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Jim Keays

Rock musician

Rock musician

Born: September 9, 1946; Died: June 13, 2014.

JIM Keays, who has died aged 67, was a Glasgow-born orphan who became one of Australia's most popular rock musicians in his band The Masters Apprentices, oft-described as The Rolling Stones of Australia. They went on to have a worldwide cult following.

Their best-known song It's Because I Love You, which Keays co-wrote, remains a much-played classic on radio stations around the world to this day, with its chorus "Do what you wanna do, be what you wanna be, yeah."

It was recorded at the famous Abbey Road studios in London, where Paul McCartney reportedly but anonymously added a few Hofner bass licks to some of the tracks on the album Choice Cuts.

The band's other famous hits included Turn Up Your Radio, Living In A Child's Dream, Elevator Driver, 5-10 Man, Undecided and Wars Or Hands Of Time, probably Australia's first anti-Vietnam song.

Writing about the latter two songs, which were on the band's first demo, music critics wrote: "One of those rare moments where raw, youthful vigour was somehow delivered to vinyl with the ferocity of a bombing raid ... They give a new antipodean dimension to teen dream fantasy."

At their peak, Keays and the band played free to 50,000 in Hyde Park, Sydney; unfortunately, once you reach a peak there are not many vertical directions to choose from.

Although, like young musicians around the world, The Masters Apprentices were influenced by The Beatles, the comparison with the Stones was more apt, especially in the case of Keays. He was the "bad boy" of Aussie rock, the guy parents did not want their daughters to go and hear, never mind date. Slinky and sensual, he was often compared with The Doors' Jim Morrison. The Masters Apprentices didn't invent Sex, Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll but they certainly procreated it Down Under. For a while, they were seen as a moral threat to the youth of Australia.

As a band, they fell apart at the seams more than once but regrouped with various new line-ups. Keays managed to hold on, later recording solo albums and performing as a later version of The Masters Apprentices with younger personnel. His last gig, at the Crown casino in Melbourne, was three weeks before he died. He felt unwell after the concert and was taken to hospital.

James Keays was a post-war boom baby, born in Glasgow on September 9, 1946, to an unwed mother who put him up for adoption when he was six months old. He was adopted by a childless Clydebank couple, James Keays, originally from Belfast, and his wife Jessie, whose maiden name was Caldwell.

Seeking a better life for themselves and their child, they decided, in the words of the folk song, to be "bound for South Australia". They sailed from Southampton on September 5, 1951, on board RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Asturias, four days before young James's fifth birthday, and settled in Beaumont, a suburb of Adelaide.

There, he attended Burnside Primary School and Norwood High, playing Australian Rules football as well as his dad's passion, golf. He was 11 when a school pal played him two songs that changed his life: Rip It Up by Little Richard and Great Balls Of Fire by Jerry Lee Lewis.

While he was training as a commercial artist on leaving school, The Beatles stormed through Australia in 1964 and that convinced him to join an instrumental band called The Mustangs. They based their style on Britain's The Shadows but Keays persuaded them to let him add a few vocals. "Our first gig was above a fish and chip shop in Glenelg," he said in an interview, referring to the beachfront Adelaide suburb named after British Lord Glenelg of Glenelg in the county of Inverness. Keays always liked to note that Glenelg is a palindrome, spelt the same backwards.

"We were digging out all the Elmore James and Muddy Waters albums and initially did our interpretations of their songs, just as the Stones and The Pretty Things were doing." He said the band considered the old bluesmen the masters, so they decided to call themselves The Masters Apprentices (deliberately leaving out any apostrophes).

The name was a bit out of synch with the times but it caught on and they soon developed a cult following in Australia and, once their tracks got released, far beyond. One of their greatest gifts was rhythm guitarist Mick Bower, a born songwriter who wrote Living In A Child's Dream and War Or The Hands Of Time, the latter widely seen as the inspiration (to use a euphemism) for Pete Doherty and The Libertines song Last Post On The Bugle.

After Bower suffered a nervous breakdown, Keays went on to form another songwriting bond with guitarist Doug Ford (formerly of the Sydney band The Missing Links) and together they would record It's Because I Love You and its memorable chorus, part of their first UK-recorded album Choice Cuts in 1970, with Paul McCartney popping in now and then at the Apple Studios.

Wearing fur coats, wrap-around scarves, satin or silk shirts and psychedelic trousers, "we sailed to England, on board the steamship Fairsky from Melbourne, on our own money," Keays recalled. "In fact, we played on board to help pay for the recording session.

"I didn't tell Paul McCartney but there were thousands of fans at the Melbourne quay to wave us off. After we recorded Choice Cuts, we ran out of money and went home. It turned out EMI released the album to rave reviews but we weren't in the UK to promote it."

He recorded his first solo album, The Boy From The Stars, in Melbourne in 1974 but lack of funds meant he could not give it the necessary promotion on tour. He continued to tour with various new bands featuring his name, until: "I call it the Black Hole," he said years later. "From the late '70s to the late '80s, there was a black hole for people like myself and everybody fell into it. Everybody that had done something prior to that were labelled boring old farts and invalids from then on in."

Keays eventually got out of the "black hole," partly through solo albums or reunion concerts with the remnants or reincarnations of The Masters Apprentices. In 2007, he appeared at a concert in memory of one of Australia's other great rockers, Billy Thorpe (of the Aztecs), one of the world's finest rock guitarists, white or black, northern hemisphere or southern. Keays was putting finishing touches to a new, as-yet unnamed album due out in August as a follow-up to Dirty Dirty, when he died.

Upon Keays' death, one of his former bandmates, Glenn Wheatley, now a senior figure in the Australian music industry, said: "Jim had an aura about him; you always knew when he was in the room. Always the master, never the apprentice. Do what you wanna do, be what you wanna be, Jim."

Jim Keays died in Melbourne from pneumonia following complications from multiple myeloma, from which he had suffered for seven years. He had been on a life-support machine for several days. It was while on holiday to visit blood relatives in Scotland in 2007 that he was first diagnosed with the rare form of cancer of the bone marrow. During the last seven years, he became an ardent advocate of cancer research, playing numerous concerts for cancer charities.

His birth mother from Glasgow had re-established contact with him 30 years ago.

His adoptive parents predeceased him. He is survived by his wife Karin, son James and daughters Holly and Bonnie.

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