The lost tale of the “Wild One” Johnny O’Keefe

The “Wild One” Johnny O’Keefe was only on this planet for a short 43 years but what he was able
Nostalgia

The “Wild One” Johnny O’Keefe was only on this planet for a short 43 years but what he was able to achieve for Australia is unprecedented. The Australian King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was responsible for making Australian rock happen.

An impressive career with over fifty singles, 50 Eps, and 100 albums to his record. He was also the first Australian to make the Australian top 40 charts and had twenty-nine top 40 hits between 1958 and 1973.

While many get famous because of their talent, O’Keefe admitted that he wasn’t the best singer but got famous due to his tenacity. Radio personality Harry Griffiths remembered O’Keefe in his early days for being a “bad-tempered ratbag”. But it was this drive that made him a star.

When Bill Haley toured Australia, he was so impressed with O’Keefe that he suggested that he be signed to Festival Records. However, the manager didn’t act on it, so O’Keefe told the press that he was signed. Festival Records ended up singing him to save public face.

After a scoring some hits and appearing on TV, O’Keefe tried to take his success to the US. His style caught on a bit, but he was forced to admit defeat and return to Australia. In a low point for the “Wild One” was when he got in a serious car accident in 1960 on his way to Queensland’s Gold Coast in his Plymouth Belvedere. He required several surgeries to fix the damage caused to his face and hands after the accident.

While he did continue to have success in Australia, the new batch of musicians were starting to pass him, combine that with many personal problems including the death of longtime business partner and friend Lee Gordon in 1963. During this time, he did continue to record and appear on numerous television programs.

Many reports also state that O’Keefe was deeply depressed by Elvis Presley’s death in 1977. Elvis was his idol and O’Keefe would keep telling friends that he would be next. Six days after appearing on the Seven Network Show Sounds O’Keefe was found dead from a prescribed drug induced heart attack.

Johnny O’Keefe’s impact on Australian music is as lasting as it is iconic and his legacy will forever live on.

Did you have the chance to see Johnny O’Keefe perform in person? Let us know your story in the comments below.

  1. Seen Johnny Okeefe at the Hotel Adelaide in the 1970s went out to dinner and he was doing his show there!!

  2. Judy Tharle  

    Saw Johnny several times at Festival Hall, Always a good showman. Remember when the main act from America came on the audience just kept chanting ~we want Johnny~ until the American act said you can have Johnny and walked off.

    • jeff  

      That American act was Bill Haley and the Comets..

  3. Dianne Evans  

    When I saw him he was fantastic short and not handsome but he had IT you forgot his looks he was electric!

  4. Carleen Birse  

    I saw Johnny at Festival Hall when a teenager but don’t remember who the other acts were. And now I’m an oldie and go to exercise classes where we work out to rock’n’roll and lots of Johnny O’Keefe. It sure brings back lots of memories. Loved him then and still love him. I was devastated when he died.

  5. norm scott  

    I had a mate who was a cameraman at ch 9 in Brisbane in 1962. I was offset during a variety show that JOK appeared in and he had to be almost carried to his spot, performed note perfect, and at the end of his spot had to be helped off camera. What a legend!

  6. Jan Mitchell  

    Saw The great JOK many times at the Tarmac Hotel in Laverton. He was a regular performer on a Sunday night. Fantastic performer.

  7. Bob Wood  

    Saw JOK at the Stadium in Rushcutters Bay, many times. Made Australian music what it is today.

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  10. Neville Hatchard  

    i seen jonny o;keefe at the hotel australia north adelaide called swigger and the lion hotel 1970 he grow up in kilburn south australia

  11. Dennis Doherty  

    I also saw him at the Stadium when he was at his best and sadly saw him at his worst at Bass Hill RSL.

  12. Waldo Pepper  

    I saw quite a bit of him over the years. A close friend was one of his best non musical mates. In those days me & my wife used to do lots of parties at our old house. He often turned up & was, in fact, a rather quiet sort of guy who liked a drink and a chat. He fitted in well with our mates who loved to drink beer and talk bull$h1t.

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