From the very start, Johnny O’Keefe was known for his energetic live performances. He got his lucky break in 1957 when he became one of the first Australian singers in promoter Lee Gordon’s 'Big Shows’ at Sydney Stadium, after international act Gene Vincent was stranded in Honolulu.
Johnny convinced Lee to let him sing three songs and Johnny O’Keefe and the Dee Jays went on to play many more times at Sydney Stadium including with Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry.
From Bandstand Salutes Johnny O’Keefe, 1966
'Shout' at Sydney Stadium, 1959
From Bandstand Salutes Johnny O'Keefe, 1966
The wild days of touring
During his 26-year career, Johnny released over 50 singles, 40 EPs and 40 albums and had many Top 40 hits.
Next: In a 1977 radio interview, Johnny talks about the primitive recording techniques of the 1950s and how they made use of a toilet block to capture the desired reverberation effect in 'Shout’.
Left: Johnny with The Dee Jays (Johnny Purser, Keith Williams, Dave Owens, John Balken, Kevin Norton) in 1957. To draw the eye to Johnny, photographer Ken Radshaw placed him in a picture frame.
Johnny interviewed on 2CY ABC Radio, 1977
'Recording in progress - please don't flush'
'I’ve been practising pretty hard’
Johnny sings in Greek
Oral history with singer-songwriter Vic Simms, 2009
'I got a little song I want you to hear'
Six O'Clock Rocker
Johnny O’Keefe initially saw television as just another gig, but soon realised the power of the medium to reach and build a national audience.
He hosted four TV shows during the 1960s: Six O’Clock Rock (ABC, 1959-61); The Johnny O’Keefe Show (ATN7, 1961-63), which was then renamed Sing Sing Sing (1963-65); and Where the Action Is (Channel Ten, 1967).
The Johnny O'Keefe Show – Episode 1, 1961
'I Feel Comfort in My Heart’
Sing Sing Sing
Left: One of 3,000 letters sent by Johnny to Sing Sing Sing TV viewers, apologising for the tardiness of his reply. At the time celebrities like Johnny faced the challenge of individually responding to huge amounts of fan mail.
Next: On an episode of Sing Sing Sing from early 1964, Johnny Devlin and Johnny O’Keefe sing excerpts of each others’ hits, backed by Paul Wayne, Digby Richards and ballet star Sir Robert Helpmann.
JO'K and Johnny Devlin on Sing Sing Sing, 1964
'Stomp the Tumbaruma' and 'Move Baby Move'
The Boomerang Boy
Johnny made several trips to the US, convinced he could make it in the birthplace of rock 'n’ roll. In April 1960 he embarked on a 36-state promotional tour in just six weeks. Liberty Records touted him as the 'Boomerang Boy’ and organised boomerang throwing competitions as publicity stunts.
By 1960, the ‘Friends of Johnny O’Keefe’ fan club in Australia had 8,000 members. In the early years of his career, Johnny was known for his flamboyant stage costumes and in 1959 claimed he owned 40 suits worth over 100 pounds each!
Johnny O’Keefe and first wife Marianne at Melbourne Town Hall, 1962. Courtesy of RSN - Racing and Sport. Photographer: Laurie Richards.
Boomerang made by Joe Timbery for Johnny’s 1960 tour of America. Click on image to enlarge.
Fantales promotional chocolate box with image of Johnny O'Keefe. Courtesy of Nestle Australia. Click on image to enlarge.
'I am a Friend of Johnny O'Keefe' metal pin badge, c1957. Click on image to enlarge.
The collar of a lace shirt, tan in colour, worn by Johnny O'Keefe in the 1970s. Click on image to enlarge.
Johnny talks about his costumes on 2SM, 1970
'It was a pinch from Little Richard'
After returning from the US in 1960, Johnny was injured in a horrific car crash. In the late 1960s he struggled with mental health and financial problems.
He continued performing and releasing records into the 1970s, enjoying his final Top 10 hit ('Mockingbird') in 1974. When Johnny died of a heart attack in 1978, aged only 43, it was front page news.
From Bandstand Salutes Johnny O’Keefe, 1966
'I was a pretty dejected Wild One'
With thanks to Barry O’Keefe for his generous donation of Johnny O’Keefe material; Janette O’Keefe for her ongoing support; 7 Network Australia; Nine Network; Vic Simms; RSN – Racing and Sport; Department of Defence/ADF; the Archdiocese of Sydney; and Nestle Australia.
See more Johnny O'Keefe collection items, including two scrapbooks compiled by his mother Thelma, in our Johnny O'Keefe curated collection.
- Producer: Stephen Groenewegen
- Curator: Tamara Osicka
- Video: Terry Stuetz, Michael Kosmider, Tara Fedoriw-Morris
- Audio: Gerard O’Neill, Viktor Fumic, Thorsten Kaeding
- Oral History: Bronwyn Murphy
- Clearances: Bronwyn Dowdall, Nick Henderson, Helen Tully
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