Billy Thorpe, singer, songwriter, guitarist and one of the most influential figures in the Aussie rock scene, died in Sydney on Feb. 28 of a heart attack. He was 60.
Thorpe was born in England but migrated with his family to Oz in the 1950s where he started performing in bands from the age of 10. In the 1960s, he came to prominence as a teen idol with hits such as a cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which bowed at No. 1 on the charts in 1964. Later that year he formed a band that would define his style and change Australian music.
Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs helped propel the young singer-songwriter to fame as the country’s biggest pop act, winning every kudo the Oz music industry had to offer. Thorpe even got his own television show, “It’s All Happening,” on Seven Network, that showcased the Aztecs as the house band.
The Aztecs’ first major hit was their cover version of “Poison Ivy,” which was best known for knocking the Beatles from the top of the charts in 1964 — they also drew bigger live crowds than the Fab Four Down Under — but by 1968 it was all over and the band split.
Influenced by Australian guitar legend Lobby Loyde, Thorpe reformed the Aztecs soon after with Loyde on lead guitar but it was with a new sound. Out went the band’s pop past — Thorpe now played down-and-dirty blues-based rock, a style that would come to define Australian pub rock throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s and influenced internationally successful bands such as Midnight Oil.
Known for their high energy live sets and loud performance — legend has it one gig smashed the windows of nearby houses — the band’s peak came with performances at the Sunbury music festival in 1972-73, which spawned the hit album “Aztecs Live! At Sunbury.” The album bowed the song “Most People I Know (Think That I’m Crazy),” which turned out to be Thorpe’s signature tune and an enduring rock classic, though it only reached No. 3 at the time.
In November 1973 the Aztecs were the first rock band to perform at the Sydney Opera House.
At the height of their fame in 1976, Thorpe moved to Los Angeles where he worked as a session musician and produced a rock opera “Children of the Sun,” which reached top 20 in the American charts. He released three more albums in the States before a career shift that saw him establish a recording studio in L.A., where he scored soundtracks for skeins such as “Columbo,” “Star Trek” and laffer “Eight Is Enough.”
Thorpe’s popularity endured back home and in 1991 he was inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Assn. Hall of Fame. The same year he also joined forces with Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist Kenny Gradney from Little Feat to form a band called the Zoo.
Thorpe remained a passionate supporter, and critic, of Australia’s live music scene, which has faded in recent times. In 2002, he launched a hugely successful national tour featuring some of the biggest names in Australian music of the previous three decades, based on an ABC docu about the industry called “It’s a Long Way to the Top.” Tour played stadiums and sellout crowds. It was the first time that Thorpe had played with the original Aztecs in 30 years and he continued touring solo until his death.
Thorpe is survived by his wife, Lynne, and two daughters.