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Johnny Devlin

Johnny Devlin was New Zealand's first true superstar of the rock & roll era, a teen idol whose national fame and revolutionary impact made him a Kiwi counterpart to Elvis Presley. Born May 11, 1938 in the small town of Raetihi, Devlin was raised in nearby Wanganui, where in 1951 he made his solo performing debut yodeling at the local opera house. After graduating high school, he spent two years as a bank clerk, occasionally playing country & western music with his brothers in a band called the River City Ramblers. Then, in mid-1956, Devlin heard Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel"; overnight he became obsessed with rock & roll, snatching up Presley singles and performing Elvis songs on the amateur talent quest circuit. Complete with ducktail, loud suits, and hepcat lingo, he assimilated himself completely in the culture portrayed in American teen movies of the era, earning something of a reputation as the town eccentric. Although Devlin regularly appeared in talent contests, he at first enjoyed little success, but in early 1957, he was spotted by Johnny Cooper, who had cut the first-ever New Zealand rock record, a cover of Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock," two years prior. Cooper became Devlin's mentor, and his career surged, he regularly won top honors at talent shows and played to increasingly enthusiastic crowds. After settling into a regular gig at Auckland's Jive Centre, Devlin's fame grew, and his nightly sets of dead-on Presley imitations were the stuff of massive teen hysteria; finally, in mid-1958, he recorded his debut single, "Lawdy Miss Clawdy." It was a massive hit, selling over 2000 copies in Auckland alone during its first month of release on its way to passing the unprecedented five-figure mark; trumpeted in the press as "New Zealand's Elvis Presley," Devlin was a true phenomenon, mobbed by fans wherever he went. Between November 1958 and May 1959, Devlin's label Prestige released some eight singles, three EPs, and an LP, amounting to total sales of over 200,000 copies; with his backing band the Devils in tow, he toured the country, playing everywhere to capacity crowds. However, more conservative quarters were outraged over the hysteria and destruction left in Devlin's wake, and as more and more theater managers became wary of booking the band, his career began to slip. For his part, Devlin was becoming increasingly disillusioned, with backstage bickering and record-label trickery leaving him more and more disgusted by fame; in May 1959,he and the Devils toured Australia as part of a package tour including the Everly Brothers and Tab Hunter, and by the time they returned home, the ballyhoo had died down. Still, Devlin remains the benchmark by which all New Zealand phenoms are judged; no one was ever bigger among Kiwi teens except the Beatles, whose opening act during their 1964 NZ tour was none other than Johnny Devlin himself. ~ Jason Ankeny
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