TOMMY Steele – is he for real? He’s certainly irresistible, in an interview sense. Britain’s first pop star has been a showbiz success story for almost 60 years, and now at the age of 78 he’s still performing as a song and dance man, touring the country in the Glenn Miller Story. Why? It’s certainly not about the money. Has he sung Half A Sixpence so many times his brain has turned to loose change?
Steele fascinates for other reasons. Just days after releasing his first record Rock With The Caveman in 1956 his career spun at 78rpm, sending him onto variety theatre, TV and then film. Over the years, he’s had 20 hit singles with the likes of Little White Bull and Singing The Blues, starred in theatre hits such as Singing In The Rain and enjoyed Hollywood stardom with hits such as Finian’s Rainbow.
But the entertainer never made the tabloid headlines for the wrong reasons: no floozies, no recreational drugs, no alcohol rehab. Has he been great at headline avoidance, or am I about to meet Saint Thomas of Bermondsey? On a more prosaic level, what is there about TS that’s keeps his name on producer’s cast lists? Sheer talent? Perseverance? Monkey glands?
The monkey glands theory initially seems sound. When we meet in a Glasgow hotel it’s evident the one-time Tommy Hicks (Stil-Hicks was his Norwegian grandfather’s surname) is not your typical 78 year old. He’s wearing trackie bottoms and a T-shirt that could have been bought in H&M and his hair is still blond and curly, if a little thinner than it was when he was a Caveman.
Steele even sounds young, talking in an excited luvvly-jubbly south London accent as he praises the PR team’s oatcookies.
“I feel fantastic,” he says, relaxing back in his chair, hands behind heads like a teenager watching a movie. “My mum used to say I had the cheekbones to look young for ages. But the thing that really keeps you young is doing something you do.”
And avoiding ill-health? “I’ve been lucky, mate. All my ill health happened before I was 11 and I was ill for four years.”
Steele developed porphyria, the neuropathic illness which affects the stomach and drove King George III mad. “The war had been over three or four years, and I was trapped in hospital bed. It was only when these red spots exploded on my ankles the docs realised I had the King’s Disease. When I learned of the madness I panicked - and so did my mum.”
Young Tommy was treated successfully, although he later developed meningitis and cardiomyopathy. But did the madness the doctor predicted eventually emerge? “Not really,” he says, smiling. “Although you have to be mad to go into showbiz.”
It would be easy to write Steele’s long illness tale into his showbiz success story; a sick kid desperate to be heard and make up for lost time. But that’s not the script. The performer was already mad for showbiz as a young boy when his parents took him to the London Palladium.
“I was wonderstruck. It was so plush and wonderful, and by the time the curtain went up, it was gods who were walking on stage.”
Yet, with this realisation came instant disappointment. “Not because I didn’t love this world, but because I did so much, and couldn’t get up there on stage because I wasn’t a child star like Mickey Rooney. I didn’t think you could be English and be a star. I got on the Bermondsey bus and forgot about the dream.”
He didn’t, as it happens. An hour later – when pushed – he reveals as kid he’d sing at parties, the likes of Frankie Laine’s Mule Train. “I’d have a matchstick and cotton and pretend to do the whipping noise.”
For now, he’s sticking to the story he wants to tell and it’s a career of happy accidents which began when 16 year old Tommy Hicks joined the Merchant Navy. The teenager became chums with a sailor who taught him the three chords required to play every Country and Western song ever written.
Two years later when the ship later docked in West Virginia, Hicks saw his first country show. Except it wasn’t trad country. The music was speeded up and a young man called Buddy Holly played what would be known as rock ’n’ roll.
“When we got New York I bought the sheet music to a load of rock ’n’ roll songs and by the time I got back to London I could play them all.”
At the time, London was still caught up with sexless tea-chest-and-moothie music, skiffle. So when sparkly-eyed Tommy Hicks walked into the 2i’s Coffee bar in Soho, took out his guitar and thrashed out Blue Suede Shoes, the crowd felt a stirring they’d never known before. The following week, in October 1956, it was the freshly renamed Tommy Steele who walked into Decca Records and made Caveman, reaching No 13 in the Hit Parade.
“I wasn’t looking for the success, it just came to me,” he argues, offering the fatalistic notion. Did it Tommy? I can smell a little white bull here. The showbiz dream was always there. The Palladium. The matchstick whip. The guitar. The desire/nerve needed to play live in Soho?
“It’s a good point you make,” he says, grinning. “And you’re half right. But it wasn’t just about singing and playing. I needed an audience. When I played guitar and sang on the ship I loved to see the sailors faces light up. That was showbiz for me.”
Ah, showbiz. Long associated with thieves and opportunists. Indeed, the early days of pop were very much about managers preying on young talent, sexually and commercially. Was he a victim?
“To be honest, I’ve never been privvy to that."
Yet he was managed by Larry Parnes. Pop impresario Parnes was a flamboyant gay man, who created stars out of good-looking young guys and paid a salary rather than royalties. In recent years, Parnes' name has been added to the list of big names accused of being a sexual predator.
Did Parnes attempt to take advantage of him?
Steele half registers hearing the question – and half answers it, with an unexpected cowboy analogy; “If you go into Indian territory you can find the farm you’re looking for. But the next boy to try it gets shot by the Apaches.”
Seems what he’s saying is he emerged unscathed – but those who followed found themselves losing more than their scalp. Nevertheless, just six days after the chart success, the singer was thrown onto the variety circuit (he played the infamous Glasgow Empire) and a week later theatre producer Harold Fielding offered the chance to star in musical theatre. Fate, Tommy?
“Oh yeh!” he says, in a let’s-put-on-a-show upbeat delivery which could have been straight out of Expresso Bongo. “I didn’t know my arse from my elbow but I was having such a wonderful time. It was lovely.” He adds, in serious voice: “There was never a plan. And there isn’t a plan now. You can call it luck or happenstance.”
And timing. And talent. And charisma. A few weeks later, Tommy Steele was on television, and shows such as Six Five Special made him a national star. “All of this happened before Christmas time, and then I went off to panto in Liverpool to do Goldilocks and the Three Squares. I was singing showtunes, and trying bits of slapstick comedy and by the end of 12 weeks I knew I wanted to be in a world in which I would sing, dance and act.”
There’s an odd dichotomy here. Steele was the voice and face of youth who introduced a new musical genre to Britain, paving the way for the likes of Cliff Richard. Yet, he didn’t care about being cool. “I’d play anything if it entertained,” he admits. And he did, courting the variety fans, the grans and mums and recording cheesy cockney efforts such as Little White Bull. (Indeed, in 1960 he was offered the chance to star in Keith Waterhouse’s coolest script, Billy Liar – but turned down the offer.)
Steele maintains he didn’t chase success, but there’s no doubt he had the right attitude to catch it - and hold onto it. Aged 20, just nine months out of his sailor suit, he was off to New York to work with Rodgers and Hammerstein who were writing new songs for Harold Fielding’s big panto in London. Was he nervous? “Nah. Because I was so new to the business, I didn’t even know who they were.”
Broadway beckoned, then Hollywood, to star in the likes of Finian’s Rainbow with Astaire. “I know it sounds like a load of old bull but each success begat another one. But I didn’t take everything offered. I wanted to work with the right people.”
So he did have a career plan of sorts. But was his blond head turned by the success? “No, because I was safe.” What does that mean, Tommy? “I was safe because I was taught by people like Oscar Hammerstein how to lift a lyric, I was taught by panto directors who knew about stagecraft. You’ve got to put a lot of that down to fortune.”
No, that’s professional support, Tommy. Look, you had it all within months of beginning a career, you were feted by producers in London, Broadway and Hollywood. Did you dabble in drugs? Did you buy an E-Type jag and hop around with Playboy bunnies?
“Nah,” he says, chuckling. “The only thing I suffered from was the teenagers who screamed during the concerts. Sometimes I had to stop the show and say ‘Listen to the music – then scream.”
I’m hearing a little white bull again, Tommy.
“Girls? No. I swear to you,” he says. “There weren’t groupies in those days. Groupies came after me. Mine were called Teenagers and the worst they would do is shout through my mum’s letter box. And I never took the drugs or drink, not because I was holier than thou but because I was getting all my kicks on stage.”
Steele bought his parents a house in 1957 and he was still living at home in 1960 until he married Ann. (They have a daughter, Emma). Not only did he not trash hotels, sometimes he didn’t even sleep in them. When appearing in Liverpool in panto, he says he hired a caravan and slept in a field, away from the attentions of the Teenagers.
His boy-next-doorness seems absolutely genuine. Later when we talk about Expresso Bongo, the theatre play and movie starring Cliff, which was ‘nicked’ from Steele’s own life story, he talks about the stage show being ‘a bit sleazy’, when he took his mum to see it.
His only concession to stardom and profligacy, he admits, was ‘a few fast cars.’ But we’re not talking Ferraris. “The biggest was a Citroen DS 90 but usually I had a Zephyr. I liked Zephyrs.”
What did he do in the times the phone stopped ringing? “It didn’t stop ringing,” he says without a trace of boast. But he must have surrendered to self-doubt on occasion, given it all happened so fast?
“It doesn’t go as deep as that,” he says, rather honestly. “Take Half a Sixpence on Broadway, and Gene Kelly comes to see the show. My idol. He says ‘I want to do a show with you’. And because I can’t tap he taught me. Now, I’m not worried because I’m working with Gene Kelly, I’m just worried I can’t do the routine. But I learnt.
“From there I went to Hollywood to do Finian’s Rainbow. And I learnt from Astaire. But I also realised he couldn’t tap twice with his left foot. He had to practice. And he did. For days, on one routine. The point is I wasn’t wracked with self-doubt because the stars were always working on their own work.”
The song and dance man doesn’t bitch about showbiz turns. He’s too nice for that. The only time his voice becomes a little steely is when he talks about writer Wolf Mankiewicz ‘nicking’ his life story and using it in Expresso Bongo. And he only half smiles when you joke his longevity and looks were down to a Faustian pact.
But he is good-natured. He put up with it when I ask if he ever fell for co-stars such as the lovely Petula Clark in Finian’s Rainbow? “No. They were nearly all mates. It was the same with [Laurence] Olivier and [John] Gielgud. They’re all ordinary people. Pop stars are the same. Elton appreciates what I do. So did John Lennon. They thought I was their Gene Kelly. I’d been there and done it.”
Now, despite the fact he’s 40 years too old for the role, he’s about to become Glen Miller on stage. Yes, he loves the music, but you suspect Steele would have to be beaten on the head repeatedly with Miller’s trombone to stop him going out there. But has unimaginable desire/need to have an audience meant huge sacrifices along the way?
“You mean where the kids hate you, go bankrupt, all of that?”
Yes, Tommy. But he doesn’t answer, instead telling a long tale about a determined trapeze artist who lost a third of his family on the high wire, then the other third and then the rest.
“Why did he keep going up there?” says Steele, rhetorically, smiling through his perfect teeth. “He claimed, ‘To live is to be on the wire . . . the rest is waiting.’ Isn’t that a wonderful line?”
Sure, Tommy but the trapeze artist was bonkers.
“Out of his tiny mind,” says Steele, laughing in agreement.
The Glenn Miller Story, the King’s Theatre Glasgow, September 15-19.



Marty Wilde
The Londoner was performing under the name Reg Patterson at London’s Condor Club in 1957 when he was spotted by impresario Larry Parnes. Reg changed his name, wore a hairpiece and had a string of hits including A Teenager In Love. He still performs today on the revival circuit and is the father of former pop star and TV presenter Kim.

Billy Fury
Another young star from Parnes's stable, Ron Wycherley had film star looks and musical talent. Fury went on to have hits with the likes of Half Way To Paradise and became a teen idol. His career and life was shortlived. Fury died aged 42 from heart disease.
Dickie Pride
Born Richard Knellar, he was reckoned to be the most talented member of the entire Parnes circus and had hits with covers of Little Richard’s Slippin’n’Slidin and Frankie Sal’s Fabulous Cure. But he developed a major drug habit and died from a brain haemorrhage.

Cliff Richard
The singer formerly known as Harry Webb was rejected by Parnes but his single Move It stormed the charts in 1958 and he went onto become a pop institution. Police announced in 2014 that they were investigating an allegation of historic sexual abuse against him. He has not been arrested or charged with any offence.