The story of the lifelong career of Jim Keays cannot be told without including the Masters Apprentices. Singer, songwriter, creative driving force and charismatic front man, Jim was the face and voice of Masters Apprentices and the only original band member who remained until 1972. With nine Top Ten hits between 1966-1972, the band existed for only six years in its evolving incarnations before the final, classic line-up disbanded in England. Jim then embarked on his solo career which continued until his death in 2014.
Like many of their contemporaries, the Masters Apprentices may well have been forgotten as music moved on into the following decades. Along with so many other bands who had hits in the 1960s and early 1970s, the band could easily have faded into musical obscurity, a relic of a bygone era, of interest only to record collectors and music history buffs. But Jim was determined to ensure that did not happen.
While forging his solo career – a formidable body of work in his own right – Jim simultaneously built the name of Masters Apprentices into a prestigious brand from 1965 onwards. Maintaining a lifelong professional career as an artist in the music industry is notoriously difficult, requiring sacrifice and dedication along with creative talent, to stay the course beyond the first heady flush of chart success. Jim worked tirelessly to ensure that the music of the Masters Apprentices was never forgotten. To this day, it is a legacy that continues to endure.
Jim Keays was born in Glasgow, Scotland on September 9, 1946. In 1950, the Keays family emigrated to Australia and settled in Adelaide. An only child, Jim had fond memories of social gatherings with extended family and friends. More often than not, everyone would end up singing around the piano and Jim grew up with music and singing as an integral part of his life.
At school, Jim enjoyed sport – playing Australian rules for Norwood Colts junior side – but knew from an early age that his passion in life was rock and roll music. He was driven with a single-minded determination to be in a rock band.
In 1965, Jim joined The Mustangs (a pre-Beatles instrumental outfit) as lead singer.
Jim’s influence prompted them to update their appearance and sound (and a change of name in early 1966) to the Masters Apprentices. The band quickly rose to prominence in their Adelaide hometown before settling permanently in Melbourne.
The Masters Apprentices blasted on to the national music scene with their first single, the garage punk classic, Undecided. A string of hits followed including Australian Song of the Year in 1967, Living in a Child’s Dream. But the band leader and primary songwriter Mick Bower retired that same year. In 1968, the band rode the psychedelic summer of love with more hits including Elevator Driver, which was written for them by Brian Cadd, and won Most Original Group in Go-Set Pop Poll.
Throughout this period, original band members fell away and were replaced at various points until Jim was the only original member.
The year 1968 saw major line-up changes with Doug Ford, Colin Burgess and Glenn Wheatley joining Jim as the band was reborn. So began one of the all-time great song writing partnerships of Ford/Keays, and the most recognisable and successful four-piece line up of the Masters Apprentices – this was the famed classic line up.
From there, the only way was up and, in 1969, the band drew 200,000 fans to Myer Music Bowl at height of their phenomenal resurgence to national fame. The song 5.10 Man, began a remarkable run of top 20 hits with Think About Tomorrow Today topping the Australian charts.
The hits continued with the Masters Apprentices voted Most Popular Band in 1970. After releasing the No.1 single, Turn Up You Radio, the band left for London and spent two years recording two masterful albums at the famous Abbey Road Studios.
Because I Love You and the album from which it came, Choice Cuts, became instant classics back home but it was the band’s swan song. The second album recorded back at Abbey Road was a prog rock opus titled A Toast To Panama Red, which was released by EMI but the band dissolved in early 1972, penniless and unfulfilled.
Jim returned to Adelaide joining Go-Set magazine as a music writer.
In 1973, Jim was chosen to star in the stage hit Tommy alongside Keith Moon from The Who, and the cream of Australian talent at the time.
During this period, Jim wrote, recorded and produced his first solo album, and Australia’s first concept album, The Boy From the Stars which was released by EMI in 1974.
The elaborate live stage version of The Boy From the Stars was a surprise hit at the last Sunbury rock festival in January 1975 featuring a supergroup of 14 players including Marcia Hines, Glenn Shorrock, Ross Wilson, Lobby Lloyd, Phil Manning, members of Ayers Rock, Chain and other headline acts.
As busy as he was with his solo success, in that same year Jim compiled the Masters Apprentices album, Now That It’s Over.
Jim continued to tour, fronting several incarnations of the Jim Keays Band throughout the 1970s and early 1980s including a memorable appearance at The Concert of The Decade on the steps of Sydney Opera House at the end of 1979.
Jim’s second solo album, Red On The Meter, was released in 1982.
In 1987, Jim signed to Virgin Records and was sent to the UK to record two singles at Pink Floyd’s, Britannia Row Studios.
Jim then orchestrated and brought to fruition a highly successful reformation of the Masters Apprentices that saw them tour three times for two years from 1988. These were hugely successful, and the band had renewed chart success with a new recording of Because I Love You which entered the national Top 10. The song also featured on a long-running advertising campaign for Lee Jeans.
In 1994, Jim’s third solo album Pressure Makes Diamonds was released to critical acclaim.
With the approach of the band’s 30th Anniversary in 1995, Jim approached EMI with his idea for a commemorative album release. Every detail of the resulting CD package was conceived from Jim’s vision, down to the cover image of a Masters Apprentices 1965 medal, adapted from a war service medal and ribbon that were Keays family heirlooms.
To commemorate the 30th Anniversary, the Masters recorded a single with the Hoodoo Gurus. This version of Turn Up Your Radio kept the Masters in touch with yet another generation, further revealing their influence on modern music.
In 1998, the Masters Apprentices hit song Turn Up Your Radio featured on a postage stamp honouring classic Australian rock songs, the first set of rock ’n’ roll stamps in the world.
Also that year, the classic Masters Apprentices line up of Jim Keays, Glenn Wheatley, Colin Burgess and Doug Ford were inducted into the Aria Hall of Fame, officially confirming their much-deserved legendary status.
Jim’s biography, His Master’s Voice, was released in 1999. The book went to No.1 in Adelaide and, along with Billy Thorpe’s book Sex, Thugs – Rock & Roll and Glenn Wheatley’s Paper Paradise, it rates as one of the finest written by an Australian rock star.
Jim joined Darryl Cotton and Russell Morris as the endlessly popular Cotton Keays & Morris. The three megastars cemented themselves as one of the most popular live acts in the country with sell-out shows booked months ahead.
A music documentary on the ABC – Long Way To The Top – proved a huge success and renewed interest in Australian rock music history. This spawned probably the singularly most successful Australian live concert tour of all time. The Masters Apprentices were one of the stars on the Long way To The Top concert tour through its capital city run in 2002 and then regional series of concerts the following year.
In 2006 Jim was executive producer of Fully Qualified, an acclaimed documentary charting the history of the Masters Apprentices with rare footage and insightful interviews. A new best-of CD, also titled Fully Qualified, accompanied this release which featured newly discovered early originals by the band.
In that same year, Jim’s fourth solo album was released through Liberation Blue, an acoustic CD titled Resonator. Its cover artwork featured watercolours painted by Jim, with a painting of his Dobro guitar on the front and a self-portrait on the back. A true artist in every sense, Jim’s depth of talent extended to drawing and painting with watercolour being his preferred medium.
In 2007, Jim was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer. Despite the devastating prognosis, Jim’s lifelong passion and love of music underpinned by his indomitable will and determination saw him continue to tour with Cotton Keays & Morris as well as Masters Apprentices.
Jim Keays passed away on 13th June, 2014. Age Against The Machine, was released a year later.
In 2016, a selection of Jim’s paintings was exhibited for the first time ever at Hawthorn Studio and Gallery and can be viewed at https://www.karinkeays.com/artwork/