Vale Jim Keays: 1946-2014

13 June 2014 | 4:24 pm | Michael Smith

The Music's Michael Smith pays tribute to The Masters Apprentices legend

“Jim had an aura about him; you always knew when he was in the room,” is how the best remembered of the bass players that passed through the ranks of The Masters Apprentices, Glenn Wheatley, recalled singer-songwriter and the one constant throughout the entire Masters' existence, Jim Keays, who succumbed, at 10.30am, Friday 13 June, to pneumonia from complications resulting from a seven-year battle with multiple myeloma cancer. Keays was 67.

Anyone growing up in Adelaide, as I did, in the late '60s/early '70s was aware of The Masters Apprentices, a band that had formed when the ambitious young dandy, born in Glasgow and arriving in South Australia in 1951 at the age of six with his adoptive parents, auditioned for an instrumental band called The Mustangs, not long after The Beatles had stormed through Australia in June 1964.

“The first gig was on top of a fish and chip shop in Glenelg,” Keays remembered, “so my first gig was to watch them for five sets and on the last set get up and sing with them for three songs, since they were a instrumental band. I never was actually asked to join the band – it was 'Come along next Thursday, come along next Tuesday.' Eventually over a period of time I joined the band. I was the rebel in there, but over time they changed. The beauty of all this is they adapted very well to becoming a new Beat band.”

Along with the “new Beat music” came an unerring sense of style, something that would always set the Masters and Keays in particular apart from the multitude of other bands springing up everywhere in the wake of The Beatles.

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“When I joined the band they really couldn't be fussed too much about what they looked like or any of that stuff,” Keays admitted, “where I was very, very particular about how we looked and our whole visual image. And it was those kids in Elizabeth [20k north of Adelaide] that really did the trick for us because they were at the cutting edge of fashion because many of them had been in, say, London a matter of only weeks before, so they knew what was going on.”

Those kids also knew their music and it was the music, of course, that really mattered, and the five-piece were serious young musical insects.

“We were digging out all the old Elmore James and Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed, all those old blues guys' albums and initially did our interpretations of their songs, just as the Stones and The Pretty Things were doing. And then later on we took a leaf out of their book and modelled our own songs on that sort of approach.”

They saw the old blues guys as the masters, so they became The Masters Apprentices. Unlike a lot of bands of this period though, they were also lucky in having a truly gifted songwriter in guitarist Mick Bower, and it was he that gave the group their first rash of hits in debut single, December 1966's Undecided, and its now iconic B-side War, Or Hands Of Time, May 1967's Buried And Dead and October's Living In A Child's Dream.

“Astor Records wrote us this letter,” Keays remembered. “'Listen boys, we've heard about your band – how about going into the studio and record four tracks and we will see what we think?' We really worked hard on how we could make it different; we really worked on that. So we recorded the songs, sent them over to Melbourne and never heard any more of it. Then one night I'm at a drive-in with my girlfriend and at the interval I switch on the radio and on comes Undecided, on the radio, that we'd recorded as a demo. I could not believe it! It was the shock of my life. Astor just released it and it became a number one record around the country, then a second single, a Top Ten hit, then another hit, then another hit.”

Within months, the Masters were the biggest band in Adelaide, relocated to Melbourne and got even bigger, playing up to five gigs a night, four and five nights a week and spawning scenes equal to anything The Beatles had experienced. And they started coming apart at the seams.

“Some people were too sensitive for that sort of existence,” Keays explained, “and one by one the guys dropped out due to health and the strain of touring – they had nervous breakdowns! I don't know how I got through that period. I must have a thick skin or something. In the end I was the only one that was an original member.”

The greatest loss of course was Mick Bower, but on drafting guitarist Doug Ford, who'd been in The Missing Links up in Sydney, Keays found a songwriting partner that propelled the new lineup, completed by Wheatley and drummer Colin Burgess, to even greater heights. The Ford/Keays partnership produced the hits still heard on classic radio – Turn Up Your Radio, 5:10 Man, Think About Tomorrow Today and Because I Love You – the latter recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London. By the time The Masters Apprentices boarded the Fairsky in Melbourne in May 1970, seen off by a few thousand adoring fans, the band had also set up its own booking agency, The Drum Organisation, run by Wheatley and the band's roadie.

“What happened,” Keays recalled, “we went to England on our own money – we saved it up with our own company, no help from EMI, played our way on the ship to get there. We recorded the album, Choice Cuts, at Abbey Road, ran out of money in England, went back to Australia to do another tour to raise money to go back to England to live. In the meantime, EMI releases the album in England to rave reviews, but we weren't in England to tour or to promote it. We get phone calls – 'Get back, your album is getting rave reviews,' so we get on a boat, get to England seven weeks later and by the time we got there, it had all faded.”

The band, essentially starving in a collective house, managed to cut one last album, A Toast To Panama Red, and fell apart, Wheatley heading off into artist management and Keays returning to Australia, while Ford and Burgess soldiered on briefly as a three-piece with Burgess' brother, Denny, coming in on bass and vocals. Keays, meanwhile thought he'd try coming up with something as far from the Masters as possible. The result was his debut solo album, 1974's The Boy From The Stars. While it reached #13 in the Melbourne charts, Keays only ever performed it three times, the music and staging too complex to present without a significant investment.

Next came Jim Keays' Southern Stars, The Manning/Keays Band and The Jim Keays Band. Then, for a while, nothing.  “I call it the black hole,” Keays admitted, “but there was a period in time, from late '78 through to '87, round the decade, that was a black hole for people like myself, and everybody fell into it – Farnham was in it, Braithwaite, everybody that had done something prior that were labelled boring old farts and invalid from then on in.”

A cover of '60s hit, Psychotic Reaction, got Keays out of that “black hole” in July 1987, its success prompting a deal from Virgin Records, so he got the “classic” Masters back together, minus Wheatley, to record and tour a new album, Do What You Wanna Do. Reuniting with Doug Ford saw a new round of songwriting, but the reunion only lasted another year, so those some of those songs ended up on Keays' next solo album, 1993's Pressure Makes Diamonds. Keays and Ford guested on a 1996 remake of Turn Up Your Radio by The Hoodoo Gurus. The Masters were inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 1998.

The Keays/Ford/Wheatley/Burgess Masters reconvened once again in August/September 2002 to take part in the national Long Way To The Top tour, though Wheatley's son sat in for his father for most of the dates. Keays revisited much of the Masters catalogue again for his contribution to the Liberation Acoustic Blues series of CDs, Resonator, released in October 2006, by which time he'd been in a trio with Darryl Cotton and Russell Morris a half-dozen years. He also continued to perform solo and as The Masters Apprentices, though with only drummer Colin Burgess sitting in on occasion. In fact, it was as The Masters Apprentices that he was approached in 2010 by then Aztec Music's resident producer, Ted Lothborg, to record what turned out to be his final album, 2012's Dirty Dirty.

“I didn't expect to get it recorded let alone get a record deal,” Keays admitted. “Ted drove the whole project really. I wanted young guys, guys that just had that little bit of naivety about them. But also they had a passion for the project; they weren't just sidemen – we were like a real band, it was just great to see, to get that energy. But I was mindful of making all these songs my own rather than karaoke versions, you know?”

Keays had been lucky. While on holiday back in the UK in July 2007, he'd collapsed and hospitalised, diagnosed with a rare form of cancer of the bone marrow. Recovering, he'd become an ardent advocate for cancer research, mounting several fundraising concerts.

Once again, Wheatley puts it best – “Always the Master, never the Apprentice.”

(Original quotes compiled from interviews undertaken by Michael Smith over the past dozen or so years)