Iggy Pop recorded JOK’s song ‘Real Wild Child.’ Reviewed by Des Cowley
Johnny O’Keefe: Rocker. Legend. Wild One By Jeff Apter (p/b Hachette)
Johnny O’Keefe’s continuing presence in our lives – via the ABC Rage promo – forms a fitting touchstone with the birth of rock n’ roll in this country. To the sound of Iggy pop singing ‘Real Wild Child’, first recorded by O’Keefe in 1958, we glimpse the shadowy ghost of the original wild one throwing his arm in the air, screaming into the microphone.
Jeff Apter’s new book on O’Keefe follows on from several previous ones, most notably Damian Johnstone’s The Wild One, from 2001. It’s a story worth telling, given most of us were too young, or not even born, when O’Keefe was in his prime. He was certainly a presence throughout my childhood, on television, in newspapers, one of the few rock n’ rollers my parents might have spoken about at the dinner table. It’s likely I watched the O’Keefe episode of This Is Your Life, which aired in late 1975, no doubt cringing like I always did when watching such mawkish displays of public sentimentality and emotion. The reality is, growing up, his music seemed to belong to another time, pre-Beatles and Stones, pre-psychedelic sixties rock, pre-everything.
Apter’s book, which tends to read a little breathlessly at times, charts O’Keefe’s early rise to fame in the 1950s, when he went from teenage Johnny Ray impersonator to fully-fledged rock n’ roller. O’Keefe’s ‘road to Damascus’ moment came when he first saw Bill Haley perform ‘Rock Around the Clock’ in the film Blackboard Jungle; he was instantly hooked. Though blessed with a limited vocal range, O’Keefe was driven by an overwhelming ambition for stardom, and by 1956 he was regularly playing this new music with his back-up band, the Dee-Jays, at beach side clubs in Sydney.
O’Keefe’s big break came via Lee Gordon, an American promoter whose ‘Big Show’ concerts at Sydney Stadium featured the likes of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and others. O’Keefe managed to secure a support spot for many for these gigs, and, according to legend, regularly upstaged the visiting artists. Shortly after, O’Keefe recorded ‘The Wild One’, the first Australian rock recording to make it on to the charts. Its release date, 5 July 1958, is considered the birth of rock n’ roll in Australia.
Apter delves into O’Keefe’s private life, his closeness to his parents, his first marriage and children, his fractious relationship with Lee Gordon. He was clearly a difficult, driven and complex personality. Yet, for a couple of years, it seemed he could do no wrong, issuing a string of hit singles with the Dee Jays, including his legendary cover of ‘Shout’, and fronting the new ABC music television program Six O’Clock Rock. Not satisfied with being a star in his own country, O’Keefe next set his sights on conquering America.
Apter’s brief account of the disastrous US tour in 1960 makes for sad reading. While O’Keefe managed to make a few recordings there, his music failed to be picked up by local DJs. His performances were not well attended, he managed to fall out with his US label Liberty, and the less said about the boomerang incident the better. As the first home-grown star to tour the States, O’Keefe arrived home licking his wounds. A few months later, while touring the north coast of NSW, he was involved in a horrific car crash from which he arguably never recovered. A second tour of the US in 1961 fared no better, and precipitated the first of many nervous breakdowns O’Keefe would suffer throughout his life. Alone in London, he became convinced he was dead, and was promptly hauled off by Scotland Yard to the Tooting Bec mental hospital.
Back home, O’Keefe continued to have hit singles, and fronted channel 7’s Johnny O’Keefe Show, but by the end of 1963, his popularity was on the wane. There were new sounds in the air, dominated by groups like the Beatles, and local acts like Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs. As unfair as it seems, O’Keefe was largely relegated to the musical scrapheap, yesterday’s man, even though he was still in his twenties. Forced to adapt to changing times, he recast himself as a balladeer, a crooner, a cabaret artist, playing gigs wherever they’d have him.
As Apter’s book makes clear, O’Keefe never stopped performing. He was a regular presence in the Australian media; he played in Vietnam for the troops, performed at the second Sunbury Festival, and rode the wave of a later nostalgia for early rock n’ roll, brought about by films like American Graffiti. He personified the Aussie larrikin, and retained a faithful audience of baby boomers who grew up on his music, even managing a few late hits, like his 1974 version of ‘Mockingbird’, sung with Margaret McLaren. During these years, his private life was increasingly chaotic, the result of his fragile mental state and increasing reliance on alcohol and prescription drugs. It’s likely he suffered from undiagnosed schizophrenia; and, he acknowledged on occasion that he may have suffered brain damage in the 1960 crash.
Though he found some contentment with a second marriage, the truth is that O’Keefe was only truly alive when performing before a crowd of fans. Increasingly, though, he was haunted by the deaths of friends, and other early rock n’ rollers of his generation. During his last performance, he reeled off a litany of the deceased, including Elvis, who’d died the previous year, aged 42. In the end, O’Keefe only bested him by one year, dying from a heart attack in 1978. Since then, he’s been inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame, had his likeness emblazoned on postage stamps, and been the subject of a musical. When the ABC screened the Long Way to the Top series, the opening episode gave him pride of place.
Apter’s book, should we need it, is further testimony of the pioneering role O’Keefe played in giving birth to a distinctly Australian brand of rock n’ roll.