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50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time – #39: Johnny O’Keefe

“America had Elvis. We had J.O.K.” – David Campbell revisits the legacy of Australian rock and roll pioneer, Johnny O’Keefe.

50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time - Johnny O'Keefe

Courtesy National Film and Sound Archive of Australia; Peter Brew-Bevan*

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 – #39: Johnny O’Keefe (by David Campbell)

Rock‘n’roll is the original disruptor of music. Four chords, simple melodies and a cracking backbeat that the kids could dance to. Each country needed someone who could lead the new rise of popular music with a voice and a vision. America had Elvis. We had J.O.K.

Johnny O’Keefe had the talent, the drive and the luck to be present at the birth of rock‘n’roll. It’s important to remember how conservative Australia was back in the Fifties and how “Americanised” the hit radio stations were. So, when Johnny started to growl through his first major hit, “The Wild One”, the kids had found their leader. The revolution had begun.

The Bondi boy soon had more hits and was touring with Little Richard and Eddie Cochran, all the while showing these Yanks how we could take their new music and make it our own.

J.O.K. was also an entertainment industry pioneer. Adapting to the times he found and nurtured new talent. He went on to host multiple TV shows, which another rising star, Johnny Farnham would also do years later. All the while he kept releasing songs and continued having multiple number one singles.

Like most rock stories though, Johnny was not without his demons. A near-fatal car accident is cited as the beginning of a dark period for him. While The Wild One continued to work, he was battling alcohol and drug abuse. Johnny suffered a very public nervous breakdown, but managed to successfully return to public life. Then, there was a changing of the guard when four boys from Liverpool remade the whole world of music.

Johnny continued to work and tour. Australians adored him. He was the original. He was our star. We fell in love with him. We got married to his songs. We watched him on the telly. We saw him turn a hostile crowd of hippies at Sunbury into lifelong fans, which extended his legacy to his death in 1978 and beyond.

Without Johnny O’Keefe, it’s safe to say our industry would look and sound very different. There would be no Billy Thorpe, Normie Rowe, or Jimmy Barnes. The opening credit sequence to the ABC show Rage would be pretty bloody average.

Johnny O’Keefe gave us a national musical identity. One that was a little bit louder now…