The Wild One
It was over forty years ago, late one night, when Johnny O'Keefe hammered on the door of his photographer' s studio and demanded that the inhabitants take a new drug with him. The limo with the gold JO'K insignia on the doors waited outside to ferry merrymakers to clubs and other pleasures, but all those who swallowed the lethal-looking pills immediately fell into a catatonic stupor as John (to his friends he was always John, Johnny O'Keefe or JO'K—never Johnny) raged up and down the room with mad energy trying to whip the bodies off the floor and into action. He rarely slept until the downers cornered him at dawn, and night cruising in Kings Cross in the silver Pontiac meant instant service, grovelling managers and the omnipresent disco music replaced with ancient JO'K hits.
Johnny O'Keefe died so many times while he was alive that when his body finally gave up on the drugs and alcohol on 6 October 1978 he never really disappeared. He died first on the night his red Plymouth Belvedere crashed outside Kempsey in June 1960. He died again in England in 1961 after an abortive American tour, ending up reincarnated in Tooting Beck mental asylum. And he died in 1964, that grim year for rockers that began with The Beatles and ended with the death of Johnny O'Keefe's era.
Even though Johnny O'Keefe only saw the last half of the 1955 movie The Blackboard Jungle at the Gaiety Cinema in Kings Cross, that was enough. On the soundtrack was Bill Haley and The Comets' version of 'Rock Around The Clock', the first rock & roll song to top the charts in the United States and subsequently Australia. When Festival Records licensed the extended-play (EP) single of 'Rock Around The Clock' from Decca, its vinyl factory in Pyrmont ran 24 hours a day to fulfill record bar orders. By September 1956 the single had sold over 150,000 45 rpm EPs.
To the nuggety Johnny O'Keefe, rock & roll was a revelation. Still working in his father's furniture shop and performing on weekends, JO'K had found his niche. The hyper energy, obsessive ambition and showmanship were wasted on Johnny Ray routines at the Bondi Auditorium where squirting the audience with artificial tears only brought squeals. JO'K craved real tears and sweat and blood, and he got them.
'What Colonel Parker did for Elvis I did for myself. I was Johnny O'Keefe the promoter and I was JO'K the can of baked beans that had to be promoted'
These lines best serve to describe the naked ambition seeping out of his every pore during the days JO'K fast-tracked his own career. No managers, no record companies with local acts and no venues. D.I.Y. And he did.
In 1956, JO'K formed the band The Dee Jays and maniacally organised local dances, the first at Stone's cabaret at Coogee. He printed his own posters, stuck them up, bought small ads in the daily newspapers and recruited the band's girlfriends to take money at the door. However, the regular vicious brawls in the audience were too distracting and the band packed up and moved to Balmain, where the set was interrupted one night by two gangsters brandishing rifles and demanding the door take. This proved just too unnerving and JO'K decided that if he couldn't beat the stand over men he'd join them, beginning the rich and rewarding Sydney tradition of paying off the cops. This meant appearances at the Leichhardt, and later the Paddington, Police Boys' Clubs. The brawling didn't stop but the police response time was a lot quicker.
As Elvis Presley's shadow fell across the world the corpulent father of rock, Bill Haley, saw his own career nosedive. To keep it afloat he made a dodgy movie (Rock Around The Clock) and dog paddled across the world promoting it, ending up in Australia in January 1957. The man who brought him and 471 other artists to Australia was Lee Gordon.
Lee Gordon collided with Australia like a meteorite. Hustler, salesman, entrepreneur, drug addict, eccentric and visionary, Lee was a small, fastidious man in the latest skin-tight pants and with a lust for life matched only by his disciple-to-be JO'K. Always one for the big gamble, Lee only felt comfortable especially when he was broke.
His enthusiasm and energy were unrelenting. On a trip to the States to hose down creditor PanAm airlines he made an offer for the creaky Bill Haley caravan, washed up in the States but still current in the backwaters of Australia. To make sure the tour was a total gamble, Lee added chart-busters Freddie Bell and The Bellboys, The Platters, Big Joe Turner and LaVern Baker. The tour created uncontrollable crowd scenes unmatched until The Beatles. Twenty-two thousand people crammed the bleachers at the Stadium, where the revolving stage, as one journalist of the time noted, gave everyone an equally unsatisfactory view. In all, 300,000 people paid to see the Lee Gordon Presents Bill Haley shows in Australia.
Johnny O'Keefe, naturally, was there, gatecrashing a reception to meet his idol and spending hours in his dressing-room. Despite repeated assertions by rock writers, JO'K never played with Bill Haley, but he did invite him home to meet his parents.
Haley, charmed by this small and wiry human dynamo, tried to engineer a record deal for him at Festival Records, but the talent scout Ken Taylor didn't want to know, even when Haley gave JO'K a song he wrote to record, the vacuous '(You Hit The Wrong Note) Billy Goat'. Festival then survived on American reissues. Only when Taylor, a former shirt salesman and record bar clerk who had started a radio show on 2CH called 'Platter Pals', made the move to the former Heinz factory in inner-city Pyrmont did the place come alive.
In the late 1950s nearly every major Australian record was made there on a primitive two-track machine. Taylor, according to writer Michael Sturma, was a dapper man, with a small moustache, fastidious dress and a penchant for younger women.
Apparently there were attempts to bribe him, but this wasn't JO'K's way. The phone, the smile and the charm were all JO'K's weapons, and he used them on Taylor with perfect accuracy. As Harry M. Miller recalls in his autobiography, while touring in New Zealand Johnny O'Keefe spent hours on the phone to disc jockeys and journalists. 'His performances on the phone were almost as spellbinding as on stage.'
During a phone call to Valda Marshall, a showbiz reporter for a Sydney daily newspaper, O'Keefe announced he was about to sign a recording deal with Festival. When she printed the item in her column, Taylor, amused by the upstart, rang him and gave him an audition. Again John's infectious energy won through, and Taylor signed him without telling Festival's management.
'Billy Goat' was released in July 1957 and was Festival's last 78 rpm disc. Even with an original O'Keefe and The Dee Jays masterpiece on the B-side, 'The Chicken Song', the record fizzled, and the next release, 'Am I Blue?', was so appalling JO'K eventually persuaded Festival to delete it.
On stage, it was a different story. In a leopard-skin suit and suede shoes he became the most exciting performer the country had ever seen, leaping around like a madman, dropping to his knees and rolling on the stage, soaking up that crazy all-engulfing energy.
When Johnny O'Keefe was announced as Australia's King of Rock on the Lee Gordon Presents The Big Show at the Sydney Stadium the place went wild—with booing. John didn't flinch. Staring down the audience he uttered the immortal words: 'You can boo me and you can make fun of me but you all paid your money to see me because you love me.' How could an audience withstand such confidence, such chutzpah? Sensing an original, they could only turn their boos into cheers, and JO'K was away.
Even when Gene Vincent finally tottered through the door JO'K and the band stayed on the bill, performing on the tour until the wacko Little Richard saw the Russian Sputnik and decided the end of the world was nigh. When he threw his chunky expensive jewellery into the Hunter River and caught a plane back to the States to preach the Bible the tour was cancelled. But the country had caught the Johnny O'Keefe fever, and it was incurable.
The next attempt at a hit for Johnny O'Keefe was a song written by JO'K, two of The Dee Jays and an eccentric Sydney DJ called Tony Withers. Withers, who had confidently predicted the death of rock & roll in 1956, later engineered his own apparent death rose again as a DJ on a pirate radio station in Britain some years later. The song was 'The Wild One' and it was to become an anthem, a trademark and a nickname, and plant JO'K firmly on the permanent list of Australian legends.
Recorded at Festival's old Pyrmont studio with John's special sound: slap bass, fingers clicking on the bass as they pulled the strings, and a very echoed drumbeat done in the ladies' toilet (it was, in fact, the drums not the vocals that were recorded there), the track made JO'K the first rock star to have a national chart hit, in March 1958. Although he stressed in 1978 that he was, in fact, the Mild One, by this time JO'K was crawling on a ledge of manic highs. He once said that during this period he thought he could do anything.
'For twelve months I thought I could drive down William Street from Kings Cross to the city at 80 mph and all the traffic lights would turn green—and they would, and I used to put people like John Laws in the car with me and they were scared shitless—I'd just drive.'
His mind and body were too active. He managed artists, toured incessantly and released more hit records including The Isley Brothers' 'Shout'.
JO'K and Lee Gordon, two small, speedy salesmen, became friends, and often during Lee's Big Shows headlining American acts were forced to storm off the stage, drowned out by the crowd screaming only for JO'K. Lee, friend or not, banished John to Melbourne for two years when visiting headliners such as Ricky Nelson, needled by the partisan response, complained to Gordon.
The partnership between Gordon and O'Keefe established Lee Gordon Records, later known as Leedon, which was distributed by Festival and originally created to release records from small American labels without distribution deals in Australia.
Under John's regime the label signed such local artists as Lonnie Lee and Barry Stanton, effectively creating the first Australian independent rock & roll record label. JO'K became the label's major artist, and he also wrote songs and produced the recording sessions after his concerts. JO'K's obsession for total control and perfection saw him not only running the label but also his own career, the performances, the songwriting and the music publishing.
In early 1959, the ABC launched its music show 'Six O'Clock Rock', which had a budget for talent of only £254. Originally only a featured artist, O'Keefe soon took over as host and fashioned the show in his own image. He became the talent coordinator and his energy permeated every minute. 'Six O'Clock Rock' was totally live and totally unpredictable. Rehearsed in St Peter's Church hall, Darlinghurst, each Saturday morning, it went to air live at 6pm every Saturday. Its appeal was its rawness and earthy reality, and it fascinated its audience, both teen and adult, as 'Countdown' would twenty years later.
Soon every rock & roll act in the country wanted to be on 'Six O'Clock Rock'. JO'K, The King of Australian Rock & Roll, hand-picked his court of regulars which included fifteen-year-old blonde sex siren Laurel Lee, Lonnie Lee and Barry Stanton. Some female hopefuls weren't required to sing during their audition with John.
John's mood swings were legendary. He would throw things, scream and jump in the air if he didn't get his way, then lapse into his lovable little boy routine and kiss and make up. It is alleged that during tours the band would sometimes evict him from the touring bus and make him travel alone in a car, but with his charm and need for company he could always con some of the musicians to travel with him.
'Six O'Clock Rock' finally ended in 1961 when John made a fiery late-night phone call to the ABC general manager Charles Moses, complaining about the nonexistent production budget. He was sacked and the show stumbled on, finally disappearing a couple of months later. But by then John was on another planet.
Back in 1959 O'Keefe's fee for appearing on Lee's Ricky Nelson Big Show—and blowing him off the stage—was £528 16s. 3d., the price of a return air fare to the United States. He had a national television show, another hit with 'She's My Baby' and radio spots and live performances but it just wasn't enough. JO'K wanted to climb the mountain and play with the gods, in particular Elvis.
He left Australia in November 1959 and booked into the Carolina Motel in Los Angeles with just a list of a few of Lee's shady contacts. The first thing he wanted was an American thick shake, and with an acetate recording of 'Shout' in his hand he wandered down to a drugstore on the corner of Hollywood and Vine to get himself one.
In almost a parody of show business legend, John began chatting with a stranger who turned out to be the marketing manager for Liberty Records. The chat became an audition and the audition became a five-year contract with Liberty. John recorded a number of tracks at the Gold Star Studios, collected a $2500 advance and returned home to plot his conquest of America as The Boomerang Boy. Always the businessman, John kept the Australian rights to the recordings he had just made.
Liberty was convinced that John was the next Elvis, a premonition that would ring tragically true in more ways than one. However, cheap promotional stunts such as JO'K conducting boomerang-throwing displays in Central Park turned sour when John, sick of seven weeks of promotional touring to little airplay and support, showed up drunk.
Although his single topped the charts in New Orleans and New York, and he appeared on American 'Bandstand', the ordeal was physically and mentally bruising. Coming back to Australia without a hit (and without playing with Elvis) was the toughest part. John arrived home broke and immediately bought himself on hire purchase a red Plymouth Belvedere. To pay for it he went back on the road, on a tour organised by Lee Gordon Enterprises (in Lee's now constant absence) dubbed The Johnny O'Keefe Show. For the three-month tour through New South Wales and Queensland John worked as though possessed. After the tour there was a series of appearances in Surfers Paradise, then a drive straight back to Sydney for more concerts. Always an erratic driver, this trip was to change him forever.
Driving down the Pacific Highway on the way to Sydney in June, John fell asleep at the wheel outside Kempsey. His car collided head-on with a gravel truck and was destroyed almost beyond recognition, only its tail fins intact. Lonnie Lee arrived before the police half an hour later and grabbed a bag of marijuana that had been hiden in a hubcap. Crowds tore souvenired pieces of rubber and steel from the wreck. John was rushed to Kempsey Hospital and received hundreds of stitches to his face and hands. His face was a mess, and he was lying in bed in hospital in Rose Bay when a plastic surgeon came in and offered to work on his face for nothing. Well schooled by Lee Gordon, JO'K turned his mangled face to his advantage (he was dubbed 'Maphead' by his friends) and each week he'd have plastic surgery before appearing on 'Six O'Clock Rock'. It was announced that the viewers would see his face change during the treatment over a penod of three months. The ratings for the show soared, the magazines got hold of it and John promoted it for all it was worth.
Nonetheless, the accident affected him severely. His friends saw him turn inwards, lose some of his cocky confidence and grow depressed. Desperate for that elusive American hit, John returned to the States in 1961, but the trip was a disaster and he eventually returned to Australia.
The death of Lee Gordon in 1963 was the worst period of Johnny O'Keefe's life. He was sacked by Channel 7 and lost his television show. A nervous breakdown destroyed his marriage and put him back into hospital. When he finally woke up in 1964, The Beatles were the new royalty and he was on sideshow alley at Sydney's Royal Easter Show fronting a Maori band as a curio, a figure of fun, the dethroned King of Rock doing sixteen shows a day next to Jimmy Sharman's Boxing Troupe and the Half-Man Half-Woman exhibition. He did it for two years and could go no lower.
But JO'K clawed his way back, managing acts, performing, slowly regaining control over his life. Although his mind had been knocked about he now had the distance he needed to come to terms with his manic life in the 1950s and early '60s. He could joke about himself, repeating a line at a roast by a bunch of hack comedians called the Echidnas: 'Brian Doyle got up on stage and said I believe Johnny O'Keefe is in the audience but I don't think he knows he's here. That raised a big laugh, and that to me wasn't knocking me, because half the bloody time my mind was going so damn fast that I don't even know where I am—really.'
|Johnny O'Keefe in Vietnam|
But the adrenaline still flowed and the night-time was his domain. Sleep always eluded him, only the energy kept him going. He tried everything, but kept returning to the sleeping pills to keep him sane. When Elvis died in 1977 John flinched and prepared for his own departure a year later. He became pensive, and as a guest star in Martin Fabinyi's video feature The Vacuum turned a satirical discussion on personal liberation into an honest confession about his death and reincarnation in London. He was a true star, and if John was running the show everything had to be just right. He deserved it, he'd been through the mill and back again, and survived with his humour and generosity intact. As he said, chatting about a television hostess having a nose job: 'I told her I knew everything about noses. I've had five.'
Valda Marshall, she who unwittingly paved the way for JO'K with her snippet (placed by him) in her column that he had a contract with Festival Records, wrote about the legend in Sydney's Sun-Herald newspaper the day after his death:
'He was a shortish person, pleasant looking rather than handsome, friendly as a puppy to everyone. But in that rather ordinary frame was a human dynamo, an explosion of energy. He was not only a singer he was a one-man band, a master of publicity, promotion, gimmicks and showmanship. He bounced into radio stations hauling his records from DJ to DJ. He haunted newspaper offices and music writers. Sometimes, daily, there was a telephone call: "Oh Valda, I've got a great story." If there wasn't a story he invented one. On one of his early records "(You Hit The Wrong Note) Billy Goat" John rang one day to say he was driving out to a farm in the country to record a live billygoat to be on the record—and he did.
'His stage clothes were always flamboyant, some in leopard skin and gold lame. He wore pointy lizard-skin shoes. Even before he became a star, JO'K behaved like one. If you were taken out it was at the finest restaurant with the best food and the most expensive champagne. Even his entry in the 1978 Sydney telephone directory is typical showbiz O'Keefe—JOHNNY O'KEEFE, Rocker.'
O'Keefe was the prototype. He was the King of Australian rock & roll—impatient, brash, demanding to be heard on the world stage. He is remembered as a leader, his unique style made him the star he was, and his recordings alone are testament to an outstanding career. O'Keefe paved the way for many of Australian’s future stars, he was …. The Wild One [extract from The Real Thing (1957-Now) by Toby Creswell & Martin Fabinyi,1999. p10-23]
This post consists of an MP3 (320kps) rip from vinyl, with the occasional crackle and pop, and full album artwork. I have also decided to include an alternative take of "She's My Baby', sourced from a CD anthology in my collection. I would like to acknowledge and say thanks for the use of some photos and newspaper articles taken from JO'Ks official website. I came across this album only recently at the local flee market and was surprised how good a condition the album was in considering its age, and yep, you guessed it - another gold coin purchase. Hope you enjoy this blast from the past.
01 - She's My Baby
02 - I'm Counting On You
03 - Sing (And Tell The Blues So Long)
04 - Move Baby Move
05 - Good Luck Charm
06 - She Wears My Ring
07 - Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow
08 - The Sun's Gonna Shine Tomorrow
09 - Come On And Take My Hand
10 - Save The Last Dance With Me
11 - Rock 'N Roll Will Stand (It Will Stand)
12 - Twist And Shout
13 - Heaven Sent
14 - You'll Never Cherish A Love So True
15 - Right Now
16 - Mansion Over The Hilltop
17 - She's My Baby (Bonus Previously Unreleased Version)
JO'K Link (94Mb) New Link 13/12/2015