FIFTEEN-year-old Edinburgh lad, Jackie Dennis, was bigger than Elvis for a week in 1958, when his first single La Dee Dah peaked at #4 ahead of Jailhouse Rock.
Jackie Dennis’ long and fruitful career can be traced back to his childhood when he would perform to family and friends at their house in Brunswick Road, with the curtained bed recess there transformed into an impromptu stage. Later, from the age of 8, he began performing at charity shows all over the country. Despite his tender years, Jackie excelled in his vocal impressions of the likes of Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
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Jackie had attended Leith Academy and was working as an apprentice plumber when he was discovered during a performance at Prestwick Airport, then a US air base, at the age of 15 by the comedy duo, Mike and Bernie Winters. They were quick to spot his natural talent and informed the lad that they would speak to their agent, Evie Taylor, about signing him up. Within a week, Jackie was stunned when he got a call informing him he was on his way to London for an audition.
His auditions for the Six-Five Special - the top rated teenage music show of the time, and Decca records took place in February 1958. Eight bars into his first song, Jackie was told to stop. He feared the worst and thought he was on his way back home, when in fact; it was all they needed to hear. Five weeks later, his first single, the catchy La Dee Dah, was in the top 10.
In the blink of an eye, Jackie had gone from a £3 a week apprentice plumber to a grand-a-week teenage rock ‘n’’ roll superstar. The boy from Brunswick Road was on his way to showbiz fame and international success.
Jackie was quickly added to the cast of the 1958 film, Six-Five Special, along with Petula Clark, Lonnie Donegan, Cleo Laine, John Dankworth, Dickie Valentine, the John Barry Seven, Peter Murray and a host of other stars of the time. The film followed two teenage girls travelling to London by train to attend a broadcast of a TV pop music programme. On the way, they are entertained by various 1950s pop stars - including Jackie.
Television and live bookings flooded in for Jackie and he was signed for a series of national Summer Shows where he was billed as ‘New! Hep! and Fab!’ and ‘The £50,000 Golden Boy from Scotland’ – the latter referring to his contract signing fee. His weekly wage was £1,000 and he was the top billed act, above the likes of Des O’Connor - who was on £60 per week. Max Bygraves described the 15-year-old as possessing the stage presence and finesse of a seasoned performer.
Jackie released two more records in 1958, My Dream, which reached #15 in the UK charts, and Purple People Eater, which sold 1.3 million copies worldwide.
One of Jackie’s closest friends at the time was Tommy Steele, who he stood in for when Tommy was forced to take two months off following an incident with a mob of fans. Through Tommy Steele, Jackie was introduced to the Quarrymen – a group of leather-clad Liverpudlians who would go on to conquer the world as the Beatles.
Jackie also recalls a time in the early ‘60s when John Lennon and his wife Cynthia popped round to his flat in London to borrow a pint of milk. The Fab Four’s pop career hadn’t quite taken off yet!
First British artist to perform on US television
In October 1958, Jackie beat even the Beatles by becoming the first British artist to perform on US television, as one of the star guests on Perry Como’s Kraft Music Show in New York. Introduced as ‘Britain’s Ricky Nelson’, Jackie shared the bill that day with the Ray Charles Singers.
During his visit to the States to record the Como show, Jackie met the Everly Brothers and Anne Sheridan, and paid a visit to a film set where he was introduced to Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Experiences he describes as “unbelievable”.
In 1975, when Como came over to Scotland to play the Usher Hall he sent a limousine to collect Jackie and his mother from their Edinburgh home. They met up with Perry back stage and were invited for drinks with him at his suite at the Caledonian Hotel. Jackie’s mother, a big fan of Como for many years, was overwhelmed. Como sent Jackie a Christmas card, every year, until his death in 2001.
Another major achievement during Jackie’s time in the US was a four week residency, headlining at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. It was there that Sammy Davis took him under his wing. Jackie soon found himself shaking hands and conversing with the likes of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.
Jackie also performed with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens on the popular music programme Oh Boy! When asked about Buddy’s fateful air incident, Jackie stated: “It was terribly sad; he was a very nice lad and so much in love with his new wife, Maria Elena”.
Many of Jackie’s recordings, including Linton Addie, with the line ‘Hey you heard the song of Scotland’, and The Wee Cooper o’ Fife, reflected a strong sense of attachment to his birth country. Jackie was immensely proud of his Scottish roots and seldom appeared on stage without his trademark kilt or tartan trews - not that the 15-year-old was difficult to identify with his distinctive spiky, red head of hair. Being just 4ft10 at the time, Jackie states it was “bigger than my body”.
The baton is passed
Following a 6-month stint in Australia, Jackie returned home to find that Cliff Richard had taken his place as the country’s hottest new singing sensation. His days in the direct glare of fame were behind him, though he continued to find work for another decade, performing in clubs and summer shows.
In Edinburgh, Jackie’s one pretension to stardom was a Ford Zodiac with the registration JD 32. Before the days of CDs and even cassettes, Jackie had a record player specially fitted in the car.
Retirement from show business
Jackie retired completely from show business in the late 1970s, settling permanently back in Edinburgh to take care of his mum: “I didn’t want to live out of a suitcase any more and I gave it all up”.
In later years, Jackie worked as a postman and then as a home help. Jackie’s final job, before retiring, was as in a nursing home for the elderly. He describes it as the happiest time of his life.
Jackie loved his time in show business, but says that: “There was a lot of pressure put on me. If I wasn’t feeling well, the show had to go on, and that was tough. I was always surrounded by bodyguards. You couldn’t go along to watch a football match or see a movie, nothing like that”.
Similarly to fellow Edinburgh act, the Bay City Rollers, Jackie was also the subject of exploitation, by managers and agents, with only a small percentage of his massive earnings reaching his pocket.
With his experience of the cut-throat nature of the music industry, Jackie has some sympathy for some of the younger people that appear on the X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, though he disapproves of those who mime on stage.
Jackie Dennis is possibly Scotland’s only direct link to the heyday of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll and a walking encyclopaedia on the subject. At the age of 71, he still lives in the Pilton area of Edinburgh with his wife, Irene, and is surrounded by numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren. He continues to exude the natural charm and charisma that earned him that £50k contract all those years ago.
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