You made a record with your tongue firmly in your cheek, ‘Hit Record’, which was a cover of a Brook Benton song.
That was what I felt about the recording industry, and it really appealed to me. I was never part of the recording business, although I made records. I didn’t feel that I could up with the goods that a record company expects. Your job doesn’t finish with finding a song, doing the arrangement and making a record – your job begins after that in earnest when you do television shows and all you possibly can to publicise the record. That is not what I wanted to do with my career, so I would go into the studio, make the record and leave it to them, but that is not what hit records are about.
I love the bit on The Tommy Stage Show where you do What Is This Thing Called Love and you say you forgot the words in the first house.
Yes, but if you listen very carefully, someone shouts out, ‘Oh no, you never forget your words.’
Did you enjoy touring?
Up to a point. Everybody that goes on tour, especially on one-night stands complains that the itinerary has not been planned by any geographical genius. It was more like bingo – the manager would just pull the towns out of the hat. I’ve done Norfolk and then Ayr the next night. Anyone who tries to get anywhere from Norfolk is in trouble, but Ayr, wow.
You went to South Africa quite early on.
Yes, and I did record ‘Nairobi’, to remind people of me while I was away. Bob Merrill wrote that and he later wrote ‘People’ for Barbra Streisand. Given the choice, I wish he’d woken that morning and written ‘People’, but I did like ‘Nairobi’. I put the whistle in it and I remember the drum solo and I love the girls’ voices and the rhythm – (sings) boom-a-tum-a-tum, boom-a-tum-a tum, it’s great.
And how was South Africa? Were you taking a political stand?
Yes, it was still segregated and I said that for every white concert, I would do one for a black audience, and they didn’t argue about it. However, the white shows were boycotted because I was doing the black ones and because they thought I was bringing over decadence. The first 12 rows of the first performance I did in Cape Town were full of doctors, schoolteachers and professional men, all in suits with red carnations with their arms folded for an hour. It was a protest about me being there. I didn’t have that great a time over there, to be honest, but the black concerts were great.
Now I’ve got a letter here from your mother to Cliff Michelmore from the BBC’s Tonight programme and dated 7 May 1958.
This is amazing. I haven’t got any letters in my mum’s handwriting and it’s remarkable to see this.
It’s a lovely letter. Cliff Michelmore had had Larry Parnes and John Kennedy on the programme and had clearly accused them of working you too hard. She writes, “May I take the liberty of thanking you on behalf on my husband and myself for proving that my son is indeed a human being and not a machine.” She says that you need to rest and that you are not the happy boy you once were.
Cliff Michelmore tore them off a strip if I remember rightly. I was at the Caird Hall, Dundee for a one night show. The country was rising to rock’n’roll and everywhere I went it was a really big event. There were always as many people outside the theatre as inside as they wanted to get in. Like the Beatles, really. I was waiting to go on and the manager of the theatre said that this was the first time that they had sold the choir seats. “People on the stage”, was I hearing things?. I went into the act and I felt a tug on my arm and there was a little girl giving me a sweet. I said, “Thank you very much” and gave her a little kiss. She went back to her seat, which was behind me on the stage. There were 400 people sitting behind me, and no security staff. They had been fine until then, but this little girl had given me a sweet and got a kiss, so now a couple of hundred kids behind me want to give me a sweet. They came off their seats and through my band, smashing through the drums and the amplifiers. And now the audience in front is thinking, “Why is that lot getting at him? Why can’t we give him sweets?” They came forward and it was the Battle of Calais all over again as I was stuck in the middle. I couldn’t get out and they ripped my shirt off and I fainted. I woke up in Edinburgh. My left arm had been scratched and bruised, and I couldn’t use it. The doctors said that I needed deep massage but they couldn’t do anything until the cuts had subsided. The tour was cancelled as I couldn’t play and I got sued by my managers! They and the agent, Harold Fielding sued me as they said that I could go on without a guitar. It was very difficult as I needed my guitar. They sued me and they lost. The judge told them that they had a silver chalice in their hands, but they had dropped it. I gave up touring after that.
You stopped performing?
Not completely, but it was weeks before I got back on the stage again. It was an experience that was very difficult to forget. I love being on stage and I love entertaining but I got the impression that it might happen again. Psychologically, you want to step back, and even when I went back, there was still no security, so no one had learnt anything.
What did you think of Marty Wilde and Billy Fury?
I was doing rock’n’roll for three years – I started in ’56 and finished in ’59. There had not been a British teenage singer before me, so there was no precedent for what I was doing. Everything was happening for the first time. When the others came along, they could judge what was happening because they had seen me. Larry used to ring me up with names, “What do you think of ‘Marty Wilde’ or ‘Billy Fury’?” “Yeah, that sounds nice.” It always amused me that he called it ‘the stable’, and that wasn’t the media, he called it that. And, to be honest, they were far more committed than I was. I was really a country singer who was emphasising the second and fourth beat. I never went looking for screams and gyrating and quivering my lower lip, but I was regarded as the answer to Elvis. In Sweden they had a poll to find out who was the best rock’n’roller – and, believe it or not, I beat Elvis. That was purely on my personality, I think – my records weren’t as good as his!
And your brother, Colin Hicks, as well?
Yeah, he went to Italy and had a wonderful career for a couple of years. He did very well and we were very much alike.
There’s a bit in the BBC files where you go on holiday to the south of France and find that you are unknown. You come back and want to make a Eurovision special.
Yes, I can imagine thinking that. How can I get known in Europe? I know, I’ll do the Eurovision Song Contest or a TV special.
I was surprised to discover that you turned down the role in Serious Charge that was then played by Cliff Richard.
I think I could have done it okay, but I didn’t want to do a serious role. If I had a choice between Hamlet and Feste, I would play Feste every time. Cliff then did Expresso Bongo and a lot of people thought that was about him, but if you look at the story, it’s really mine.
Do you mind all these reissues?
Not at all. I’m very pleased that people get a chance to listen to the stuff. I’m very proud of all I did. If you’d asked me that 20 years ago, I’d have thought it was all trite and tripey, but I’ve changed my mind. It’s like history, archive stuff, and I enjoy hearing them, although of course I don’t play them at home.
You’ve done all these stage shows but don’t you wish you had continued recording?
No, although there have been songs that I would have liked to have been associated with. If Neil Sedaka had given me ‘Superbird’, I would have jumped at that. I wouldn’t have done it better than him, but that song tells you what makes me tick and why I am in show business.
You were on the most famous Royal Variety Performance of all: the one in 1963 with the Beatles.
Yes, I did ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop!’ from Half A Sixpence. I had done other Royal Commands but always as a performer, never as part of a musical show. Everyone goes around petrified at those shows: even today it is like that. You’ve only got a couple of minutes and you don’t want to mess it up. To be honest, I wasn’t too much aware of the Beatles as I was too wrapped up in what I was doing myself. There is the rehearsal, the runthrough and the dress rehearsal and it is exhausting. It wasn’t televised live and so, on the night, you would have the audience in the theatre and the critics, and there would be the reviews the next day as though it was the opening of a show. If you fail on a command performance, you don’t want to get mentioned. That year the critics were all full of John Lennon’s line about rattling your jewellery, and that was a joke that could have gone the other way, but of course John didn’t care.
You wrote a musical autobiography, My Life, My Song.
Yes, and the songs all work out of context. There’s a song on there, ‘Revolution’, which isn’t the best one, but it talks about the way rock’n’roll came out. It was a revolution and just by chance, it all started with 78 and 45 revolutions a minute.
And you’re always coming up with something new.
It certainly turns out that way, but I don’t plan it. I just enjoy challenges, I suppose.
Tommy Steele, thank you very much.
Thanks, and if there are any of those Liverpool students listening, I still haven’t forgiven you.