Obituary: Jackie Dennis, teen idol and 'Scotland's first pop star'

Jackie Dennis, singer and entertainer. Born: 8 October 1942 in Edinburgh; Died 28 September 2020, aged 77

Monday, 12th October 2020, 7:30 am

Considered Scotland's first pop star, Jackie Dennis shot to fame as a school leaver and dethroned the “King”, Elvis Presley - if only for a couple of weeks. At the height of his short-lived fame in the late 1950s, Edinburgh-born Dennis enjoyed success on both sides of the Atlantic with his unique brand of tartan-infused rock 'n' roll.

Brought up in a tenement flat in the capital's Brunswick Road, Jackie's singing ability was evident from an early age and he performed regularly at charity shows and talent contests all over the country, excelling in his impressions of the likes of Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and Dean Martin.

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An alumnus of Leith Academy, Jackie left school to become an apprentice plumber, earning just £3 a week. In the blink of an eye, he was soon earning more than a hundred times that amount.

His big break arrived in January 1958 when he was sent out to the military base at Prestwick to entertain US troops. He was spotted by comedy duo Mike and Bernie Winters who passed Jackie on to their agent, Eve Taylor, “the Queen Bee of Show Business”.

Taylor quickly secured the 15-year-old youngster a £50,000 contract with Decca Records and a performing slot on popular BBC rock and roll show the Six-Five Special alongside Petula Clark, Lonnie Donegan, Cleo Laine and a host of other established acts.

In March the record company unleashed saccharine debut single La Dee Dah, which would peak at number 4 in the UK hit parade the next month, briefly outselling Jailhouse Rock and Don't by Elvis Presley and Maybe Baby by Buddy Holly & the Crickets.

Predating the Bay City Rollers by nearly 20 years, the spiky-haired teen wore his Scots identity proudly on his sleeve, always appearing on stage or on television attired in his trademark tartan trews or kilt and sporran. Many of Jackie’s recordings, including Linton Addie, with the line “Hey you heard the song of Scotland”, and The Wee Cooper o’ Fife, also reflected a strong sense of attachment to his birth country. Billed as the "kilt with the lilt" and the "£50,000 golden boy from Scotland", Jackie released two more records in 1958, My Dream, which reached number 15 in the British charts, and a cover of Sheb Wooley's novelty effort Purple People Eater, his final UK hit.

In October 1958, Jackie made history by becoming the first British pop singer to perform live on US television, as one of the star guests on Perry Como’s Kraft Music Show in New York. Introduced as “Britain’s Ricky Nelson”, Jackie shared the bill that day with the Ray Charles Singers. While in the US, Jackie met the Everly Brothers and Anne Sheridan, and paid a visit to a film set, where he was introduced to Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, experiences he would later describe as “unbelievable”.

In 1975, when Como came over to Scotland to play the Usher Hall, he sent a limousine to collect Jackie and his mother from their Edinburgh home. They met Como backstage and were invited for drinks with him at his suite at the Caledonian Hotel. Jackie’s mother, a big fan of Como, was overwhelmed. Como sent Jackie a Christmas card, every year, until his death in 2001.

Another major achievement during Jackie’s time in the US was a four-week residency at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. Sammy Davis Jnr took him under his wing. Jackie soon found himself shaking hands with the likes of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

Jackie also performed with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens on the popular music show Oh Boy! and was even asked to join them on their fateful tour of Midwest USA that winter. If not for the intervention of manager Eve Taylor, who protested against Jackie's inclusion on the tour due to his age, the young Scot could have been on the six-seater Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft that claimed the lives of Holly, Valens and "The Big Bopper" JP Richardson when it crashed in an Iowan cornfield in February 1959.

Jackie recalled in 2018: “The day the music died. I could’ve been on that tour. Eve protected me, told them ‘no’ because I was too young. I was doing pantomime at The Empire in Edinburgh and Glasgow when the plane crashed.”

Following a six-month stint in Australia, Jackie returned home to find that Cliff Richard had taken his place as the country’s hottest new singing sensation. Jackie continued to find stage work over the following decade, performing in clubs and productions at Edinburgh's Empire Theatre, before retiring from showbusiness altogether in the late 1970s.

In later years, Jackie settled in the Pilton area of Edinburgh, working as a postman and then as a home help. His final job, before retiring, was in a nursing home for the elderly. Jackie would describe his time as a carer as the happiest time of his life.

With his days as a top-paid recording artist firmly in the rear view mirror, Jackie's one pretension to stardom in later years was his Ford Zodiac, bearing the custom registration JD 32, which he had fitted with a record player.

Humble Jackie never felt fully comfortable with his tag as “Scotland's first pop star”, stating the honour should go to earlier luminaries, such as Bridgeton-born Lonnie Donegan or Glasgow folk singer Nancy Whiskey. Given Jackie's tender age at the height of his fame, the sobriquet "Scotland's first teen pop sensation", is perhaps more accurate in capturing his importance in the rock'n' oll honours list.

Jackie Dennis is survived by Irene, his wife of more than 30 years, and his stepdaughter and stepson.

DAVID McLEAN

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