The Rock Pit - Hard rock, Metal and Blues Interviews, news & reviews from Australia and around the world

The Rock Pit - Hard rock, Metal and Blues Interviews, news & reviews from Australia and around the world













The legend of Johnny O’Keefe is probably one that a lot of Australians of a certain age are reasonably familiar with, but ask any kid today and there’s a distinct lack of knowledge of who O’Keefe even was, and little desire to know about the man who was Australia’s first ‘King of Rock and Roll’. It’s a sad state of affairs but perhaps understandable in a world seemingly a million miles away from that which O’Keefe inhabited where music was still dangerous and exotic. Jeff Apter’s book: “O’Keefe Rocker. Legend. Wild One.” is a heady tale about how Australia ‘found’ Rock and Roll and as usual Apter tells it so well.


The obviously talented O’Keefe’s early days make for a riveting read: born into a wealthy middle-class family with a comfortable life laid out for him but the draw of music kept on tugging. As Apter lays it out though, it’s all part of the tension and you do seem to get the feeling that for Johnny at that point it was all as much for the attention and the ‘perks’ as it was for the music. That is until Bill Hayley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ hit and it was suddenly real: not just a game played by a wealthy kid with plenty to fall back upon should it not all go to plan.


The beauty of the story though is the ups and downs, the highs, the lows and the breakdowns. You find yourself rooting for the Aussie battler as he prepares to fight his way into the US and comes up battered and bruised. It’s a gruelling account of the rise and fall of a great entertainer – wonderfully talented but self-destructive at the core – who helped shape the Australian music industry.


In truth the book is such a riveting read that if like me you knew next to nothing about the man and little about his music, it makes little difference. The story itself has ‘movie material’ written all over it and written with the active cooperation of the O’Keefe family and the JO’K Trust it is very candid at times. Jeff Apter manages to bring out the immense pathos and tragedy of O’Keefe’s life in a way that takes you on a breakneck speed backseat drive with the man.


It is a rollercoaster all the way from the ‘Big Shows’ pulling in the masses in Sydney lining up with the biggest names in music , through turbulent years of hosting TV shows which brings the ‘control freak’ in O’Keefe to the fore, to the events that led to a downturn in fortunes.


Plagued by mental health issues, yet finding it impossible to slow down, at times O’Keefe is his own worst enemy who just can’t help getting caught up in the moment and embellishing certain occurrences and talents, like in the expensive ‘Boomerang incident’, which comes on the back of some ‘Thick-shake luck’(again we won’t spoil it). With every giant stride forwards comes a semi-self-inflicted wobble or two backwards.


Apter’s real triumph here is his pacing: he lets the cracks show through a series of events that masterfully chronicle O’Keefe’s breakdown. There’s the US failure replete with speedboat crashes and frustration at not being able to breakthrough. All the time though we are reminded of O’Keefe’s importance and triumphs – the artist who brought Rock and Roll to Australia, the first Australian artist to record in the US. But for every triumph there’s a price and in the latter half of the book the fall is beautifully chronicled from failure in the US to madness in the UK, car crashes, breakdowns, his marriage break up and joining the circus – it’s all there.


All in all this is a fascinating peak at a pivotal time in Australia’s social history and a revealing look at the man who opened the floodgates perhaps not only to Rock and Roll but also to the aspirations of Australian performers around the country that there was a whole world out there.



Johnny O’Keefe was the ultimate performer, and thrived on being on stage, giving the music, and the fans, everything he had. O’Keefe died way too young, from a heart attack, at the age of 43, leaving behind a legacy of timeless hits, including ‘She Wears My Ring’, ‘She’s My Baby’ and ‘Shout’. He recorded 33 Top 40 hits during his lifetime.



By Mark Diggins