Singer of 'Ain't Misbehavin' '
Thursday 13 July 2006
Thomas Charles Bruce, singer: born London 16 July 1937; married first Sheila Prytherch (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), second Ida Spiller; died Watford, Hertfordshire 10 July 2006.
The most surprising pop star of 1960 was Tommy Bruce with his revival of "Ain't Misbehavin' ", and no one was more surprised by his success than Bruce himself. He had been working at the fruit and vegetable market in Covent Garden and had never considered singing in public.
Bruce was a cockney, born in Stepney in 1937, and had worked in Covent Garden since he left school. When he moved into a flat in Notting Hill Gate, his upstairs neighbour was Barry Mason, a young man desperate to break into the music business. Mason thought that Bruce looked like a pop star and asked him to sing.
Bruce recorded a gravelly version of Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin' ", which Mason took to Norrie Paramor, a producer at EMI. Paramor recognised the possibilities of Bruce's distinctive voice. "I was given a recording contract and, when 'Ain't Misbehavin' ' crashed into the charts at No 14, I was still working at Covent Garden," Bruce said. "All the papers were coming down to take photos of me loading up spuds and all the fellers were teasing me about it." "Ain't Misbehavin' " went on to reach No 3.
Bruce told me that he "had the same sort of voice as Louis Armstrong", but he was a modest man and he did not mean that he shared Armstrong's ability or control. He was referring to his voice's corncrake quality. Similarly, although he was described as the UK's answer to the Big Bopper, he did not know the Bopper's work at the time. When Bruce did his first stage show with Mike and Bernie Winters, he was terrified about appearing in public. Mason advised him to say "Hello, doll" when he walked on and that broke the ice. While touring on the Rock'n'Trad show, Bruce worked with the Vernons Girls and said "Hello, doll" to his future wife Sheila Prytherch.
Mason combined rock'n'roll with the cha-cha for Bruce's follow-up single, "Broken Doll", which made the Top Forty. "Babette" was also a minor hit and Bruce toured with a group from Birmingham, the Bruisers, who had their own success with "Blue Girl". However, the public began to tire of Bruce's gimmick. Such records as "Lavender Blue", "Let's Do It" and "Love, Honour and Oh Baby!" made no impression, even though Bruce was managed by Mason and had Peter Lee Stirling in his band, both of whom became leading songwriters. Mason comments,
I wasn't really writing at the time and I didn't have anything like "The Last Waltz" or "Delilah" around. Tommy did make some good records and it was just the luck of the draw that he didn't have more hits.
The success of the Beatles and other British beat groups made it difficult for Bruce and his contemporaries, who came to be seen as old hat. Fortunately, Bruce was noticed by a television producer when he sang his cockney tour de force "London Boys". He was offered a regular spot on the very popular Stars and Garters variety show and he worked in the TV pub from 1963 to 1965 alongside Vince Hill, Kathy Kirby and Ray Martine, the compere.
Bruce later became a smartly dressed entertainer, often performing in Malta and Spain, and he was content being an opening act on oldies shows. He toured with early rock'n'roll stars like Mike Berry, Jess Conrad and Wee Willie Harris. He said,
I'm often called a one-hit wonder, but I wasn't really. Still, if they want to say it, I don't worry. It don't mean nothing to me anyway.
You only have to say to anybody, anywhere, any time, the name Tommy Bruce and the answer always comes back, "Oh yes - 'Ain't Misbehavin' ", writes Dave Lodge. It was his defining song. The recording sold a million and gave Tommy silver, gold and platinum discs and a career that lasted nearly 50 years.
In March this year the arts and entertainment charitable trust the Heritage Foundation presented him with a lifetime achievement award. They were kind enough to allow me, as his manager, to make the presentation and I shared the stage with him as he received the applause of an audience of his peers.
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