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50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time – #31: Billy Thorpe

The Superjesus’ Sarah McLeod looks at one of the most respected and revered Aussie musicians of all time, Billy Thorpe.

50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time - Billy Thorpe

Courtesy of BMG; Nix Cartel*

In December of 2020, Rolling Stone Australia released a special edition issue which looks at the 50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time, paying tribute to the best and most impactful artists in Australian music history. While it would have been easy for the editors and writers of the publication to profess their love of the listed artists, the decision was instead made for those who found themselves inspired by these world-renowned names to share their own testimonials of why these artists deserve to make the list.

In celebration of the issue’s release in December, we’re counting down the full 50 artists and their accompanying testimonials in this ongoing online feature. If you want to get your hands on an physical copy of the magazine, be sure to subscribe now to experience the double-length edition featuring some of Australia’s best and brightest discussing the finest names in local music.

50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time – #31: Billy Thorpe (by Sarah McLeod of The Superjesus)

Anyone who’s ever met Billy Thorpe would know his energy was a religious experience. This man was dynamite. A one-of-a-kind firecracker filled with charm and electricity. One look into those twinkly eyes and a flash of that cheeky smile and you were hooked line and sinker. Billy had “it”. In fact, Billy had “it” in spades.

I first met Billy at a benefit gig for his dear friend and fellow rock’n’roller Lobby Loyde from Lobby Loyde And The Coloured Balls. I had been asked to perform at the event, which had been organised by Billy himself.

I was already a fan having watched his now legendary performance with The Aztecs headlining the Sunbury Music Festival. This man knew how to command a crowd without making it look like he was trying to command a crowd. He was just being himself and having fun. I think that’s one thing that really set him apart and made him so magnetic, he was always having buckets of fun. People wanted a part of that, they wanted to feel what he was feeling, he was so damn infectious. Every time he walked on stage he totally came alive, channelled by the rock’n’roll gods that enveloped him so naturally. His guitar playing was soulful yet dangerous with an air of unpredictability. He didn’t give a shit about the rules, all he cared about was having fun and playing rock’n’roll.

And boy was he good.

When he opened his mouth to belt out “Mama”, you could hear the gates of hell opening and the most powerful, passionate thunderous tone explode from his soul.

He had the greatest rock’n’roll voice of all time. 

I discovered Billy through my love for his predecessor Johnny O’Keefe. Johnny was a badass and Billy was inspired to follow in his footsteps. I loved how you could watch Billy grow into himself through the years. From the 1964 black and white footage where he and his band were dressed in stovepipe suits standing on different levelled podiums (as they did a lot in the day) singing “Poison Ivy”.

He was very young with a clean-cut short hairdo – like Normie Rowe and all his other peers fashioned – but he was not like the other guys. He had that voice. That thick timber, even way back then. Fast forward to Sunbury 1972 and that clean-cut sheepish youngster had been superseded by the perfect long-haired rock’n’roll superstar that would eat his younger self for breakfast. This man was the shit.

“He had the greatest rock’n’roll voice of all time.”

Meeting him at soundcheck at The Palais Theatre in Melbourne was a day I will never forget. I nervously walked into the room when Billy strutted over to me with a smile to melt a thousand hearts. “Hey kid, I’m Billy” …. yes. Yes you are…

I was called to the stage to soundcheck the song I was to perform with Rose Tattoo, “Nice Boys”. The beat kicked in and there I was holding the mic on stage with Rose Tattoo, Billy Thorpe standing front and centre in the auditorium just smiling at me. I was nervous but desperate to impress so I gave it everything I had from the pit of my gut. The song ended. Angry Anderson screams “yeah baby” and Billy claps and walks closer to the stage as I put the mic back on its stand. “You can really sing kid!” These words emanating from a man I had admired for so long filled me with joy and affirmation. 

 I followed him around all day like a puppy.

After that performance we continued to do more shows together. I learnt so much from him. He and his best mate Normie E The Bad Roadie looked after me like I was family. Normie would collect the leftover hospitality rider from their shows and bring it to my place to fill my fridge with beers.

When Billy noticed that I had strayed into dance music he sent Normie over to my house with a message: “Get the kid back into rock’n’roll”. The message was accompanied by a gift of a beautiful Fifties mint green Tokai Stratocaster guitar with gold hardware.

What a legend. His kindness and inspiration changed my life and I am forever grateful to have called him a friend.