Born Thomas William Hicks, 17 December 1936, Bermondsey, South London, England.
Tommy Steele was Britain's first home-grown rock n roll idol. Though his contribution to rock n roll was brief and hardly significant, he provoked mass teenage hysteria in 1956-57 and opened the doors for other British rockers like Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde. From the beginning, Steele aimed at a career not just as a rock n roller, but as a more diversified entertainer.
Born into a working-class family, Thomas Hicks was the second of seven children. While serving in the Merchant Navy (1952-1956), young Tommy learned to play the guitar and began singing and performing for his fellow merchant seamen. Whenever he was ashore in the United States, he listened to as much music as he could find. During the spring of 1956, Hicks met Lionel Bart and Mike Pratt, two songwriters / performers who took an interest in this new rock n roll music that was coming over from America. The three men formed a skiffle trio, the Cavemen, when Hicks was on shore leave in London in the summer of 1956. They began playing in coffee bars in London's Soho, like the 2 I's, where they were discovered by entrepreneur John Kennedy. He convinced impresario Larry Parnes that the group, and Hicks in particular, had commercial potential. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't Parnes who came up with the name change to Tommy Steele ; it was Hicks's own idea. Parnes gave Steele a big publicity buildup and got him signed to Decca Records. On September 25, 1956, Steele was rushed into the Decca studio to record the Steele / Bart / Pratt composition "Rock With the Caveman" (and its flipside, "Rock Around the Town"). Several notable British jazz men (saxophonist Ronnie Scott among them) were on hand to supply the backing, billed as "the Steelmen". The result was released just three days later. It wasn't until Steele performed "Rock With the Caveman" on television (on Jack Payne's "Off the Record" show, October 15) that the record took off, peaking at # 13 in November. Only a month later, Steele was voted one of the top 10 male British singers in a New Musical Express poll, and on his first major tour he found himself greeted by hoards of screaming fans. His second single, "Elevator Rock"/ "Doomsday Rock", strangely failed to chart, but the third one became his first (and only) number one on the UK charts. On January 11, 1957, Steele's "Singing the Blues" bumped the far superior Guy Mitchell version from the top spot (Mitchell would return to # 1 the next week). Though Steele's brand of rock and roll was closer to the British music hall tradition than to rock's American blues and country roots, he more than made up for it with his personality. Larry Parnes, his manager, once said "Tommy Steele was the greatest entertainer that I ever had on my books" and Steele's rise as a teenage star was probably attributable to charisma rather than sex appeal.
Production of the movie "The Tommy Steele Story" began in February 1957. Shot in less than three weeks, it was in the theaters in May, just in time to herald his second major UK tour, on which he was billed with the American R&R group Freddie Bell and the Bellboys.
Everything associated with Steele seemed poised for success. He continued to record some rock n roll, including covers of Ritchie Valens's "Come On Let's Go" (# 10, produced by Joe Meek) and Freddy Cannon's "Tallahassee Lassie" (# 16, summer 1959), but increasingly, his output consisted of pop- styled numbers, including show tunes. By mid-1958, Cliff Richard and his backing group the Shadows had ushered in a new wave of British rock and roll with "Move It", which sounded more authentic than Steele's contrived version of the Big Beat. The 1950s ended with the novelty "Little White Bull" (a perennial children's favourite, from the film "Tommy and the Toreador") and marked Steele's farewell to rock n roll. He became pop's initial genuine 'all round entertainer', as films, pantomime, stage musicals, Royal Variety invitations, his own television show et al. occupied the singer's waking hours. The vaudeville number "What A Mouth" (1960) was his last Top 10 hit (# 5) and his cover of Adam Wade's biggest hit, "The Writing On the Wall", was his chart swan song (# 30, 1961).
In the 1960s Steele switched to acting, both on the stage and in films. By 1963 he was a sensation on the London stage in the musical "Half A Sixpence" and he followed this with a hit run on Broadway in the same play two years later. Steele recreated the role in the 1967 film version. He had successfully reinvented himself as a family entertainer and continued in this role for more than three decades, with great success. Most of Tommy's later recorded work concerned his stage and film musicals, which included (apart from "Half A Sixpence") "Finian's Rainbow", "The Happiest Millionnaire" and "Hans Andersen", for which Steele received an award from the Danish government in 1993. An even more important award, the OBE (Order of the British Empire) had been received in 1979, for services to the theatre. Now aged 76, Tommy Steele OBE is still quite active today.
More info : http://www.allmusic.com/artist/tommy-steele-mn0000515856 Official website : http://www.tommysteeleinternationalfanclub.com/ (with discography).
Book : His autobiography is called "Bermondsey Boy : Memories Of A Forgotten World" (London : Michael Joseph, 2006). 320 pages.
Acknowledgements : Bruce Eder (All Music Guide), John Tracy, the official website.
Dik, August 2013
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