BEFORE he was Britain’s answer to Elvis Presley, Tommy Steele was a wide-eyed boy sitting between his parents in the cheap seats at the Royal Albert Hall.
“My mum and dad took me to see Glenn Miller in 1944,” recalls the song-and-dance veteran. “I didn’t appreciate what I was seeing. I was just a lad. All I knew was that I was going with my parents and I was delighted. Everyone was enthralled by Miller. They couldn’t get enough of him. The Germans had been giving us a bit of whacking by that point. It was nice to see something you could go and cheer at.”
Only as he grew older did Steele come to appreciate how lucky he had been to witness Miller in his pomp.
As a teenager, he fell hard for the American’s swinging style of big band jazz. He also developed a fascination with the disappearance of the bandleader who, just a few months after the Albert Hall performance, vanished while flying over the English channel. He’d been en route to a concert for American servicemen in France. The plane, never recovered, is thought to have gone down in bad weather.
“Glenn Miller has been my hero ever since, and a huge influence. I remember my parents telling me the story of how he had disappeared. As a young guy, I couldn’t get it out of my head,” says Steele.
To this day, his passion for Miller, his music and his life, is undimmed. Which is why Steele is perfect host for an evening Miller’s compositions, interspersed with scenes from the composer and bandleader’s life story, which he brings to Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, next week.
“Bill Kenwright, the producer, calls one day and says ‘I’m going to do the Glen Miller story as a stage musical, with all the great numbers — all that wonderful music from the swing era’. I said, ‘Wonderful — but who’s going to play Miller?’ He said, ‘It has to be you Tommy’.
At 79, Steele is older than Miller, just 40 when he vanished, and grew up in London rather than Iowa. Nonetheless, he knew he would be up to the challenge. After a lifetime of listening to Miller, he feels the man’s music is in his DNA.
“It starts with me, as Tommy Steele, walking out. I say to the audience, ‘I’d like to introduce you to the Glen Miller Appreciation Society and we are going to tell you the story of the mystery and success and the sounds, of one of the greatest musical icons ever’. And then the band walks out and off we go.”
When the production toured Britain last year, every night was sold out. “If you’re over the age of 55, then you know Miller. You grew up with this music. You hear the opening note of one of his tunes and you recognise it straight away. You can’t get a seat for the show. Plus, when we announced we were auditioning for the orchestra every top musician in Britain applied. They all wanted to play Miller. It’s amazing.”
In his seventh decade in the business, Steele is an impish presence, full of joie de vivre. He has a cherished place in UK music, with his 1957 smash ‘Singing The Blues’ regarded as one of most important early British rock songs. He would release dozens more hits while his debut album was the first by a British artist to reach number one in the nascent charts.
He also branched into acting, trying on an Irish accent in both The Happiest Millionaire (1967) and Finian’s Rainbow (1968), the latter an unlikely romp directed by a young Martin Scorsese with Steele, appearing alongside Fred Astaire and Petula Clark, as a hyperactive leprechaun. Supposedly set County Clare, the film was actually shot around Los Angeles.
“Whenever I go to Hollywood they think I’m Irish,” laughs Steele. “I played a crazed Irish butler in The Happiest Millionaire. Off of that they offered me Og in Finian’s Rainbow. Every time I was in Hollywood, they assumed I was from Ireland. I kept insisting ‘No, I’m cockney’. And all they would say is, ‘Ooh, you’ve gone and changed your accent.”
Steele was born Thomas William Hicks in Southwark, London, in 1936. After leaving school he worked briefly as a merchant seaman. During shore leave he would perform on guitar and banjo in coffee houses around Soho. But his musical tastes were forever altered following a voyage to America where he discovered Buddy Holly. Until then he had been deeply immersed in Britain’s popular skiffle craze. Now he decided he would a rock’n’roll star.
He was soon taken under the wing of photographer John Kennedy, a would-be Svengali determined to give the UK its own Elvis Presley. Steele — the stage name was Kennedy’s idea — was more than up for the challenge. Backed by The Steelmen, he put out a deluge of singles, often at the rate of one every three weeks. Still mired in post-war austerity, suddenly Britain had its first larger-than-life entertainer. Where Steele had ventured, The Beatles, the Stones, Bowie and all the rest would follow. Though he turns 80 this year, Steele has little intention of slowing down. He feels great, takes good care of himself. He’s a song and dance man and what else is a song and dance man to do but get up on stage every night?
“I stick to the same regime. I train every day, I have a strict diet. I’m always ready. If someone comes up with something, I can go off and do it at the drop of a hat. I have never left myself go. I just like to be fit.
“If you’re a song and dance man, which is how I see myself, then where you want to be is on stage, performing for an audience. That has always been my life. I’ve done film and television but it was never about that. I love being up there, with the crowd watching. It’s where I feel most at home.”