The simultaneous release of the movie Blackboard Jungle, which used Bill Halley’s Rock Around the Clock as its theme song in 1955, was the catalyst for the birth of rock music in this country. Momentum was accelerated here upon the arrival of Bill Halley and his Comets, as stars of one of Lee Gordon’s Big Shows, teenagers became the new target market for the music industry, and young men picked up guitars, Brylcreemed their quiffs, put on their blue suede shoes, and tried very hard to look and sound like Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochrane, Gene Vincent, and Ricky Nelson.
Bill Haley (above with his band) 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 Brylcreemed kiss curl that he swept across his receding hairline. Rock Around The Clock was nursery rhyme-like in its simplicity, many thought that it sounded way too much like Hank Williams 1947 hit Move It On Over, 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 they looked destined to play the mid-western hayride circuit for the rest of their 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, when 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 our early rock singers copied his sound and his style. Other US performers similarly ignited the local scene, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and the incomparable Little Richard, whose 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”
Our early rockers were imitative and their music was often derivative of US performers, cover versions abounded and with few exceptions there was little to distinguish even local original songs from overseas imports. The Wild One by Johnny O’Keefe was the first truly original rock song to chart locally in 1958, it was a landmark event, and signaled the arrival of our country’s biggest local rock star who still rates with John Farnham and Jimmy Barnes, as one of Australia’s three pre-eminent male solo performers of all time.
But the tide of public opinion and the flood of available product from the States, was overwhelming – Rick Nelson, The Everly Brothers, Crash Craddock, the Platters, Paul Anka, Sam Cooke, The Coasters, Lloyd Price, Chubby Checker, Brenda Lee, The Drifters, Del Shannon, Roy Orbison, Bobby Rydell, and Bobby Vee – the invasion was relentless, but local performers, although in awe of the quality of this exotic collection of US talent, remained inspired by their music, and sought to create original songs locally. Johnny O’Keefe, Johnny Devlin, Jay Justin, Barry Stanton, Johnny Ashcroft, Johnny Rebb, and surf rock stars like Jim Skiathitis and Peter Hood of the Atlantics, all created original hit songs, worthy of international success.
Above -The De Kroo Brothers, left-right, Leo (real name Leendert), was part of a Dutch emigrant family who relocated to Australia in the 1950’s, he teamed up with Doug Brewer, who changed his name to De Kroo to create the duo’s stage name. Her Name Is Scarlet was their big hit, it featured French horns, trumpets, military-style snare drums and Doug strumming an autoharp, it rose to #9 in 1963, Leo was briefly married to singer Judy Stone during the 1960’s. Below – Col Joye and Johnny O’Keefe.
Performers like Col Joye, Bryan Davies, Frank Ifield, Warren Williams, Lonnie Lee, Alan Dale, Dig Richards, Rob EG, the Delltones, Johnny O’Keefe, and Betty McQuade, all plundered the back catalogues of overseas artists and songwriters seeking inspiration for their next hit, sometimes putting a new twist on an old song, but rarely venturing too far from original arrangements and orchestration. Female artists struggled for opportunities during the early rock era, those who belonged to the “Bandstand Family” such as Judy Stone, Patsy Ann Noble, Little Pattie, Pat Oakley, and Lee Sellers churned out inoffensive surf and pop songs, while the gutsier rock singers like Betty McQuade, Laurel Lee, Del Juliana, and Judy Cannon did great live gigs, and occasionally hit the charts, Betty McQuade’s Midnight Bus with the stunning backing of Melbourne’s Thunderbirds, was a garage rock classic from 1961, and is reviewed in coming weeks in the Rock of Ages blog.
Television was initially slow to respond to the new craze but gradually two shows emerged that would capture the zeitgeist of the times, Johnny O’Keefe’s Six O’Clock Rock on the ABC and Brian Henderson’s Bandstand, on GTV9, the latter modelled on Dick Clark’s US Bandstand. Australian Bandstand slavishly patronized Festival Records artists, and increasingly gravitated towards a sanitized, homogenized, middle of the road version of pop music, stone cold rockers were still welcome on O’Keefe’s Six O’Clock Rock but his later forays into rock music TV – Sing, Sing, Sing; and The Johnny O’Keefe Show, would gravitate towards more MOR soft rock, with the singers dressed up in formal attire. Below L-R Some of The Bandstand Family (Bryan Davies, compere Brian Henderson, Lucky Starr, Noeleen Batley), 6 O’Clock Rock dancers -Lee Neilson and Milton Mitchell, Rockers in formal attire on Sing, Sing, Sing – Paul Wayne, Dig Richards, Johnny Devlin with JOK.
Many of the local cover versions of records were of a high quality, Frank Ifield scored four #1 UK hits in the 1960’s whilst working with noted producer Norrie Paramor there, Col Joye had no less than four local top five hits in 1959 which were all covers. Johnny O’Keefe similarly enjoyed great success with covers of US songs, his four #1 hits were all Brill Building (NYC) or Gold Star Studio (LA) creations, and Lonnie Lee also had hits with covers, even though his biggest chart success, I Found a New Love (#2 in ’60) was an original song composed by legendary local producer/songwriter, the late Nat Kipner.
But there was to be a seismic change in the local scene. On July 3, 1963 Australian promoter Ken Brodziak made a deal with a London booking agent to secure an up-and- coming band called the Beatles for a national Australian concert tour for a fee of a £2,500 per week. Within the next 6 months the band exploded internationally, and Beatlemania was rife. American promoters were now offering £50,000 per show, but the deal had already been done and in June 1964 the Beatles were in Australia. Below – L-R A widgie or female rocker, Beatles Down Under (with relief drummer Jimmy Nicol), Ken Brodzika who brought the Fab Four to Australia.
In Rock of Ages we revisit the earliest years of R&R in this country, and marvel at the raw energy, optimism, creativity, and wild abandon with which local performers jumped on the R&R bandwagon, and despite the overwhelming competition and relatively primitive recording technology and facilities available, managed to create rock music which resonated within our local market, and occasionally became hits overseas. The pioneering efforts of our early rock artists laid the cornerstone for the growth of a dynamic local music scene, which makes it hard to understand the reluctance of ARIA to recognize the pioneering efforts of so many of our early rock era performers. Thus far only Johnny O’Keefe, Col Joye, Frank Ifield, and Little Pattie have been inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame from the era 4TR has dubbed the Rock of Ages, but others including Robbie Porter (Rob EG), The Delltones, and The Atlantics, have been overlooked, and seemingly deemed not suitable for induction, so now is the time for a review of these worthy contenders.