Wintersun is coming to Port Macquarie from June 3 – 13 – celebrating the best of that magical era,1940s – 1960s. Rock ‘n’ Roll, classic cars, dancing, street parades … Port Macquarie will come alive with a rockin’ party atmosphere. One of Wintersun’s guests this year is Johnny Devlin – New Zealand’s ‘answer to Elvis’ …
When did you first decide you were interested in singing? Rumour has it that you were given your first guitar at 11-years-of-age?
My mother told me that I was running around the house singing perfectly in tune at the age of 5. It was because of that, it prompted her to give me my first guitar, and I took guitar lessons and did my first public appearance on stage at the Wanganui Opera House in New Zealand when I was still going to primary school.
Where did the nickname ‘Wanganui Wailer’ come from?
I think it came from the press. They had several different nicknames for me, such as the Satin Satan, New Zealand’s answer to Elvis Presley, and more recently the Godfather of Rock and Roll.
Yes, you have been described as New Zealand’s answer to Elvis Presley. So what kind of influence did the ‘King’ have on your career?
Well, when I first heard Heartbreak Hotel, I was so impressed by the particular style and emotion in that particular song by Elvis, that I said, “I want to sing like that, and I want to sing like Elvis Presley”.
It was only a dream, but while I was at school, the vocational guidance officer came around and said, “Well, Mr Devlin … what do you want to be when you leave school?” And I said, “I would love a career on stage”. He said, “Well, there is no harm in that, but get your school certificate first, and it’ll give you something to hang your hat on”.
How did you progress from singing in talent competitions to recording professionally?
All that happened in Auckland when I was about 20 years of age. I did an audition for a chap who ran the biggest Rock and Roll dance centre in New Zealand, called the Jive Centre in Auckland. I was still living in Wanganui – which wasn’t Auckland, of course – back then, and he was so impressed with me that he invited me there to perform.
I said to him, “Well, you’ll have to get me a job!” (Laughs) ‘Cause I needed a job, as I hadn’t gone professional yet. He said he would get me a job and put me on every weekend and that I could stay at his place – that was the start of turning professional. Eventually I gave up the job, as we were dragging in the teenagers (to see me perform), and I was so popular there I was in the position to give up the job and go professional.
That was in early 1958, so when you think about it, I have been singing professionally for 6 decades … which is quite an achievement!
And in 1958 you also released your first single, Lawdy miss Clawdy …
Yes, and we couldn’t get any air play!
Really? Well, eventually you did and it became an amazing success. How did that feel?
What actually happened was that the NZ broadcasting service was the only radio we had. We didn’t have any commercial stations in those days, and they thought that it wasn’t suitable for air play, as it had been recorded live where I was signing at the Jive Centre.
The chap I had recorded it for decided to run a tour throughout NZ, and it was only supposed to last a couple of weeks … but in fact, it was so popular that the tour lasted 6 months and broke all previous box office records of any show ever to tour NZ – including international shows!
At those shows I would sell many, many boxes of records of Lawdy Miss Clawdy – to the extent that eventually we ended up selling over 100,000 copies and as 10 x gold per capita of population. I got NZ’s first gold record for it.
What was the highlight of the tours?
As we toured around, we were playing in concert theatres, not pubs or places like that, and for anyone to go round and round NZ for 6 months was quite a hell of a thing to do! Even today you’d be lucky to do two or three weeks around NZ (laughs).
But the highlight of that was that the kids started ripping my shirt off! It was following the Elvis Presley thing overseas … which is why they call me NZ’s answer to Elvis, ’cause everywhere I went after the shows, I would go outside and sign autographs for them, and it became a big thing to rip my shirt off as they tried to get autographs. I ended up having to get police protection in the end!
So you felt like a real star?
Oh yeah, I did! It was a big thing. Cory Miller once said I was bigger than The Beatles!
I have seen your photo of you with The Beatles …
Well, that isn’t a press shot – it is a private shot that they did for me. Are you interested in the story behind it?
Yes, we are; do tell us.
What actually happened was they had a sound problem in the Wellington Town Hall, which was the first show in NZ. Lennon was furious.
I used to stand on the side of the stage in the wings and just watch them and listen to them. Lennon threw his guitar down and said, “That’s it … we’ll cancel the big tour”. I thought, “Oh my God … we can’t have that happen!”
We had a good rapport with them by then, as we had just toured Australia and they used to invite me to their parties and so forth, so I said to John, “What’s the problem? We can’t cancel the tour – I couldn’t afford to”! (Laughs.) And he said, “Well, if we can’t hear ourselves, what is the point in carrying on with the tour”? I said, “Before you do anything drastic, let me go and talk to the sound man who has a contract with the Wellington Town Hall and see what the problem is and see if we can turn you up”.
It was a case of unless they could hear themselves, they wanted to opt out.
I spoke to the sound man and said, “Look, you have to give them more volume, or Lennon will cancel the tour”! He said, “No, I’m not going to turn them up, or they’ll blow the diaphragms out of my microphones”! See, he was an elderly man and was more concerned about the microphones than he was about The Beatles!
So, I went back to John Lennon and he said, “You tell him if we do any damage to his microphones, we’ll buy him a whole new sound system”.
Back I went and told him that information. Now, as I was opening the show for them [The Beatles], I had the opportunity to sit in the sound box with him when The Beatles came on. When they came on, I said to , Lennon will buy you a whole new system”.
Well, he turned them up, and he had the volume there. Fortunately in the audience there was a group of people from the NZ Air Force with a decibel meter, and they measured the sound. Along with all the screaming from fans coming out of the Wellington Hall, it was equivalent to a Boeing 707 flying at 60 feet. So that was it, and that was what was written up in the press.
So after that, Lennon said to me, “Mate, that sound was incredible! Anything you want – name it; you’ve got it”. I said, “I don’t want anything, but normally when I appear with an international act, I usually try and get a photograph taken with them”. He said, “You’ve got it”! So when we got up to Auckland, I hired a photographer and took the shot – and that was that.
I think it is one of the best shots of The Beatles I have ever seen.
After all the success you achieved in New Zealand, you came over to Australia. Tell us about that.
Yes, I came to Australia in 1959 for the Everly Brothers show. We were only supposed to come for a week, but we went so well that we started getting all these invites to appear on TV. We didn’t know what TV was, as it hadn’t happened in NZ yet.
So the band and I started going on TV shows like Bandstand and 6 o’ Clock Rock and we had all these great offers to work, so we decided to stay in Australia for a little while – and that was 50 odd years ago!
How did you find touring in Australia compared to New Zealand?
I found it incredible! The Australian audiences were much more responsive in their applause and everything. If they really liked you, then they really applauded you.
And what they did with me being an ex-kiwi is they accepted me as one of them, just like they have done with Crowded House, GD Morris and all the other kiwis who have continued to live here. So it was a wonderful thrill, and I am so grateful to the Australian people for providing me with a living for over 50 years; I will always be indebted to Australia for that. I love the country, and I love the people.
Over the past 50 years you’ve released over 40 singles, along with numerous albums and EPs. You are a grandfather now and still performing and recording, so what keeps you so motivated and passionate?
I think it’s just in my blood. I think singing and Rock and Roll is in my blood, and I was born to do it! So as long as the good lord gives me my health, I will continue to do it.
Thank you Johnny.
Johnny will be appearing at a Meet the Stars Breakfast at Port Panthers on Wednesday, June 8 as part of the Wintersun Festival. For more info about his appearance or any of the other Wintersun activities, visit: www.wintersun.org.au