Dear Readers, this month we focus on a very important individual in the history of British Rock’n’Roll. He was the first UK rock’n’roll star and the most significant in the 1950s on the domestic scene. He is the Boy from Bermondsey, London – Tommy Steele.
On 28th January we organised a tribute concert at the Esse Café in Moscow, to celebrate the man and his achievements. I booked the Great Pretenders, a brilliant rockabilly band that I’ve written about in this column more than once. The Pretenders put on a great show and some of the photos you can see were taken at the concert on 28/01/17.
The writer Dave McAleer described Tommy Steele as not only the first British rock’n’roll star but also “the most successful home-grown rock’n’roller of the 1950s – outpacing legends like Cliff Richard, Marty Wilde and Billy Fury. Steele also had a hand in writing many of his own biggest hits – a real rarity for any UK artist in that decade.”
He was born into a working class family in South London. He left school at fifteen to join the Merchant Navy. There he got his first chance to entertain, to fellow ship mates and also when on shore leave. It wasn’t long before his talents and charisma caught the attention of people in the music business. John Kennedy, who was to become his agent and manager during Tommy’s 1950s’ rock’n’roll years, described the impact he made when he saw him perform for the first time, before he became famous. It was at the legendary 2.Is Coffee Bar in London in 1956. From this description, it is not difficult to see why he became such a mega-star:
“He got on the stage, had a bit of a bust up with the lads and started singing a few songs. He was dressed in a bright blue jersey and a pair of jeans that had seen better days. His thick blond hair was unruly and kept tumbling across his eyes, but in those days that was the fashion. His voice bounced off the walls and hit you like a tidal wave as the teenagers dressed in every kind of crazy get up let the music carry them away. At the end of his songs there was complete silence. But then the applause started and it went on and on.”
Tommy Steele wrote and performed some of the first UK rock’n’roll hits that were to become all-time classics. For example, “Rock with the Caveman” (probably his most famous r’n’r number), “Rock around the Town”, “Doomsday Rock” and “Elevator Rock”. It is true to say that in those early years of 1950s’ rock’n’roll, the only UK artists who could in any way conceivably come close to the top American stars in terms of popularity, were Tommy Steele and to a lesser extent Cliff Richard. This is another indication of the importance of Tommy in the history of rock’n’roll. The music producer and DJ Stuart Colman, who himself played an important role in later years in the history of British rock’n’roll as a DJ, organiser and writer, gives an idea of what Tommy’s shows were like; “his early stage shows with his group the Steelemen were wild affairs and he delivered a maximum energy performance stimulated by nothing more than enthusiasm and a dressing room full of Coca-Cola”. Coca-Cola ! It was a far cry indeed from the following generation’s stronger and sometimes darker forms of stimulation. Initially practically none of his UK audiences had seen an American rock’n’roll show, so in this sense he was introducing this revolutionary music to a whole generation.
John Howard, the rock’n’roll writer, told me a great story about an early Tommy Steele concert he attended. The young women in the audience were going crazy, screaming and in a state of hysteria while watching their hero on stage. They were so loud, Tommy couldn’t even hear his own voice and was becoming a bit annoyed. So through the microphone he told the young women that if they didn’t settle down, he would personally come down and sort them out. On hearing this, the screaming and hysteria thereupon intensified to almost double, as the young women contemplated the thought of Tommy coming down to them in person !
And there is a Russian connection to this Tommy Steele story. He performed at the 1957 Moscow Youth and Student Festival: I wrote in this column quite some time ago about this iconic event in the history of Russian rock’n’roll. Then in 1959 he did a 3 day concert visit to Moscow. These two events were remarkable, given that this was at the height of the Cold War and certainly no other big rock’n’roll icon from the West performed in the Soviet Union. Plus the Soviet authorities were propagandising to their people about the immorality of rock’n’roll as an example of decadent Western Culture. The biographical film about his rock’n’roll life, in which he played himself, was also released in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Once again, it was amazing that the Soviet government allowed this, as it went against their policy with regard to other Western performers. Clearly someone high up in the Communist government must have really rated Tommy ! It would have been Great to find some Russians who saw Tommy perform in 1957 and 1959 or who saw his film in the 1950s, to hear what the reaction was amongst the Russian public. I did ask around my Russian rockin’ friends to try and track some witnesses down. But sadly the length of time since those events was the reason I was unsuccessful. I just couldn’t personally find any Russian rockers who went back quite that far. Remember this was forbidden music in the Soviet Union at that time, so given that historical period perhaps it’s not surprising I was unsuccessful. But here’s another Russian link to Tommy – three of his LP recordings were released in the Soviet Union around this time, again a very unusual happening for a “decadent Western” rock’n’roll performer.
It wasn’t only Russia, Tommy toured extensively during the late 1950s. For example, he undertook tours in the Scandinavian countries and also interestingly one to South Africa. Of course this was the period of the height of Apartheid in that country. This is how he described his visit to the country: “We boarded the ship for the voyage down to Cape Town. This was long before touring South Africa was a political issue, but I told my managers that for every white concert I do I’ll also do one black one too.” He went on to detail the impact this decision had on his South African shows, of which he did twelve, “The white ones were boycotted because I was doing black ones and they also had the impression that I was bringing over decadence.”
And here’s the story of another more local tour, which literally nearly killed him. It was in Dundee of all places. At the concert, as usual the young women were screaming with hysteria at their idol, but this time their frenzy got out of control. Derek Mathews takes up the story, “The teenagers in the front rows of the stalls began screeching for another song. They came out of their seats and onto the stage. They rushed at him for all the world like tigers out of a cage. Their long nails dug through his thin suit. Their stiletto heeled shoes nailed his feet. He tried to get away, but they were all round him. The two stagehands came to his rescue. They fought their way through the crowd, caught hold of an arm and pulled. At the same time some of the fans grabbed his other arm and tugged even more fiercely.” Tommy described what happened next, “I was conscious of a searing, stabbing pain in my shoulder and a second later everything went dark. I don’t remember anything else until I came round on the dressing room floor, I was in terrible pain.” He was rushed to hospital and all his concerts had to be cancelled for the following few weeks, to allow him time to recover. Overall, Tommy had had a lucky escape from the abyss.
And about that autobiographical film mentioned above, “The Tommy Steele Story” released in 1957, I bought a copy of the film earlier this year. One needs to assess the quality of the film in terms of the period in history when it was released. Once you look at it in that context, it’s a great movie. It’s a “50s’ period piece”, conveying the mood and culture of Britain at the time of the birth of Rock’n’Roll. Although some of the dialogue appears a bit dated by today’s standards, the movie details a period, life and culture in our history that has gone forever. And although Tommy does sing some rather bland “pop-py” songs in it, there are also some real rock’n’roll gems that he performs too, like “Elevator Rock” and “Doomsday Rock.”
Tommy Steele’s private life has been a happy one. He married Ann Donoghue in 1960 and is still happily married. They have one daughter. The universal consensus amongst those that know or have known him, is that he has not forgotten his working class roots and that fame has not spoiled him. All speak of him as basically a really nice bloke.
Of course many of you know that the famous story of Tommy Steele did not end with his rock’n’roll years in the late 1950s and that he went on to achieve more world-wide fame and fortune as an all-round entertainer and actor. But this story has been about his rockin’ career, so I’ve concluded it at the beginning of the 1960s. So here’s to Tommy Steele, the Bermondsey Boy Made Good !
And finally, a Big Thankyou to my Rockin’ Friends who supported and helped me with their messages of concern after I fractured my shoulder late last year. Although the recovery process has inevitably been slow, it has progressed well and I am Rockin’ again ! Once again, Spasibo (Russian for “Thanks”) !