Tommy Steele: From Soho coffee houses to a number one single and Half a Sixpence

14 October 2022, 17:04 | Updated: 1 November 2022, 11:04

Tommy Steele in 1960
Tommy Steele in 1960. Picture: Getty

By Tom Eames

Sir Tommy Steele is widely regarded as Britain's first teen idol and rock and roll star.

As a teenager, Tommy was discovered at the 2i's Coffee Bar in Soho, London, and he was Britain's first bonafide rock hero when he scored a hit with 'Rock with the Caveman' in 1956. This helped pave the way for artists like Cliff Richard, Adam Faith and Marty Wilde.

By the 1960s, Tommy had branched out to other forms of entertainment and became an all-round star.

He appeared in various West End theatre productions and starred in musical films including Half a Sixpence, The Happiest Millionaire and Finian's Rainbow.

Tommy has also worked as a songwriter, author and even a sculptor. At 85, he still performs today.

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.

  1. How old is Tommy Steele and where was he born?

    Tommy Steele in 2012
    Tommy Steele in 2012. Picture: Getty

    Born Thomas Hicks, Tommy Steele was born on December 17, 1936. He celebrated his 85th birthday in 2021.

    He was born in Bermondsey, London. His father Darbo was a racing tipster and his mother Betty worked in a factory.

    He had big dreams of being a star after his parents took him to the London Palladium, but "didn't think you could be English and be a star".

  2. How did he get his first big break?

    Tommy Steele in 1974
    Tommy Steele in 1974. Picture: Getty

    Tommy Steele worked various jobs, including a period as a merchant seaman.

    He also played guitar and banjo and sang in coffee houses in Soho.

    He was serving in Norfolk, Virginia, America, when he saw Buddy Holly perform live and decided to ditch skiffle for rock and roll.

    He was discovered at a coffee bar by freelance photographer John Kennedy, who believed Steele could be Britain's answer to Elvis Presley.

    Co-manager Larry Parnes had been incorrectly credited with creating the stage name 'Tommy Steele', but it was Steele himself who adapted the surname of his Scandinavian paternal grandfather, Thomas Stil-Hicks (pronounced Steel-Hicks).

  3. What are his biggest songs?

    Tommy Steele scored several big hits in the 1950s and early 1960s, including:

    • Rock with the Caveman
    • Singing the Blues (a UK number 1)
    • Butterfingers
    • Water, Water
    • Nairobi
    • Come on Let's Go
    • Little White Bull
    • What a Mouth
  4. Was Tommy Steele married and does he have children?

    The Steeles in 1963
    The Steeles in 1963. Picture: Getty

    Tommy Steele married his partner Winifred Ann Donoghue at St. Patrick's Church, Soho Square, London, in spring 1960.

    The couple have one daughter, Emma Elizabeth, born in 1969. Emma has since become an interior designer.

    Tommy and Ann in 2005
    Tommy and Ann in 2005. Picture: Getty