SOLD EGGS TO JAMES BOND
Born Dennis Christos Lotis in Johannesburg, South Africa, his mother was English, from Canterbury, and his father Greek, from Ithaca. They owned a restaurant. Dennis had a younger brother.
His mother was a keen singer in an operatic society and encouraged Dennis to sing as well.
Dennis won a talent show with his singing, aged just 9. He was a boy soprano. This led to radio and stage work, which dried up as he became a teenager.
He left school at 15 and became a bus conductor and then a trainee electrician.
He made ends meet by singing in clubs, theatres and cinemas throughout Johannesburg.
He then married another singer, Rena Mackie. They were to go on to have three sons, Damon, Kim and Gareth.
Dennis craved a career in singing so decided to try his luck in Great Britain. He left, sailing tourist class on the Blomfontein Castle ship, with just £25 in his pocket.
But he had a letter of recommendation from jazz saxophonist Don Barrigo.
In England he visited Barrigo’s friend, band leader Ted Heath, who was immensely popular at the time. Heath was not particularly impressed with Lotis’ voice but loved his personality. He had two singers already for his band/orchestra, Lita Roza and Dickie Valentine, but decided to make Dennis the third, hiring him after Dennis sang ‘Get Happy’. This was to be his theme song for the rest of his career.
Having got himself a permanent job, Dennis brought his family over from South Africa. They initially lived at Mill Hill until Rena sold the house to Russ Conway.
Then they bought a house in King’s Langley, Hertfordshire, with 6 acres of land.
His first recording was on a cover version of Al Martino’s ‘Here In My Heart’, released by Polydor (Martino’s version was the very first ever number one on the British charts).
His single ‘Honey Love’ was banned by the BBC in 1954 because he made “suggestive noises” on it. That same year he had his biggest chart hit with ‘Cuddle Me’ – all supported by the Ted Heath Orchestra.
One day Dennis arrived home from a tour to find 2,000 chickens in their fields. Rena had bought herself a small van and had started an egg business. Amongst others they sold to close neighbours Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Formula One World Champion Graham Hill. He always joked, “I sold eggs to James Bond.”
They were close friends with the Hill family. Dennis often wondered if Graham’s son Damon was named after his oldest son.
He fell out with singer Dorothy Squires, Roger Moore’s first wife. Moore had left his wife for an Italian actress Luisa Mattioli and needed somewhere to stay so he lodged at the Lotis house. Dorothy was absolutely furious when she found out where Moore was. She threw rocks at the windows and had a heated telephone conversation with Dennis.
They didn’t talk again for two years.
Dennis was very good looking and soon built up his own fan club. He was mobbed by girls wherever he went and often needed a police escort. He was frequently compared to Frank Sinatra. One critic said, “He is a young man with more than a touch of the fabulous Frankie about him.”
The Ted Heath Orchestra played regularly as part of ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’.
And Ted Heath allowed Dennis to record with The Johnston Brothers as well.
Dicky Valentine decided to go solo, leaving Dennis as the main male singer with the Ted Heath Orchestra.
But that didn’t last long – Dennis decided to follow Valentine’s example and go solo as well.
Dennis was immediately very popular on the variety circuit and on BBC radio. He appeared in the 1956 show ‘Harmony Close’. The Manchester Guardian said he was, “typical of the new spellbinders…vigorous and emotional rather than romantic and languorous”.
He was also very pleased when Dorothy Squires phoned him up and asked him to do an album with her. They remained firm friends after that.
In 1957, Dennis won the Melody Maker ‘Top Male Singer’ award. Dickie Valentine was the runner up – but it was Dickie that had all the hits.
Meanwhile, Dennis performed at the 1957 Royal Variety Performance, sharing top billing with the new ‘wonderkid’, Tommy Steele.
By now he was recording for the Decca, Pye and Colombia record labels.
It was now he branched out into films – his acting career lasted around 6 years. His first appearance was as a singer in ‘The Extra Day’.
He went on to appear in other films such as ‘The City of the Dead’, ‘The Sword of Sherwood Forest’, ‘What Every Woman Wants’ and ‘She’ll Have To Go’(starring Bob Monkhouse, Anna Karina and Hattie Jacques).
In 1958, Pathe news ran a story about Dennis at home in King’s Langley.
In 1959 he went on stage, acting in John Osborne’s play, ‘The World of Paul Stickey’. He played the title character, a sleazy gossip columnist on the fictional newspaper the Daily Rocket.
The play was supposed to have a run of 6 weeks. It lasted one night. It got terrible reviews – “an extraordinarily dull world.” He was booed by the audience, including Noel Coward and John Gielgud. The playwright, John Osborne, was chased down the street by angry theatre goers.
But Dennis had more success appearing as Lucio in Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’, directed by John Neville.
He also appeared on television pop music shows like ‘6-5 Special’ and ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’, ‘Hit Parade’ (with Petula Clark) and also ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’.
He became the face for the Aspro Headache Pills adverts.
In 1961, the BBC did it’s very first demonstration of colour TV and chose Dennis for the performance. He appeared on screen with a bright purple face.
But with the advent of The Beatles in 1962 / 1963, the music world changed and Dennis’ crooning style was out of fashion. He found himself performing in working men’s clubs and soon afterwards decided to retire.
He set up an antiques shop and a restaurant in Tring and concentrated on building up his personal collection of tobacco pipes.
In 1982 their son Kim, who lived at North Elmham, Norfolk, suggested they buy a house close to him. Rena found a large C18th house which had a vine growing in the conservatory (Dennis said it appealed to his Greek heritage) in Field Dalling.
Rena got cancer in 1997. She told him their house would be too big for him on his own, so she found a smaller one in the village of Stiffkey. She died that same year.
“She was a marvellous woman. She did everything for me. She never came on tour because she was looking after the children but she bought and sold all our houses, so I never knew what I was coming home to.”
Soon afterwards Dennis got remarried, to Bronwen Odell, Rena’s niece. He said the marriage would certainly have had Rena’s approval. The newlyweds spent one year in Bronwen’s native Tasmania before returning home to Stiffkey.
And then he made a singing comeback. He began to play musical theatres and even toured France and Spain. He even performed at the Cannes Film Festival and often used his friend Russ Conway as his accompanying pianist.
Dennis made his final farewell concert at Mundesley Festival in 2005, aged 80. “I have lived in Norfolk since 1982 and so I wanted this last concert to be with local musicians.” But he couldn’t find a local trumpeter, so he had to get one from Brighton.
The concert was a total sell-out.
He retired because, “I am getting tired. I am fed up driving around the country on those horrendous roads, so I feel it’s time to stop.”
He spent his final years cycling, fishing and gardening, whilst Bronwen became a keen runner.
Dennis looked back on his career fondly. “I have been gifted with this voice and have been able to make a good living from it…a job I would have done for nothing if it meant I could sing.”
RIP – Recording’s Impressive Performer