‘We were going to see someone who sounded like God to me’

Tommy Steele
Tommy Steele
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Tommy Steele is the rock’n’roller who beat Elvis to the number one spot by six months in the UK.

His version of Singing The Blues topped the charts in January 1957 – an honour that Presley couldn’t claim until June that year.

But in the five decades that followed Steele has enjoyed a wide and varied career that’s seen him earn his share of accolades for stage, TV and film performances.

However, throughout all of that time, there was one influence who stayed with him – the king of the big band sound – Glenn Miller, the world’s best-selling recording artist from 1939 to 1943.

And from next Tuesday, Tommy will be starring in The Glenn Miller Story at Mayflower Theatre in Southampton.

Tommy recalls how he became acquainted with the swing sound, and Miller in particular: ‘I remember he was on around our house all the time on the radio during the Second World war.

It’s an iconic sound. You could hear all the great bands of the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, right the way up to rock‘n’roll, and you could say without any hesitation: that’s the only sound that stayed

Tommy Steele

‘When he came to the UK in 1942 he was already a big star in America, but when he came over here, what with the austerity of the war, and that wonderful sound, it stays with you for the rest of your life.

‘When he came over I was seven, but I actually saw him when I was nine at the Albert Hall. My mum and dad took me, I was just very excited that we were going to someone who sounded like God to me – and there he was with the orchestra and I’ve been a fan ever since.’

Wanting to do his piece for the war effort, Miller gave up earning big bucks to join the US Army, before being transferred into the air force.

‘They had a radio programme in the ‘40s during the war, the AFN, the American Forces network, when the Americans came over in 1942 he came with them, and with him came the orchestra. Suddenly we, the British, were listening to him every day.’

But when he was on a plane headed for Paris to entertain the troops, it disappeared without trace, creating a mystery that lasted for decades. As Tommy explains: ‘It was 1944, it was in British airspace, and he was going to Paris. It took off in the fog and was never heard of again.

‘They only found out what happened three years ago. He flew over the English Channel – he wasn’t the pilot, but returning bombers from a raid over Germany, they jettisoned their bombs they didn’t use, because they couldn’t land with them, so they usually used to drop them when they came over The Channel. They reckoned his plane was under that lot, and that was the theory for a long time.

‘But now they reckon it was a mistake of the plane – he went too far over the fog so his carburettor cut out – the engine died, that’s now the official reason.’

But that mystery became part of the myth of Glen Miller: ‘When he died he became Robin Hood – people began to ask did he exist as a real person?

‘Then in 1956 the film, The Glenn Miller Story came out starring James Stewart and now all of a sudden 12 years after his death, people are going to watch it.’

Tommy thinks he knows the secret of the music’s enduring appeal: ‘It’s an iconic sound. You could hear all the great bands of the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, right the way up to rock‘n’roll, and you could say without any hesitation: that’s the only sound that stayed.

‘It’s the sound that makes people go: “Ah, I want to hear more of it, I want to go see it, and it’s so wonderful I want to participate in it.”

‘And that’s the sound he made and invented. It’s 70-odd years since he died and 10 more years than that from when he created the music. so it’s 80 years all together.’

With Miller dying when he was 40 and Tommy now 78, he is playing the big band leader on stage, but he’s keeping his cards close to his chest as to how exactly it will work.

‘You have to remember that the thing I have to get across to the audience at large, is that this isn’t a Glenn Miller concert, it’s not me conducting the orchestra and singing with the band, this is a fully fledged all-singing, all-dancing musical in the great period of swing, the jitterbug, tap dancing, jive, and all those great songs from Ellington and Benny Goodman as well as Glenn.

‘But I am playing Glenn, I’m a song and dance man, it’s a song and dance evening. You’ll have to come see the show to find out how we do it.’

As he says, Tommy’s enjoyed great success as a ‘song and dance man’ – in recent years, Steele has starred as Christmas miser Scrooge in Bill Kenwright’s spectacular production of the festive musical, which enjoyed two successful runs at the world-famous London Palladium.

It was a role, pictured left, that also made Steele the theatre’s all-time record-breaking performer, having headline more performances than any other star in the history of the Palladium.

But what keeps him going?

‘It’s being offered great shows. There are still great show to do, and this is one of them. I’ve been very lucky. Half A Sixpence, Hans Andersen, Singing in the Rain, all these great musicals. How lucky can you get?’

During his lengthy career, which role has he enjoyed the most? ‘They’ve all had their great moments. I started with rock, I was the first one to do that over here.

‘From there I got to do pantomimes and from pantomimes I got to do shows and TV specials, and then musicals and going over to Broadway and doing films. All-in-all it’s been being lucky, and being in the right place at the right time.

‘Talent helps, but on the totem pole, it’s the luck that comes first.’

Tommy on...

...visiting Moscow in 1959

That was on a peace mission. I went over there and got arrested in Red Square for playing a guitar – for causing a disturbance. I escaped the gulag but I got a reprimand. it did me a favour back in England because everyone was reading about it back home.

..allegedly spending time with Elvis on English soil

I don’t talk about that. Everyone keeps asking me, but I won’t give an answer, and you won’t get one out of me.

...bringing rock’n’roll to the UK

I was in the navy, and I came home in 1956 with a new sound called rock’n’roll. I was playing that in the streets of London, but no-one had heard it before – it went on from there.

The Glenn Miller Story is at Mayflower Theatre in Southampton from Tuesday September 8 to Sunday, September 12. Tickets from £15 to £35. Call 023 8071 1811 or go online at mayflower.org.uk