At the age of nine, and after spending many hours listening to Gene Autry’s cowboy singing style, Tommy realised that he, too, could hold tune. In 1953 he moved with his family from Scotland to the coal mining town of Wankie in Rhodesia. In 1958, at the age of thirteen, he was sent to boarding school, Chaplin, in Gwelo. Whilst Tommy may not have excelled academically, his love for music continued to grow and manifest itself.
Listening the radio regularly as a sixteen year old with his friends, he was introduced to many of the days young rockers including Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley. During these sessions he would drum along to the beat of the music in the prep room on Saturday mornings when free time was to be had.
One of the biggest inspirations of all was the arrival of Cliff Richard and his songs such as Living Doll and Move It, as well as the film Expresso Bongo in which Cliff appeared. His image and style immediately captured Tommy’s imagination. Voice In The Wilderness was yet another song which spoke to Tommy’s passion and it was at this point that he decided to acquire a guitar.
In 1961 Tommy left Chaplin for another school and it was during this interim period that he befriended a 15 year old colleague at the Wankie Railway Club. The pair quickly became friends and shared a mutual love of Cliff and the Shadows’ music. When his new friend invited home, Tommy was further inspired by the fact that this mate had a picture of the Shadows hanging on his wall.
Tommy’s first guitar cost him all of five shillings. He was soon learning basic chords like D and G. In due course he found himself at Hillcrest school in Livingstone in, what was at that time, Northern Rhodesia. His friend, Johnny, completed his schooling at Northlea in Bulawayo and went on to teach himself guitar, too.
Upon arriving at Hillcrest, Tommy, with his newly cut Cliff Richard hairstyle, was the new kid on the block. He describes it as being “swept back with a curl in the front”. He does wryly note, however, that most of the chaps in the classroom looked the same!
In due course Tommy showed himself to be a very capable, star, bugler and a good long jumper on the athletics field. With these talents he started to enjoy more attention than had previously been the case.
One day in the school dormitory a fellow pupil, Tom Healy, walked in with a cut-away acoustic guitar. Tom and Tommy decided to start a band with Tom on guitar and Tommy singing, doing his very best to sing and perform like his hero, Cliff Richard.
Shortly afterwards, a new pupil, Owen Cloete, arrived. Owen’s guitar knowledge was a bit more advanced than the fledgling band members. Another scholar had a violin shaped bass guitar like that played by Paul McCartney. They then roped in a fourth member, John Bailey, who, with but one drum, was deemed to have been adequate. With Tom and Tommy improving their guitar skills through watching Owen’s playing, they were on an upward trend.
Tommy’s first “three chord wonder” song was Twenty Flight Rock. He also recalls singing Ricky Nelson’s song, Half Breed. At his last school variety concert Tommy sang with the band backing him. He was surely on the way to the Big Time!
Meanwhile, on his return trips to Wankie, Tommy met a local band called The Wanderers with whom he would occasionally appear. On this trips he and Johnnie would be reunited and would continue to practice and play together. Tommy was still playing his Zonk guitar whilst Johnnie had progressed to a Maestro electric guitar. On one occasion Johnnie’s mother, not knowing any better, tried to plug the guitar directly into the wall socket!
Over the next year the duo continued to expand their repertoire and hone their skills, bringing material such as Peter Gunn, Apache, Mean Woman Blues, A Whole Lot Of Shakin’ and Be Bop A Lula. By this stage they were both sporting Cliff Richard hairstyles and Johnnie even had a vague resemblance to Eddie Cochrane – or so he thought!