This piece was published on StereoStories .
Marysville Hotel, Victoria. 1977
By the time I met the Australian rock legend Johnny O’Keefe in 1977, I was working as a roadie for a middle-of-the-road pub band. They played the classic hits that suburban and country audiences wanted to hear. Hardly rock and roll heaven but it was work. The band’s career highlight came when they were booked to back the legendary Johnny O’Keefe at the Marysville pub.
As the band travelled to Marysville, everyone was excited to be working with a household name, albeit someone who had long been considered a has-been. Johnny had presented the TV shows Six O’Clock Rock and Sing Sing Sing in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was more of my older sister’s era but everyone knew about Johnny and his music, as well as his psychiatric issues, his car crashes and his battles with drugs and alcohol. The tsunami of the Mersey sound and US West Coast rock swept over him in the mid-60s and his career never recovered.
As the band was setting up, Johnny’s manager arrived and, handing out sheet music and a running list, said there would be no rehearsals or sound check. I remember him using the phrase “it’s not rocket science”. Which was just as well because the lead guitarist was the only one who could read music and he would signal and mouth the chord and key changes as needed during the show.
The place was packed, including a large contingent of men with slicked-down ducktail haircuts and women with wide skirts supported by half a dozen starched white petticoats. In country towns history lives.
The band had worked their way through their usual sets and now it was time for Johnny. The only spotlight the pub had was trained on him as he made his entrance, resplendent in his tailored red suit. Our lead guitarist intoned: “Ladies and gentlemen, the king of Australian rock and roll, Mr Johnny O’Keefe!” and the crowd rose as one as he launched into a strangely stiff and unwild version of The Wild One.
As he progressed through all the old hits like She’s My Baby, I’m Counting on You, Move Baby Move and She Wears My Ring, I could sense an uneasiness in the crowd. Like me, they seemed to be thinking “Well, he’s here but he isn’t” but they were tempering their disappointment out of respect for The King and what the tickets had cost them.
There was the usual fake finish and the crowd played their part in demanding more. He was going to finish with his famous call-and-response hit, Shout, allowing the audience to vocalise their devotion.
And that was when disaster struck for me and for Johnny. He was half-way through the famous opening sustained holler of ‘We-e-e-e-e-e-e-ll’ when his microphone died.
With no time to find the fault, I ran to the stage, grabbed the protesting lead guitarist’s microphone and trailed the lead out to Johnny, who was standing motionless and impassive in the middle of the floor, staring a thousand yards into the distance. As I handed the microphone to him, scarlet from head to toe, I said lamely ‘Sorry, Johnny’. As I looked into his vacant and unresponsive eyes he mumbled ‘That’s alright, mate’.
I scrambled back to my desk, praying to the God of Roadies that everything would work out and it did. “W-e-e-e-e-e-ll, you know you make me wannna shout …..”
After the standing ovation and the refusal of more encores, Johnny’s manager bundled him into a car and they sped off into the night. Within a year, in 1978, Johnny was dead from a drug overdose, at the age of 43. And the Marysville pub burnt down in the Black Saturday fires of 2009. But they’ll both be alive as long as I live.