This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000
John Michael (Johnny) O'Keefe (1935-1978), rock'n'roll singer, was born on 19 January 1935 in Sydney, second of three children of Raymond Moran O'Keefe, furniture salesman, and his wife Thelma Edna, née Kennedy, both born in New South Wales. Johnny attended Christian Brothers' College, Waverley, and completed a first-year certificate at the College of Retailing. His father occasionally played in a jazz band. While at school Johnny sang in the choir and studied piano. He began to imitate the emotional singing style of the American pop idol, Johnnie Ray, and appeared on radio 2UW's 'Australian Amateur Hour'.
While working as a salesman in his father's furniture store, R. M. O'Keefe & Co., Pitt Street, O'Keefe enrolled in economics at the University of Sydney. After he heard Bill Haley singing Rock Around the Clock in the film Blackboard Jungle in 1955, he decided to become a rock'n'roller. In September 1956 he and Dave Owens formed the 'Dee Jays' (Dee was for Dave, and Jay for Johnny). They were joined by Johnny Greenan, Lou Casch, Keith Williams and Johnny 'Catfish' Purser. The band began performing at Stones Cabaret, Coogee. By early 1957 they were playing at four dances a week (at Chatswood, Coogee, Balmain and Petersham) and also appearing on Saturdays in the interval between feature films at the Embassy Theatre, Manly.
After signing with Festival Records Pty Ltd, O'Keefe and the 'Dee Jays' released You Hit the Wrong Note Billy Goat, written by Haley, in July 1957. Their second record was Am I Blue?, with Love Letters in the Sand on the 'flip side'. In October they performed in one of Lee Gordon's 'Big Shows' at the Stadium with American stars 'Little Richard', Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. Five months later O'Keefe released Wild One, which he wrote with Owens, Greenan and Tony Withers, a disc jockey; the song was an immediate hit and made him the first Australian rock'n'roller to reach the national charts. Shout followed in 1959 and She's My Baby in 1960.
Stockily built and 5 ft 7½ ins (172 cm) tall, O'Keefe looked more like a boxer than a singer. Although his appearance was not striking and his vocal talents were unexceptional, most commentators agreed that he had 'presence'. On stage he traded, in part, on an overt sexuality and handled the microphone in a suggestive manner. He once remarked: 'It didn't matter how you sang the song; it mattered what you did'. Despite his image as 'The Wild One', he promoted rock'n'roll as wholesome entertainment, claiming that it was one of 'the greatest barriers to delinquency'. Like most stars of that period, he aspired to be an 'all-round entertainer'; two of his biggest hits were the ballads, I'm Counting on You (1961) and She Wears My Ring (1964).
At St Therese's Catholic Church, Dover Heights, on 2 August 1958 O'Keefe had married Marianne Renate Willinzik, a 23-year-old hairdresser; they were to have three children before she divorced him in 1966. The marriage felt the strain of his frenetic lifestyle and ambitions. O'Keefe left the family business in 1958. Joining Lee Gordon's record company, he worked as an artist and repertoire man. He recruited singers for the Leedon label, including 'Lonnie Lee', Barry Stanton and 'The Crescents', and wrote songs for them. From 28 February 1959 he and the 'Dee Jays' starred on the Australian Broadcasting Commission's Saturday evening television show, 'Six O'Clock Rock'. O'Keefe soon became the compere, and was closely involved in the show's production. By the beginning of 1960 he also hosted an A.B.C. radio programme, the 'Johnny O'Keefe Show, Rockville Junction', which was broadcast on Friday nights.
O'Keefe regarded success in the United States of America as the ultimate accolade. In November 1959 he had visited America and signed with Liberty Records. Next year he toured thirty-five States and appeared on the television programme, 'American Bandstand', but his reception was far from the triumph he wanted and he returned to Australia. On 27 June 1960 he was involved in a serious motorcar accident on the Pacific Highway near Kempsey. He received sixty-four stitches in his head and another twenty-six in his hands. After only seven weeks he again compered 'Six O'Clock Rock'. In 1961 he hosted the 'Johnny O'Keefe Show' on ATN-7.
That year O'Keefe made another unsuccessful American tour. He flew to London, where he suffered a nervous breakdown. In August 1962 he suffered a further breakdown and spent two months in a psychiatric ward at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney. He returned to his television show—renamed 'Sing, Sing, Sing' during his absence—in February 1963, but it ceased production in 1965. Exceptionally energetic and often charming, O'Keefe was subject to dramatic changes of mood and had a tendency to overreact. In November 1964 he was back in hospital, his 'holiday camp' as he jokingly called it.
The rise of 'Mersey beat' music signalled a change in O'Keefe's fortunes. He called 1964, the year in which 'The Beatles' toured Australia, the 'biggest downer of his career'. The production and sale of his records declined. Following a brief return to television in 1967 as host of 'Where the Action Is', he found work largely in tent-shows and at leagues clubs. In 1974 his career underwent something of a resurgence. His show, The Good Old Days of Rock'n'Roll, opened at the St George Leagues Club in August that year and continued on tour until his death. His song, Mockingbird, recorded with Margaret McLaren, became a hit. On 14 February 1975 (St Valentine's Day) at the Masonic Hall, Waverley, he married with Methodist forms Maureen Joan Maricic, a 29-year-old fashion consultant and a divorcee. They opened a boutique, J. O'K Creations, at Paddington in 1978.
The highs and lows of O'Keefe's life appeared extreme. Apart from numerous breakdowns, he had some run-ins with the police for driving offences and minor drug charges. Generous by nature, he helped to raise funds for the Spastic Centre of New South Wales and the Margaret Reid Orthopaedic Hospital, St Ives. He entertained Australian troops in Vietnam in 1969 and performed at a free concert in cyclone-devastated Darwin in 1975.
After taking pills at his Double Bay home, O'Keefe died of barbiturate poisoning on 6 October 1978 at St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was buried with Catholic rites in Northern Suburbs cemetery. His wife survived him, as did the daughter and two sons of his first marriage. The Australian Variety Artists Association named an award after him. In 1988 his name was included in the Australian Record Industry Association's hall of fame.
Michael Sturma, 'O'Keefe, John Michael (Johnny) (1935–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/okeefe-john-michael-johnny-11293/text20153, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 26 September 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000