teen-idols” started popping up all over the place, when things suddenly got a little post-modern.
A television show about “teen-idols” popped up. It was called “The Singing Idol” (is there any other kind?).
And its star became a pop star!
“They call it a teenage crush" he sung,( insert quite passably rockin’ guitar riff)… they can’t believe this is real.” Well… quite frankly neither can I. I can’t believe that Tommy’s hair is real… brillcream can do some amazing things, but nothing quite that amazing… I can’t believe that you believe you are rocking when you have some fuddly old guys in an orchestra around you… I almost can’t believe that you are a teenager, but it turns out that you were 20, which is close enough. Some sources say 17. I’m not entirely sure what you are aiming for in your vocal chords, and it’s quite intriguing… oh you were managed by Colonel Tom Parker? Well that explains everything then.
It’s practically impossible to discuss Tommy Sands without also discussing Elvis Presley.
They had toured together – prior to Elvis becoming the BIGGEST THING EVER! – on the Louisiana Hayride. Elvis had promised to give him a lift-up if he (Elvis that is) ever became the BIGGEST THING EVER! So when a semi-autobiographic play and film about Elvis came up (by 1957 the world was so infatuated by Elvis that they were basing television shows on him)… guess who got the job? Tommy Sands was essentially the first officially authorized Elvis impersonator.
He certainly had the prerequisite Elvis hair! As well as the Elvis stare!
Unlike Ricky Nelson, who also accidently found himself being a rock’n’roll star/teen idol after starring in a television show, Tommy only had a short moment on television – about an hour – instead of a weekly family sit-com, but he managed to get one hit single out of it. The rather addictive “Teenage Crush”, all big guitar strumming riff, swaggering groove, slurred vocals and cynical lyrics comparing his love for a girl with the plight of his generation to gain respect in the world. “Teenage Crush” reached No. 18 on the Australian charts in May 1957.
He didn’t really sound like Elvis anyway. He sounded more like Goofy from Disney.
And because he was “groomed” to be not only the “next Elvis” but, one of a series of kids who the Elvis-infatuated-but-actually-kind-of-hating-and-hoping-that-he’d-fall-on-his-face media decided to build up as the pop star who would take over from the pelvised one. In order to keep their finger on the pulse of that mysterious entity known as teenage taste, they analyzed polls, because back then, there was a company that polled kids on who their favourite pop stars were.
It was Gilbert Youth Research Company, and they found some rather peculiar results, such as that Perry Como kept on winning. He was the Eisenhower of pop. So when, in January 1958, the Gilbert Youth Research Company produced the shock result that the Elvis vote had fallen from first place with 33% of votes, down to forth, it was big news.
Such a drop could possibly be explained by the strong competition in rock’n’roll in the later months of 1957, with Chuck Berry (“School Days”), Jerry Lee Lewis (“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”) and Buddy Holly (“That’ll Be The Day” and “Peggy Sue”) all being big hits, and probably stealing some of Elvis’ votes. Except that the main beneficiary of Elvis’ fall appeared to be… Tommy Sands! Who came 5th, beating Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly (and Johnny Mathis and Paul Anka for that matter, both of which had just reached become the next big thing). The winner was Perry Como. Followed by Frank Sinatra. And then Pat Boone.
This begs two questions (actually it begs millions, such as Perry Como, Pat Boone… really?!!?):
The first is, why? Why would teenagers abandon Elvis for an Elvis impersonator with a goofy smile and an apparent speech impediment?
And secondly, if Tommy was as popular as these polls indicate then why didn’t this translate into a greater chart presence. Because after “Teenage Crush”, he really only had one more big hit.
Furthermore Tommy was actually ahead of Elvis amongst teenage males, so his appeal was less of the screaming girls variety, but more amongst guys who wanted perfectly sculptured hair. Which is not surprising since, by teen idol standards, Tommy – other than his hair - was not the best looking kid in the world.
This result, added to the fact that Tommy had a vocal delivery even more incomprehensible than Elvis’ but a public persona that was more goofy smiles and less society threatening gyrations, the media decided to write Tommy up as a threat to Elvis’ popularity. The fact that they were friends, and Elvis had given Tommy a leg up just gave the story a much needed additional twist. The story needed such a twist because at no stage did Tommy look as though he might actually take over from the King. It was 99% a media beat-up (but then so was much of Elvis’ initial crowning as King Of Rock’n’Roll in the first place). Elvis himself had been such big news when he arrived, that the only new story that could be bigger, was for one of his minions to overthrow him. So the media were racing around, scouring the charts, polling the kids, trying to find the next big threat to the throne. First Pat Boone was nominated. Then it was Ricky Nelson. Next week it was Tommy Sands. Fabian was even suggested at one point. Other than Pat – who according both to these poll figures, and his own chart performance, was even bigger than Elvis for a while there – none of them even got close.
The “other hit” that Tommy had, was actually bigger than “Teenage Crush” (at least in Australia). It was “Bigger Than Texas” and it reached No.8 on the Australian charts in April 1959, by which time the rest of the world was close to having forgotten all about him. It starts off well, a geography lesson set to big booming drums,… “Well it's big and it's wide /room for eight other states inside /it's where big men do big things/ and big towns like Big Springs”
So far so refreshingly different. It’s educational yet entertaining. A geography lesson in rhyme. For kids who found their geography teachers to be particularly boring, that introduction was an exciting contrast. But then Tommy has to ruin it…
“But bigger than all of Texas Is my love, my love for you”
And suddenly it - * groan* - turns into a B-grade rockabilly love song.
One Top Ten hit does not make you rock’n’roll royalty. About the only dimension in which Tommy might be said to have matched Elvis was his hair. For Tommy’s hair was indeed a thing of wonder. After “Bigger Than Texas”, which, as a No.8 hit, was really only about as big as Maine, Tommy practically never hit the charts again.
Even after Dick Clark decided – in an attempt to prove that you can’t force people to buy a terrible record – played a particular, and particularly awful, Tommy Sands record every day for seven months on American Bandstand, he just couldn’t make the charts.
Which just goes to show, that although what Elvis did in the 50s looked so easy that anyone could do it… it turns out that actually, not everyone could.
* All the chart positions in this blog are based on David Kent's "The Australian Top 20 Book"