Performance costume, suit, velvet, made in Australia by Tony Bonnici, worn by Johnny O'Keefe, Australia, 1957-1959
Johnny O'Keefe is remembered as a towering figure in the development of Australian rock music.This suit illustrates his use of flash stage costumes to accentuate his wild image. It bears no maker's label and is thought to have been designed and made by Sydney tailor Tony Bonnici. The Museum's collection includes two other Johnny O'Keefe stage outfits: a bright red suit with leopard-print velvet trim made by his mother Thelma; and a yellow suit made by Len Taylor, a tailor who provided costumes for Sydney's rock 'n' roll elite. O'Keefe adopted more conservative attire when he began hosting the ABC television show 'Six O'Clock Rock' in late 1959.
Australia's first rock 'n' roll star, O'Keefe (1935-1978) possessed exuberance, ambition and an innate capacity for showmanship. His great legacy was as a dynamic live performer and recording artist who kick-started Australian rock music. He also hosted his own television shows and did much to encourage and promote other Australian performers.
In the mid 1950s O'Keefe sang at dances and jazz concerts, often doing a send-up of the American 'sob' singer Johnnie Ray. Inspired by Bill Haley, he turned to rock 'n' roll, teaming up with local band the Dee Jays late in 1956. He promoted and performed at suburban dances until his big break came when the promoter Lee Gordon booked him as a support act on Little Richard's eventful October 1957 Australian tour. O'Keefe won over hostile audiences and was booked for many more appearances on Lee Gordon's 'Big Shows'.
The next step was a contract with Festival Records. In 1958, with an extended play disc containing the song 'Wild One', he became the first Australian rock performer to have a chart hit. Co-written by O'Keefe and members of his band, the song's refrain ('I'm a real wild child') summed up the rebellious attitude of youth. For a time O'Keefe seemed to adopt the larrikin persona of 'the wild one', and the nickname stuck. On stage, he was dynamic and exciting, and his overtly sexual stage antics were provocative. As a vocalist, he overcame his limitations and displayed a natural feel for rock 'n' roll. His tasteful choice of American songs to cover showed an understanding of the music's gospel roots. His version of the Isley Brothers' song 'Shout', recorded in 1959 with the Delltones, became O'Keefe's trademark and a highlight of his concerts. He hosted ABC radio program 'Rockville Junction' and starred in the groundbreaking weekly live music show 'Six O'Clock Rock' on ABC television.
Mental illness and the effects of a car crash in 1960 caused him to suffer a series of highly publicised breakdowns. Nevertheless he made a successful television comeback and scored some of his biggest hits over the next four years. By the end of 1964 new musical fashions had overtaken the pioneers of rock 'n roll's first wave, but O'Keefe continued to perform. He entertained Australian troops in Vietnam in 1969, and his appearance at the 1973 Sunbury festival was well received. He died in 1978 at the age of 43.
Peter Cox, Curator, 2008
Johnny O'Keefe's brother Barry recalls that the suit was made by the Sydney tailor Tony Bonnici.
This costume was worn by Johnny O'Keefe in stage performances between 1957 and 1959. It is part of a collection of material that belonged to Johnny O'Keefe. It was preserved by his brother Barry and lent to the Powerhouse Museum for its 1994 exhibition 'Real wild child: Australian rock music then and now'.