Tommy Hicks was born in 1936 into a working class family in Bermondsey, London. When he was 15 he joined the merchant navy, and travelled the world on the Cunard line. He learned to play the guitar when he had a brief illness and began singing and performing for his fellow merchant seamen when he discovered he had a natural talent to entertain. Tommy took every opportunity to listen to as much music as he could whenever he was ashore in the United States. He saw Presley in concert and when he was back in England performed in American air force bases during his shore leave. Tommy became a member of Sons of the Saddle, led by a Canadian called Jack Fallon. In 1956 Tommy met two songwriter/performers, Lionel Bart (Oliver) and Mike Pratt (Randall and Hopkirk) and because all three shared the same interests in the new rock’n’roll movement they formed the Cavemen. Steele co-wrote many of his early songs with Lionel Bart and Mike Pratt, but he used the pseudonym of Jimmy Bennett from 1958 onwards. When leave allowed, Tommy Hicks (now playing guitar and banjo) and The Cavemen played in coffee bars in London's Soho.
The 2 I’s Coffee Bar was the premier venue where Tommy and the Cave men appeared. Occasionally he did a solo spot as well as jam with Wally Whyton’s Viper Skiffle Group. When impresario Larry Parnes was made aware of Tommy Hicks he reckoned the boy from Bermondsey to be UKs answer to Elvis Presley. Hicks was signed and relaunched as Tommy Steele. Clever promotion of his new client had record companies come looking to sign Tommy Steel and Decca Records signed the young talent. Sir George Martin passed on option to sign Tommy Steele and signed the Vipers Skiffle Group instead. The trio’s first single was called "Rock With the Caveman," and was an original composition.
Playing as a session man was Ronnie “Steelman” Scott (saxophone) and the single made the lower rungs of the UK charts. Tommy and the Cavemen went on a tour of the UK and were greeted by hoards of screaming fans. Their second single, "Doomsday Rock,” failed to chart, but for their third release they chose to do a cover version of Melvin Endsley's "Singing The Blues" which got to number 1 in the UK and displaced the more famous Guy Mitchell version from the top of the charts.
By early 1957, Steele had made his first screen appearance, in a small role as a singer in the thriller Kill Me Tomorrow, directed by Hammer Films alumnus Terence Fisher. Tommy was a natural and enjoyed making films.
The Tommy Steele Story (1957) was a potted biopic and The Duke Wore Jeans (1957) was released in the same year.
Tommy The Toreador (1959) was a musical comedy and gave Tommy another hit record with Little White Bull (1959).
More movies followed with Light Up The Sky (1959), It's All Happening (1962), Half A Sixpence (1966), The Happiest Millionaire (1966), Finigan's Rainbow (1968), Where’s Jack (1969), The Yeoman of the Guard (1978), and Quincy’s Quest (1979).
By 1959 Tommy Steele career as a rocker was over and the new order of Cliff and the Shadows had firmly taken hold in the UK. Cliff Richard ironically starred in Expresso Bongo (1959), a film based on a satirical play that had been inspired by Tommy Steele's rise to fame.
In 1960 he toured Australia which reunited him with the Steelmen (Tommy’s backing group after the Cavemen). He also worked with a 15-piece backing band led by Harry Robinson (aka Lord Rockingham). His natural cheeky persuasion had made him an ideal Buttons in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (1958) at the London Coliseum and he followed this success with his portrayal of Tony Lumpkin in She Stoops To Conquer at the Old Vic. He excelled in the stage production of Half A Sixpence (1963), and took the play from London to Broadway. Tommy returned to the West End in 1969 starring in the pantomime, Dick Whittington at the London Palladium. Tommy was back at the London Palladium in 1974 with Hans Andersen which he co-writer and eventually director. In 1979 Tommy had the longest running one man show in London entitled, An Evening With Tommy Steele and it ran for 455 performances.
Tommy also toured this show in Europe and Australia. Now firmly established as a West End actor and director he appeared in another London long running success, Singin' In The Rain (1983). Later he took that show on the road and had a record breaking season in Japan. In 1991 he toured with Some Like It Hot, the stage version of the Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe film. Another one man show, What a Show, ran form 1993-1996 in the West End. In 2003, he toured as Ebenezer Scrooge in a production of Scrooge: The Musical. In the early 1980s Tommy Steele wrote and published a novel entitled The Final Run. The fiction was about World War II and the evacuation of Dunkirk. He also became a writer of children's novel, entitled Quincy's Quest, 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 a film in 1979, which Tommy played Quincy and Mel Martin playing Quincy's girlfriend doll, Rebecca.
Tommy was also a talented artist and sculptor. He has three major works on public display; Bermondsey Boy at the Rotherhithe Civic Centre; two rugby players at Twickenham Stadium; and by far the most well known, Eleanor Rigby which was given to the City of Liverpool as a tribute to the Beatles.
Worth a listen:
Tommy Steele and the Cavemen
Rock With The Caveman (1956)
Singin' the Blues" (1956)
A Handful Of Songs (1957)
Little White Bull(1959)
What A Mouth (1960)
Flash Bang Wallop (What a picture) (1963)
Half a sixpence (1965)
Hoots Mon (1958)