordon's record company as an artist and repertoire (A&R) man, Johnny recruited singers for the Leedon label. This included acts like 'Lonnie Lee', Barry Stanton and 'The Crescents'.

When time permitted he also wrote songs for many of them. Johnny continued to appear in Lee Gordon Big (Bog) Shows and met and performed with many of his heroes. Despite being well liked as a person, his panache as a rocker went unrecognized. Even Buddy Holly on a radio interview dismissed Johnny’s version of “Oop poop a doo“ as.’ pretty horrible.’ Johnny took the remarks in good part maybe because he was in the studio at the time.

In 1958 Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) started a Saturday evening called 'Six O’clock Rock', which was based on the Beeb’s Six Five Special (UK) and rival to Channel Nine Australian Bandstand. At first Johnny and the 'Dee Jays' appeared as popular guests but soon he became the compere, and got closely involved in the show's production.

By the beginning of 1960 he also hosted an A.B.C. radio program, the 'Johnny O'Keefe Show, Rockville Junction', which was broadcast on Friday nights.

Success in the US was important goal for Johnny but despite two attempts he return unsuccessful. Johnny O’Keefe released Wild One in 1958 which he wrote with Dave Owens, Johnny Greenan and Tony Withers, a disc jockey; the song was an immediate hit. Jerry Lee Lewis did a cover version which was a hit for him in the US. Iggy Pop also released a cover to mark the 50th anniversary of the original release.

Shout followed in 1959 and She's My Baby in 1960.

The same year he was involved in a serious motorcar accident but made a remarkable recovery. However Johnny’s mental health was deteriorating and he suffered several nervous breakdowns. Following a brief return to television in 1967 as host of 'Where the Action Is', he found work largely in tent-shows and at leagues clubs throughout Australia.

In 1974 his career underwent something of resurgence with the flurry of rock revival. Despite his image as 'The Wild One', he promoted rock'n'roll as wholesome entertainment, and like most stars of that period, aspired to be an 'all-round entertainer. Johnny O’Keefe died in 1978.

Worth a listen
Wild One (1958)
Shout (1959)
She’s my baby (1960)
I'm Counting on You (1961)
She Wears My Ring (1964).

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