Peter Cox on the outlandish outfits that defined Australia’s rock ’n’ roll rebel. This is an extract from the publication Icons, which can be purchased online at the MAAS Store.
Twenty years after his death, an image of Australian rock ’n’ roll star Johnny O’Keefe appeared on an Australian postage stamp. As a lifelong fan observed, it was ‘a wry climax to an unsteady progression from iconoclast to icon’.1
Rock ’n’ roll was never just about the music. In the 1950s rock ’n’ roll stars became the focus of a highly visible cultural change. Performers achieved notoriety and celebrity as much for their look and attitude as for their sound. Appearing on stage in conspicuously unconventional dress identified the singer as a rebel. Some performers, like Johnny O’Keefe, adopted an ostentatious visual style as an iconoclastic assault on accepted notions of conformity and good taste.
Johnny O’Keefe was Australia’s rock ’n’ roll rebel. Rather than retell the story of his ascent, decline and early death, which is well documented, this essay focuses on the role of costume in the formation of his stage persona.2 From 1957 to 1959, O’Keefe wore outlandish outfits to draw attention and attract a following. Although he later adopted a more conventional dress style, the loud suits he wore during his early years helped to establish his celebrity.
In 1975 O’Keefe donated two costumes and an accompanying pair of shoes to the Dennis Wolanski Library and Archives of the Performing Arts at the Sydney Opera House. These garments were later transferred to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, where they form part of a substantial performing arts collection.3 Rock costumes often draw upon the conventions of dress while at the same time subverting them. These two take the mundane two-piece suit and mock it in garish yellow and bright red. Their colour and trim embody the sheer overstatement of rock ’n’ roll.
In 1959 a Melbourne newspaper described O’Keefe’s ‘yellow gabardine suit’ as ‘trimmed with black velvet and studded with rhinestones, drainpipe trousers, diamante tie and red and gold Turkish slipper type shoes studded with coloured stones and with detachable tassel type flaps’.4 The red suit is made of wool with rayon lining, trimmed with an ocelot fur print of synthetic velvet. With no maker’s label, the suit was previously thought to have been made by O’Keefe’s mother, Thelma. Recent information from the O’Keefe family reveals that it was made by John Portali, a tailor in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt.
Short in stature and an unlikely looking teenage idol, Johnny O’Keefe had the will and determination to become Australia’s first rock ’n’ roll star. He heard and understood what was happening with American popular music, discovered his own natural feel for rock ’n’ roll and made himself this country’s prime exponent. He joined forces with the Dee Jays band and throughout 1957 set about constructing his celebrity by promoting his own suburban gigs, generating publicity, putting up posters and placing newspaper advertisements. He even established his own fan club, calling it ‘Friends of Johnny O’Keefe’.
By mid-1957, through sheer hype and audacity, he had obtained a record deal. When he falsely informed Valda Marshall, the entertainment columnist for Sydney newspaper The Sun, that he had signed a deal with Festival Records, she ran the story. This intrigued Festival’s talent scout Ken Taylor, who granted an audition and then a contract.5
When O’Keefe landed his first stadium show as a support act on Little Richard’s October 1957 Australian tour, he carefully observed the American’s high-energy showmanship and glittering costumes. Over the next two years he acquired a wardrobe of extravagant outfits, helping him stand out against the monochromatic world of 1950s Australia. By September 1959 O’Keefe claimed to have 20 stage suits — ‘in leopard skin, red, purple, orange, navy, pink, gold and even white’. He estimated that each suit cost ‘around 50 guineas’and valued his wardrobe at over £1000.6
Later he revealed the inspiration: ‘It was a pinch from Little Richard. [He] had retired so I figured … that I’d get all these gaudy suits but I’d go one step further. I just made them more flamboyant … Every time I’d do a show I’d get a new suit and they just got further and further out … This went on for … two and a half years.’7
Concert reviewers emphasised O’Keefe’s costumes, describing the ‘sequined mustard-coloured drape-suit’, a ‘mauve velvet suit with brilliant red across the top of the pockets’, a ‘purple suit’, a ‘royal blue satin suit with red trim’ and a ‘white, red satin lined suit’.8
The yellow suit bears the label of its maker: ‘Len Taylor. Sydney. American Clothes Stylist’. Taylor, one of the outfitters who supplied clothing to Sydney’s rock ’n’ roll elite, had his shop in Kings Cross. Andy Ellis, ‘the Dior of the drape shape’, was another. His shop was next to O’Keefe’s father’s furniture store in Pitt Street and Johnny was a regular customer. Tony Bonnici made the mustard-coloured suit Barry O’Keefe donated to the Museum in 2008.9 Johnny liked to take credit for the design of the suits. It is easy to imagine him giving his tailors detailed specifications, but this was probably the extent of his creative input, although he claimed to have copyrighted the designs to prevent any ‘sartorial pirating’.10 The photograph shows O’Keefe performing in his ‘almost audible’ red suit.11 With a hollering voice and thrusting limbs, he conveyed a feeling of frenzied abandon that set him apart from his more restrained peers like Alan Dale and Col Joye. The spectacle of recklessness and excess he created spoke to the audience’s passions and desires, appealing to both female and male fans.
Early in 1958 O’Keefe appeared as a support act to Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis on their Australian tour. Ever the wild man, Lewis sneered at the Australian’s wardrobe but before the tour was over he had obtained his own set of identical outfits.12 Back in the States Lewis turned up that year on Dick Clark’s TV program wearing a familiarly garish suit trimmed with leopard skin lapels.
O’Keefe’s costumes were never meant to distract from the music. They provided a vehicle for its uninhibited delivery, reinforcing the content of defiant songs like his signature tune ‘Wild One’. Just as David Bowie’s costumed characters allowed him to perform without inhibition, so O’Keefe’s outfits helped him to shed self-consciousness, allowing him to transgress normal standards of conduct. On the last show of the Little Richard tour, ‘Teenage girls screamed in ecstasy as Johnny entwined himself about the microphone in a sweating fervent suggestion of love.’13
By 1960, O’Keefe had reached the end of this phase of his career. With his mythic, celebrity status already assured, he possessed the survival instincts to move on to his next manifestation, the host of television variety entertainment programs. He transformed the nature of his celebrity by toning down his ‘wild one’ image for the new medium, dropping the flash threads and sexual stage antics. He took to wearing woollen cardigans, American college-style sweaters, then plain dark lounge suits and dinner suits. The change in attire did not smooth his rough edges. He remained a raw and exciting performer, and recorded some of his biggest hits between 1960 and 1964, in spite of highly publicised breakdowns caused by mental illness and the effects of a car crash.
Johnny O’Keefe caught the mood of Australian teenagers as they emerged from the drab world of 1950s suburbia, seeking experiences that differed from those of their parents. A complete showman, he combined music, stagecraft, attitude and flamboyant costumes to make a forceful statement that challenged the status quo and, in the process, became a cultural icon.
1 Raymond Evans, ‘The Tonic of Wildness’, Perfect Beat, Vol 5, No 1, July 2000, p 64.
2 For a comprehensive biography see Damian Johnstone, The Wild One, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2001.
3 While its strengths are Australian rock music and circus, the Museum’s performing arts collection also includes significant objects from puppet theatre, vaudeville, and film and television entertainment.
4 The Sun, Melbourne, 7 September 1959, cited in Johnstone, p 84.
5 Ted Leane and Henry Plociennik, Johnny O’Keefe: King of Australian Rock, Summit Books, Dee Why West, 1979, p 25.
6 The Sun, Melbourne, 7 September 1959, cited in Johnstone, p 84.
7 Interview with Johnny O’Keefe, Radio 2SM Sydney, 1970s, National Film and Sound Archive, Title 546208; www.nfsa.gov.au. Accessed 3 May 2016.
8 Quoted from clippings pasted in guitarist Lou Casch’s private scrapbook: ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star in Lively Performance’, The Evening Star, Dunedin, New Zealand, Wednesday 22 April 1959; ‘Punch and Polish Mark O’Keefe Show’, Marlborough Express, New Zealand, Friday 1 May 1959; ‘10,000 Went to See Tab’, I, Brisbane, Tuesday 2 June 1959; Andrew McKay, ‘It’s Strictly for Cats’, Melbourne concert review, name of newspaper not given, May 1959; ‘Teenagers Show They Like It’, The Standard, Warrnambool, Friday 2 October 1959.
9 Velvet suit, performance costume, made in Australia by Tony Bonnici, worn by Johnny O’Keefe, Australia, 1957–59, gift of The Hon Mr Justice Barry O’Keefe AM (Ret), 2008. Barry O’Keefe’s donation also included a boomerang, concert program, posters, souvenir handkerchief, badge, envelope, promotional folder, airline ticket to Vietnam, documents and photographs.
10 The Sun, Melbourne, 7 September 1959, cited in Johnstone, p 84.
11 ‘Australia’s King of Rock’, Women’s Weekly, 22 January 1958, p 13.
12 Leane and Plociennik, p 43.
13 Unsourced newspaper review dated 14 October 1957, cited in Johnstone, p 51.