Jackie Dennis – Singer, pop star
Born October 8, 1942; died September 28, 2020
Leaping about the TV screen in tartan trews on teen pop show, Six-Five Special, his youthful joie de vivre captured the public’s imagination in a way that briefly made the spiky-haired teen an international star. Nicknamed at various points The Lilt With the Kilt, The Golden Kid and The Kilted Choirboy, Dennis was the first UK artist to appear on American television when he guest starred on Perry Como’s Kraft Music Show in New York. Como introduced Dennis as Britain’s Ricky Nelson.
When Dennis cheekily corrected Como’s mis-pronunciation of what he called ‘Edin-borrow’, it was a moment Como recalled when toured to the city’s Usher Hall venue in 1975. Dennis and his mother were escorted to the show in a limousine. Introducing his guests to the audience, Como made a point of correcting his error all those years earlier. He sent Dennis a Christmas card every year right up to his passing in 2001.
Dennis’ good-natured upbraiding of Como was indicative of the pride he took in his roots, and he maintained his kilt-wearing went deeper than mere image. The tartan look nevertheless pre-dated that of the similarly clad Bay City Rollers by a couple of decades. There were similarities too in their respective financial affairs, and Dennis was later disparaging of Taylor’s management.
Dennis’ outfit nevertheless helped make him a star. With backing musicians including John Barry and Dusty Springfield, he enjoyed success for a while, though his only nod to showbiz excess was his Ford Zodiac with the personalised JD32 number plate and the customised record deck inside.
Dennis played a four-week residency in Las Vegas, where he was taken under the wing of Sammy Davis Jr. Frank Sinatra, alas, wasn’t so friendly, and told Dennis where to go. Riding high on success, Dennis was offered slot on the doomed Winter Dance Party tour with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. Dennis’ management turned down the tour on the grounds of him being too young. With all three rock and roll pioneers killed in a plane crash in February 1959, Dennis remained on home soil, appearing in Babes in the Wood in Edinburgh instead.
John Dennis was born in Edinburgh, and raised in Brunswick Road, just off Easter Road. It was here he began performing for family and friends, with the curtained bed recess used as a stage. By the time he was eight, Dennis was performing in charity shows, doing vocal impressions of stars of the day, including Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Al Jolson.
Dennis went to Leith Academy, and left aged 15 to become an apprentice plumber. His new career didn’t last long, and he was spotted by comedy double act Mike and Bernie Winters during a show at the U.S. air base in Prestwick Airport. The Winters’ brothers agent Eve Taylor signed him up, as did Decca Records, and within a few weeks of his first TV appearance in1958, La Dee Dah made the top ten.
Signed for a £50,000 contract, Dennis went from earning £3 a week as a plumber to £1,000 a week as a showbiz star, being paid more than many more seasoned entertainers who were now his contemporaries. He appeared in the film offshoot of Six-Five Special, alongside the likes of Petula Clarke, Cleo Laine and Lonnie Donegan, the latter of whom Dennis credited as being Scotland’s real first pop star.
Dennis went on to top variety bills across the UK and his third single, Purple People Eater, sold 1.3 million copies worldwide. In what was proving to be a golden year for Dennis, he became friendly with Tommy Steele, and the pair saw the Beatles during their baptism-of-fire years in Hamburg.
Such rawness was indicative of how the times were changing in an already fickle industry, and how pop careers could be cut short. Dennis discovered this first-hand after returning from a tour of Australia to discover that a new kid on the block, a fresh-faced rocker called Cliff Richard, had become the public’s favourite.
Dennis continued performing at a more local level for a few years, before retiring from performing completely in the 1970s to care for his mother. In 1983 he married Irene Darling, and he had two step-children, Steve and Susan, and an adopted son, Andrew. Dennis became a postman and a home help before working in Lennox House home for the elderly in Granton. Following his brief but hectic brush with fame that in part cut him off from his immediate community, he described this late period of his life as his happiest.
There is an unspoilt purity to Dennis’ now other-worldly sounding records. In their primitive evocations of popular light entertainment, they go some way to defining a more innocent musical age.
The Herald, October 17th 2020