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About Tommy Bruce

Tommy Bruce was an odd part of the pre-Beatles British rock scene and still totally unknown in America, although he did have one big British hit when his debut single "Ain't Misbehavin'" got to number three in 1960. Bruce had an extremely low, hoarse voice that wasn't too dissimilar from growlers like Howlin' Wolf and Dr. John. Before getting too excited by the comparisons, it should be noted that Bruce wasn't nearly as powerful or nuanced a singer as either of them. He had a froggier timbre and far more given to hamming it up. Perhaps there was a little of Fats Waller in him as well; unfortunately, there was also a good amount of British music hall in most of his records, which veered toward pop novelty more than rock & roll.

Ex-boxer Bruce wasn't even a professional singer when he made the acquaintance of Barry Mason, who would later write hit songs like Tom Jones' "Delilah" and the Fortunes' "Here It Comes Again." He was, indeed, still working as a porter in the fruit and vegetable market of Covent Garden in London when Mason moved into the building in which he was living. Mason asked Bruce to a recording session, cut him doing Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'," and used an acetate to get Bruce a deal with Columbia UK. Bruce was actually still working in the market when "Ain't Misbehavin'" (with phrasing quite reminiscent of the Big Bopper's "Chantilly Lace") became a hit, though he soon turned professional.

Over the first half of the 1960s Bruce put out quite a few other singles for Columbia, though only a couple of those became low-charting U.K. hits, "Broken Doll" (1960) and "Babette" (1962). He crossed paths with some interesting people in those years, like arranger Charles Blackwell and Peter Stirling, who was in his backup band the Bruisers (and who wrote the Merseybeats' hits "I Think of You" and "Don't Turn Around"). He also passed on the chance to record the Mitch Murray song "How Do You Do It" in 1962, before it was demoed (and rejected) by the Beatles or became a hit (in 1963) for Gerry & the Pacemakers. Nonetheless, his early-'60s singles were pretty forgettable novelties or frivolous pop songs with only hints of rock & roll, only occasionally going into straight rock, as on his cover of Johnny Kidd's "Shakin' All Over."

After the onset of the Beatles and the beat boom, Bruce did update his sound a little into light pop/rock and some soul-R&B, although his voice wasn't too well-suited for the British Invasion. There were even covers of songs by John Lee Hooker, Rufus Thomas, and Pete Dello (later of Honeybus) on his mid-'60s singles, and he was still recording in the late '60s for CBS, though he never reached the charts again. Much of his material is featured on the 2002 collection That's Rock 'N' Roll. ~ Richie Unterberger

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