50 YEARS AGO
The Wild One (Withers/Owens/Greenan/O’Keefe) – Johnny O’Keefe and the Dee Jays 1958
Fifty years ago this year the first rock and roll song written by Australians entered the national top 20 in March 1958, the singer, Johnny O’Keefe, would become known as the Wild One, and the most celebrated of this country’s earliest rock pioneers.
From Johnny Ray impersonator to Bill Haley impersonator to Aussie rock icon, JO’K hit top 20 for the first time in Australia for a rock act with the local composition “Wild One”. Written by Dave Owen (tenor sax) and Johnny Greenan (baritone sax) who were members of JOK’s backing group the Dee Jays with the lyrical suggestion from O’Keefe “shake her till the meat comes offa the bone”, getting Johnny a writing credit. Tony Withers was a 2SM disc jockey who was essentially “credited” with providing air time to promote the record, Withers was taking cues from Alan Freed and Dick Clark, two high profile American DJs and promoters of the time, who invented similar royalties-sharing arrangements. Such deals with DJs would result in the “payola” scandals in the US in the future which would engulf high profile American DJ and promoter Alan Freed and ruin his career.
The song was inspired by a wild brawl, that erupted at a function centre in Newtown (Syd) in 1957, which was simultaneously the venue for both a JOK concert and an Italian wedding downstairs. The police were required to control the combatants and clearly rock and roll and its rebellious culture had arrived in this country.
According to JO’K the violence was sex rather than alcohol-related as he revealed in an interview with Sydney DJ Bob Rogers in 1975 “There was never much grog associated with the early days of rock and roll. There was a lot of sex. I suppose you could say that it was what became known as the permissive age.”
JOK was not a matinee idol nor naturally blessed with a great voice but he skillfully developed a vocal style appropriate for his range and he had an incredible drive and stage presence, his wardrobe included leopard print, gold lame, lizard-skin shoes, and white buckskin moccasins, and he possessed a distinctively irrepressible Australian spirit.
When booed by the crowd at an early appearance at a Lee Gordon Big Show at the Sydney Stadium, Rushcutters Bay, he replied “You can boo me, and you can make fun of me, but you all paid your money to see me – because you love me,’ the jeers turned to cheers and the legend of the Wild One was born. He convinced Festival Records to sign him on by announcing prematurely that they already had done so on the recommendation of Bill Haley who had just toured Australia with JO’K as his support act – his bravado paid off and the contract was duly signed.
The Wild One was recorded on a two-track machine at Festival Records Pyrmont Studios (Syd.), it features crowd noises overdubbed on the album version, driving saxophones, slap bass, echo-inflected drums, percussive finger snaps, pounding boogie-woogie piano, insistent guitar riffs from the talented Lou Casch, the Dee Jays rocked impressively in solid support while JO’K revealed the vocal influences of his idols – Bill Haley and Little Richard. After this hit JOK was the definitive Wild One,the song was subsequently recorded by Buddy Holly and the Crickets after they toured Australia with JO’K in the late 1950’s. It was also covered by Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Jet Harris, Status Quo, Joan Jett, and was successfully re-birthed by Iggy Pop in 1987 as Real Wild Child (Wild One), and more recently was covered by Aussie retro-rockers Jet in 2008.