Tommy Steele

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Tommy Steele
Tommy Steele 1957 crop.jpg
Tommy Steele performing in Stockholm in 1957
Background information
Birth nameThomas Hicks
Born (1936-12-17) 17 December 1936 (age 85)
London, England
Genres Rock and roll, skiffle
Occupation(s)Singer, actor
Instrument(s)Vocals, guitar, banjo
Years active1956–present
Labels Decca, Columbia, RCA Victor

Sir Thomas Hicks OBE (born 17 December 1936), known professionally as Tommy Steele, is an English entertainer, regarded as Britain's first teen idol and rock and roll star. [1] [2]


After being discovered at the 2i's Coffee Bar in Soho, London, Steele recorded a string of hit singles including "Rock with the Caveman" (1956) and the chart-topper "Singing the Blues" (1957). Steele's rise to fame was dramatised in The Tommy Steele Story (1957), the soundtrack of which was the first British album to reach number one on the UK Albums Chart. With collaborators Lionel Bart and Mike Pratt, Steele received the 1958 Ivor Novello Award for Most Outstanding Song of the Year for "A Handful of Songs". He starred in further musical films including The Duke Wore Jeans (1958) and Tommy the Toreador (1959), the latter spawning the hit "Little White Bull".

Steele shifted away from rock and roll in the 1960s, becoming an all-round entertainer. He originated the part of Kipps in Half a Sixpence in the West End and on Broadway, reprising his role in the 1967 film version. As an actor, he notably appeared in the films The Happiest Millionaire (1967) and Finian's Rainbow (1968) and as the lead in several West End productions of Singin' in the Rain . Also an author and sculptor, Steele remains active. He was knighted in the 2020 Birthday Honours for services to entertainment and charity, and was awarded the Freedom of the City of London in 2021.

Early life

Steele was born Thomas Hicks in Bermondsey, London, England, in 1936. [3] His father, Thomas Walter Hicks, was a racing tipster and his mother, Elizabeth "Betty" Ellen Bennett, worked in a factory; they had married in 1933, in Bermondsey.

As a child, Steele spent time in hospital for porphyria. He dreamt of being a star performer after his parents took him to the London Palladium, but "didn't think you could be English and be a star". [4] In 1952, at age 15, Steele joined the Merchant Navy, working on the Cunard line. [5] He was not eligible for national service because of a diagnosis of cardiomyopathy. [6]

Steele attended Bacons's College in Rotherhithe, south London.[ citation needed ]



Whilst working as a merchant seaman, Steele learned to play guitar and began performing country and calypso music, inspired most by Hank Williams. [3] [7] [8] He has claimed that when a ship he was serving on docked in Norfolk, Virginia, U.S., he saw Buddy Holly perform and fell in love with rock and roll. [4] [9] The story conflicts with the known performances of Holly, making it appear impossible that it could have occurred as described. [10]

On shore leave in summer 1956, Steele began collaborating with Soho bohemians Lionel Bart and Mike Pratt and formed a loose band, the Cavemen. [4] A Steele performance backed by members of the Vipers Skiffle Group at the 2i's Coffee Bar was seen by John Kennedy, a photographer and publicity man who, within two weeks, got Steele a deal with Decca. [5] [11] [3] With impresario Larry Parnes, Kennedy arranged a publicity stunt in which Steele performed at a staged debutante ball, getting the singer his first national press in The People under the headline "Rock 'n' roll has got the debs too!". [12] [13] Within weeks, Steele was headlining variety bills. [14]

Steele's first single, "Rock with the Caveman", was one of the first British rock and roll hits, reaching number 13 on the UK Singles Chart in November 1956. [5] [15] Steele's success saw him dubbed "Britain's Elvis", and he topped the chart before Presley when his recording of "Singing the Blues" reached number 1 in January 1957. [15] [16] Steele's first album, Tommy Steele Stage Show (1957), was recorded live at a London concert the night before his twentieth birthday. [17] A teen idol, Steele was among the first British pop stars to be heavily merchandised, with tie-in sweaters, [18] shoes [19] and toy guitars. [20] [21]

Only four months after his first chart presence, Steele was filming his life story; The Tommy Steele Story (1957) featured twelve new songs, written by Steele, Bart and Pratt in seven days, that expanded the singer's repertoire to incorporate ballads and calypso music. [1] [22] [23] Its soundtrack album was the first UK number one album by a British act, [23] and the hit single "A Handful of Songs" received the 1958 Ivor Novello Award for Most Outstanding Song of the Year, Musically and Lyrically. [24] In 1957, Steele bought a four-bedroomed house in South London for his parents [25] and was reported to be earning more than British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. [26]


The increase in home-grown musical talent during the 1950s and 1960s 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. [27]

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. [28]

In the West End, he appeared in She Stoops to Conquer , [29] 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 . In this last film, 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. [30] The following year, he starred with Stanley Baker in the period drama Where's Jack?

In April 1971, Steele starred in his own show Meet Me in London originating in Las Vegas before a limited run at London's Adelphi Theatre. [31] The London production was troubled when Steele demanded cuts to the first act on opening night. Singer Clodagh Rodgers refused to accommodate the cuts and walked out fifteen minutes before the first night curtain. She was eventually replaced by Susan Maughan.

In 1978, Steele performed in a TV movie version of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard (misspelt as "The Yeoman..."), singing the role of the hapless jester Jack Point. [32]

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 Billy Wilder 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 .

Tommy Steele, November 1999 Tommy Steele.jpg
Tommy Steele, November 1999

He was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1958 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the BBC Television Theatre.


Steele is a respected sculptor and four of his major works have been on public display. Bermondsey Boy at Rotherhithe Town Hall in London, was stolen in 1998: its whereabouts are unknown. [33] Eleanor Rigby , which he sculpted and donated to the City of Liverpool as a tribute to the Beatles, stands in Stanley Street, Liverpool, not far from the Cavern Club. [3] [34] Union, featuring two rugby players, is on display at Twickenham Stadium. Trinity, designed during the regeneration of the docklands area in Bermondsey, stood outside the Trinity building in Bermondsey. When Steele lived in Montrose House, Petersham, Surrey, his life-sized sculpture of Charlie Chaplin as "The Tramp" stood outside his front door.[ citation needed ] He is also an artist of some note and has exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Writing career

In 1981, Steele wrote and published a novel titled The Final Run about World War II and the evacuation of Dunkirk. [35]

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. [36] Released in 1983, it was based on his own television film, Quincy's Quest , from 1979, in which Steele played Quincy and Mel Martin played Quincy's girlfriend doll, Rebecca.

Steele co-wrote many of his early songs with Lionel Bart and Mike Pratt, but he used the pseudonym of Jimmy Bennett [lower-alpha 1] from 1958 onwards. [37]

On 7 November 2019, Steele was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the British Music Hall Society, at a Celebratory Luncheon in Mayfair's Lansdowne Club. Those paying tribute to his then 63 years and two days in show business included Sir Tim Rice, Wyn Calvin MBE and Bill Kenwright CBE.

In May 2020, Steele announced a new project which he had been working on titled Breakheart, which was available exclusively online throughout May. Announced via a specially recorded video during the COVID-19 lockdown, Breakheart was a seven-episode audio thriller, written by Steele and set during the Second World War. A new episode was released each day for a week. Following the re-release of Breakheart for the 2020 festive period, Steele also released a specially recorded festive tale, The Christmas Mystery of Muchhope.

In June 2021, to celebrate his 65 years in the entertainment industry, his authorised biography, A Life in the Spotlight, was published by FontHill Media, written by fan and archivist Sebastian Lassandro.

Personal life

Steele and [Winifred] Ann Donoghue married at St. Patrick's Church, Soho Square, London, in spring 1960. [38] The formal reception was held in The Savoy, followed by a private family reception in "The Bamboo Bar" on the first floor of the Carpenters Arms public house formerly located in Eltham High Street, south-east London. The couple have one daughter, Emma Elizabeth, born in 1969. [39]


In 2019, Steele was awarded the Freedom of the City of London. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the ceremony at Mansion House was delayed until 20 July 2021.

In the 1979 New Year Honours, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his work as an entertainer and actor. [40] He was knighted in the 2020 Birthday Honours for services to entertainment and charity. [41] [42]


There is a London Borough of Southwark blue plaque on Nickleby House, in the Dickens Estate in Bermondsey, commemorating Steele. [43]




  1. his mother's maiden name

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Video Newsreel of Tommy Steele's Wedding