From its very beginnings, rock n roll has argued with itself over image. Is the rock image glam, flashy, showy and gregarious? Or is it honest, dirty, working class and brash? Regardless, ‘look’ has always played a massive part in rock n roll.
Australia’s first real rocker, Johnny O’Keefe, took the visuals of his performance very seriously. Johnny would exhaust all his energy and his voice at each performance. O’Keefe’s stage attire developed with his stage shows, and up until the late 1960s, loud, over-the-top suits were one of his trademarks. The Museum has in its impressive Johnny O’Keefe collection three suits Johnny wore for his performances.
The red suit was likely made by Johnny’s mother, Thelma O’Keefe, in the late 1950s. This outfit, complete with velvet leopard-skin collar, and red and gold shoes decorated with fringed leather and studded with faux emeralds exemplifies O’Keefe’s taste for bold, but elegant flashiness.
The gold suit, tailored by Len Taylor, Sydney, American Clothes Stylist, in the late 1950s, is only marginally less flashy than Johnny’s red suit.
Johnny’s beige and hot-pink suit was made by Sydney tailor Tony Bonnici in the late 1950s.
O’Keefe also became a television personality, hosting the programs Six O’Clock Rock (ABC, 1959 – 1961), Johnny O’Keefe Show (ATN-7, 1962), and then Sing Sing Sing, (ATN-7 1963). Johnny’s wardrobe on TV was conspicuously less flashy than his live performance outfits. Television is much more mainstream than live performance; moreover, television was black and white!
In becoming more mainstream, O’Keefe was more in demand. His workload was hectic, and his passionate personality made his moods swing unpredictably. Johnny had several emotional breakdowns requiring hospitalisation through the 1960s.
O’Keefe always supported and bolstered other Australian music acts through his live performances and his television shows. And although he himself had a wild image, it was clean-cut and tailored. The rock bands emerging out of England in the 1960s had a very different image. Long, messy hair, smart-mouthed and raw, the Mersey Beat phenomenon did not impress O’Keefe. Johnny wouldn’t allow local long-hairs to appear on his show Sing Sing Sing, and this put him at odds with youth culture. The Wild One did not seem all that wild – more like a cranky parent!
The Mersey Beat invasion and Beatle mania did not beat Johnn O’Keefe though. In 1969, O’Keefe entertained thousands of Australian troops in Vietnam, and a few years later, in 1974, his career took off again. His show, The Good Old Days of Rock’n’Roll, started at the St George Leagues Club in August that year and continued to tour Australia until his death. His song, Mockingbird, recorded with Margaret McLaren, became a hit. With his new wife, Maureen Joan Maricic, a fashion consultant, he opened a boutique, J. O’K Creations, at Paddington in 1978. Johnny died later that year, on 6 October – now forty years ago.
The Museum continues to celebrate Johnny O’Keefe’s celebrity, displaying one of his outfits in the Icons exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum.
Unfortunately, Johnny didn’t get to see glam and flashiness come back into rock n roll as it did in a big way in the 1970s, and again in the 1980s. It’s probably due to make another comeback too.
Written by Damian McDonald
2 responses to “Johnny O’Keefe: 40 year anniversary of losing Australia’s first rocker”
I loved Johnny Okeefe…My best friend Celia and I went to many of his concerts back in late fifties…unbeknown to our parents..
Met Johnny okeefe in Adelaide. He was a beautiful person,with a heart of gold. Diana