In search of Queensland's first rock 'n' roll band

Four images of a band believed to be The Rocketts, Queensland's first rock 'n' roll band, ca.1957. Stills from 32433 George Vardas films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Among the home movies taken by amateur filmmaker George Vardas during the 1950s lately donated to the State Library of Queensland, there was one undescribed reel of film which had us particularly intrigued. 

Film 10 starts with a performance by a 1950s rock 'n' roll band along with a dance competition at an unknown venue. Though the band was not named, one of the band members held a very distinctive guitar with 'Chuck' emblazoned across the bottom. We decided to reach out on social media, hoping for some clues to help identify the band. We were not disappointed.

After our Facebook post was shared on the group page 'Brisbane rock 'n' roll scene of the 50's and 60's', a couple of users revealed that the band was mostly likely The Rocketts (also spelt as The Rockettes), widely acclaimed to be Queensland's first rock 'n' roll band. Evidence to support this claim was supplied in the form of a photograph of the later group Blue Jeans, a band featuring many of the members of The Rocketts. In the photograph one of the band, Chuck Supplice, is holding a guitar with the word Chuck, matching the guitarist in the footage.

Chuck Supplice from Queensland's first rock 'n' roll band, The Rocketts, ca.1957. Still from 32433 George Vardas films. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Other members of the band shown in the film footage are believed to be pianist Ron Carroll, guitarist Aussie (Oswald) Mengel and Kenny McKercher on vocals. Jimmie Lloyd was the drummer for The Rocketts, however it is unclear whether the drummer featured in the footage is in fact Lloyd. Another member of the band who does not feature in this footage is Billy Penrose, the tenor saxophone player. 

In 1957, The Rocketts performed at a number of suburban venues in Wynnum, Morningside, Cannon Hill and Norman Park. We were unable to find any other extant film footage of The Rocketts in other Australian cultural institutions, making this a particularly exciting discovery.

Pianist Ron Carroll from Queensland's first rock 'n' roll band, The Rocketts, ca.1957. Still from 32433 George Vardas films. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

In 2001, in an interview with Geoff Walden, Rocketts pianist Ron Carroll discussed the formation of the band.

"At quite a young age I was asked to join a rock 'n' roll band in Wynnum. They were rehearsing down near the Wynnum Central Station, at a little hall that the Girl Guides used to have. On guitar and it later turned out to be lead guitar was a chap called Chuck Supplice, on rhythm guitar was Aussie Mengel, our vocalist was Kenny McKercher. I sat with them and we go on all right and we added a drummer, Jimmy Lloyd who was also a Wynnum boy and a tenor sax Billy Penrose, also a Wynnum lad. We named the group The Rocketts. To my knowledge, it was the first live rock band up here in Brisbane. We started to get a few jobs at local RSL clubs around Brisbane and other places and later we reformed and the Blue Jeans were formed."

Aussie Mengel (on rhythm guitar) and Kenny McKerchner (on vocals), ca.1957. Still from 32433 George Vardas films. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

After this discovery was featured on Channel Nine News Brisbane, Melody Bercolli, daughter of Rocketts rhythm guitarist Oswald (Aussie) Mengel, and named by her father after his love of music, contacted us.  “I’d never seen any footage of [my father] performing and I never expected to see any,” said Melody. “There were no cameras around much in those days and being a very young child I was not allowed to go to his shows. I remember his amazing guitar playing and he taught guitar for decades in our garage! He formed a band called The Ranchmen, a modern country rock band, and played many events and clubs. I was very young and I don’t remember a lot. He passed away in 1987.” 

Melody compared the film footage against a framed photograph of her father performing in a band, which she later realised was a photograph of The Rocketts themselves. “It was just lucky when my sister-in-law sent me the link about identifying The Rocketts I looked up at this picture. It wasn’t until I got up to take a photo to send you that I saw the band name on the side! I was blown away! The other picture I have of this has been slightly enlarged & the name is cut off. Just a huge fluke really.” 

Although we've established that the band filmed is The Rocketts we'd love to confirm the identities of all the band members as well as discover the location of the dance venue. 

The George Vardas collection is one of many amateur film collections selected to be digitised and made available online as part of State Library’s Reel Rescue campaign. The majority of films from this collection were undescribed, leaving it to our specialist librarians to carefully identify locations. George himself was a Greek migrant, served in the Australian Army during the Second World War, and worked as a travelling representative for Samios Foods. George’s films would end up in an apartment in Athens following his death and were later returned to family in Queensland before being donated to State Library.

Dancing competition caught on film by George Vardas. The band providing the music is believed to be Queensland's first rock 'n' roll band, The Rocketts, ca.1957. Still from 32433 George Vardas films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Watch the full footage of The Rocketts dance from the George Vardas films collection (0:00 to 2:44).

Further information on Brisbane's early rock 'n' roll scene


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