The first great star of the rock and roll era in New Zealand, Johnny Devlin was only 20 when his version of Elvis Presley’s rendition of an obscure Lloyd Price song, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, screamed to the top of our charts in 1958. It was the screaming of the girls that convinced his manager that the Wanganui-raised singer, whose entire set was then based on material performed by Elvis, had what it takes.
The guardians of our nation’s taste weren’t so sure: no major labels would record or release him, and radio stations wouldn’t play him. Despite this, the cheaply-recorded song shot to the top spot on the charts, and a star was born. During the next year, he released 11 hit singles and toured the nation, exciting provincial towns with his raw charisma and style, and in May 1959, Australia beckoned. There, he easily slotted into the burgeoning rock and roll scene, supporting the Everly Brothers on tour, becoming a regular on TV pop shows and appearing in a documentary filmed at the Sydney Stadium.
In an era when acts often saw brief lifespans, Devlin reshaped himself as a songwriter, producer and smart businessman. He was soon charting in Australia with self-penned songs like “Koala Bear”, writing hits for other pop acts, and astutely forming his own publishing company. He would shape his own music to the times, echoing the sound of Cliff Richard & The Shadows or the sunswept sounds of the surf movement, and would soon move into band management and label A&R (artist and repertoire) for the newly formed RCA.
With his unique place in NZ and Australian music history, it’s no surprise that Devlin’s importance has been justly noted by awards and commendations, including a Legacy Award at the New Zealand Music Awards, and a New Zealand Order Of Merit in 2008.