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The Johnny Cooper Story

Updated: Feb 12, 2021


Singer/guitarist Johnny Cooper has lived a very colourful life and there is not much that he has not done. Although he is mostly known as a singer and performer, he has tried his hand at a wide variety of jobs including horse breaking, professional cycling, computer salesman, car salesman and marketing. The handful of singles he recorded in the mid 60s are still of great interest to collectors.

Johnny Cooper was born in Melbourne on July 7th, 1946 and lived in Albert Park until the age of 9, when the family moved to Elphinstone. When Johnny was 15 his father was posted to Malaya, but it was decided that it would be best to leave Johnny in Melbourne. He went to live with his great grandmother in Albert Park, then he moved in with his grandmother in Richmond, which was a pretty rough area at the time.

Johnny started hanging around with the wrong crowd in Richmond and got up to some mischief, but managed to stay out of trouble with the law. He attended Northcote High School and despite almost getting expelled, he made it into the yearbook along with some other students who would go onto careers in the music business including Normie Rowe, Wayne Duncan (Daddy Cool), Mal Clarke (the Blue Jays), and Doug Trevor (the Cherokees). Johnny started taking guitar lessons when he was 14 and was soon making guest spots at dances at the Coburg Town Hall and the Brunswick Town Hall, singing and playing his guitar.


Johnny joined his first band, the Monarchs as rhythm guitarist in Richmond. The Monarchs ran their own dance, then started appearing at other dances including Richmond Town Hall, Preston Town Hall and Mordialloc Lifesaving Club. At one dance run by promoter Kevin McLellan, the group staged a strike, that did not go down too well with the promoter. Johnny recalls:

“They used to have shows on long weekends and they’d go through to 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning. Alan Grenfell found out that it was going to be hard to get paid, so he went to McLellan and said, ‘Listen, we get paid now, or none of us play.’ I don’t think we got work there again.”


Johnny Cooper & the Saxons

In 1962, Johnny joined the Saxons who were already a well-established band. The group needed a singer so Johnny became their singer and frontman. Johnny was a good-looking guy and he had a huge following of teenage girls who followed him around and screamed whenever he got up on stage. Johnny Cooper & the Saxons became the resident band at Canterbury Ballroom on Thursday nights, Preston Town Hall on Saturday nights, Preston Circle on Sunday nights and the Festival Hall concerts on Sunday. Johnny got on well with young singer, Peter Doyle, who also performed at these concerts. Johnny recalls:

“Peter was a great guy and we used to hang out quite a bit. He used to visit my grandma. He and I used to get up to a lot of tricks at Festival Hall.”



Johnny appeared on the first episode of the Go!! Show when it aired on the 0-10 network in Melbourne in August 1964. Johnny made regular appearances on this popular teenage music show but sadly none of the footage of his performances survive. On one of the surviving shows, Ian Turpie announces that Johnny will appear on the show, then his performance has been spliced out.



In September 1964 Johnny Cooper & the Saxons were one of the support acts on the Billy J Kramer tour of Australia. The group appeared on the shows in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Not long after this tour, Johnny became dissatisfied with the musical direction of the Saxons and he left the group to go solo. Brian de Courcy approached him to be his manager and he accepted. De Courcy was an important person on the Melbourne scene at that time because he ran town hall dances at more than 40 venues. De Courcy also secured a recording contract for Johnny with W&G. Backed by the Strangers, Johnny recorded his first single Farmer John/Donna, which was released in October 1965. The disc was issued on the In label, which was a subsidiary of W&G.


W&G started the In label at the suggestion of Johnny Chester. Chester had just come off the Beatles Australian tour and thought W&G needed a label the catered for the teen age market.


B-side of Johnny's first single

Johnny thought the Ritchie Valens ballad, Donna was the better side, but most radio DJs preferred the more up-tempo Farmer John, which had previously been recorded by the Searchers. The single reached No. 28 on the Melbourne charts and Farmer John was included on the W&G compilation album ‘Go Go Go’ and an EP titled ‘The In Crowd.’


Johnny’s next single released one month later was a cover of Little Richard’s She’s Got It, backed by Melbourne group the Tamlas. The B-side, I Get To Wondering was written by Tamlas lead guitarist Noel Watson. Noel went on to have a successful solo career as a singer/songwriter and achieved nationwide fame when he sang Waltzing Matilda at the 1988 VFL Grand Final.



When Ivan Dayman moved to Brisbane, he left John Gray in charge of his Melbourne dances. John had an office at the Canterbury Ballroom. Johnny recalls one afternoon he went to see John Gray, when Normie Rowe dropped in. Johnny recalls:

“I went out into the foyer to get a coke and I saw Normie there. Because when Dayman took it over he moved all the bands including Norm and they were no longer working there. I said, ‘What are you doing.’ Normie replied, ‘Not much.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you come and meet John Gray?’ So I introduced him to John Gray and that was it. He would have been successful anyway, but I think it fast tracked him a bit.”


Johnny at Preston Circle Ballroom

Johnny got married when he was 18, something that he kept quiet because it was expected that a teenage singer be single at that time. He travelled to Brisbane with the Phantoms to do some shows for Ivan Dayman and he took his wife. Johnny recalls:

“We went up to Cloudland to do some work around Brisbane and stayed in the flats that were there. My wife went with me and she paled up with Dayman’s girlfriend. They used to knock around together while the boys are doing what they do, and she must have told them about the marriage. I didn’t get any work with Dayman after that. It wasn’t a given thing.”


Another incident Johnny recalls when he was at Cloudland with Normie Rowe could have resulted in a serious injury occurring.

“Norm and I had some fun one day on skateboards. We rolled down the big hill and I knew there were trams at the bottom and I was worried I’d get hit by a tram. We were picking up speed and I thought, I’m not going to keep doing this, so I kicked off into the only side street and Norm went right to the bottom. He was flying.”


W&G compilation album Discotheque .... Wild Weekend

Early in 1966, Johnny travelled to Sydney and did some shows at the Bowl. Brian de Courcy rang him and said, “You’re back tomorrow, well you’ve got to go into the recording studio.” Not only was Johnny unhappy about the short notice for the recording session, he had caught the flu while he was in Sydney and his voice was very rough. He recorded the Fats Domino song, I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday, again with the Tamlas doing the backing. When the record came out in July 1966 Johnny was very disappointed with the poor production and sound on the record and wondered why it was even issued.

“It was a disaster in my opinion, but you had no control over anything anyway. I don’t even know why they pressed it, it was horrible. Someone should have listened to it.”


Despite what Johnny thought of the song, W&G included it on the compilation LP, ‘Discotheque … Wild Weekend.’


In those days artists were expected to visit radio stations to promote their records and try and get some airplay, something that Johnny was reluctant to do with this disc. He recalls:

“I went to a couple of stations and said, ‘I’m supposed to do this, but please don’t play it.’ It didn’t go down well with the record company. They must have found out.”


Performing live at Festival Hall

Johnny was getting increasingly dissatisfied with Brian de Courcy’s handling of his career, who seemed to be spending more time promoting Merv Benton. Johnny parted company with de Courcy and agreed to have Ron Blackmore manage him on the understanding that he would get him out of his recording contract with W&G and get him signed with EMI. According to Johnny, signing with Blackmore did not work out too well at all. He recalls,

“That was a disaster too, I went from one devil to the other. I used to headline and now I was second or third act to Bobby & Laurie or MPD Ltd.”


Johnny also did a tour of country Victoria and NSW with Running Jumping Standing Still who were one of the hottest up and coming bands at the time. Their wild stage antics which included smashing up their equipment was not an easy act to follow. Blackmore’s plan for getting Johnny out of his record contract never worked out either, resulting in Johnny never being offered another recording contract again.

“He (Blackmore) said, ‘You’re under contract, but if you’re not co-operative with them, they’ll drop you and I can get you onto EMI.’ But of course, if you do that your name gets shit and the other recording companies are not going to take you on.”


During 1967 Johnny was getting increasingly disappointed with the entertainment business and decided he needed to get out. He had a wife and young child to support and he needed a job which provided a much more secure income. He joined Victorian Railways and became Assistant Station Master at Lalor, a small town in country Victoria. Johnny recalls how he felt at this time:

“I never looked back, I just went on with my life. I still played guitar for myself and friends. It was a really cool job.”


Johnny worked at Lalor for about five years then moved to Sydenham. During his time at Sydenham he started doing a bit of singing again doing shows at St Albans Hotel. Then he got a transfer to Deer Park where he joined the local football team.


Towards the end of the 70s, Johnny had had enough of the railway and started looking for a different career path. He secured a job at a department store and started selling typewriters. He then got moved to the electronics section and began selling computers, which was something at which he really excelled. He then went to work for Hanimex, which Johnny says, was “the best move I ever made.” He was soon asked to be State Manager for Commodore computers, then was offered the position of National Manager, working out of Sydney. Johnny and his family moved to Sydney and he bought a house at the picturesque township of The Entrance, on the NSW Central Coast. Johnny joined the local lifesaving club and became a lifesaver.


Performing at the Prince Of Wales Hotel, Proserpine.

In 2004 Johnny’s marriage broke up and he moved back to Melbourne. Johnny takes up the story:

“I bought a house in Melbourne and I thought why don’t I take up singing again. So I picked up the guitar again, very rusty, learnt my chords again and I met my very first girlfriend that I met when I was 14. I got caught up with her again and we went to live in Bowen in North Queensland.”


Johnny got some work around Bowen and then bought a campervan. Basing himself at the Kitchant Waters Caravan Park, 40 kms west of Mackay, he started travelling around performing shows at the various mining towns in the area including, Middlemount, Moranbah and Dysart. Johnny recalls:

“I did all the mining towns, it was a great experience. My playing got a lot better because the more you work the better your playing gets. It was a bit wild sometimes though, probably needed a bit of chicken wire in some places, like they had in the Blues Brothers movie.”


Johnny worked around Central Queensland for about 4 years and sadly his partner died of cancer. He returned to Melbourne and got into contact with Col Millington whose brother Gary was the bass player in the Saxons. Col was well known in the country music field and has written around 200 songs and released 37 albums. When they met up Col said, “Why don’t I record you.” The CD ‘It’s Not Easy’ was recorded at Col’s home studio in 2014. The CD contains mainly original songs written by Col and Johnny. It received airplay on community radio stations throughout the country and the song that received the most attention was the title track co-written by Johnny and his daughter Katherine. Farmer John was included on the compilation CD, ‘100 Greatest Singles of the 60s’ issued by Festival in 2015.


In 2015 Johnny moved to the beautiful Bribie Island in South East Queensland. He has settled well into the laidback island lifestyle and rides a bike regularly to keep fit. He spends his time writing new material and still performs occasionally. He returns to Melbourne about twice a year to catch up with his many friends. He has a lot of good memories and has enough stories to fill a book, although not all of them are printable.


Discography:

Farmer John (Terry-Harris)/Donna (Ritchie Valens) In S-2453 10/65

She’s Got It (Penniman-Marascalio)/I Get To Wondering (Noel Watson) In S-2507 11/65

I Gotta Go(Noel Watson)/Lonely Boy Blue (Weisman-Wyse) In S-2578 02/66

I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday (Bartholomew-Hayes-Cooper)/Is It Love? (Noel Watson)

W&G S-2664 06/66

EP – The In Crowd: Farmer John, She’s Got It W&G E-2528 1965

Compilation LP tracks –Go Go Go: Farmer John W&G 25/2560 1965

Discotheque Wild Weekend: I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday. W&G 25/2675 1965

Compilation CD track: One Hundred Greatest Australian Singles of the 60s: Farmer John

Festival FEST 601041 2015

All tracks produced by Ron Tudor at W&G Studios, Melbourne

CD – It’s Not Easy RRR 2030 2015 Arranged & Produced by Col Millington

Sources:

Australian Music Museum - Article: In Records,

Zbig Nowara, April, 1994

Bribie Islander – Article: Entertainers of the Island, Neil Watson, May 22nd, 2018

Johnny Cooper – Interview: October 19thh, 2019

Johnny Cooper’s Official Website

Col Millington – Interview: November 2nd, 2019

National Film & Sound Archive – The Sixties: Australian Rock & Pop Recordings (1964 – 1969)

Rock archives.com.au – Farmer John – Johnny Cooper

Sydney Morning Herald – Article: Rock of Ages, Peter Barrett, October 26th, 2012

Uptempo.net.au – Col Millington


Thanks to Wonita Harris

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