When Tommy Steele was making his rock’n’roll records in the mid-1950s, he was telling interviewers that he wanted to be an all-round entertainer, an opinion wholeheartedly endorsed by his manager, Larry Parnes. For Tommy Steele at least, rock’n’roll was a passing phase and he would star in musicals. And he certainly has: Half A Sixpence (1963), Hans Christian Andersen (1974), Singin’ In The Rain (1983), Some Like It Hot (1991) and Scrooge (2003) have been very successful stage productions and he has also starred in the film version of Half A Sixpence (1967) as well as Hollywood musicals including Finian’s Rainbow (1968). He is a noted sculptor and his bronze, Eleanor Rigby, is one of Liverpool’s tourist attractions. It seems an oversight that he hasn’t been knighted.
Latterly, Tommy Steele has been touring the UK in the stage version of Doctor Dolittle. As it happens, I was interviewing the composer, Leslie Bricusse before rehearsals started. The songs for the film had been written for Rex Harrison and they had to be performed in the same half-sung, half-spoken manner to work. Tommy wanted a big song so that he could really use his voice and Bricusse told me, “Tommy will be sitting where you are tomorrow and I’ve got two songs for him. He can pick which he likes best.”
The Doctor Dolittle musical was a popular and a critical success and I marvelled at Steele’s energy. This was a singing and dancing role for a 71-year-old man who was rarely off stage. Still, he had been doing it all his life and was used to it.
Our editor knew that Tommy Steele should be covered in Now Dig This but he had the impression that Tommy was not keen on talking about his rock’n’roll days. To a degree, that is true: Tommy always has some new project on the go which, inevitably, is the best thing he’s ever done. That is what he wants to talk about, and fair enough, what’s wrong with that? From that point of view, he is a publicist’s dream.
I’ve met Tommy on a few occasions – when he was at the Palladium in Singin’ In The Rain, backstage in Liverpool at Some Like It Hot, again in Liverpool for Scrooge, and more recently, on tour with Doctor Doolittle. Earlier this year, I read Tommy’s files at the BBC Written Archives in Caversham and I asked if I could discuss its contents with him for a programme on Radio Merseyside. Although he did not know what was in the files (as I wanted to keep that for the interview), he, very sportingly, agreed and I went to the Queen’s Hotel in Leeds to meet him.
So, over the years, I have talked to Tommy Steele about many aspects of his career. For this feature, I have collected his comments about rock’n’roll and run them together. It’s fair to say that Tommy never talks about rock’n’roll at this length but fortunately, whenever I have ever seen him, I have asked different questions and so we have a reasonably complete story. Most NDT readers will have their views of Tommy Steele’s rock’n’roll records (and they are not as bad as some of you may think) but here in this feature, we view them from Tommy’s perspective.
One more thing: Tommy said that he could not talk about showing Elvis Presley around London in 1958. This story made the national news after the impresario Bill Kenwright revealed it on Radio 2 earlier this year, and naturally, there has been speculation about its accuracy. An Elvis associate, Lamar Fike, has posted an internet response that he, and not Elvis, met Tommy met in London, but it seems impossible that Tommy didn’t know the difference between Elvis Presley and Lamar Fike. Whatever Tommy Steele told Bill Kenwright and however it was interpreted, I don’t think he is in a position to comment as Bill Kenwright is paying his wages! Hence, that little bit of the Tommy Steele story is not included below.
My thanks to the BBC Written Archives in Caversham for permission to quote from their documentation.
Tommy, when you did your one-man show, you sang a Buddy Holly song and said that you had seen him early on. When was that?
I saw Buddy Holly in Norfolk, Virginia in 1955 or 1956. The ship had gone in for some repairs and there was a show there that night at the town hall called the Grand Ole Opry Travelling Show. I was a country guitar player, so I had to go and see that. All these great country acts were on, but there was also this feller in his glasses playing country music. He did a typical country ‘You done me wrong’ song and then he played another song and the rhythm changed. A lot of country music emphasises the second and fourth beat of the bar – there is a lot of that (demonstrates) – but he added fills that I’d never heard before, and it was Buddy Holly. I went away thinking that he was really great and then I went into New York and I heard ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ by Carl Perkins. I bought the sheet music and five days later, I was in London singing those type of songs. That’s how it started for me.
Oddly enough, your vocal inflections on ‘Butterfingers’ are not far from Buddy Holly.
A lot of Holly’s inflections are in ‘Butterfingers’, but all of us in those first months of rock’n’roll were learning from each other. We didn’t have it in England until I arrived on the scene because we didn’t have any country guitar players. Rock’n’roll is country music, and all the early rock’n’roll singers had been country singers.
You were Britain’s first rock’n’roll star. Did you feel a pioneer at the time?
No, as there were quite a number of fellers and a few girls playing guitars in coffee-bars, although I was the only one singing country music – Hank Williams and Red Foley and some Leadbelly – but I never felt like a pioneer, just a bit different. I was just an 18 or 19 year old enjoying myself. When I made by first recording for Decca around October 1956, the papers started calling me a rock’n’roll star and put me in the same category as Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and Little Richard. Now, they were pioneers!
You did record Hank Williams’ ‘Wedding Bells’.
That’s right. On my first tour, a good third of my act was country. I did ‘Wedding Bells’ and ‘Kaw-liga’, great Hank Williams songs, and no one had ever heard of them before. A good third tour of my programme was country. Because the drums accentuated the second and fourth beat of the bar, the fans assumed it was rock’n’roll. The origins of rock’n’roll are in country music so they were right. If you play ‘Move It On Over’ next to ‘Rock Around The Clock’, you’ll find that Mr Haley has a lot to thank Hank Williams for.”
Had you picked up on country music when you were in the navy?
Yes, I was taught by a Scouser. He showed me the basic chords and I sang on ship for a good two years and so when I came ashore in the summer of 1956, I had a whole repertoire of country songs. I found it very easy to sing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ because they were so close to country music.
You were Tommy Hicks and you became Tommy Steele. Was that Larry Parnes’ idea?
No, no, it was my idea and that was before Larry Parnes. John Kennedy was my first manager: Larry came in later to arrange the business, while John was the brains behind the publicity. We agreed that Tommy Hicks or Thomas Hicks outside a marquee wasn’t going to suggest anything dynamic and we wanted something more theatrical. I thought of my grandfather, whose name was Thomas Steil Hicks, I don’t know where that came from, so I said, “How about Tommy Steele?” I became Tommy Steel and by a mistake on someone’s part, an ‘e’ was stuck on the end and it became Tommy Steele as it’s spelt today.
Your first record, ‘Rock With The Caveman’, was written by you and a young Lionel Bart.
Not so young: he was about 25. Lionel was writing a lot of songs for the Billy Cotton Band Show and he wanted to get into records. One of his songs for Billy Cotton went “Oh for a cup of tea instead of a cappuccino”. I met him at a party with Michael Pratt, who was an actor, and we three formed the Cavemen, which was country songs and comedy. Our theme song was ‘Rock With The Caveman’ and it was a joke, a spoof, the sort of thing Monty Python might have done, or The Two Ronnies.
I’m sure that the kids who bought it took it seriously: I know I did.
Yes, of course they did, and I didn’t mind that. The more people that listened to it the better.
And I think you were working with jazz musicians on that record.
Yes, Ronnie Scott said that was the first and only time that he been asked to play a 14-bar solo. I had added two bars, which you don’t really do, but he played them for me and it worked out fine. My family was there and they applauded after the first take. Hugh Mendl, the producer, said, “Can your family come in here because one can hear every clap?”
Here are the details of your first television appearance, Off The Record, for which you got 12 guineas. I saw that and was immediately impressed.
That certainly made ‘Rock With The Cavemen’ but the thing that got me going was 6.5 Special. I was treated on Off The Record like I was a burglar. It was run by Jack Payne who was a very stiff, unamusing man, very stern and way above rock’n’roll. I got an introduction in which he said, “Here’s rock and roll, and you can take it or leave it.” And he left it, of course. “Rock With A Caveman” must have nearly killed him as he’d never heard that kind of music before.
You shot to fame on the first TV show for teenagers, 6.5 Special?
The BBC said they’d created this new show for me, 6.5 Special, and Jack Good was a young feller with glasses and an Oxbridge accent who’d just come out of university. He wore a suit and tie and had marbles in his mouth. He looked elegant, like a posh schoolteacher, but he’d gone to the BBC with some great, new ideas and they liked them. He was brimful of ideas and images. Everyone there thought he was a crackpot but they could also appreciate that he knew how to get to the kids.
What did you think of 6.5 Special?
It was a very mixed bag of music and fun. Jack Good had this idea of not giving the audience seats and letting them roam around the studio. The cameramen said, “You can’t do that. They’ll walk on the wires and ruin the focus.” Jack said, “No, let them roam about and if they come into shot, so be it.” I’m surprised that he got away with it, especially as he was so young. Everyone wondered what he knew about television, and the answer was probably “Very little.” I remember someone in the audience who looked like Bill Haley. Jack said, “It’s not Bill Haley, it’s a lookalike. We’ll pick him up in the audience shots and people will think that Bill Haley comes to our show.”
You didn’t so much cover ‘Singing The Blues’ as transform it as your first line is unintelligible. Was that deliberate?
No, it was the way I wanted to sing it. You know, ‘Wh-el-lll-lll’, just like that. British performers invariably relied upon American songs for their records and it didn’t change until Lionel Bart was writing hits for myself and Cliff Richard. All of a sudden, British music publishers and record producers were looking for British talent to write the songs. Until then, covering Guy Mitchell was the norm and quite acceptable. I didn’t plan that ‘Well’ by the way: someone pointed at me and it came out that way.
It’s extraordinary that you both made Number 1.
Yes, but Guy held it longer than I did. I had one week, and in fact, it was the only Number 1 I ever had. I had lots of Number 2’s and Number 3’s but I didn’t mind as my records tended to stay around a long time. ‘Butterfingers’ was in the charts for months.