Thomas Hicks was born in Bermondsey (Burr’-mund-see), South London, England on December 17, 1936. One week after his birth, the family moved to a flat on Mason Street just off the Old Kent Road. He was the second of seven children – four of whom survive. The first son died of double pneumonia and whooping cough 10 months before Tommy was born; a sister, Betty, was killed by a hit-and-run driver in a black-out during the German blitz of London when Tommy was two years old; a brother, Rodney, died of cancer at 18 months of age. Surviving children are Thomas, Colin, Roy and Sandra.
Elizabeth Ellen Bennett, 17, married Thomas Walter Hicks, 31, and was 19 years old when Tommy was born.
Tommy age 6 months, with Mum, age 18 months, age 4
Tommy was a sickly child. He had pneumonia three times and bronchial pneumonia twice and was never out of the hospital for more than three months at a time – all before the age of 4. This must have been truly frightening for Elizabeth who had already lost one son to pneumonia. His 50-year career as a musical entertainer proves that his lungs are very healthy now. The type of music he performs requires great breath control and stamina.
Mr. Hicks worked the docks at Bermondsey and was a “professional backer” (bookmaker’s clerk) and the racing business kept him away from home for extended periods of time and with irregular income. Mrs. Hicks worked as a tin basher in the metal box factory of Peak Frean Biscuit Company, cleaned offices at night, and often held three jobs at one time. Life was not easy in post war London. Nevertheless, she managed to instill in her children the joy and appreciation of life in general and family in particular.
During the German Blitz of London, Tommy and his mother were evacuated briefly to Cornwall. She was pregnant with Colin at the time. They returned to London for a while, then Elizabeth went back to Cornwall leaving Tommy in London with his father. Tommy lived through the worst part of the bombing of London – even having his school playground strafed by German fighters. He was about 4 years old and can’t remember if anyone was injured, he only remembers the scramble to safety. After Colin was born, and during the last few months of the war, Mrs. Hicks once again returned to Cornwall with her children. There they lived with a farming family, enjoyed the open air and ocean breeze, and rode a horse named “Faithful”. Upon their return to London, the family moved to 52 Frean Street just off Jamaica Road in Bermondsey where they lived for the next 11 years. Rodney, Roy and Sandra were born during this time.
For all of his illness, bombing, evacuation, and life hardships, Tommy was no meek kid. He had the spirit of an adventurer and a “fighter”, getting into many scrapes in the neighborhood and at school where he was the leader of Hicksey’s Mob warring against the Knightsley Mob. They held gang fights in bombed out houses. He performed such daredevil feats as diving into the Thames at the London Bridge, swimming with the tide past the Tower Bridge and floating down the river hoping to be caught by an old boat net. He called it “swimming the net”. If you missed the net, you floated down the Thames River to its mouth at Tilsbury.
Tommy, age 9, age 12, age 16.
While the family was living in a flat in Nickleby House, Dockhead, Bermondsey, (later presented with a Blue Plaque Award voted on by the people of Southwark), he attended the Bacon School for Boys where his teacher discovered his penchant for story telling. Mr. Cresswell started him on the road to writing down his stories and soon the whole school was asking to read them. You see, while he was sick so often as a child, he learned to read at a very early age and was already reading well before he started school. He especially enjoyed reading the classics like Kidnapped, King Arthur’s Round Table, etc. His ambition was to become a writer. And write he did! Penning The Final Run, A Portrait of Pablo, To Paint a Tiger, The Broad Sword of Bokaria, Four Faces for Ada, Quincy’s Quest, In Search of Charlie Chaplin, a musical based on the life of Billy Cotton, The Boy with the Amazing Telephone, The Castle and the Colonel, and many of his own musical performances.
When the time came to leave school, Mrs. Hicks suggested that he get a job as a bellboy – low wages, but good tips. So he applied to the Savoy Hotel. But his heart was set on writing, and to write really good stories he needed to travel, see the world, experience more of life. So he applied to the Cunard Line to become a Merchant Marine. On the same day that a notice came from the Savoy that he was to report for work, a notice came from the Gravesend Sea Training School. Tommy opted for the sea.
He trained for six weeks and reported for duty on April 21, 1952 aboard the Scythia on the Southampton to Quebec route. For the next 18 months he sailed the route until a collision at sea nearly took his life. Just off Nova Scotia the Scythia suffered a great hole in her side and was sinking fast. People were jumping overboard, lifeboats were lowered, search lights were seeking. A seaman hoisted Tommy onto his shoulders to help look for passengers in the water. There might never have been a Tommy Steele!
When Tommy was due a four-week leave, he arrived shore side with a pain in his back and could not move his right leg. In the hospital again – where he remained for the next four months.
But Tommy will be the first to tell you that some good comes from every bad. One afternoon a gentleman came around with a guitar. By the time Tommy returned to sea, he was strumming away. He purchased his first guitar from a shipmate. He joined the Furness Withy Line on the New York to Bermuda route. Since all he could play was chords, he would sing the songs so they would be recognizable. Soon he was performing for all his shipmates – and then for the passengers on the Mauretania – writing comedy skits and singing his songs
Little did he realize that strumming a few chords and singing a few songs would set him on a path to becoming the world’s most engaging and best-loved entertainer.
On his travels he picked up many styles of music – Calypso, Maori, Classical Spanish. He heard Country & Western (the beginning of Rock and Roll), Jazz – he absorbed it all.
When on leave he played with a Country and Western band, The Sons of the Saddle, led by a Canadian named Jack Fallon, entertaining at U.S. Air Force Bases. They warned him to never speak. His strong Cockney accent did not quite sound like he was from Texas.
As Tommy was paid off from the Mauretania on August 7, 1956, he passes his brother Colin on the gangplank with the words, “Keep my bunk warm.” Colin was going to sea. Tommy never dreamed that he would not be returning to sea. Tommy was taking a compassionate leave to care for his ill mother. When his Dad would come home in the evenings, Tom would take his guitar to the local coffee bars where the teens were hanging out.
The guitar was a fairly new instrument in England. Most people had never seen one. Tom and his friends would make the rounds of the coffee bars each night – to pick up girls.
On September 19,1956, he stopped in the 2 I’s on Old Compton Road in Soho (previously owned by two brothers named Idle – hence the two I’s, but now owned by Paul Lincoln, a retired wrestler). That night a publicity agent named John Kennedy had been invited to see “The Vipers” perform. What he found instead was a young skinny kid with an unruly mop of hair and a guitar almost as big as he was. A kid who would become known throughout the world as merely… “Tommy”. With only two weeks until Tommy reported back to the Merchant Navy, John had to work fast. He invited Hugh Mendl of Decca Records to hear Tommy sing. Tommy performed 5 songs, one of which was a little ditty called Rock With the Caveman he had written himself. Mr. Mendl arranged a recording session for the next day and asked Tommy to have an original song ready for the flip side. He went home that night and wrote Rock Around Town, and cut the record on September 24, 1956.
It was decided that the name Hicks would not play well on a marquee, so Tommy suggested the Sir name of his paternal grandfather, who was of Scandinavian descent, and whose name was Thomas Stil-Hicks (pronounced “Steel”). An E was added to the spelling – and TOMMY STEELE was created.
John negotiated a contact with Decca for a royalty of one penny per copy sold. He could have taken a lump sum, but he knew that Tommy was going straight to the top. Within five days the record was being sold across England.
Tommy followed his first two hits with more of his original songs, Rebel Rock (which he performed on October 23, 1956 in the movie “Kill Me Tomorrow” starring Pat O’Brien), Doomsday Rock (which the religious leaders attempted to get banned from the radio), Elevator Rock and Teenage Party.
Rock and Roll was born in England.
AND – AS THEY SAY - THE REST IS HISTORY!
See our Chronology page for further information.
Tommy Steele goes on to become the legendary, handsome, debonair chart topper on the hit parade, a movie star, a musical stage star (England, Broadway, Las Vegas), author, artist, sculptor, composer, director, conductor, comedian, serious dramatic actor, dancer (with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire), and sets musical theatre on its ear - and gets himself into the Guinness World Book of Records!
<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<There is nothing the man cannot do!>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
For more reading: “Tommy Steele” by John Kennedy, “Tommy Steele, My Own Story” magazine published in 1959, “A Boy From Bermondsey” by Derek Mathews, “Tommy Steele, His Life and His Songs” by Derek Mathews 2006, “Tommy Steele – Reflections – A Personal Journey” by Pat Richardson 2007, AND THE FIRST INSTALLMENT OF THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY “Tommy Steele, Bermondsey Boy, Memories of a Forgotten World” by Tommy Steele 2006.