Tommy Steele, Britain’s “first home-grown pop star”, awarded knighthood in Queen’s Birthday Honours

Britain’s first home-grown pop star Tommy Steele was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Bermondsey-raised Sir Tommy, awarded an OBE in 1980 for his work as an entertainer, topped the charts numerous times, appeared in films and on stage, and caused riots in the streets long before the beat boom of the Sixties.

He said: “It’s like being in a panto. People are calling you Sir and you think: ‘Blooming heck. Is that in the script?’ It’s wonderful and I haven’t come down to earth yet.

“It sounds like a blinking fairy story, and I suppose it is.”

He was born Thomas Hicks in Bermondsey in 1936, to a bookie father and a mother who did several jobs to keep food on the table.

His autobiography, Bermondsey Boy: Memories of a Forgotten World, conveys his love for the narrow Bermondsey streets full of tiny two-up, two-down houses with no bathroom and a lavatory in the back yard.

Sir Tommy Steele jumps for joy at a press conference at London’s Hilton Hotel after returning from the USA. He has signed up for a starring role in Walt Disney’s musical comedy The Happiest Millionaire. Sir Tommy was given the role after Walt Disney saw Half a Sixpence in New York (Picture: PA)

He was close to the variety theatres around the Elephant and Castle, and one of his earliest and fondest memories is a trip up west to the London Palladium, where years later he appeared in the Royal Variety Show.

In 1952, at the age of 15, Sir Tommy joined the merchant navy and worked on the Cunard Line for the following four years.

During this time he learnt to play guitar, sing and perform for his fellow merchant seamen.

He discovered a natural ability to entertain, and was particularly suited to country and comedy songs.

During shore leave, he often appeared with a country band, The Sons of the Saddle.

He was not eligible for national service because, at 18-years-old, he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy – he failed the medical because he had flat feet.

He learned stagecraft while on leave from his job as a cabin boy in the Merchant Navy, and actually saw Buddy Holly in The Grand Ol’ Oprey.

He fell in love with rock and roll, turning his back on the British skiffle craze.

His first introduction into the music business was as part of skiffle trio The Cavemen, playing in the coffee bars of Soho with Lionel Bart and Mike Pratt – later to be the original Randall in Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased).

Later, co-manager Larry Parnes was incorrectly credited with creating the stage name Tommy Steele.

It was Sir Tommy who adapted the surname of his Scandinavian paternal grandfather, Thomas Stil-Hicks (pronounced Steel-Hicks).

Sir Tommy had the looks and cheeky personality that appealed to young women who suddenly had spare cash.

Sir Tommy Steele in Scrooge at the London Palladium in 2005 (Picture: PA)

His career soon began to take off with hits such as Rock With the Caveman, the Calypso-style Water and the folk-influenced Shiralee.

Most of Sir Tommy’s 1950s recordings were covers of American hits, such as Knee Deep in the Blues.

He never proved a serious threat to Elvis Presley’s popularity in the UK, but Singing the Blues got to Number 1 in the UK in January 1957, before Elvis did so.

In 1956 Sir Tommy appeared in his first film, and less than a year later was starring in his own biopic The Tommy Steele Story, only four months after his first chart appearance. Sir Tommy, together with Bart and Pratt wrote 12 songs in seven days for it.

Sir Tommy’s 1957 album The Tommy Steele Story was the first by a UK-based act to reach No 1 in the UK.

In 1957 Sir Tommy bought a four-bedroomed house in South London for his parents.

He turned to the theatre in 1960, and achieved great success in the 1963 musical Half a Sixpence, adapted from H.G. Wells Kipps.

Sir Tommy spent much of the 1960s performing in London and Las Vegas, and starring in a series of movie musicals, including The Happiest Millionaire (1967), Half a Sixpence (1968) – the musical featured in animated classic Wall-E in 2008 – and Finian’s Rainbow (1968).

His autobiography, My Life, My Songs, was published in 1974, and in relatively recent times he has been developing his talent for art and graphic design.

A 2016 petition to make him a knight was rejected.

Pictured top: Sir Tommy Steele pictured in November last year (Picture: PA)


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