Tommy vs Elvis
It’s fall semester 1957, fourth grade. Up until that time this problem had never even surfaced, much less become one, not for me anyway.
That fall, however, in my school yard, it arrived with a vengeance: you had to choose. It was the one or it was the other. And if you’re not in the one camp then you’re in the other, the enemy camp — going both ways, of course. No neutral ground here.
Elvis Presley had entered world consciousness on quite a scale a year before, by 1956. A year later, by summer 1957, his English counterpart, Tommy Steele, made a splash in Europe, though nowhere near as big a splash as the one Elvis had made in America and elsewhere and which grew splashier and splasher with each new release, each new movie.
Me, going on ten, gleefully oblivious to all this.
As far as popular music was concerned, I knew only of Paul Anka, and that was because the daughter of my dad’s business partner (Ritva was her name, and she was a “war child” from Finland, one of the many children who were sent across the Baltic to Sweden for adoption to avoid hardship — including starvation — during the second world war), who was five years older than I, well, she loved this Anka guy and had many of his records — black, five-inch singles: I remember “Diana” and “You Are My Destiny” quite well, to this day.
“Anka,” by the way means “duck” in Swedish. I always found that name ridiculously funny. Paul Duck. Not too far from Donald Duck which in Sweden was known as Kalle Anka.
While Ritva loved Paul Anka, she did not care for Elvis, apparently, and even less for Tommy Steele; to my knowledge she had no records of either of them; so my slate was cleaner than driven snow when it came to these two (now competing for European hearts) guys.
Okay, crunch time.
Just some brief background first: In Sweden, at that time, a widespread hobby among us kids was collecting “film stars” which were small, mostly color photographs — roughly 2 x 3 inches with the name of the star at the bottom of the picture. You bought them in sets of 10 for about a quarter and then you collected and traded them. One obvious set to accumulate was many different pics of your favorite star: I actually had over one hundred Brigitte Bardot “film stars”, though, to be honest, there were quite a few duplicates.
Some of these film-star pics were quite rare, like Johnny Weissmuller (as I recall) which could cost you ten or fifteen or as many as fifty other film stars in trade (for the avid Weissmuller fan, that is).
And, yes, of course, Elvis Presley was one of the pictured stars, too, as was Tommy Steele. Everyone seemed to have loads of pics of the one or the other. Not me, though, I was a Bardot guy.
Hence, crunch time.
“Who do you like?” he wanted to know. This particular boy rather much bigger than I was, and not about to put up with nonsense was the sense I picked up, viscerally.
“Both,” was not an answer.
“Neither,” was not an answer.
Either of these answers could get you punched in the nose.
So, you had to, had to, had to pick the one or the other; and even then, you stood a roughly fifty-fifty chance to get nose-punched for siding with the enemy.
This bigger-than-I guy did have film-star pics of both Elvis and Tommy, which he showed me. This, of course, did not give away who he supported. Pick one, he said.
He held out both pics, waiting. Who did I like? Who was I for? He would like an answer this recess.
I looked them both over, back and forth, and here’s the thing: I just did not like the looks of Elvis, whereas I really liked the picture of Tommy Steele. So, for no other reason than looks, I answered, “Tommy.”
This, for this one particular slugger, was apparently the right answer. Not that he smiled or said “Yay” or anything, but he didn’t punch my nose.
Eventually, I came to learn that Tommy Steele was favored by the majority (say, 60–40) at our school, perhaps for the same reason I did (was what I figured).
To this day, I cannot with certainty say that I ever heard Tommy Steele sing, though there are some notes clinking about in the back of my mind which may be echoes of Tommy.
I have since heard Elvis, of course, I mean, who hasn’t? Still, I never really cared for the man. Even after all those hits and all those movies, and all those Vegas shows (some of which I’ve since seen on television).
Tommy Steele went on to work in musicals as I recall, and I remember wondering “What on Earth?” the first time I heard that he was starring in some London show or other. Not “my” Tommy, pure Rock’n’Roller, surely.
Yup, it was my Tommy. Now West-End Tommy.
Having to pick Elvis or Tommy was my first experience of factions and the blind illogic that formed and thrived them. They cared nothing for who you were or what you did, or what you hoped to be.
No, you are either for us or against us.
Much like politics today, I’m afraid.