Tams was born in Holbrook, Derbyshire, the son of a publican. He left school at 15 without any qualifications and went to Chesterfield Technical College where he spent two years on a GCE course, concentrating on the arts. He first worked as a reporter for the Ripley and Heanor News, and then as an editor on the Belper News - where he notably interviewed the then deputy prime minister George Brown - and for the Alfreton Observer. He also worked for BBC Radio Derby and BBC Radio Nottingham, and as a freelance reporter for the Melody Maker and the New Musical Express.
There was a strong musical background in his family and by the age of eleven he was playing the E flat horn in Riddings Brass Band, and began playing the guitar in his teens