Tommy Steele performing in Stockholm in 1957
|Birth name||Thomas William Hicks|
17 December 1936 |
Bermondsey, London, England
|Genres||Rock and roll, skiffle|
|Labels||Decca, Columbia, RCA Victor|
|Associated acts||The Steelmen|
Tommy Steele OBE (born Thomas William Hicks, 17 December 1936) is an English entertainer, regarded as Britain's first teen idol and rock and roll star. He reached number one with "Singing the Blues" in 1957, and The Tommy Steele Story was the first album by a UK act to reach number one.
Steele's film credits include Half a Sixpence, The Happiest Millionaire and Finian's Rainbow, and he has made many stage tours in the UK. He is also a songwriter, author and sculptor. His claim to have shown Elvis Presley around London has been challenged by more than one source.
In 2012, Steele was among the British cultural icons selected by artist Sir Peter Blake to appear in a new version of his most famous artwork – the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover – to celebrate the British cultural figures of the last six decades.
Steele worked in various jobs, including a brief period as a merchant seaman. He was not eligible for national service because, at eighteen years old, he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy. In his autobiography, Bermondsey Boy: Memories of a Forgotten World, he reports that he failed the medical because he had flat feet. Whenever not working, he played guitar and banjo and sang in two coffee houses in Soho, the 2i's Coffee Bar and the Cat's Whisker, both as a solo performer and with Wally Whyton's Vipers Skiffle Group.
When a ship Steele was serving on docked in Norfolk, Virginia, USA, he heard Buddy Holly and fell in love with rock and roll, turning his back on the British skiffle craze. He was discovered by freelance photographer John Kennedy, who believed Steele could be Britain's answer to Elvis Presley. Later co-manager Larry Parnes was incorrectly credited with creating the stage name 'Tommy Steele'. It was Steele who adapted the surname of his Scandinavian paternal grandfather, Thomas Stil-Hicks (pronounced Steel-Hicks), adding another E to the spelling.
Steele became famous in the UK as the frontman for a rock and roll band, the Steelmen, after their first single, "Rock With the Caveman", reached number 13 in the UK Singles Chart in 1956. Steele and other British singers would pick known hit records from the United States, record their cover versions of these songs, and release them in the UK before the American versions could enter the charts. Most of Steele's 1950s recordings were covers of American hits, such as "Singing the Blues" and "Knee Deep in the Blues". Although Steele never proved a serious threat to Presley's popularity in the UK, he did well on the 1950s UK chart and "Singing the Blues" got to Number 1 in the UK before Presley did so. Guy Mitchell was number 1 with "Singing the Blues" on 4 January 1957 and Tommy Steele on 11 January 1957. Steele's 1957 album, The Tommy Steele Story, was the first by a UK-based act to reach No. 1 in the UK.
Only four months after his first chart presence, he was filming his life story. To do so, Steele and his songwriting collaborators, Lionel Bart and Mike Pratt, wrote twelve songs in seven days. His first three single releases were issued at a rate of one every three weeks. In 1957 Steele bought a four-bedroomed house in South London for his parents. In August 1959, Steele undertook a three-day concert visit to Moscow.
In late 2009 his greatest hits collection, The Very Best of Tommy Steele, reached the Top 40 in the UK Albums Chart. This was the first UK chart entry, of any kind, that Steele had enjoyed for over 48 years.
The increase in home-grown musical talent during the 1950s and 60s allowed Steele to progress to a career in stage and film musicals, leaving behind his pop idol identity. In 1957 he was voted the seventh most popular actor at the British box office.
In 1960, a tour of Australia had not been particularly successful and on his return to England he received two offers, one to star in the play Billy Liar, the other to join the Old Vic Company. He chose the latter.
In the West End he appeared in She Stoops to Conquer and played the title role of Hans Christian Andersen. On film, he recreated his London and Broadway stage role in Half a Sixpence, and played character roles in The Happiest Millionaire and Finian's Rainbow, although many critics[who?] found his personality to be somewhat overwhelming on screen. In this latter film, probably his best known appearance in the films, he played Og, the leprechaun turning human, and co-starred with Petula Clark and Fred Astaire. In 1968 British exhibitors voted him the fourth most popular star at the local box office.
In 1983, Steele directed and starred in the West End stage production of Singin' in the Rain at the London Palladium. In 1991 he toured with Some Like It Hot the stage version of the Jack Lemmon/Tony Curtis/Marilyn Monroe film. In 2003, after a decade-long hiatus, save his one-man shows An Evening With Tommy Steele and What A Show!, he toured as Ebenezer Scrooge in a production of Scrooge: The Musical, an adaptation of Scrooge. Following this return, he reprised his role at the Palace Theatre, Manchester over Christmas 2004, and brought the production to the London Palladium for Christmas 2005. In 2008, at the age of 71, Steele toured in the lead role of the stage musical Doctor Dolittle, and has reprised his role as Scrooge every Christmas season since 2009.
Steele is a respected sculptor and three of his major works have been on public display: Bermondsey Boy at the Rotherhithe Town Hall in London (stolen in 1998, current whereabouts unknown) and Eleanor Rigby which he sculpted and donated to the City of Liverpool as a tribute to the Beatles. The statue stands in Stanley Street, Liverpool, not far from the Cavern Club. Steele has another sculpture featuring two rugby players on display at Twickenham Stadium. He is also an artist of some note and has exhibited at the Royal Academy.
In the early 1980s, Steele wrote and published a novel titled The Final Run about World War II and the evacuation of Dunkirk.
He also wrote a children's novel, entitled Quincy, about a reject toy trying to save himself and his fellow rejects in the basement of a toy store from the furnace the day after Christmas. This was turned into the television film, Quincy's Quest, in 1979, in which Steele played Quincy and Mel Martin played Quincy's girlfriend doll, Rebecca.
For many years it was thought that Elvis Presley had never set foot in Britain, apart from spending a few minutes on the tarmac at Prestwick Airport in Scotland where his military plane, en route to the United States after completing his army service in West Germany, stopped to refuel. However, on 21 April 2008, in a BBC Radio 2 interview with theatre impresario Bill Kenwright, it was claimed that Presley, then 23, had visited Britain for a day, after a phone conversation with Steele in London in 1958.
According to Kenwright: "Elvis flew in for a day and Tommy showed him round London. He showed him the Houses of Parliament and spent the day with him". Kenwright admitted on 22 April 2008 that he was not sure whether he should have told the story. Steele said: "It was two young men sharing the same love of their music. I swore never to divulge publicly what took place and I regret that it has found some way of getting into the light. I only hope he can forgive me."
Press officers employed by Stagecoach, the company that owns Prestwick Airport, rapidly issued a statement requesting proof, photographic or otherwise, of the said meeting. Until such proof is provided, they will continue to describe their property, Prestwick Airport, as being the only place in Britain where Elvis Presley ever set foot and will not be removing the marker, photographs and special lounge at their airport which relate to their claim.
With the Steelmen
Abstract : Cavanagh, Terry, Public Sculpture of South London; 2007, p390
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