It was a voice that only a mother could love – and then possibly only from a distance. But in pop music, technical excellence is frequently far less important than personality. Tommy Bruce may have had a delivery that even he described as “diabolical” but he had charm and cheek. And for a brief, golden period in the early sixties he became Stepney’s answer to the US rock and roll stars who were dominating the UK charts.
It was a glamorous – if brief – peak in a life which until then had been bleak. Thomas Charles Bruce had been born on 16 July 1937 in Stepney, only to lose both his parents before his eleventh birthday. Four grim years followed in an orphanage before an unhappy introduction to the world of work. At 15 he was an engineering apprentice, but hated it and threw the job up to become a van driver. Then followed work with his uncle at Covent Garden fruit and veg market (in those days actually in Covent Garden, and a stone’s throw from the stages and theatres of the West End).
And then, like every 17-year-old East End boy, Tommy had to do his National Service. The Royal Ordnance Corps promised and delivered 18 months of tedium, working in the stores and kitting out new squaddies. Carry On Sergeant will serve as a history lesson for what the life was like. Duty done, Tommy was back on Civvy Street, back in Covent Garden and contemplating the rest of his life shifting boxes of cabbages, when fortune took one of its curious twists.
It was now 1959, and a fellow tenant in Tommy’s Notting Hill boarding house was another young man fresh out of uniform. Barry Mason had left his native Lancashire to relocate in London and, he hoped, make it as a songwriter. Mason had already made some useful connections at EMI, and was looking for a face to front his songs. “You look like a star,” he told the dubious Tommy, who could only reply: “You haven’t heard me sing”. But the canny Mason, who would go on to pen dozens of hits over the following decades (Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes, There Goes My First Love and Delilah to name just a few) had an angle.
The year before, the nascent pop career of The Big Bopper had been tragically cut short. The king-sized Texan was killed in the plane crash in which Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens also died, and he left a small but distinctive musical canon. Typical of his style was the comedy rock ‘n’ roll hit Chantilly Lace, which showcased an exaggerated vocal style that swooped from falsetto to bass with frequent sprinklings of manic laughter.
Mason took Tommy into the studios at Abbey Road to cut a demo tape of the Fats Waller classic Ain’t Misbehavin’ … but in the style of Chantilly Lace. Backing were four Birmingham musicians, the Bruisers, who had been honing their own rock ‘n’ roll act in the clubs of the West Midlands. Neither the Bruisers, nor EMI producer Norrie Paramor, could have been prepared for Tommy’s mix of slurred diction and gravelly ranting. But there is a genius in knowing what the public wants, and Mason and Paramor decided to release the track as a single on the Columbia label. Weeks later, Tommy Bruce and the Bruisers were at Number 3 in the Hit Parade, and the band were parachuted into 1960’s Rock ‘n’ Trad package tour, with 15 other acts headlined by Billy Fury.
Tommy’s voice is, truth to tell, hard to describe in words. Readers wanting to get the full, remarkable flavour of a sound that is part Big Bopper, part Mike Reid (but mostly gravel) should head to youtube.com where a search for ‘Tommy Bruce’ yields some brilliantly clear uploads of Ain’t Misbehavin, Broken Doll, My Little Girl and the rest of the handful of tracks he cut for Columbia. Tommy was likeable and fun, but it wasn’t likely to sustain a recording career, with each featuring a near-identical faux-Bopper intro, and each selling less than the last. Tommy’s second single, Broken Doll, went to No 36 and he had three complete misses and two years out of the charts before Babette struggled to No 50.
In his rock ‘n’ roll ballad version of the nursery rhyme Lavender Blue Tommy anticipates the rise of the pub singer, and gives the impression that he knows just how ridiculous the whole thing had become. By the time he cut B-side The London Boys, (opening lyric “Here’s a song about the scene; Mile End Road to Bethnal Green; We are the London Boys”) he had given up all pretence at an American accent – this was pure cockney gravel. Through it all, it sounds like he’s having a great time.
The Bruisers now went their own way, with lead guitarist Peter Lee Stirling resuming vocal duties, but spent four years failing to chart. The talented Stirling became a jobbing songwriter, and by 1968 was running his own studio in the Whitechapel Road, turning out cover versions of chart hits. He would resurface as a pop star in his own right in the early seventies – rechristened Daniel Boone and scoring a UK and US hit with Beautiful Sunday in 1972.
Tommy might have called it a day. But he was, at heart, an entertainer, and he wasn’t going to let a small matter of no hits and no band get in his way. He became a fixture on ITV’s variety show Stars and Garters, which was pitched against the BBC’s Saturday night monster the Billy Cotton Band Show. It was brash and fun, and he was now doing comedy alongside the music. You’ll also hear Tommy crooning the title song to 1963 movie curiosity Two Left Feet (starring a young Michael Crawford it was considered daringly sexual for the time and received an X-certificate, killing it on release).
Thus can a chart run consisting of a hit (and two near misses) be parlayed into a career. Tommy would spend the next few decades working the cabaret circuit in Spain and Malta, where the British holidaymakers remembered with delight the “sandpaper and gravel” cockney of the early sixties. He died in July 2006.
Have Gravel Will Travel: The Official Biography of Tommy Bruce by Dave Lodge; ISBN-13: 978-1904502920
Videos of Tommy performing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6FfbSazvBY