Johnny O'Keefe
The King Of Australian Rock 'n' Roll

Johnny O'Keefe Devoted Music is recognised as the pioneer of Australian Rock 'n' Roll music.

He was born in Sydney on 19th January 1935 and in a career that spanned 20 years he released over 50 singles, 50 EP's and 100 albums.

J O'K as he was known became the undisputed King of Australian rock and roll. There was little or no rock music scene in Australia in the mid 1950's and certainly no Australian rock recordings.

When Bill Haley toured the country in 1957, a local band, the Dee Jays with lead vocalist Johnny O'Keefe was chosen as the supporting act.

Johnny O'Keefe had been performing in talent shows, mainly doing impersonations of Johnny Ray singing songs such as 'Crying' and 'Little White Cloud that Cried'.

His performance in supporting Bill Haley led to a recording contract with Festival Records.

At his first recording session on a Saturday afternoon in July 1957, Johnny recorded Bill Haley's 'Billy Goat' and 'I'm Still Alive'.

The recording had to be on a Saturday afternoon because Johnny was working in his father's furniture shop in the morning and during the week and, of course, you couldn't work on a Sunday in the fifties.

The Wild One (Real Wild Child) [2008 Remastered] - The Very Best of Johnny O'Keefe

Reluctant radio stations gave very little airplay to Johnny's first record but by the time of his next recording, 'Wild One' was released early in 1958, there was sufficient demand from Johnny O'Keefe Fan Clubs throughout the country to make it a hit. Many of these Fan Clubs had arisen out of performances which Johnny gave at Police and Citizens Boys Clubs.

Radio at the time was experimenting with pop or rock 'n' roll music as they introduced the Top 40 and dee jays such as Bob Rodgers and John Laws were beginning to become very popular by playing not just American artists but Aussie artists like Johnny as well. Johnny of course befriended both announcers and they began to play his records and give him more air time.

A series of hit records and performances on Lee Gordon's 'Big Shows' supporting overseas artists such as Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, The Crickets with lead singer Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Paul Anka, led to Johnny O'Keefe being given his own national TV show, Six O'Clock Rock in 1959.

She's My Baby - The Very Best of Johnny O'Keefe

The TV show was an enormous success and ran until Johnny left to tour America. In the U.S. he visited 35 states but made little impact, although 'She's My Baby' reputedly sold more than 100,000 copies in the States.

When he returned to Australia overwork led to Johnny being instructed by his doctors to take a rest, but he was soon back on television and recording another string of hit records.

To cover his US failure he bought a bright red imported 1959 Plymouth Belvedere and began touring relentlessly up and down the east coast of Australia to pay off the car and replenish his finances.

He would spend the whole week making appearances at clubs and pubs, returning to Sydney every Saturday to present Six O'Clock Rock.

He insisted on driving himself and on 27th June 1960 he fell asleep at the wheel of the Plymouth and ploughed into a gravel truck. He was seriously injured as his face smashed into the steering wheel and he was thrown out of the car suffering multiple lacerations, concussion and fractures to his head and face which required many operations.

Shout - The Wild One

The accident led to Johnny becoming dependant on drugs and although his career continued at full pace he began to suffer depression and became reliant on medication.

In 1961 Johnny O'Keefe attempted another tour of the United States, but it too was unsuccessful. By this time he was reaching the limits of his physical and mental endurance, and after the US tour, while in London, he collapsed at the Park Lane Hotel and woke up three days later in hospital where he had been admitted, suffering from a 'nervous collapse'.

In 1961 Johnny moved to Channel 7 to compere the new 'The Johnny O'Keefe Show'. The show was a major success, but only added to his already hectic workload and increased the pressure on him.

In August 1962 he suffered another breakdown and spent two months in the psychiatric ward in Sydney.

She Wears My Ring - The Very Best of Johnny O'Keefe

O'Keefe's last major hit of the Sixties came in April 1964 with 'She Wears My Ring' and later that same year he had another spell in a psychiatric hospital, which he came to jokingly refer to as his 'holiday camp'.

By the middle of 1965 his popularity continued to decline and sales of his records fell. His TV show, which by now had been changed to 'Sing, Sing, Sing' was eventually cancelled in October 1965.

From 1968 onwards Johnny devoted most of his time to performing on the burgeoning Australian club and cabaret circuit but in early 1974 he scored his last big hit with a version of the old song 'Mockingbird', recorded as a duet with vocalist Margaret McLaren.

Mockingbird (With Margaret McLaren) - The Very Best of Johnny O'Keefe

In August 1974 he put together a package tour called 'The Good Old Days of Rock'n'Roll' which featured many of his old friends.

It was during this tour that I had the pleasure of interviewing Johnny for my radio show at 2GO Gosford. What a great pleasure and honour it was to chat with the true pioneer of rock music in Australia.

During his stellar career, J O'K had five number one records and ten other top ten hits. The recording for which he is best remembered, 'Shout!' was recorded and released as a single twice (in 1959 and in 1964) but interestingly never achieved better than number 11 on the To 40 charts.

Johnny O'Keefe died on 6th October 1978 from a heart attack induced by an accidental overdose of prescribed drugs. He was buried at Northern Suburbs Cemetery in Sydney.

He will always be remembered as the real pioneer of Rock 'n' Roll music in Australia

You can re-live the good old days with Johnny's music by going to iTunes.... Just click on the button below.

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