Jackie Dennis, kilt-wearing 1950s Scots pop star who had a hit aged 15 with La Dee Dah – obituary

Jackie Dennis aged 15 - Shutterstock
Jackie Dennis aged 15 - Shutterstock

Jackie Dennis, who has died aged 77, was a Leith-born apprentice plumber who was catapulted to fame aged 15, when his debut single La Dee Dah reached No 4 in the charts, briefly trumping Elvis Presley’s You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog.

Later described as “Scotland’s first pop star” and “Britain’s first pop export”, in October 1958 he appeared on The Perry Como Show in the US, introduced as “Britain’s Ricky Nelson”, and proudly performed La Dee Dah and other songs in a kilt. By the mid-1960s, however, he had had enough of showbiz life and at the age of 23 returned home to Scotland to work as a postman.

Jackie Dennis was born on October 8 1942 in Leith, the port area in the north of Edinburgh, and brought up in a tenement. He left Leith Academy aged 15 to train as a plumber.

Jackie Dennis's biggest hit reached No 4 in 1958
Jackie Dennis's biggest hit reached No 4 in 1958

From the age of about 10 he had taken the stage at charity shows and concerts singing popular hits of the era, and in 1958 his performance at the American airbase at Prestwick impressed the comedy duo Mike and Bernie Winters, who were in the audience, and they put the spiky-haired teenager in touch with their agent.

Within a few days he had a £50,000 contract with Decca, and a month after his Prestwick performance, they released his cover of the Billy and Lillie hit La Dee Dah. He performed on the ITV teenage music show Oh Boy! and appeared on the BBC’s Six-Five Special.

“The golden kid, the £50,000 kid. The lilt with the kilt, that’s what they called me,” he recalled, though most of his earnings went to his manager.

He released two more singles in 1958. My Dream, and The Purple People Eater, which peaked at No 29 in the UK, sold 1.3 million copies worldwide and was No 1 for 10 weeks in South Africa.

The kilt-wearing star - Shutterstock 
The kilt-wearing star - Shutterstock

By the autumn of 1958 Dennis had embarked on an international touring schedule that would last until the early 1960s. He saw the Beatles and Tommy Steele at a “tatty club” in Hamburg, and at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas he shook hands with Frank Sinatra, one of his heroes: “He swivelled round, shook my hand and told me to f--- off.”

The highlight was his turn on The Perry Como Show during his first visit to the US. “I just couldn’t believe it,” he recalled, “I started in February, this is October.”

Even after Dennis had retired from performing, the American singer remained in touch, sending him a Christmas card every year. In 1975, when Como gave a concert at the Usher Hall, he sent a limousine to collect Dennis and his mother: “He gave her a kiss. My mother was so embarrassed, didn’t know where to look.”

But the pressures of showbiz life took their toll: “Things like if I wasn’t feeling well, the show had to go on anyway, and that was hard. People in showbusiness don’t care about your health, as long as they’re getting the bucks.”

He missed his family and, followed everywhere by bodyguards, got tired of the lack of privacy. By the time he retired he had released around 10 records, including an EP.

After working as a postman, followed by a 10-year stint as a home help, Dennis found great contentment working as a carer in Edinburgh nursing homes, a period of his life when he was “100 per cent the happiest I’ve ever been. I loved every minute.”

Though he never performed professionally after the 1960s, he sometimes sang at charity events.

In 1983 he married Irene Darling, who survives him, with a stepson, a stepdaughter and an adopted son.

Jackie Dennis, born October 8 1942, died September 28 2020