Farewell to Jim Keays — always the Master

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Seminal Australian rock and roller Jim Keays this week died of complications from myeloma (cancer of the bone marrow). He was 67.

Best known as the frontman for Masters Apprentices, and one of the bad boys of Australian rock and roll in the 60s, Jim Keays was born on 9 September 1946 in Glasgow, Scotland.

His unwed mother put him up for adoption when he was six months' old and his adopted parents migrated to Australia in 1951, shortly before Keays' fifth birthday.

The family settled in Adelaide, where Keays developed a passionate interest in golf and Australian Rules football.

These passions were transcended by rock and roll when Keays heard Rip It Up by Little Richard

and Great Balls of Fire by Jerry Lee Lewis on a school friend's turntable at age 11.

In 1964, Keays joined an Adelaide-based instrumental surf band, The Mustangs. They wanted to change their style to coincide with the Beatles' tour of Australia and Keays was the successful applicant when they advertised for a new lead singer.

Initially, the Mustangs performed beat-style songs as a homage to the Beatles and covers of the Ventures and the Shadows.

However, with Keays on board, they became more enamoured of the blues and by 1965, The Mustangs renamed themselves The Masters Apprentices (deliberately omitting the apostrophe).

Rhythm guitarist Mick Bower reportedly explained:

"We are apprentices to the masters of the blues — Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, and Robert Johnson."

Early original songs included the Top 20 hit singles Undecided and Living in a Child's Dream, which won critical acclaim for their original, bluesy sound.

The songs echoed Keays' rebellious nature and became 60s protest anthems following the lead singer's successful evasion of the Vietnam War draft.

While Keays was one of hundreds of potential conscripts whose 20th birthday, 9 September, was picked in a 1966 ballot, he was able to legally avoid the draft by signing with the Citizens Military Force (CMF, later renamed the Army Reserve).

With the aid of a girlfriend, who pinned his long hair under his slouch hat whenever he attended CMF sessions, Keays was also able to evade the regulation 'short back and sides' haircut.

By 1967, the Masters Apprentices had relocated to Melbourne and Keays began to experiment with LSD. He also took over as the de facto leader of the band when Bower suffered a nervous breakdown.

Controversy followed in 1968 when Keays, in an interview with Go-Set magazine entitled 'Sex Is Thrust Upon Us', discussed – in lurid detail – the merits of various groupies with staff reporter Lily Brett.

Keays' renegade reputation frustrated his then-manager, Darryl Sambell, who wished to market the Masters Apprentices as a clean-cut boy band.

However, rather than reform his 'bad boy' image, Keays hammered the final nail in the coffin of the clean-cut image his then-manager wished to promote with a ballsy hunk of rock and roll called Turn Up Your Radio.

This was released in 1970 just before the start of a major dispute between commercial radio stations and record companies, which resulted in the banning of many major-label releases.

In addition to the radio ban controversy, Keays revealed that he had been so drunk at the recording session that he had to be held up to the microphone.

Despite little commercial radio airplay, Turn Up Your Radio raced up the charts and peaked at number seven nationally.

The Masters Apprentices disbanded in 1972 following a number of traumatic line-up changes during which Keays remained a mainstay.

His shock of long hair and distinctive vocal style, which has been described as "all vim and vinegar", spawned numerous imitators and his personal style paved the way for generations of Australian garage rock bands.

Former band manager and impresario Glenn Wheatley, who was to be the power behind the rise of John Farnham a decade later, described Keays as "the consummate showman".

Said Wheatley:

"Jim had an aura about him: you always knew when he was in the room. Always the Master, never the Apprentice.”

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