South Londoner Terry Dene (born Terence Williams) was one of many early UK rockers to benefit from the opportunity to sing at London’s 2i’s Coffee Bar – The same venue that helped the early musical careers of Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard, Adam Faith and many others.
During 1956 and 1957, Dene had worked as a record packer but was convinced that he could sing as well as the American stars on the discs he handled during his day job.
He admired Elvis and also tried to emulate Gene Vincent in the tiny room at the 2i’s.
The shy and nervous teenager from South London was fortunate that rock and roll impresario Jack Good witnessed one of his performances and gave him the opportunity to record with Decca and to find a weekly spot on TV’s 6.5 Special.
His first release, A White Sports Coat, was an instant hit but Terry resented not being allowed to sing Rock & Roll as he wanted, as fans wanted more mellow tunes.
Dene even made a film, The Golden Disc (1958), and was a solid concert attraction, but, unfortunately, he fell foul of the press following a drunken incident which led to his arrest and being fined £2 in January 1958.
This was at a time when Rock & Roll was viewed with deep suspicion by the establishment, and he was painted by the newspapers as a symbol of all that was bad about the music and its followers.
He promised to behave but in February, he had another breakdown and was back in court – this time for smashing a telephone kiosk, two motorcycles, and a plate-glass window. He was fined £155.
By now, Dene’s story had a love interest also: Edna Savage, his girlfriend and co-star, promised the world through the pages of the Daily Express that she would “stand by him”. In July, they got married and headlined a joint tour.
The crunch came in 1959 when the already mentally stressed singer was called up for National Service.
Although Dene’s emotional state made him unsuitable material for the call-up, and he was discharged within a few days, the press decided that his apparent keenness to avoid it was further evidence that the singer was a thoroughly bad lot.
Nik Cohn wrote at the time, “As Rifleman 23604106 he smiled for cameras, waved for weeping fans. A few hours later, though, having realised exactly what he was taking on, he burst into tears and collapsed. ‘It was grim, man, just grim,’ he said”.
Amidst questions in the House of Commons and attacks in the press, it became a stigma that the poor wretched Dene could not cast off, and his chart career effectively ceased at that point.
After finally recovering from the nervous breakdown that followed the demise of his professional music career, Terry was still keen to carry on singing.
He turned to religion during the 1970s, joining the Salvation Army and using his singing skills to produce gospel music.
Despite the adverse publicity of his early career, the artist eventually became accepted by fans as one of Britain’s most significant rock and roll pioneers and managed to carve out a career at Rock & Roll revival concerts that lasted him many years.