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John Burgess is the face and the voice that’s helped make Australian television and radio history – that alone makes him a survivor in one of the toughest and longest games of all – showbiz! Affectionately known as “Baby” John Burgess, he’s this country’s longest serving TV game show host. His name is, and always will be, synonymous with “Wheel of Fortune” and “Catch Phrase”.
As a celebrity he’s been on the inside of TV wars, crazed fans, stars, fame, fortune and scandal yet this year John Burgess marks a milestone – 50 years on-air.
It’s an achievement few in the entertainment industry will ever celebrate.
The late media mogul Kerry Packer fought to win him from Seven. Radio legend, John Laws, discovered him, and at the peak of his career “Baby” John Burgess was earning more than the Prime Minister of Australia.
The story behind how this one-time, would-be tennis pro turned professional bowler became a household name is as fascinating as what happened once he hit the big time.
For half a century now we’ve watched and listened to the man we know as “Burgo”, his familiar voice and face still on our stereos and TV screens.
A recent guest appearance on the Today show and his fans hit Twitter and Facebook demanding more and when he’s not in the media he’s behind the microphone hosting events across the country. He loves it and so does the audience. Walk along any street or accompany him to any event and people of all ages, young and old, stop to ask for photos and autographs.
But long before John Burgess soared to television stardom, he was king of the airwaves on radio. In the 70s and 80s he was the envy of radio announcers across the country with show after show hitting number one.
Fans were in awe. Burgo had the biggest name stars:
“The Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison, The Who, Manfred Mann, Peter Paul and Mary, Tony Bennett, The Monkeys, Tom Jones, and of course lots of Aussie stars as well Johnny O’Keefe, The Seekers, Billy Thorpe, Normie Rowe, The Bee Gees … the list goes on.”
It was nothing he had ever aspired to but fame always found him.
Burgo was discovered while working as a professional bowler at a ten pin bowling alley in Sydney in 1959. Radio legend, John Laws had heard him speak and knew he had talent.
“I was standing talking to the girl behind the counter at a bowling centre as you do.”
He says John Laws told the girl “he’s got a good voice, he should be in radio.”
He taught “Lawsie”, the man who would go on to own the golden microphone, to bowl and John Laws taught him the inner workings of radio.
“I would go to radio station 2GB and watch John Laws do his things, Lawsie helped me in the art of presentation, reading commercials, and researching music.”
“I met people who would eventually become part my life. Johnny O’Keefe, Brian Henderson, Col Joye, Digger Revell and Jay Justin to name a few.”
In 1965, at John Laws’ insistence, Burgo auditioned for his first radio job as a fill-in announcer on 2UW. He was breaking the mould even back then by getting the job and becoming the first disc jockey to get a gig in a major market without previous experience.
Burgo became big news and it was at 2UW that he was given the nickname “Baby John”. It stuck.
He shone working alongside the biggest stars of the music world – The Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison, The Who, Tony Bennett, The Monkeys, Tom Jones, The Bee Gees, Johnny O’Keefe, the list goes on.
It was his star factor that won him his first break in television. Few realise but John Burgess was the “Molly Meldrum” of Australia long before Countdown hit the ABC.
“My first national television show on Channel 7 in 1968 called “Turning On” showcased Australian groups and music and was a forerunner to what Molly Meldrum would come up with later.”
It was Grundy Television’s Wheel of Fortune that made “Baby” John a household name.
For 12 years he and glamourous side-kick, Adriana Xenides, spun the wheel on Channel 7 but the real game playing of network executives would see him replaced by game show host rival, Tony Barber, of “Sale of the Century” fame.
It was a losing shot fired in a TV network war. The audience didn’t like losing Burgo and in the end neither did Seven with executives having a change of heart thinking money would win him back – a tactic that failed.
“By November that year (1996), they realised that they’d made a rather disastrous mistake and they offered me a lot of money to go back to do Wheel of Fortune again.”
But Burgo had Nine’s Kerry Packer on his side and soon Burgo was in Nine’s stable of stars and hosting a new show called “Catch Phrase”.
For seven years he was the quizmaster again, and with the renewed fame came naming rights – the show rebranded “Burgo’s Catch Phrase”.
That name, that face and that voice that John Laws discovered 50 years ago is still in the game and playing to win.