JOHNNY O’KEEFE 1958-1973 – PART 1


She’s My Baby (S Turner/T Moffatt/E Finch) and It’s Too Late (C Willis) – Johnny O’Keefe 1960

 In late 1959 O’Keefe decided on a whim to go to America and make a record, he sold his Zephyr to fund the trip and flew out to Los Angeles on Oct. 23 that year; his wife had just delivered their first baby, John Lee O’Keefe, and was struggling with post-natal issues. There was no itinerary nor any prearranged meetings with record company or television executives as Johnny had boasted, but he did intend to have his first American thickshake, in a typical US drugstore! By sheer luck Johnny bumped into guitarist Scotty Turner (below) in that drugstore on Sunset Boulevarde, Scotty had toured with Tommy Sands on one of Lee Gordon’s Big Shows in Sydney and remembered Johnny.jok61Turner introduced O’Keefe to Don Bohanon of Liberty records, the largest and most successful independent label in Hollywood, Johnny had an acetate copy of his then yet-to-be -released version of Shout with him, the Liberty executives were impressed.jok 54Simon Waronker (below), the company founder and music industry legend, instructed his staff to sign O’Keefe to a five year deal straight away, he also got a US$5,000 advance against future royalties; two recording sessions were set up for later in the week at the famous Gold Star Studios.jok53

jok55On November 5th 1959, Liberty spared no expense and assembled an A-list of session musicians under the control of producer “Snuff” Garrett (Thomas Leslie Garrett), who had recently produced hits for Johnny Burnette, below right with Leon Russell.jok57The musicians included guitarist Barney Kessel (below) who had performed with Billie Holiday and  Charlie Parker and would become a member of the famous “Wrecking Crew”; playing on recordings for Phil Spector, the Beach Boys and the Monkees. jok 58The drummer was Earl Palmer (below), a member of the Louis Armstrong Band, who had also recorded with Fats Domino, Scotty Turner sat in on guitar along with Rene Hall, saxophonists were Jewel Grant, and Plas Johnson, bassman Red Callender, and the in house Ernie Freeman Orchestra and Chorus completed this esteemed line up. jok59Johnny O’Keefe had literally fallen on his feet, the songs he would record at Gold Star in that one week would produce his first two #1 hits – She’s My Baby and Come On and Take My Hand , and set a standard for production and musicianship that would inspire JO’K to return to the US for new material and musical inspiration, in the future. Liberty dubbed Johnny “Boomerang Boy” and promoted him as Australia’s number one jukebox favorite and television star, they even trimmed a few years off his age, and set about making him a star in the US market, but his competition there was overwhelming as he would discover, the Everly Brothers, Chubby Checker, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, the Platters, and Elvis Presley who would soon be demobbed from the army and back in the charts.jok68She’s My Baby was JOK’s first #1 hit and his favorite track among those he recorded in Los Angeles at the Gold Star Studios with Snuff Garrett, because it reminded him of his wife Marianne and how much he was missing her and their newborn son.

The song intros with a resonant bassman refrain by George McCurn –  bom, bom, bombom – and is quickly followed by bass guitar, drums, and the Wild One’s vocals “Short black hair makes her look so sweet…” the whole orchestra swings in behind him and the song really talks off, brass contributed to a full-bodied authentic studio sound, reverb was added by the engineer Eddie Brackett, and this was Johnny’s most professional recording to this time. In one marathon session at Gold Star Studios JOK recorded no less than five songs – She’s My Baby and the B side to that record It’s Too Late, Own True Self; a song originally earmarked for Elvis Presley, who was still in the army, as well as Ready For You, and  Come on And Take My Hand, which were both hits back in Australia. She’s My Baby had been offered to O’Keefe by co-writer Scott Turner when he toured Australia with Tommy Sands in March 1959 and when JOK recorded the song in LA later that year Scott Turner was delighted to be able to play  guitar on the session along with Barney Kessel. She’s My Baby became the first internationally produced record by an Australian rock artist to claim the #1 chart position locally, and the first time that an Australian rock star had recorded Stateside.jok 60The song had been originally recorded by Al Lucas (above), a Hawaiian/Filipino performer in 1959 and Scott Turner shared composing rights with DJ Tom Moffatt and Al Lucas’s manager Earl Finch, such sharing of songwriting credits was common practice at this time, to ensure that records got airplay and promotion, despite the negligible contributions that DJs or others made to the actual creative process.jok70The Wild One was rising quickly and as well as compering the ABC’s Six O’Clock Rock, he had his own Sydney radio show, Rockville Junction. His records were also hitting the mark, and he enjoyed great chart success having recorded the #16 best-selling record of 1959 with Shout and the #13 and #21 best -selling records in 1960 with She’s My Baby and Come On And Take My Hand.

It’s Too Late was the flipside to She’s My Baby and was also recorded in Los Angeles at the Gold Star Studio and produced by Snuff Garrett, it became JO’K’s eleventh Australian top 20 hit, and was a tender rockabilly ballad with plaintive and soulful vocals by the Wild One, it was a solid seller hitting #17 nationally, and even topped the charts in New Orleans, it was also covered by the Crickets (’59), and Roy Orbison (’61). O’Keefe was now poised for international success, he enjoyed the backing of a major US record label and he could avail himself of the songwriting and promotional resources that his contemporaries, like Col Joye, could only dream of having. In the 1990’s Snuff Garrett in interview about the Liberty Records phase of his career remembered Johnny O’Keefe ” We were after him, John didn’t have the voice of Mario Lanza of course, but he was exciting. Liberty saw the potential of a big star at that moment. We gave him every opportunity, everybody (top session men) was on it. He had all the hallmarks (of making it), I’ll tell ya that.” (Contributed to 4TR by Tony Watson)

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