‘The Australian music industry has lost another of its truly great performers.’ Ian McFarlane
R.I.P. JAMES ‘JIM’ KEAYS (9 September 1946-13 June 2014) – By Ian McFarlane
James ‘Jim’ Keays, lead singer of legendary Australian band the Masters Apprentices and solo performer in his own right, has died following a long battle with myeloma. Myeloma is a type of bone marrow cancer that affects the plasma cells and Jim had been undergoing rigorous treatment for the disease over the course of many years. While the treatment can be effective in halting the progress and controlling the symptoms, there is no cure for the disease.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, Jim made his final live appearance at the Myeloma Australia Cancer Benefit Concert – Masters of Rock 2014 on the 25th of May. While he had been a little short of breath at times and was unable to expel those raucous screams during ʻTurn Up Your Radioʼ anymore, Jim remained the consummate performer. He ended the night leading the enraptured audience through the rousing chorus of the perennially inspirational ʻBecause I Love Youʼ, one of the most recognisable and iconic Australian songs of the rock era – “Do what you wanna do… be what you wanna be, yeah.”
The Scottish-born singer had been raised in Adelaide and first tasted pop fame during the mid-’60s as frontman for raucous R&B fanatics The Masters Apprentices. Alongside The Easybeats, The Twilights and The Loved Ones, the Masters are still revered as one of Australia’s greatest bands of the era. Like fellow Adelaide-raised singer Doc Neeson – who died a week ago from brain cancer – Jim was also one of the country’s great showmen.
The band members chose their name because they were as much influenced by the blues masters such as John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Robert Johnson as they were by the then current crop of British R&B bands epitomised by The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Pretty Things and The Yardbirds.
Many of the group’s best-loved songs – ‘Undecided’, ‘Wars or Hands of Time’, ‘Buried and Dead’, ‘Living in a Child’s Dream’ (all written by the group’s original guitarist Mick Bower) and ‘Elevator Driver’ – were perfect reflections of the times and they can still raise the hair on the back of one’s neck with their sheer sonic force.
As the early 1970s emerged, Jim formed a song writing partnership with guitarist Doug Ford and the Masters embraced a heavier style of rock. They went on to record two excellent albums of ambitious progressive rock in the UK, Choice Cuts and A Toast to Panama Red. These are the albums that gave rise to such Ford/Keays exemplars as ‘Because I Love You’, ‘Rio De Camero’, ‘Easy to Lie’, ‘Love Is’ and ‘Melodies of St. Kilda / Southern Cross’.
The Masters originally broke up in 1972, but reformed in 1988 and Jim continued to front various versions of the band for concert appearances.
Jim issued his debut solo album, The Boy from the Stars, in 1974. It was a powerful sci-fi concept album based around the story of an extraterrestrial visitor who attempts to warn the earth of its impending doom through the misuse of various sources of power. It was the oft-trodden science fiction story-line (shades of the movies The Day the Earth Stood Still and This Island Earth) but was put together with a great deal of skill and attention to detail, featuring an all-star cast of prominent local musicians.
The singer led a number of bands throughout the late 1970s / early 1980s, including Jim Keays’ Southern Cross and various line-ups of the Jim Keays Band, working the length and breadth of the vast, Aussie touring circuit. He also worked regularly as a DJ but live performance remained his forte. He chronicled the impressive story of his career in the autobiography His Master’s Voice (Allen & Unwin Publishers, 1999).
In 2000, he joined fellow 1960s veterans Darryl Cotton and Russell Morris to play the revival circuit. As Cotton, Keays and Morris the trio enjoyed enormous live success up until the death of Cotton (also from cancer) in July 2012.
Jim was never one to rest on his laurels and he came to the attention of a whole new audience in 2012 with the issue of the album Dirty, Dirty. Produced by Ted Lethborg, the album boasted a fine selection of psych and garage rock covers including ‘Whiskey Woman’, ‘Midnight Bus’, ‘Do Ya’ and ‘Save My Soul’. He had only recently finished recording a new album which now, of course, will be issued posthumously.
Jim was always a very personable man. He loved a chat and was always generous with his time. Unlike a lot of musicians who tend not to keep much in the way of artefacts from their career, Jim was an archivist par excellence, amassing a huge collection of posters, photographs, records and other memorabilia from his days on the road. The Australian music industry has lost another of its truly great performers – Vale Jim Keays.