Tommy Steele Biography

Thomas Hicks, 17 December 1936, Bermondsey, London, England. After serving as a merchant seaman, Hicks formed a skiffle trio called the Cavemen, with Lionel Bart and Mike Pratt, before being discovered by entrepreneur John Kennedy in the 2i’s coffee bar in Soho, London. A name change to Tommy Steele followed, and after an appearance at London’s Condor Club, the boy was introduced to manager Larry Parnes. From that point, his rise to stardom was meteoric. Using the old ‘working-class boy makes good’ angle, Kennedy launched the chirpy cockney in the unlikely setting of a debutante’s ball. Class-conscious Fleet Street lapped up the idea of Steele as the ‘deb’s delight’ and took him to their hearts. His debut single, ‘Rock With The Caveman’, was an immediate Top 20 hit and although the follow-up, ‘Doomsday Rock’/‘Elevator Rock’, failed to chart, the management was unfazed. Their confidence was rewarded when Steele hit number 1 in the UK charts with a cover version of Guy Mitchell’s ‘Singing The Blues’ in January 1957. By this point, he was briefly Britain’s first and premier rock ‘n’ roll singer and, without resorting to sexual suggestiveness, provoked mass teenage hysteria unseen since the days of Johnnie Ray. At one stage, he had four songs in the Top 30, although he never restricted himself to pure rock ‘n’ roll. A minor role in the film Kill Me Tomorrow led to an autobiographical musical, The Tommy Steele Story, which also spawned a book of the same title. For a time, Steele combined the twin roles of rock ‘n’ roller and family entertainer, but his original persona faded towards the end of the 50s. Further movie success in The Duke Wore Jeans (1958) and Tommy The Toreador (1959) effectively redefined his image. His rocking days closed with cover versions of Ritchie Valens’ ‘Come On Let’s Go’ and Freddy Cannon’s ‘Tallahassee Lassie’. The decade ended with the novelty ‘Little White Bull’, after which it was farewell to rock ‘n’ roll.

After appearing on several variety bills during the late 50s, Steele sampled the ‘legit’ side of showbusiness in 1960 when he played Tony Lumpkin in She Stoops To Conquer at the Old Vic, and he was back in straight theatre again in 1969, in the role of Truffaldino in The Servant Of Two Masters at the Queen’s Theatre. In the years between those two plays, he experienced some of the highlights of his career. In 1963, he starred as Arthur Kipps in the stage musical Half A Sixpence, which ran for 18 months in the West End before transferring to Broadway in 1965. Steele recreated the role in the 1967 film version. A year later, he appeared in another major musical movie, Finian’s Rainbow, with Fred Astaire and Petula Clark. His other films included Touch It Light, It’s All Happening, The Happiest Millionaire and Where’s Jack?. In 1974, Steele made one of his rare television appearances in the autobiographical My Life, My Song, and appeared at the London Palladium in the musical Hans Andersen. He also starred in the revival three years later. In 1979/80 his one-man show was resident at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre for a record 60 weeks - the Variety Club Of Great Britain made him their Entertainer Of The Year. He was also awarded the OBE.

Steele was back at the Palladium again in 1983 and 1989, heading the cast of the highly popular Singin’ In The Rain, which he also directed. In the latter capacity he tried - too late as it transpired - to save impresario Harold Fielding’s Ziegfeld (1988) from becoming a spectacular flop. Fielding had originally cast Steele in Half A Sixpence some 25 years earlier. Off-stage in the 80s, Steele published a thriller called The Final Run, had one of his paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy, was commissioned by Liverpool City Council to fashion a bronze statue of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ as a tribute to the Beatles, and composed two musical pieces, ‘A Portrait Of Pablo’ and ‘Rock Suite - An Elderly Person’s Guide To Rock’. After Hans Andersen and Singin’ In The Rain, the third, and least successful of Steele’s stage adaptations of memorable musical movies, was Some Like It Hot (1992). A hybrid of Billy Wilder’s classic film, and the Broadway stage musical Sugar (1972), it received derisory reviews (‘The show’s hero is Mr Steele’s dentist’), and staggered along for three months in the West End on the strength of its star’s undoubted box-office appeal. In 1993, Steele was presented with the Hans Andersen Award at the Danish Embassy in London, and two years later he received the Bernard Delfont Award from the Variety Club of Great Britain for his ‘outstanding contribution to show business’. By that time, Tommy Steele was back on the road again with ‘A Dazzling New Song & Dance Spectacular’ entitled What A Show!.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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