John Michael O’Keefe was born in 1935 into the solid middle- class Catholic family of Ray and Thelma O’Keefe 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. Below – Johnny with his parents Ray and Thelma
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 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. Below – Johnny sporting split curls, as a young boy in church, Father Frank Marzorini
Johnny began 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. JOK and the original Dee Jays
He quickly formed his own band whose 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. Below L-R – Johnny used stage outfits to create his image, even copying a Jerry Lee Lewis costume at far right.
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, and toilet cleaner. Below – Lee Gordon
In 1957 Johnny met Lee Gordon (real name Leon Lazar Gevorshner), whose business associate was 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. The classic Dee Jays lineup.
The band were performing a typically raucous gig on the top floor of the three-storey MUIOOF Hall in working class Newtown (Syd), an equally lively Italian wedding reception was in full swing a floor below, the groups merged in the toilets where harsh words were exchanged and the honor of the Italian girls was impugned; a savage brawl ensued, Johnny and the band observed the melee from the relative safety of the upstairs balcony, the police and numerous paddy wagons descended on the venue, it was Australia’s first rock and roll brawl, and the band went back to Dave Owen’s place to wind down.
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.” Below L-R -Greenan, O’Keefe, Owens
The brawl inspired the lyrics “real wild children/real wild one /I gotta shake, I gotta jive.” Owens and Greenan came up with a 12-bar blues chord progression, O’Keefe started to pick out a simple melody on piano, he added the lyrics “shake her till the meat comes offa the bone”, they were about to make rock and roll history.
What would become The Wild One was recorded on a two-track Ampex tape machine at Festival Records, Harris St Studios in Pyrmont. (Syd.), with producer Robert Iredale (above), it was essentially a live recording as overdubbing wasn’t an option. Although Iredale was more comfortable producing classical records, and he had many animated discussion with O’Keefe during the recording sessions, he was also a very innovative sound engineer, who devised an ingenious system of washers and lead weights to change the tempo and thus the pitch of the record, and he was one of the first to use the hard surfaces of toilets to create a distinctive echo chamber effect .
The song was released on the EP Shakin’ At the Stadium in 1958, and featured driving saxophones from Greenan and Owen, slap bass by Keith Williams, echo-inflected drums from Johnny “Catfish” Purser (recorded via the toilet in the studio), percussive finger snaps, pounding boogie-woogie piano by Mike Tseng and insistent guitar riffs from the talented Lou Casch, crowd noises were added on the album version of the song. JO’K tore up the vocals and revealed the influences of his idols Little Richard and Bill Hayley, and after The Wild One hit the charts and climbed to #20, he became the definitive embodiment of the Wild One.
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. Below L-R – Alan Freed, Dick Clark, Tony Withers.
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 larrikin Australian spirit. His self-promotion skills were unique, he delivered copies of his records to city radio stations, bribed DJs’ to play them, drove to one-horse country towns, put up his own posters, and procured early copies of US rock and roll records via his mates at Qantas who would bring them back from overseas.
He ultimately got his first big break when Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps were delayed en route to Australia as part of a Lee Gordon Big Show and he got to open for Little Richard at Woollongong, Richard Penniman was his idol, JO’K was now living his dream.
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. At subsequent Big Show appearances his local fame was such that imported acts like Ricky Nelson, Bobby Darin, Sal Mineo, and Fabian were intimidated by his performances and the crowd’s tumultuous reception, which would precede them as the “stars” of the show, others like Paul Anka and Jerry Lee Lewis tried unsuccessfully to ignore him, and put him in his place as a support act. Ian “Pee Wee” Wilson of the Delltones has revealed in his memoir Come A Little Bit Closer (2013), that JOK was not above a bit of subterfuge when it came to deflating the overseas stars who appeared with him on the Big Show bills “ …he would organize free tickets for his fan club members to attend the shows… they would be strategically placed throughout the venues, and at various times during the performance of an overseas star, they would start to chant “We want Johnny, we want Johnny,” which would soon reverberate around the stadium.”
The Wild One 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 later successfully re-birthed by Iggy Pop in 1987 as Real Wild Child (Wild One), and more recently it was covered by Aussie retro-rockers Jet in 2008. Below cover versions of Wild One – Jet Harris, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jet and Iggy Pop.
The legacy of Johnny O’Keefe can never be under-estimated, he was a pioneer of rock and roll in Australia, as a songwriter, record producer, artist manager and performer, he blazed a trail through the industry, taking no less than 29 songs onto the charts, he also toured overseas and compered several of the most iconic popular music shows on Australian television. His chart success is still unparalleled, in an era when single records not albums were the norm, he had four #1 hits, another seven top ten hits, and in total he took twenty- four songs into the top forty in the period 1957- 73.He did not chart with an album until 1976 with Let True Love Begin at #53, but the Legend of Johnny O’Keefe (#13) and Shout ! The TV Soundtrack (#27) were solid charters in 1985/86, he also scored with Johnny O’Keefe’s Greatest Hits which climbed to #8 in 1997 and The Wild One: Collector’s Edition hit #24 in 2008.
4TR has featured 19 songs by Johnny O’Keefe in the period March 3 – March 11, 2020, they’re all worth a look.