DICKIE PRIDE (By Steve Walker)
Born Richard Knellar, 21 October, 1941, Thornton Heath, Croydon, U.K.
Dickie Pride's story is that of an unfulfilled talent lost amongst the plethora of aspiring British rock'n'rollers in the late 1950's and early 1960's. Born Richard Charles Knellar in October 1941 at Heathfield Vale, Croydon, south London, he showed early promise as a singer and by the time he was eight he was already singing in charity concerts. Later he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Church Music in Addington Place, Croydon, partly through the prompting of his mother, who was Welsh, and was a mainstay of the local church choir.
At the Royal College his teachers considered his voice so fine that he would sing opera when he grew up. He sang in Canterbury Cathedral before the Archbishop of Canterbury, but also managed to shock his teachers by forming a skiffle group called the Semi-Tones. When he left school he did not at first take up a singing career, but had a series of low paid jobs, including working in a stonemason's yard that specialised in making grave stones, from which he was fired for being too cheerful and singing at work.
Dickie was still only 16 when Russ Conway dropped into the Castle pub in Tooting towards the end of 1958 and changed his life. Russ Conway: "I dropped into a pub in Tooting and there was this incredible singer. I'd no idea who he was, but I was so impressed I talked to Larry Parnes about him. We went to see him the next week and took Lionel Bart with us. We were all so impressed that Larry decided to sign him on the spot."
A few weeks later, complete with the obligatory Parnes name-change, Dickie Pride played his first gig at the Kilburn Gaumont, in north London, then the biggest cinema in the country and now a bingo hall, in a charity show. He was so impressive that Record Mirror wrote: "He ripped it up from the start. His performance shook the theatre to its very foundations". It was two weeks after his 17th birthday and he had never sung on a professional stage before.
Signed up for the Larry Parnes stable of young singers at twenty pounds a week, which was roughly four times the average wage at the time, Dickie quickly made an impact as a dramatic stage performer, becoming known as 'The Sheik Of Shake'.
He was signed to Columbia Records by Norrie Paramour and made his television debut in Jack Good's 'Oh Boy!' on Saturday, February 28, 1959. Unfortunately, the only surviving film of him singing is from 'Oh, Boy!', which has him static in front of the microphone singing 'Slippin' n' Slidin', his debut record on Columbia (DB 4283). Because in those days the cameras were not very manoeuvrable, singers had to keep to one spot or the cameras would lose track of them. In total, Dickie made eight appearances on 'Oh Boy!'. The surviving performance logs show Dickie singing the following:
4 April, 1959: Slippin' n' Slidin' 25 April, 1959: Long Tall Sally, Come Softly To Me, Cool Shake 30 May, 1959 (final broadcast of 'Oh Boy'): TV Hop (with Cliff Richard, Marty Wilde, Billy Fury and Bill Forbes).
Following his run of appearances on "Oh Boy", Columbia released Dickie's cover of Frankie Sal's 'Fabulous Cure' c/w 'Midnight Oil' (DB 4296), but, like his previous record, it failed to reach the charts. Towards the end of 1959, 'Primrose Lane' (Columbia DB 4340), a rather sugary ballad, barely made it into the Top Thirty (number 28 for one week, 30 October, 1959). While Dickie's talents were obvious to anyone who saw him perform live on stage, Parnes and Paramour repeatedly failed to find a song that would propel him into the charts. This was a problem encountered by most of Parnes' singers. Even Billy Fury had trouble getting into the Top Ten and did not really crack it until three years after signing for Parnes.
Jack Good also produced 'Wham!' for ATV in 1960 and Dickie was a regular contributor to the show, along with Billy Fury, Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, Joe Brown, Jess Conrad, Little Tony, Vince Taylor and the Vernons Girls.
Guitar legend Albert Lee made his first professional stage appearance in Maryport, Cumbria, backing Dickie Pride in January 1960.
The contract Dickie signed with Parnes guaranteed him sixty pounds a week by the fourth year, a fortune in those days, but in fact Parnes reneged on almost all the contracts, which were in any case so tightly drawn that Parnes could do almost anything he wanted. Duffy Power, who shared a flat with Dickie Pride, remembers the tours they made together. Duffy said: "Dickie was absolute magic on stage, completely spell-binding. On a tour you get a bit jaded listening to the same people singing the same things every night, but Dickie was the one the other singers went to the wings to watch. You couldn't take your eyes off him. But it was a very funny set up because although he was not that high up the bill, he closed the first half of the show, which is like being second on the bill, and got extra songs to sing. So it was like Parnes recognised that he deserved a top billing, but wouldn't give it to him."
Hal Carter, who was Larry Parnes No 2, recalled: "Dealing with Dickie became more and more difficult. He was a genius in my opinion, but with a couple of flakes missing. The trouble was you never knew when you went in to the room whether you were going to get the genius or the madman. He had a tendency to hit out with his fists rather than talking and the slightest frustration would start him swinging. If he drank he didn't just have a drink he got legless and he was into smoking dope very early on". Georgie Fame, who backed Dickie in the early days, remembered: "If there was anyone in the audience heckling he'd jump off the stage and go and thump them. He was also the man who taught me to sing harmony, when I'd never even heard of it. He'd get three or four of us together on the back of the coach singing and that's how I learnt to do it. He was tremendously talented and his death was a tragedy."
In 1961, Columbia made one last attempt to break Dickie into the market, by recording an album of Tin Pan Alley chestnuts with Eric Jupp's orchestra. Entitled 'Pride Without Prejudice', the album was intended to move Dickie towards the 'all round entertainer' status, but failed to sell in substantial quantities. After he parted company with Larry Parnes, a troubled life followed with sporadic TV appearances and tours. He married in 1962 but work was still hard to come by and so he took a job as a storeman. In 1963, he formed a short-lived group called the Guv'nors with Nelson Keane and Bobby Shafto, but they split up after Shafto was injured in a car accident in June 1963.
In 1965 his only son was born (now living in the U.S. as Richard Ludt) and the same year Dickie, then lead vocalist with a group called the Sidewinders, got deeper into drugs, leading to heroin addiction. In 1967 he was referred to a mental hospital where doctors decided to give him a lobotomy. Early in 1969 he tried to make a come back as a singer but took heroin again. He was found dead in bed on 26th March, 1969 after an accidental overdose of sleeping tablets. Joe Brown, another of Parnes' protégés who survived the experience, said: "Dickie Pride was the most talented of us all, he was a great singer. Ask any of the boys and they'll all say Dickie Pride." In 1999, playwright Charles Langley wrote the play 'Pride With Prejudice' which told the sad story of Dickie and how his life affected Parnes stablemates Billy Fury and Duffy Power.
In 2002, an article appeared in the Croydon Guardian asking for recollections of Dickie for inclusion in a new book to be written about him by author Stuart Lowes, but I have been unable to find out more about this project.
Dickie Pride discography:
Slippin' n' Slidin'/Don't Make Me Love You - Columbia DB 4283 (March 1959)
This page has some pictures of Dickie:
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