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You’ve All Been Asking For The Personal Story Of Tommy Sands!

“Most people think that I was trying to get on the show,” Tommy Sands will tell you, “because I walked in to Radio Station KWKH and said to the receptionist, ‘My name is Tommy Sands. I play the guitar and sing.’ ”

That was the beginning. That’s how come Tommy Sands was a professional at eight. But it happened because he had a new guitar . . .

“It began,” says his mother, “with Ed’s ukulele. Ed is Tommy’s older brother—by ten years. Tommy was four when he first began to make music with the uke. He grasped the instrument as if he was desperate to have it make more music than the routine four notes you get by plucking each of the strings. As a matter of fact, he was so eager he broke the strings constantly! After two years of buying new strings for Ed’s uke, Tommy started begging for a guitar.

“He played it—well, let’s say he picked it, for hours each day. He would turn on the radio and in the fumbling, young, inexperienced way he had, he would attempt to follow the music he heard. His hands were far too small. But strangely enough he didn’t break any strings. And one day, after about a year of this, I was listening to him accompany a well-known southern radio singer named Pop Eccles and somehow—without training, without guidance—Tommy had found a way to play. He was strumming along with Pop just as though they were together in the studio. And then I heard Tommy singing softly. “When Tommy called his dad’s attention to the tinny tone of the guitar, we both knew what came next. A better guitar. Well, better guitars were expensive, and frankly I was a little afraid that Tommy’s burning desire wouldn’t last long.

“So we bought a real good guitar on the installment plan; two dollars a week, with the guitar to come out of the store when the last payment had been made. And that’s how he became a professional at eight!”

The day Tommy went to the store to pay the last two dollars on his guitar—well, let Tommy tell it—“I walked over to my guitar, hanging there on the wall. It never looked so beautiful. The storekeeper came over and said, ‘Well Tommy, today it’s all yours.’

“In a daze I walked into the street with the guitar. It was so big I had to carry the ease with two hands. I knew it was a long walk home and I was dying to play just a few notes on that guitar. But I knew I couldn’t stop on the street and do it.

“Suddenly, while standing in front of the ay to Radio Station KWKH I got an idea.”

And that’s when eight-year-old Tommy went in and said “My name is Tommy Sands. I play the guitar and sing. And I want to meet Pop Eccles.”

He looked cute and he looked earnest, so they introduced him to the singer he’d been practicing with—Tommy at home, the singer’s voice coming over the air.

“All I remember,” says Tommy, “is playing a song for Pop. Everybody laughed and applauded when I was through. Then they took me into the studio, put me up on the chair and told me to sing. So I sang into my first live microphone.

“But the only thing I wanted to do was find someplace where I could play the guitar before I got home!”

Tommy became a regular feature on the air after that, during the six months a year he spent in Chicago.

A shock to Tommy

Each year Mrs. Sands shuttled between Chicago and Shreveport, Louisiana. Mrs. Sands had learned early that young Tommy was so susceptible to colds that led to more serious illnesses associated with winter in the north, that each winter she and her two sons travelled to the home of Auntie Burt and Uncle Charlie in Greenwood, near Shreveport.

For eight years Tommy went to school for one semester in Chicago, then to Shreveport for the winter term.

Inevitably, the long separations resulted in the divorce of Tommy’s parents.

“It was a shock to Tommy,” Mrs. Sands explains. “He was too young to understand. But I tried to explain that he would never lose his father. And he hasn’t. Tommy and his Dad are good friends, often traveling together, and Tommy has learned a great deal from his father’s rich musical background—he’s a name-band pianist, you know.”

Faced with a man’s challenge

He was still in grammar school—and he was starring on the Louisiana Hayride TV program originating from Shreveport! Later he was a disc jockey on the same station, and at another time he was a platter spinner for a Chicago station.

Tommy started guitar lessons with Shreveport instructor Tilman Frank. Frank was so impressed with Tommy that he arranged an audition for him—in Houston, Texas, for a show over station KPRC called Hoedown Corner.

“Tommy and Mr. Frank went to Houston,” Mrs. Sands tells you, “and when they came back Tommy was so blue I was sorry he’d ever gone. Tommy didn’t feel that he had made an impression on anyone.

“But a few days later he received a wire asking him to come back to Houston—this time at the station’s expense! He was scheduled for the next day’s program.

“Now I got scared. At seven he was on a radio program; but now, at thirteen, he was about to start a serious career. I wanted Tommy to be happy. That meant that I should let him do what he loved most, play his guitar and sing his songs. But at thirteen, still a baby in my eyes, he was being faced with a man’s challenge—the pressures of success . . . or failure.

“I didn’t want Tommy to face either one.

“So I asked for twice the salary Tommy deserved, sure that the station would never agree.”

There is nothing that makes Tommy laugh harder than remembering his mother’s surprise when she learned her exorbitant demand had been met!

An over-enthusiastic actor

Already a successful singer at thirteen, Tommy began another career.

He was in the ninth grade of LANIER JR. HIGH SCHOOL in Houston, and he impulsively auditioned for the role of a budding adolescent in a play called The Magic Fallacy, to be presented by Houston’s famous ALLEY THEATER. It was a hit, and one of Houston’s newspapers mentioned—A YOUNGSTER NAMED TOMMY SANDS WHO OVERACTS AT TIMES, BUT IS FORGIVEN ON THE GROUNDS OF UNBOUNDED ENTHUSIASM.

“For the next four years,” Tommy laughs, “I was one of the busiest teenagers in town!” He chalked up a long list of appearances on TV and radio, as an actor, at private parties—and even found time to write a play!

At sixteen, Tommy’s dramatic abilities were so impressive that he won a part in a play called Open House with movie stars Charles Korvin and Reginald Owen.

Tommy’s performance was so good that Owen asked him to sign a run-of-the-play and go on to Baltimore and then New York with it. But in Baltimore the play folded.

It was a great disappointment to Tommy. “I was seeing my name in lights already,” he smiles, “and walking down Broadway in all my dreams!” The silver lining to that flop, though, was that it calmed his mother’s biggest fear for her son; now she knew her son Tommy could live with failure.

A prayer for the group

In his junior year at LAMAR SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL, Tommy had one of the leads in Our Town, and this wasn’t just for the high school kids and their parents. This was for the highlight of the amateur dramatic year in Texas—the state-wide competition among all the drama organizations from all over the Lone-Star state! Tommy and his fellow KOCHINA DRAM CLUB actors watched troupe after troupe present plays that were so good even the judges seemed moved! When the time grew near for the KOCHINA CLUB’S appearance, they went back stage to prepare. Tommy went into his dressing room and shut the door.

A few minutes later, one of the boys burst into the room to hurry Tommy along—and stopped, staring. Tommy was sitting in his chair, eyes closed, praying. Tommy’s fellow actor didn’t say anything, just quietly closed the door.

And when Our Town got the all-state honors, the boy who had seen Tommy praying told the rest of the kids, “We won because Tommy prayed that we’d win.”

“I didn’t pray that we’d win,” answered Tommy. “I asked Him to help our hearts, to show us how to behave if we lost.”

Late in 1955, Tommy was seventeen—he was just four months away from graduation—and money was tight. He left high school to work as a disc jockey on Station KCIJ in Shreveport, The program was called Tommy’s Corral, and he played records, did commercials and conducted phone interviews. And it was just about the best he ever did. Not because the program was a sensation, or anything like that.

A call from an old buddy—Elvis

It was the best thing he ever did because his voice was on the air for a particular someone to hear and one afternoon Tommy got a phone call. From an old buddy, Elvis Presley.

Back in his days on Louisiana Hayride, Tommy had become friends, close friends, with another young performer, Elvis.

Tommy was on the air when the phone call came in. The conversation ended with the announcement by Elvis to Tommy’s listeners that he was on his way to Hollywood to make a movie for 20TH CENTURY-FOX. “And I am telling you right now,” Elvis said to Tommy, “that you’ll be in that picture!”

Elvis didn’t know he wouldn’t be able to keep that promise, but the phone call had been an inspiration to young Sands anyway. “A few months later, Mom and I had pinched enough pennies to buy oneway tickets to Hollywood,” says Tommy. “That’s all we could afford.”

“Tommy doesn’t talk about the next three months,” Mrs. Sands will tell you, “but he must have seen every agent, producer, director, personal manager in all of Los Angeles. Even now I could cry thinking of the miles of discouragement he walked before anything happened.”

It was in June of 1956 that he went to watch a telecast of Hometown Jamboree.

Another chance for Tommy

“I sat there for over an hour watching Cliffie and Mollie Bee and all the other wonderful performers on Jamboree,” Tommy remembers, and I thought, Heck that’s the way I like to sing! I went backstage and found Cliffie and asked him if he’d give me a chance. Cliffie looked at me and said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘My name is Tommy Sands. I play the guitar and I sing.’

“I flipped when he said, ‘Okay, son.’ He started to walk away, then he turned to me and said, ‘You know, son, that’s flesh and blood and brains and heart out there in front of that bandstand. People. They’ll want to like you. So don’t get scared at all those faces.’

“Later I found out Cliff,e hadn’t been very impressed, but he just can’t say no.”

After the show Cliffie was impressed. The applause of the audience left no doubt about how well Tommy had gone over.

One night Tennessee Ernie Ford, who is managed by Cliffie, caught Tommy’s act. A few days later Tommy appeared on Ernie’s show, pulling a mail response that startled even the executives of NBC television.

And then . . . nothing, months of nothing. No more shows, no more breaks, no more anything.

“Mom,” Tommy decided one evening, “I’m quitting show business. I’m going to get a high school diploma and then study law. At least we’ll know where the rent’s coming from, and when!”

Tommy as the Singin’ Idol

So, of course about seven that evening the phone rang. Part II was coming up, of that lucky decision to quit High for a disc jockey job. The call was from Cliffie and he was excited, “Listen, Tommy,” Cliff said, “the Kraft Television Theater just called and said that you had been recommended to them for a play called The Singin’ Idol. They wanted Elvis, but he couldn’t do it and sold them a bill of goods on you!”

“I’ll never forget that moment,” says Tommy. “I don’t remember what I said, but it must have been yes!”

In the four days following the telecast of The Singin’ Idol, more than 10,000 letters came in on Tommy. The comments ran from “sensational” to “he’s the first person in ten years of television whom I could believe enough to cry over.”

He knows, now, where the rent is coming from—and when. Now he can look back at his days of discouragement, the days when he was thinking of studying law, with a smile. He’s making a movie of The Singin’ Idol, and the offers are rolling in—for TV, for radio, for Broadway shows. What has success done to Tommy Sands as a person? “Nothing,” his mother is convinced, “nothing except to make him happy.

“And I guess,” she adds, “to teach him not to take success for granted.”

What does Tommy think? “Success taught me one thing—if you fail, you are unhappy a while. But then you forget it. If you succeed, you can never forget that you could fail all over again . . .

“The other day in a restaurant I was having a malt shake and somebody dropped a dime in the juke box to play one of my records. Two girls were sitting in a booth behind me. One of them said to the other ‘Who’s he, who’s that singing?’

“And do you know, I darn near turned around and said, ‘My name is Tommy Sands. I play the guitar and sing.’ ”



Tommy will soon be seen in 20th Century-Fox’s The Singin’ Idol.



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