David and Goliath

In the steps of a legend: David Campbell.

David Campbell is having a ball playing Australia's first giant of rock 'n' roll in the new musical Shout!, writes Victoria Young.

As a forthright and very forward-looking 4-year-old, Johnny O'Keefe decided it was time he started out on his first career - school.

When he informed his mother, Thelma, she said she would call the local kindergarten, but no, O'Keefe insisted that he was going to Waverley College, Sydney, where his older and much-looked-up-to brother, Barry (now Justice O'Keefe, a Supreme Court judge) was a pupil.

When Mrs O'Keefe tried to explain that he was too young to be a student, O'Keefe asked how she knew, had she asked them?

So she rang the then principal who suggested O'Keefe attend for a week. That would soon cure him of the going-to-school-itch and he could come back when he turned five.

But this plan failed and O'Keefe, who took to school with the same energy he would later bring to the Australian music scene in the 1950s and 1960s was (according to his official biographer, John Bryden-Brown, the author of JO'K) the youngest and smallest boy to enter Waverley College.

Following his school debut in 1939, the entry age of five was strictly adhered to.

His insistence then was an early show of the determination and gumption which would also mark his second career - as Australia's first rock 'n' roll star.

At 23, he was the first Australian to feature in the Australian Top 40 (with Wild One in 1958), the first Australian to sign a rock 'n' roll record contract and he recorded about 90 singles (including the hits Shout, Wild One and She Wears My Ring) and about 30 albums. He was the host of three national TV programs, Six O'Clock Rock, Rockville Junction and Sing, Sing, Sing.

O'Keefe lived large and died young (in 1978 at age 43 from a heart attack) and the story of his eventful and history-making life is now the subject of the musical, Shout!, opening in Sydney on February 28.

Starring as O'Keefe is David Campbell, 27, who returned to Australia last year after spending most of the past five years singing in some of New York's most prestigious cabaret venues.

He "jumped" at the chance to play this country's rock 'n' roll pioneer.

"John was the first big Australian star," he said. "Before that the music scene was dead here. We were just starting to get Bill Haley. People think there was always a good rock 'n' roll scene here - it wasn't. John set that up in Australia."

The recognition of O'Keefe's place in musical history, through Shout!, coincides with the current wave of national pride, said Campbell.

"When we did Australia Day night here [in Melbourne's State Theatre] it was huge," he said. "I came out at the end in a flag and the whole audience rose up and sang Advance Australia Fair. There was huge pride in the room about Australians.

"This is an Australian story, people like it, it's uplifting. You come out with this great sense of redemption that through all the hardships he was a great performer and a great Australian."

During his New York years, Campbell performed in Broadway and off-Broadway shows, toured the US accompanied by a pianist and starred in his own season of cabaret shows at the Rainbow and Stars rooms, the Algonquin Hotel and Eighty Eights, where well-known names such as Rosemary Clooney (George's aunt), and Vic Damone have performed.

While the highs were high, the lows were a character building experience.

"It was a really good time and a really difficult time. Towards the end I was quite sick of going out and trying to make my rent, having to scrimp and save and struggle and all that sort of stuff."

Before his return home in April last year, he and a songwriter friend formed a band. They thought no-one would turn up to their gig, but "it sold out, it was fantastic, the place went off".

"So I thought, I've got to do the rock thing for a little bit. I came back to Australia and went, 'Right, I want to do the rock thing', and nothing happened."

He went on to perform in Guys And Dolls in Melbourne before Kevin Jacobsen (the producer of Shout!) offered him the role of O'Keefe.

Once the show arrives in Sydney, Campbell hopes to start work on the album.

Reluctant to reveal too much about the musical style we can expect to hear, he would only say that he is planning to be true to himself.

"The great thing about doing the rock shows is that I didn't have to be something I wasn't - I could still be me up on stage and tell stupid gags while we're tuning guitars and just do a rock song," Campbell said. "But I'm not going to change my personality style to fit the music I'm doing. I'm just going to be myself. I've always believed that stuff started to happen for me when I stopped trying to be everybody else."

Adelaide born and bred, Campbell grew up quickly when he found out at age 12 that his father was one of Australia's most famous rockers and the person he had thought was his mother was actually his grandmother.

Jimmy Barnes and Campbell's mother Kim had a one-night stand when they were 16. Campbell knew Barnes, who had often visited, but Joan Campbell, his grandmother, raised him as her son and David thought Kim was his older sister.

Growing up with strong women had "definitely" made him more sensitive as a person and a performer, he said.

"It was definitely an advantage. It was a disadvantage, too, because you don't really have a male influence. There's no strong male [presence] to say, 'Don't do this, don't do this, here's how you shave, here's how you kick a football'. I missed out on a lot of that. But I had this great artistic nurturing, although I'm sure they didn't plan it like that.

"I think I'm really affected by it. I'm very sensitive to a lot of things in my environment. I get very fraught - not old womanish. Things get to me, but you know, I get to know my father and he's exactly the same. He had very strong women in his life too."

Shout! opens on February 28 at the Capitol Theatre.

Prices: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 8pm, Saturday 2pm and Sunday 5pm $59.90 to $69.90, children $39.90, concession $59.90, groups (10 or more adults) $59.90; Wednesday matinee 1pm $49.90 to $59.90, children $39.90, concession $49.90, groups (10 or more adults) $49.90; Friday and Saturday 8pm $64.90 to $74.90. Phone: Ticketmaster: 136 166.

Website: www.shoutthemusical.com.au or www.ticketmaster7.com.

Picture: Danielle Smith
Sydney Morning Herald Feb 2001