John Michael O’Keefe (19 January 1935 – 6 October 1978) was an Australian rock and roll singer whose career began in the 1950s. Some of his hits include “Wild One” (1958), “Shout!” and “She’s My Baby“. In his twenty-year career, O’Keefe released over fifty singles, 50 EPs and 100 albums. O’Keefe was also a radio and television entertainer and presenter.
Often referred to by his initials “J.O.K.” or by his nickname “The Wild One”, O’Keefe was the first Australian rock n’ roll performer to tour the United States, and the first Australian artist to make the local Top 40 charts. He had twenty-nine Top 40 hits in Australia between 1958 and 1973.
O’Keefe was the younger brother of Australian jurist Barry O’Keefe (a former head of the New South Wales ICAC). His father, Alderman Ray O’Keefe, was Mayor of Waverley Council in the early 1960s. Through Barry, O’Keefe was the uncle of Australian television personality Andrew O’Keefe.
The first turning point in O’Keefe’s career was in early 1953, when he began singing with the quintet of jazz accordionist Gus Merzi at charity dances. During these appearances, O’Keefe would sing his specialty, Johnny Ray’s “Cry“, while wearing a pair of trick glasses which would squirt water over the audience. Radio personality Harry Griffiths, who met O’Keefe at this time, remembered him as “a bad-tempered ratbag” who often argued with Merzi, although Merzi commented that they never clashed over music.
Recognising Johnny’s potential, Merzi began tutoring him on piano, encouraging him to broaden his repertoire and helping him to refine his stagecraft. O’Keefe became a regular singer with the Merzi quintet and performed with them every Sunday at the charity shows they performed at the Bondi Auditorium. The tenacious O’Keefe performed his routine no matter how small the audience, sometimes braving the rotten eggs and fruit thrown at him by local louts.
After his second stint of National Service he began singing with Merzi two nights a week, playing at university college dances, 21st birthdays and private parties and Merzi also managed to get O’Keefe a regular spot on the 2UW live radio show Saturday Night Dancing. Up to this point he had performed for free, simply to gain experience, but his first paid engagement as a singer was as a Johnny Ray impersonator, performing on the Bathurst radio station 2BS, for which he was paid £17 plus expenses.
Johnny O’Keefe’s life changed irrevocably after seeing and hearing Bill Haley singing “Rock Around the Clock” in the film Blackboard Jungle in June 1955. He realised immediately that this was the style of music he wanted to perform, and from this point on he dedicated himself single-mindedly to becoming a rock ‘n’ roll singer and a star.
Johnny O’Keefe first met Bill Haley during his tour in 1957 in Australia. Haley was impressed by O’Keefe, giving him a song to record (“You Hit The Wrong Note, Billy Goat“) and recommending him to Ken Taylor, A&R manager of leading local record company Festival Records. Taylor, however, failed to act on Haley’s advice, so O’Keefe then famously took matters into his own hands and began telling the local press that he had in fact been signed to Festival. Anxious not to lose face, Taylor auditioned O’Keefe and signed him to the label.
O’Keefe’s debut single (issued as a 78rpm record), “You Hit The Wrong Note, Billy Goat” b/w “The Chicken Song“, was released in July 1957 but it failed to chart and sold poorly, as did the follow-up, a cover of Pat Boones “Love Letters In The Sand” – which O’Keefe later described as the worst record of his career.
By this time O’Keefe had become a close friend of the music concert promoter, Lee Gordon, and their popularity really took off when O’Keefe and the Dee Jays were installed as the featured support act for Gordon’s famous “Big Show” concert bills at the Sydney Stadium. These “Big Show” concerts were landmarks in Australian popular entertainment, being among the first tours to feature leading overseas rock’n’roll stars, including Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis.
O’Keefe and the Dee Jays’ first major break was a support spot on Lee Gordon’s first “Big Show” rock’n’roll tour, which starred Little Richard, Gene Vincent, and Eddie Cochran. When Gene Vincent and his band were stranded in Honolulu on their way to Australia, Gordon contacted O’Keefe and asked him to fill in for Vincent for the first night of the tour in Wollongong. This was followed by another support spot on the second all-star Big Show, which included The Crickets (with lead singer Buddy Holly on his first and only Australian tour), Jerry Lee Lewis and Paul Anka.
During this period The Dee Jays also acted as the backing band for many of the international acts that Gordon toured, since they were at the time the only rock’n’roll band in the country who could read music. They backed acts including Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, Fabian, Tab Hunter, Jimmie Rodgers and Ricky Nelson, and on his 1960 tour, Nelson was booed by fans of O’Keefe’s whom he had reputedly planted in the audience. Their skill and energy and O’Keefe’s frantic performances also saw them upstage many of the visiting performers. Jerry Lee Lewis’ own backing musicians were so daunted by the Dee Jays’ performance that they got too drunk to play.
By 1960 O’Keefe had become the most popular and successful singer in Australia and a major TV star.
O’Keefe died in 1978 from a drug overdose.
Songs by Johnny O’Keefe you’ll hear on Coast FM include So Tough, I’m Counting on You, She’s My Baby, Come On and Take My Hand, Sing, She Wears My Ring and the duet with Margaret McLaren, Mockingbird.