Mister Might Have Been

Hi Folks, Hello again from Russia. As some regular readers of my column will already have worked out, some of my favourite stories don’t always include the squeaky clean, goody two shoes of rock’n’roll. This month is no exception. It’s a tale of a very British story of someone from the golden age of rock’n’roll who could have been a big super star, but who through self-destruction never made it to those heights. This story will tell you why:

The man in question is Terry Dene. In the late 1950s, nearly everyone in British rock’n’roll expected that his would be a story of one of the giants of our great culture. On 10th February I organised a tribute concert  to Terry Dene at the Mellow Yellow Club in Moscow. I booked the Great Pretenders to perform for us: Regular readers of this column will know about them. They are legends in the world of Russian rockabilly, going back many years. As ever, they put on a brilliant show for us. You can see some of the photos taken at the concert. And now, let’s turn to the story of Terry Dene:

Terry Dene was born and bred in South London. His first serious performances of rock’n’roll were at the legendary 2is (as in “two eyes”) coffee bar in London. Some of you will know about the iconic status of this rock’n’roll venue in the 1950s. It’s the location where the likes of Tommy Steele, Adam Faith and Cliff Richard launched their careers. From there, his career sky rocketed. The legendary music producer Jack Good saw him perform at the 2is and helped him obtain a recording contract with the famous Decca record company. At that time he was regarded as a British Elvis and recognised as one of the best voices of the rock’n’roll era. 

In 1957, his first single, “A White Sport Coat”, sold in excess of 350,000 copies in the first seven weeks (a huge number for that time) and together with his own version of “Start Movin'” at number 14, put his records in the Top 20 of the UK Singles Chart twice in the same year.His recording of “Stairway of Love” in 1958 remained in the chart for eight weeks. He toured Britain, was one of the first to appear on the BBC Television’s first pop show “Six-Five Special” in April 1957 and appeared in a film “The Golden Disc (1958)”. By the way, how many of you are old enough to remember “Six-Five Special” ? I was very very young at the time, some way from being a teenager, but for sure I remember it. It was iconic for its time, showcasing all the big names in British rock’n’roll. For young (and very young people like myself at the time) it was very exciting seeing such a programme on TV. The six-five special referred to a mythical train arriving at 18.05 (the time the programme began at the weekend). Each episode of the programme opened with a camera on a train filming the journey at high speed, to the background of the “six five special” song. I even remember the lyrics – “Over the points, Over the points !”

Dene achieved his biggest fame with pop numbers like “White Sports Coat”, but he much preferred singing hard rock’n’roll songs. Unfortunately for him his management kept pressuring him to turn out the more poppy, commercial stuff. Terry proved that he could belt out the rockin’ numbers with real skill, but had to compromise. This was especially so with regards to his fan base, the majority of whom were young women who preferred his more mellow tunes.

Unfortunately we now come to the point where Dene’s career took a drastic downward slide. He had been battling alcohol and mental health issues for a while. These came to a head in 1958 when he was arrested for public drunkenness, breaking a shop window and ripping out a public telephone box from the wall. Given the tendency of much of the mainstream media at that time to denigrate this new rock’n’roll culture as being a bad influence on the nation’s youth, Dene was inevitably branded as a ‘bad apple’ and the exemplifier of the ‘evil of rock’n’roll’ by the press. 

Then came his conscription into the Army for national service (national service was not ended until 1960 in the UK). He was originally expected to report to Winchester Barracks, where he was due to join the King’s Royal Rifle Corps on 7th July 1958, but his call-up was initially deferred until his contractual commitments as a performer had been completed. When he finally did go in, after his drunken escapades had made it into the national newspapers, the press continued to give him a hard time, questioning the authenticity of why his call-up had been deferred. They filmed and publicised his arrival at the barracks in a negative way. 

Dene’s emotional state had made him unsuitable material for the call-up in the first place, but the press decided that his initial deferment was his apparent keenness to avoid it and that it was further evidence that the singer was a thoroughly bad lot. Here’s how the writer Nik Cohn describes it, “As Rifleman 23604106 he smiled for the cameras, waved for weeping fans. A few hours later, though, having realised exactly what he was taking on, he burst into tears and collapsed. ‘It was grim, man, just grim,’ he said”.

Only two months later, Dene had to be discharged on psychological grounds, as his mental health had deteriorated considerably. By that time the press had almost ruined his career and the Army offered him a pension as a form of compensation, which Dene refused. It needs to be remembered this was the late 1950s, not today and the culture was different in terms of public attitudes to things like national service. Despite the real reasons for his discharge, the press gave the discharge negative coverage. Most of the public at that time were old-school in their beliefs. The country was well into the process of ending its colonial empire, but people generally still believed in the traditional values. I remember as a very young boy, these were what were referred to as traditional working class values. Alas, how times have changed since then ! But I digress. In any event, Dene’s early discharge did nothing to dispel the image the media had created of him.

Amazingly, there were even questions about him raised in the House of Commons, given his celebrity. This, along with the attacks in the press, became a stigma that poor Dene could not cast off and his chart career effectively ceased at that point. After finally recovering from the nervous breakdown that followed the demise of his stardom in his professional music career, Terry was still keen to carry on singing and he later joined the Larry Parnes’ stable of stars and toured with them around Britain. But his mega stardom was well and truly over. 

Disheartened by the bad publicity, in 1964 Dene turned his back on the British pop scene and became a Christian evangelist, crossing over to singing and writing spiritual and gospel music and recording three gospel albums. He travelled abroad as an itinerant preacher, playing in churches, prisons and other venues and preached in the Scandinavian Lutheran Church for five years in Sweden. So for Dene of course, he considers what he lost was compensated much more by what he gained, with this change in his life. He did make a few cameo appearances over the years and very occasionally on TV as a pop performer.

One item that caught my eye was that Dene also performed on 29 February 2008 at Borough Green Rock ‘n’ Roll Club in Kent, backed by Dave Briggs’ New Ravens. By 2008 I was already living and working in Russia. But I do remember fondly some great Friday nights at the Borough Green club during the time I was a regular attender there, run by a really nice couple who I got to know reasonably well. Maybe readers in that neck of the woods can advise me if the club is still going ?

In fact despite the adverse publicity of his early career, the artist eventually became accepted by fans as one of Britain’s significant rock’n’roll pioneers and he managed to carve out a career at rock’n’roll revival concerts

Dene married fellow pop singer Edna Savage in 1958. They later divorced. He married and divorced another three times and is now settled with an Italian countess, Lucia Liberati, whom he met in London in 2000.

One of the best summaries I’ve read about Terry Dene was by Stuart Colman in his book “They kept on Rockin’ ”. He begins his piece by describing him as “Once a King”” and goes on to write, “Terry Dene could well have become the prime mover amongst the ever growing flock of British rock’n’roll singers.” Indeed. Terry was the classic “Mister Might Have Been.” Stay tuned Dear Readers for another rock’n’roll story, next month !