Halfway to Paradise

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from Chapter Four - MAYBE TOMORROW

...The first to make the grade was Tommy Hicks, a merchant seaman who had seen Buddy Holly in the United States and who spent his shore leave at the 2Is coffee bar, singing guest spots with the Vipers. It was there, singing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, that he was seen by PR man John Kennedy in September 1956.

Immediately taking over his management, Kennedy got him a record deal and, a week after Tony Crombie’s chart debut, ‘Rock with the Caveman’ by the newly renamed Tommy Steele became Britain’s second homemade rock hit. Co-written by Lionel Bart, whose biggest success to date was selling a song titled ‘Oh For a Cuppa Tea Instead of a Cappuccino’ to Billy Cotton, ‘Caveman’ was not intended to be taken too seriously: ‘We wrote that song as a send-up of the Bill Haley hit,’ said Bart. Certainly it was unlikely to have been mistaken for anything coming out of Memphis, Tennessee: ‘Stalactite, stalagmite, hold your baby very tight.’

But whatever the quality of the material, Kennedy was in deadly earnest about marketing his young charge. Rock and roll was potentially a big deal, he told Steele, ‘but someone has got to lift it out of its Teddy boy rut, give it class and get society as well as the thousands of ordinary decent kids singing and dancing it.’ He later explained to Steele’s parents that the visiting American stars ‘stink of wealth and luxury. The kids in this country would be frightened to speak to them. They need someone like Tommy to fall in love with. They need the boy next door, who comes from the same kind of street, went to the same kind of school, and talks in the same kind of way.’

As a sales strategy, it was sheer perfection. Steele had an instantly likeable persona, with a chirpy and slightly mischievous look that was capable of stirring maternal instincts in the most innocent schoolgirl. And, as Trevor Philpot pointed out in Picture Post, it was entirely inoffensive: ‘The act is simple enough. It’s ninety per cent youthful exuberance. There is not a trace of sex, real or implied.’

In the absence of any home opposition, Steele became a huge star, the only one making a virtue of his youth and inexperience: ‘I always keep to a certain motto: do what you dig, dig what you do, and in all you dig and all you do, live up to the name of teenager...’

Tommy Steele
Tommy Steele
Harry Hammond (© V&A Images)