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

February 2008

From the front page

Mourning Tim Fischer

Today’s crop of Nats are an affront to the legacy of the former leader

Book covers

Robot love: Ian McEwan’s ‘Machines Like Me’ and Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Frankissstein’

Literary authors tackle sentience and rationality in AI, with horrific results

Image from ‘The Loudest Voice'

‘The Loudest Voice’: a nightmarish portrait of a monster

The sheer scale of Roger Ailes’s wrongs defies the medium of television

Photo of Adam Goodes

Swan song: Documenting the Adam Goodes saga

Two documentaries consider how racism ended the AFL star’s career


In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The perfectly bad sentence

‘Time and Materials: Poems 1997–2005’ by Robert Hass

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Mane attraction

Davy Jones, September 2006. © Karla Kaulfuss/Flickr

Sunshine on my brain

The pop genius of The Monkees


More in Encounters

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Rupert Murdoch & Kamahl

Mark Oliphant & J Robert Oppenheimer

John Monash & King George V

John Howard & Uri Geller


Read on

Image from ‘The Loudest Voice'

‘The Loudest Voice’: a nightmarish portrait of a monster

The sheer scale of Roger Ailes’s wrongs defies the medium of television

Image of Peter Drew bike stencil

A meme is born: Real Australians Say Welcome

How one artist’s posters about politics took on a life of their own – an extract

Image of Nigel Farage at CPAC in Sydney

Making sense of CPAC

Why the Conservative Political Action Conference should not be dismissed lightly

Image from ‘Midsommar’

Pagan poetry: the studied strangeness of Ari Aster’s ‘Midsommar’

The ‘Hereditary’ director micro-manages the mania in his new film


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