Johnny Devlin was New Zealand’s answer to Elvis Presley. He cut his teeth on the Whanganui music scene. The Devlin family were regular performers at talent quests from the late 1940s. Johnny was still at school when he made his stage solo debut, yodelling in a talent quest at the Wanganui Opera House in 1951.
The Devlin brothers formed the River City Ramblers in 1955. For a year or so they played at youth clubs, local dances and talent quests, performing covers of country numbers and rock ’n’ roll.
The band split up in 1956, about the time Johnny discovered Elvis Presley. For months he did Presley covers around Whanganui and in Palmerston North. Johnny Cooper spotted him in a talent quest in Palmerston North in early 1957 and gave him some hints on voice control – he had dropped the yodelling routine by this stage. The advice must have helped. Devlin won the next talent quest he entered, in Dannevirke, and from there it was up to the throbbing music scene of Auckland.
Devlin’s first performance at Auckland’s Jive Centre electrified the fans. Young women and girls screamed hysterically as he sang and moved across the stage, all hip-wriggling, groin-grinding Presley style. ‘I guess I shook my leg or something and they screamed. Then I shook it again, and they screamed again.’
Hits like ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ came in 1958, when Devlin toured the country to sell-out audiences. At the end of a Christchurch show he drove off in a pink Cadillac. Next to him was Cabinet minister Mabel Howard, decked out in furs. Shrieking girls and women queued outside venues for a look at their idol, but most wanted something of him. He threw bits of his clothes into the audience, and his agents stitched his shirts so that fans could rip them from his back.
In Invercargill, riotous fans tore off his trousers. They also broke into backstage, and Devlin had to escape out a toilet window. In Greymouth, minders turned a fire hose on fans who wouldn’t leave him alone.
Johnny Devlin performing
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