The Magician in the Wings: JOHN KENNEDY (+ re Tommy Steele)

(By Colin Kilgour)

Here is a re-run of John Edwards' article in the Daily Mail August 4, 2004. Possibly Edwards overstates the import of Mr. K but he was an interesting figure, nonetheless.

'The First Man to Rock the Nation' Any kind of white powder on the tables was either sugar or dandruff. Nobody knew much about cocaine yet. It was around. But not at the Two I's on Old Compton Street, Soho. The place was only ever full of cigarette smoke and the smell of instant coffee. A night out was almost healthy. Teenagers hung around, listened to music, drank coffee and wandered home late but never got stabbed.

The Two I's came out as one of the best places on earth. And this particular night, the street was being washed down by the scream of a loud guitar exploding through the open door. John Kennedy, Heathrow freelance photographer and curious about the noise, pushed his way off the hot, crowded pavement and squeezed himself on to a stool by the bar.

The night became distinguished. Write it down, September 14, 1956. It was the one when rock 'n' roll began in England. Kennedy had no more of an ear for music than a tree. What he knew about, and knew a lot, was style and promotion and a teenage kid they could look on as a hero. So he didn't look at the blond youth dancing and singing on the stage too much.

He stared first at the faces of all the girls at the tables with their drinks and cigarettes. It was layer after layer of adulation. Now he turned to the lively kid banging out some new Elvis number. Presley was only heard here on record shows and jukeboxes. Paul Lincoln owned the Two I's. He was a pro wrestler who called himself Dr Death. Paul moved around the wall looking at the great business. Kennedy tried to talk to him through the noise. `Who's the singer?' he shouted in his ear.

Not much went on at Heathrow for a good photographer to get excited about. There was a PanAm 101 flight from New York which flew film stars. After that almost nothing.

Kennedy spent a lot of time thinking about a switch from newspapers to show business. At least show business was more fun. This boy on stage at the Two I's would be the push he needed. `You want to go into serious show business?' Kennedy asked him when they met after his set.

He said he was only on leave as a steward on Cunard ocean liners. He had two weeks to go. If Kennedy could show him a deal in that time then sure, he would like to become a star. And that's how Tommy Steele started. In six months he was a solid gold sensation.

Kennedy did the talking. He wheeled and dealed, snagged a record contract and found another unknown to write songs. This one was Lionel Bart. Down the line he wrote Oliver!, one of the greatest musicals ever.

There hadn't been a man like Kennedy before. Show business was part of the Establishment. Now there was this tall, slim, handsome guy strutting around cutting deals in the offices of people who wouldn't take a phone call from him before. He was the first one of that kind of agent/manager and afterwards they came along like rain.

Steele made 1,000 a week on stage (equivalent to around 15 grand weekly in 2002, the last year I have a comparison for: CK). Then there were royalties. It was fabulous money. Kennedy had a partner now, Larry Parnes, a rich investor and night clubber. He brought in some business plans. Tommy was performing at the Cafe d'Paris straight after Noel Coward. He was now an industry with movie contracts and international recording deals.

Kennedy prospered. He bought Jaguars and had his suits cut in Savile Row. The newspapers put the rise of rock down to him. Tommy was out front pushing it. John Kennedy was the magician in the wings. Life became a roar. He liked the jewellery of the good times. So it was out of a bed-sit into Dorothy Foxon's great and fabled drinking club next to Harrods and into a penthouse on Half Moon Street, Mayfair. Nothing in between.

He gambled, sat there at four in the morning opposite Sammy Davis Jnr. in Dorothy's betting three queens against two pairs. There wasn't a second of the day which wasn't touched by fun and glamour. Rock 'n' roll was down to him and Tommy. History has to rate the two of them as the people who brought it from America. One million cigarettes and late nights drove John Kennedy to the California desert 20 years ago so he could breathe the hot, dry air and help his chest. It was a restless time. With a new partner he opened a market for outdoor air conditioning. Sounded crazy but it worked.

But that didn't challenge him. He was an artist at heart. A photographer, a painter, someone with that kind of talent. And one day around the swimming pool of his house he said he was going to be a sculptor.

You don't know anything about it, you told him. `I'll learn and be good at it,' he said with his booming confidence. He did and he was. His artistry is all over the south-western states, right there in the entrance halls of banks and in special places in wealthy people's homes. Rock 'n' roll, sculpturing, semi-pro gambler, industrial entrepreneur - it's hard to put much more into one lifetime.

So there was a lot to remember of him when people gathered in the chapel of Palm Springs Mortuary for his funeral last week. He was 73. On the street the temperature got to 110 degrees. That was also a hot night outside the Two I's, Soho, long ago. The night Kennedy had a little bit of inspiration and a youth revolution began and it genuinely changed the culture of the whole country. Doesn't show any signs of stopping either.

Colin Kilgour Dec. 2004 - from John Edwards' article

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
Yahoo Group "Shakin' All Over". For comments or information
please contact Dik de Heer at

-- Return to "This Is My Story" Index --