John Michael O’Keefe was born in 1935 into the solid middle- class Catholic family of Ray and Thelma O’Keefe (below with Johnny in the 70’s) who created a family furnishing business in Pitt St above the popular Valentine’s Restaurant in Sydney and took up residence in the leafy eastern suburb of Dover Heights. His older brother Barry and younger sister Anne completed the family circle, both boys attended Waverley College and Brother Frank Marzorini took the mischevious young Johnny under his wing.Marzorini (below) recognized the natural charm and charisma of the youngster, as well as the flamboyant, attention-seeking side of O’Keefe’s personality, also evident was his sense of ambition and a streetwise intolerance of fools and flatterers, which made him appear to be old beyond his years.These character traits would determine O’Keefe’s ultimate career path and equip him with the determination and resolve to succeed in an industry where no Australian entertainer had gone before – rock and roll. He learned to play trumpet at school, enjoyed swimming and sailing, and after matriculating from college in 1951, he studied economics at Sydney University for only one year, subsequently joining the family business, as a salesman. His early public performances were as a Johnny Ray (below) impersonator at the Bondi Auditorium complete with a pair of trick glasses that were connected to a water bottle which would spout tears during his performance of Ray’s hit song Cry. These performances were often organized by local jazz musician Gus Merzi (below), an experienced local who had appeared on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show in the USA, a first for an Australian. Merzi became Johnny’s mentor, coached him in stagecraft, the basics of the piano, and how to engage an audience.In 1953 he met Marianne Renate (below with Johnny), daughter of German immigrants who had arrived here in 1952, they met at a dance where Johnny groped her, but he still got to take her home, and behaved himself on subsequent dates. They were wed in 1958, but only after Marianne had forsaken a career in international modeling and agreed to an abortion to ensure that their first child was not born out of wedlock, which would have raised the Catholic ire of Thelma O’Keefe.Johnny was getting exposure on Dick Fair’s 2UE radio show Australia’s Amateur Hour and via his Johnny Ray impersonations at the Bondi Auditorium, but he had heard Bill Haley and the Comets’ Rock around the Clock and he was instantly converted to the new musical craze sweeping the world Bill Haley was the least likely leader of the R&R revolution, a portly, slightly doughy-faced, 30 year-old midwestern bandleader from Michigan, who was more familiar with a blend of country and western, swing and rhythm and blues music than stone-cold rock and roll, and his only real concession to contemporary style was a Brylcreamed kiss curl that he swept across his receding hairline. Rock Around The Clock was nursery rhyme-like in its simplicity, and a year after its release it had stalled, Haley’s three previous records had also stiffed as well, Bill was working with a band he had uninspiringly called the Saddlemen, and looked destined to play the mid-western hayride circuit for the rest of his career. It was only after Decca got hold of the record, changed the name of the band to the Comets, and reissued it as the lead song on the soundtrack of the movie Blackboard Jungle in 1955, that it took off globally, and was thereafter the soundtrack for a generation of teenage rebellion and defiance, of a post-war baby boomer army who knew they were a force to reckoned with.
Elvis Presley released Heartbreak Hotel in 1956 and here was a singer who was altogether different from Haley, Presley was young, handsome, sexy, and dangerous, and he sang like a black man, this was someone to aspire to, to emulate, and O’Keefe set about forming his very first rock and roll band.
The original members were Dave Owens, an expat American from Detroit on tenor sax, John Balkens also on tenor sax, bass player Ron Roman, Joe Lane on drums, and all-rounder Donnie Cox, vocals and keyboards, all were jazz musicians, and Johnny knew that they would have to create a hybrid kind of music that merged rhythm and blues, jazz, pop and rock to succeed, and fortunately Owens knew how to play what the Americans then-called “race music”. After ditching the name The Juvenile Delinquents they decided on the more hip and timely alternative of the Dee Jays, but they still needed to recruit an electric guitarist. Into their circle came Sumatran -born Lou Nanlohy, currently in Australia studying medicine on a Colombo Plan scholarship, but he was a jazz afficionado and under the terms of his scholarship, was not allowed to work whilst in the country. After a quick change of name to the more trendy Lou Casch, and convincing the young guitarist that rock and roll was the future and not jazz, the band set about making an impact performing at RSL clubs and local halls in Newtown, Leichhardt, and Alexandria, Stone’s Café in Coogee and the Balmain Workers’ Club, all the while competing with the other fledgling rock group in town, Alan Dale and the Houserockers.Little Richard also inspired Johnny O’Keefe, his persona was unique and his showmanship luridly engaging, Australian Lillian Roxon described him in her Rock Encyclopedia(1969) thus “ His pompadour was high and his hip action wicked, when Elvis was still a pimply kid mowing lawns in Memphis. He was the model for 99% of the screaming, jet-propelled pelvic freakouts of the post-Elvis early rock era, down to the shiny suits, lurid showmanship, and acrobatic piano-playing. Little Richard was wildly frantic and intense, all urgency and fervor, given to wild falsetto shrieks and a lot of showy costuming. Once you had seen Little Richard it was very difficult to take any other rocker seriously…he did it all first”
Johnny began to dress himself in vividly colored suits of lurid gold, red, tiger stripes, lame, and he glued diamentes to his shoes, he insisted on the band following his dress code, and at their dances he was the ultimate multitasker – promoter, singer, bouncer, door attendant, ice cream seller, cordial drinks mixer (no alcohol !), and toilet cleaner. In 1957 Johnny met Lee Gordon (real name Leon Lazar Gevorshner, above), whose business associates included Sydney crime boss Abe Saffron, Gordon was an American hustler who was shaking up the local music scene by importing stars from the USA to perform at the Sydney Stadium, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, and Johnny Ray had all been successful promotions. By 1957 he was ready to jump on board the rock and roll express to fame and fortune, and announced he would be presenting Bill Haley and the Comets along with LaVern Baker, Big Joe Turner, the Platters, and Freddie Bell and the Bell Boys. O’Keefe tried to get on the bill with the visiting stars but Gordon was not interested in local rockers, however Johnny did meet Haley and they formed an unlikely friendship. Haley even recommended O’Keefe to Ken Taylor, the General Manger of Festival Records, and gave John the song You Hit the Wrong Note Billy Goat to record. However O’Keefe never had a recording contract, but he quickly removed this temporary obstacle by getting Valda Marshall, a Sydney newspaper columnist to announce that he had already been signed to Festival, Ken Taylor was gobsmacked when he read the article, summoned the upstart O’Keefe to his office, heard him sing a few songs, admired his bravado, and signed him to a recording contract!You Hit the Wrong Note Billy Goat was the first local rock and roll record released in Australia, it flopped and only sold a puny 2,800 copies, Am I Blue and There’s a Goldmine in the Sky, did no better, but O’Keefe was determined to impact on the charts, the Dee Jays by now were Dave Owen (tenor sax), Johnny Greenan (baritone sax), Lou Casch (guitar), John “Catfish” Purser (drums), Mike Tseng (piano) and Keith Williams (bass), and they would soon perform at a gig that would prove to be the inspiration for their first original hit record, and signal the birth of Australian rock and roll.
- .Over the next two weeks 4TR will follow the career of Johnny “The Wild One” O’Keeefe, it’s an intriguing chapter in the history of Ausmusic, I hope you enjoy the blogs.
- March 17 – 26 4TR will be on vacation, resuming on Tuesday March 31st with our Folk and Indie Special feature, your continued feedback throughout this period will be appreciated
- Future blog themes will include Midnight Oil, Silverchair, NZ Hits, Helen Reddy (whose biopic is about to be released), Icehouse, Crowded House, Savage Garden, Red Light Hooker Hits, Wolfmother, Jet, Pub Rock, Australian Crawl, Dance Hits and many more, your support and encouragement is appreciated, please let me know if you have other themes you would like 4TR to explore this year.