Amazing scrapbooks kept by the mum of Australia's king of rock'n'roll Johnny O'Keefe are now part of National Film and Sound Archive collection

Johnny O'Keefe's scrapbooks are a rich record of Australian life in the 1950s and 60s. Picture: National Film and Sound Archive
Johnny O'Keefe's scrapbooks are a rich record of Australian life in the 1950s and 60s. Picture: National Film and Sound Archive

Before Cody Simpson, Nick Cave or John Farnham, there was Johnny O'Keefe.

Nicknamed 'the Wild One', after his hit 1958 single, Johnny O'Keefe was Australia's own king of rock 'n' roll.

Two huge scrapbooks lovingly compiled by his mother, Thelma, are among the treasures in the vast collection of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

John Michael O'Keefe was born in Sydney on 19 January 1935, the second of three children.

Inspired by American singers such as Johnnie Ray and Bill Haley, O'Keefe and a friend founded a rock 'n' roll band, The Dee Jays, in 1956.

Playing at numerous dances every week, Johnny O'Keefe and his band soon grew an enthusiastic following of young fans thanks to his energetic performances and flamboyant costumes which brought the exciting new sound of rock 'n' roll to Sydney.

In 1957, O'Keefe signed with Festival Records and began playing as a local support act for American artists such as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, which gave O'Keefe and his band their big break.

In 1959 O'Keefe's television career began when he became the host of the ABC's new live music show, Six O'Clock Rock.

In 1961 he became host of The Johnny O'Keefe Show, later renamed Sing Sing Sing. O'Keefe became a constant presence on Australian television, pioneering the music variety format.

Tragically, Johnny O'Keefe died on 6 October 1978 at the age of just 43.

The two scrapbooks compiled by Thelma O'Keefe were donated to the archive in 2014 by the singer's family.

Totalling more than 500 pages and spanning from 1954 to 1965, the scrapbooks are filled with newspaper and magazine articles, concert programs, tickets and other memorabilia.

The scrapbooks have been completely digitised - a complicated process that took two years - and are available to view in their entirety on the archive's website.

The physical books are protected with acid-free paper between each page and kept in a dark cabinet in a climate-controlled facility, to prevent light or humidity causing damage to the ageing paper.

NFSA archivist Tamara Osicka says looking through the material is a "wonderful experience."

"Some objects contain a multitude of stories," she says. "[The scrapbooks] are a rich resource for fans and researchers alike."

In addition to chronicling the highs and lows of Johnny O'Keefe's career, the scrapbooks are a fascinating record of the early years of rock 'n' roll in Australia.

They also provide a snapshot of the language, popular culture and social issues of the time.

Proving that the fear of youth has existed since time immemorial, the scrapbooks' newspaper clippings reflect the rise of the teenager as a social concept in the 1950s and the ensuing moral panic over rock 'n' roll music and "juvenile delinquency".

Numerous articles cover O'Keefe's conflicts with councils across Australia and New Zealand, which had banned rock 'n' roll from being played in their venues.

One Sydney newspaper even invited a nun and a psychiatrist to one of the events that O'Keefe played at, presumably expecting controversy (Scrapbook One, page 44).

Instead, both the nun and the psychiatrist were full of praise for the performers and their adolescent audience.

The frequently insensitive media coverage of Johnny O'Keefe's struggles with mental health issues and addiction - exacerbated by the trauma caused by a car crash in 1960, combined with his heavy workload - can be confronting for modern readers.

Osicka says O'Keefe was open about his mental illness, which led to some cruel comments in the media.

"The mocking tones in which it was discussed [in the clippings], made me again think of Thelma and how it would have felt to see her son discussed in that way," she says.

The scrapbooks also chronicle happier moments from Johnny O'Keefe's personal life, such as his wedding to his first wife, Marianne, and the births of their children.

Flicking through their pages takes you back to an era when rock 'n' roll was emerging as a new powerful influence.

NFSA archivist Tamara Osicka

Some of the quirkier highlights include newspaper advertisements featuring O'Keefe modelling cardigans made by Clan Murray Knitwear.

There are also 'Friends of Johnny O'Keefe' fan club certificates stating: "I am proud to be a friend of Johnny and I will always try to help him as much as I can, and try to set a good example to all teenagers".

Music fans can explore the scrapbooks for themselves at the NFSA's website, where they have been uploaded and are free to view.

"These scrapbooks provide an intimate insight into Johnny O'Keefe's life and career," Osicka says.

"Flicking through their pages takes you back to an era when rock 'n' roll was emerging as a new powerful influence and allows you to follow the remarkable journey of Johnny O'Keefe, rock 'n' roll pioneer."

Readers can visit nfsa.gov.au/jokcollection to view Thelma O'Keefe's scrapbooks, along with the rest of the curated online Johnny O'Keefe collection.

The collection also features rare television footage, music clips, oral histories and more.

  • The National Film and Sound Archive will be reopening to the public on August 1. In the meantime, you can view many of the archive's collections at nfsa.gov.au.
This story All about the Wild One ... and his mum first appeared on The Canberra Times.