Bonnie Please Don’t Go – (K Johnson) 1971 and Rock and Roll (I Gave You the Best Years Of My Life) (K Johnson) 1973 – Kevin Johnson.
Kevin Johnson (1942) was born in Tungamull to parents Richard and Elinor, and grew up in far north Queensland, in the mid-1960’s he was discovered by Col Joye who recorded several of his compositions and signed him to his ATA label. Early releases were unsuccessful until a change of label to Sweet Peach in 1969 resulted in his first hit single in 1971, Bonnie Please Don’t Go (aka She’s Leavin’) which was a slow burn success story, #2 in Sydney and #12 in Melbourne for a national listing of #9 and it was on the charts for an impressive 31 weeks. The song opens with sound effects of a ship’s horn, fireworks and a brass band playing Auld Lang Syne at the quayside, it is atmospheric and moving, the tempo shifts from the more contemplative verses to a faster crescendo in the chorus, as the narrative of a failed relationship gathers momentum.
Our protagonist has cheated on his partner and has regrets, he has also failed to try to reconcile the emotional gulf between himself and his partner, which is now about to become a physical estrangement, as she departs overseas, without him.
“Oh that fool in me, persuadin’ me to hide/ The broken pieces of my dignity/ When a simple reassuring word / Just to reach out and comfort her/ Was all I had to do to keep her here with me.” Elements of “Colonel Billy’s” brass band can be heard in the background throughout and the band returns in the outro to again play the traditional “absent friends” lament.
In 1973 Johnson once again tugged at the nation’s heartstrings with his country-tinged musical autobiography Rock and Roll (I Gave You the Best Years of My Life), it was two years since his last hit, the song reflected on the trajectory of his career, the highs, and lows, and ultimately the realization that he was not destined to be a star, and his wistful, world-weary vocals conveyed just the right combination of irony and regret.
In interview with Debbie Kruger for her book They Wrote the Songs (2002) Johnson explained why he felt his career was going nowhere after he signed with an American label following the success of Bonnie… “Because I’d signed with an American company I couldn’t record here, so I didn’t record anything for two years, which was like madness,” he recalled. “There was frustration that had been going on for years before ‘Bonnie Please Don’t Go’ and then two years writing mostly songs for others, and bashing my head against a brick wall.” Kevin married Jill in 1975 and they raised two sons, Shane and Scott, and his family inspired many of his compositions. Below Kevin and wife Jill.
Johnson wrote his biggest hit in two days. “It was a quick song for me because I’ve spent months on one line. It just came to me one day as I was driving home, feeling all this frustration of two years without making a record. So I decided to write a song not about giving someone the best years of my life, but to write about the pursuit of success, which I thought related to a lot of people around the world, not just in music but anything.”
“At that stage I hadn’t been out of Australia. There are elements of a lot of things in the song, like Don McLean did with ‘American Pie.’ But what I felt at that time – and I’ll be damned for saying this – was that Australia emulated whatever was happening in all the major centres. So when I said I was ‘always one step behind,’ I mentioned San Francisco because as soon as San Francisco was happening everybody here was trying to play louder than anybody else with flowers in their hair – but about a year after. You can’t follow, and that’s what everyone in Australia was doing.”
The song was recorded at ATA Studios (Glebe) and has a shifting tempo which underscored the emotional ebb and flow of the singer’s life, musically it is an accomplished production, Wayne Findlay’s subtle strings arrangement, piano, and percussion, were complemented by Rory O’Donohue’s exemplary lead guitar riffs, to produce a song that was more country than rock and roll – no surprises then that in the US it was covered by Mac Davis who had a top #20 hit there with the song, but gave it a happy ending by dropping the last few words “I’ll never be a star.”
Johnson would take this song into the charts in Australia (#8), the UK (#23) and Ireland (#8), it also became one of the most covered songs written by an Australian with no less than 27 different artists recording it in 1975 alone, other artists to cover Kevin’s songs include Tom Jones, Vince Hill, Terry Jacks, and Col Joye.
Kevin was a prodigious writer and constant performer, his albums included Journeys (’78), The Best of Kevin Johnson (“79), Night Rider (’81), Spirit of The Times (’85), and he toured extensively in the 2000’s with JAM – the acronym for Kevin Johnson, Doug Ashdown, and Mike McClelland, all famous local folk rock singers. Below L-R Doug Ashdown, Kevin Johnson, Mike McClelland