Johnny O'Keefe was Australia's first rock 'n' roll star. Full of energy, confidence and ambition, he was a dynamic live performer with a raw voice and an exuberant stage presence that earned him the nickname 'the wild one'. He hosted his own television shows and did much to encourage and promote other Australian rock performers, but his greatest legacy was as a performer and recording artist.
In the mid 1950s O'Keefe sang at dances, doing impersonations of American 'sob' singer Johnnie Ray. After seeing the film Blackboard jungle, which introduced rock 'n' roll to Australian audiences, he formed a band called the Dee Jays in September 1956. They promoted their own dances at suburban venues until O'Keefe's big break came when the promoter Lee Gordon booked him as a support act on Little Richard's eventful 1957 Australian tour.
The next step on was a hit record. In 1958, with the song 'Wild one' (covered by Iggy Pop in 1985 as 'Real wild child') he became the first Australian rock performer to have a chart hit. Co-written by O'Keefe and members of his band, the song summed up the rebellious attitude of youth.
O'Keefe was rough, raw and loud. His talent lay in his genuine feel for rock 'n' roll and his wild, frenzied and overtly sexual stage antics. He would throw himself into each song, shaking his body and grinning at his fans.
Up to 1960 O'Keefe had a taste for flash stage costumes which accentuated his wild image. An outstanding example is this bright yellow suit trimmed with black velvet and diamantes.
Along with Andy Ellis (420 Pitt St) and Pineapple Joe (George St), Len Taylor, the maker of this suit, was one of the three tailors who provided costumes for O'Keefe and other members of Sydney's rock 'n' roll elite. The museum's collection includes another Johnny O'Keefe stage outfit -- a bright red suit with leopard-print velvet trim - thought to be made by his mother Thelma.
O'Keefe adopted more conservative attire when he began hosting the ABC television show Six o'clock rock in late 1959. Mental illness and the effects of a car crash in 1960 caused him to suffer memory loss, depression and breakdowns. Nevertheless he made a television comeback but by the end of 1964 'Beatlemania' had overtaken O'Keefe. He died in 1978 but will always be remembered as the true pioneer of Australian rock.