February 2008

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Johnny O’Keefe & Jack Benny

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

After more than 50 years in the business, Jack Benny was nothing if not a trouper. When CBS dumped his long-running television show at the end of 1963, he pursed his lips, packed his violin and took his schtick on the road. In Australia, a consortium of promoters packaged him into a variety show that included acrobats, a popular chanteuse and, improbably, the country's paramount rocker, Johnny O'Keefe.

For all his tearaway image and microphone humping, JOK was no rock 'n' roll rebel. He sold his music as an antidote to juvenile delinquency and banned long hair from his weekly television program, Sing, Sing, Sing. And at 29, he was getting too old for the kid stuff. He yearned for the established mainstream stardom that a figure like Benny represented. With their shared billing in mind, he recorded the lush, syrupy ballad ‘She Wears My Ring'.

The Sydney season opened on 7 March 1964. Benny, master of the pregnant pause, milked the laughs with his customary sophistication and O'Keefe belted out his trademark hits. Between them, they brought the house down.

Backstage, Benny was easy and unassuming, generous with his advice to the eager, vulnerable and moody O'Keefe. "Jack Benny was a marvellous influence on me. I would watch him every night. Up until that time, I'd not really emulated anybody but Little Richard."

The show got a tepid response in Melbourne, despite O'Keefe "working like a Trojan to win a response from the square dress circle", but the tour catapulted ‘She Wears My Ring' straight into the charts.

No sooner had Benny returned home than the magic wore off. In May, Sing, Sing, Sing was relegated to an unwinnable slot, up against Disneyland. Then, in June, The Beatles arrived. By November, old-style rock was history and JOK was back in hospital with yet another of his nervous breakdowns. Within ten years, the St George Leagues Club was looking like a step up for the man once hailed as Australia's answer to Elvis.

Signing with NBC, Jack Benny returned to television. He retired after a season but continued to perform until his sudden death from pancreatic cancer in 1974. Johnny O'Keefe dwelt frequently on his memory, sometimes weeping in his dressing room for never having called to say how much he admired him. But there were tears aplenty by then, too many for even barbiturates to keep at bay.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

Cover: February 2008
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