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With just a little assistance from promoter Lee Gordon, Johnny O'Keefe single-handedly willed Australian rock & roll into existence. Canadian-born but settled in Sydney, Lee Gordon was bringing international talent to Australia. He had made and lost several fortunes already and was back on in the black when rock & roll arrived. He followed tours by "Nat King Cole" and Johnnie Ray by bringing a package tour headlined by Bill Haley and the Comets, the opening to their history making world tour.
Born 11 days after Elvis Presley, Johnny O'Keefe had formed his own rock band, the Dee Jays, saw all the Johnnie Ray shows, and was regularly seen hanging around the Lee Gordon offices, sitting on the concrete steps outside, hoping to catch someone's ear, hoping to be added to one of Lee Gordon's Stadium Shows. His tenacity paid off when he was added to the Haley bill, if only to give something to the Sydney audiences to hear as they found their seats. It gave O'Keefe the chance to see Haley perform, hang out with him in the dressing room, and to take him home to meet Mum.
Lee Gordon, however, wasn't in the least interested in promoting local Australian talent. But when Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps were stranded in Honolulu on their way to join Little Richard and Eddie Cochran on tour, O'Keefe and his group were quickly contacted to fill in for one night. A chance was all O'Keefe ever needed. Bill Haley would be instrumental in securing O'Keefe his recording contract.
Johnny O'Keefe became the first Australian pop star to chart. His breakthrough came with his third release, a song called "I'm the Wild One." This seminal Australian rock song was covered in 1987 by Iggy Pop as "Real Wild Child." O'Keefe would be known as The Wild One throughout his career. Like Elvis, he was the real deal. In December, 1958, he was asked to compere a weekly American Bandstand style TV show, Six O'Clock Rock, his platform to national success. He hit the Top Ten with "So Tough" and his version of the Isley Brothers' call-and-answer "Shout."
In 1959, O'Keefe asked for an airfare rather than a fee for his appearance on Lee Gordon's latest Big Show tour and in November of that year, took himself to Los Angeles with no real plans other than to somehow break into the American market. Legend has it he booked himself into a motel and the first thing he did was visit the drug store next door to sample his first American thick shake. He just happened to be carrying an acetate of his "Shout" single and someone who happened to be a Liberty Records executive walked in to ask about the record he was carrying. The executive offered to have a listen and within half an hour, O'Keefe had an American recording deal. The next week he recorded several songs and came back to Australia with what became his first number one record, "She's My Baby." Liberty was convinced they had discovered a major talent. Like Presley, he had toned down his rock & roll to record standout pop songs.
In April, 1960, Johnny O'Keefe returned to America armed with his Liberty Records advance, every penny he could borrow, and a few hundred genuine boomerangs inscribed with his name which he planned to use to help promote the release of his American album, picturing John throwing a boomerang on the cover. The trip was a mixed success. His "It's Too Late" made number one in New Orleans, but O'Keefe was having too good a time and turned up at several promotional events just a little under the weather. Liberty Records quickly lost interest.
Johnny O'Keefe came back to Australia with nothing much to show for his adventure and empty pockets. But typically he had to pretend otherwise and, as a symbol of his "new status," bought himself a bright red Plymouth Belvedere on hire purchase. On June 27, 1960, O'Keefe crashed his car returning to Sydney from the Queensland Gold Coast, suffering severe facial lacerations, concussion, and shock. Within a month he was back at work. By August, with scarred face, he was back on TV. That accident remains a symbol of the rest of Johnny O'Keefe's life and career. He was all go and it took a car accident or a mental breakdown to slow him down, just for a while. The hits continued, including three more national number ones with "I'm Counting on You," "Move Baby Move," and "She Wears My Ring."
Then the Beatles generation hit and the generation of Australian rock O'Keefe had fostered fell from sight almost overnight — in O'Keefe's case, fighting and scratching all the way. Although radio stopped playing his new records, Johnny O'Keefe was always out there trying and built up a healthy management and touring company. He was still one of Australia's hardest working and best-paid entertainers. When he died on October 6, 1978, of a heart attack induced by an accidental overdose of prescribed drugs, Johnny O'Keefe was busy planning the expansion of his successful business and performing activities. 3000 people crammed into the Waverley, Sydney church and thousands more lined the streets to watch the funeral procession. In 2001, a stage musical Shout was mounted to celebrate Johnny O'Keefe's career and times and played to sell-out houses throughout the country, bringing millions to its promoters. In Australia, the legend lives on. Internationally, his records enjoy a cult following.