Express & Star

Tommy Cannon back on tour with wonderful memories of his old friend Bobby Ball

If ever Tommy Cannon needed reminding of the affection in which he’s held, a moment came last October that provided all the reassurance he might need.

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Cannon and Ball

He’d gone to see Robbie Williams at Manchester Arena, with members of his family, and was sitting back to enjoy the gig. When Robbie came on stage, he gazed across the arena, to Tommy’s seat, and gave a salute.

“He knew exactly where we were sitting. When he came on, he turned and looked straight at me from the stage. He put his hand up to his forehead and gave me a salute, I wondered why he’d done that,” says Tommy.

Robbie hadn’t even got started.

As his show was coming to an end, and before an incredible finale of Angels, he pointed to Tommy’s seat and told the audience they were in the company of a legend. The audience burst into song: ‘Tommy, Tommy, Tommy.’

And then Robbie dedicated Angels to the man who became a household name as part of Cannon & Ball. The audience went wild. The newspapers did too, as Tommy and Robbie grabbed the headlines.

“I had 20,000 people chanting my name. I was in buckets. I didn’t know what was going on. There were people wanting to shake my hand. I’ve got a wonderful picture of me and Robbie after the show. He’s got his arm round me and he’s giving me a real hug. He whispered into my ear: ‘You’re a legend.’ I’ll never forget it.”

But then Robbie was simply articulating what the rest of us already knew. That legend status was earned over many years as he and Bobby Ball became the nation’s favourite double act, since Morecambe and Wise.

They started out on £3 a night but over the decades earned their own show, appeared in a feature film, headlined the UK’s best theatres and thrilled millions and millions of fans.

“We were together for 60 years,” says Tommy, though, if Tommy had had his way, they’d never have got started.

The duo met when Tommy took a job as a welder. He couldn’t weld, but took the job because his relative was a foreman. On his first day, there were 500 or 600 men on the shopfloor. None of them said a word to the new recruit. And then Bobby showed up, late: ‘Alright, cock?’ he said, as he passed Tommy. “The rest is history.”

It is, indeed.

Tommy says: “Bobby had his own act. He said: ‘I tell you what, I’m working on Friday night, the lads are coming to have a pint. Come along.’ I went down and saw him. He was singing and had quite a good voice. Then on Monday, we went into work and he said ‘let’s form a double act’. I said no. I didn’t know whether I could sing. He said ‘Then get a set of drums and I’ll teach you a few riffs’. So I bought some drums and that was it. We got together.

“We were working in working men’s clubs in those days and they were hard. You did a noon shift or a night shift. It was mostly men at the noon time. if you were any good and you lasted to the evening, they bought their wives to see the show. You have to really be in there. Places like Sunderland Boiler Makers was horrendous for us.

“We went there. The chairman came in and said we’d got a job to do. He said all the lads would be reading newspapers. He said it was up to us to make them put the newspapers down and they’d only do that if we were any good. We did 20 minutes and they call carried on reading. The guy came and paid us £3 and told us to go. We had to walk through the audience. The lads looked at us and didn’t even look at us walking out. That’s pretty hard.”

Cannon & Ball at Wolverhampton Grand

Tommy and Bobby were earning more as welders. The working men’s clubs weren’t biting and as they sat in a lay-by, off the A1, smoking dog-ends they’d nicked from the ash tray of a club, they wondered whether to give it up. They’d got kids, the money was rubbish and it was soul-destroying work.

“We’d got three clubs coming up. We decided to see how they went. If they’d gone badly, we’d have jacked it in.”

The clubs came and went. Tommy and Bobby did well. They decided to see it through.

“In them days, a lot of the lads went to working men’s club and were miners. They were hard lads. They weren’t pussyfooting around. You had to be tough to get through it all. We were 15 years before we got on TV. The press said we were overnight successes when we went to do Opportunity Knocks – we’d been doing it for a decade-and-a-half.”

They appeared on the same show as a guy who was playing the piano out of tune. Bobby looked at Tommy. “That guy’s hopeless,” he said. “He’ll never make it.” It was Les Dawson.

Gradually, life took a turn for the better. One thing led to another and during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s they were huge. “We had all that success. When I look back now and think what we did, I just can’t believe it. I look back and see pictures of where we were and what we did and what we achieved and it’s incredible. We went round the world: all over America, Dubai, Australia, South Africa. We did London Palladium pantomimes and Royal Command performances. Sometimes I stop and I wonder how it all happened.

“Sixty years is a long time, it’s a lifetime.”

The statue dedicated to Bobby Ball.

Bobby passed away, of course, during the first autumn of the pandemic, passing away in Blackpool from Covid at the age of 76. A statue was erected, at Lytham St Annes, and Tommy was the guest of honour.

“It was such a memorable day. I made the joke – the statue’s 8ft tall, that’s the only time in his life he’s ever been taller than me. I’m so sad it came to end like it did. When I got the call it was devastating.”

Even now, after the life he’s led, he marvels that it happened. “Bob must have seen something in me that I didn’t think was there. I didn’t want to be in showbusiness.

"I’d only ever got up once to sing, when I got a medal, playing football. All I wanted to be was a sportsman. The lads got me up to sing. I was drunk. I don’t know whether I sang any good. But he kept on and on and on until I said let’s do it.”

Tuesday 23 July 2002 - The Queen's Jubilee Baton Relay continues it's 137 day journey through the Commonwealth before arriving on July 25th 2002 at the opening ceremony for the Manchester 2002 Commonweath Games. Comics Cannon and Ball carry the Baton aboard a tram at Blackpool (PA photo/GREG GARAY)

He's back on tour – his first since Bobby died. He’ll play a one-man show, telling stories, playing clips, answering audience questions and, hopefully, soaking up the affection that he’s earned en route to being a national treasure.

“I can’t wait. I’ve worked hard and it’ll take a while to get into the rhythm of it. When me and Bob did it, we’d always cover. If he forgot a line, I’d fill in. If I forgot a line, he would. Now I’m on my own, so I don’t have him to fall back on.”

Ahh, but he does. Because in a funny sort of way, Bobby never left. “You’re right. You have to step out and get on with it. I know he’ll be watching over me. He’ll be saying ‘C’mon, Tommy, you can do it’.”

He will. Rock on, Tommy. Rock on.

* Tommy Cannon plays Cannock Prince of Wales Theatre on October 18, Stourport Civic on October 29, Stafford Gatehouse on April 17 2024 and Brierley Hill Civic on April 18 2024. Tickets are available from venues.