TOMMY Steele is a showbiz legend. It’s that simple. Britain’s first teen idol and rock and roll icon, he scored his first No 1 in 1957 with Singing the Blues.
From there he ventured into movies, appearing on cinema screens over three decades films such as Tommy the Toreador, Half a Sixpence, The Happiest Millionaire and as Og, the leprechaun, in Finnan’s Rainbow.
An accomplished sculptor and novelist, he even had a name check in Ian Fleming’s 1961 James Bond novel Thunderball.
Music, however, has remained his first love, in recent years through musical theatre roles, many of which have brought him to the Capital.
He last toured to Edinburgh as Doctor Dolittle eight years ago and prior to that made two visits as Scrooge to the Playhouse, where next week he will star in The Glenn Miller Story.
It’s a role that means a lot to the sprightly 79-year-old who can recall seeing the great American band leader in concert when he was a boy.
It was a concert that would introduce him to swing music and spark a love of the genre that remains to this day.
“My mum and dad took me to see him in 1944,” recalls the ‘Bermondsey boy’. “It might have been at the Albert Hall or one of London’s other big halls.
“I was eight and didn’t know who he was but although he didn’t make any impression on me at the time, what I do remember is my mum and dad being so excited, and the place being packed with people.
“The atmosphere was remarkable and then this band began to play... I just sat there listening to this music.
“It was the beginnings of swing, and I will never forget the audience and my parents’ reaction to it.
“I couldn’t understand it; why they should be so energetic, screaming and jumping up and down to this band playing.
“It wasn’t until a few years went by and I became a teenager, I found the memories of that music had stayed with me. Then I understood. Ever since, I’ve been into swing.”
Miller, the best-selling recording artist from 1939 to 1943 whose hits include the swing classics In the Mood, Pennsylvania 6-5000, Chattanooga Choo Choo and Little Brown Jug, went missing during a flight shortly after that concert.
The mystery surrounding his disappearance helping in part to ensure that his music lived on.
At the time, Miller was travelling over the English Channel to entertain troops in France. Steele takes up the story.
“It was around my birthday. He flew off on December 15 and my birthday was on the 17th.
“I don’t think the news really got around until two or three months later because the war was still on and the BBC wasn’t very keen on giving out bad news... and remember, his disappearance was a mystery.”
Or it was until a couple of years ago, when modern technology gave an insight into what might have happened.
“Glenn Miller was on the missing list until two years ago when they suddenly cracked it and found out what had happened,” explains Steele.
“Up until then they didn’t know. You see, during the war, when D-Day was over and we were into Europe, our bombers were flying over France on their way to bomb Berlin and Hamburg and places like that.
“Now, when the bombers couldn’t find their target, which used to happen in bad weather, they would turn back, but they had to jettison their bombs into the Channel. They couldn’t land with them.
“A crew member on one of those flights said he remembered bombs dropping and one of them hitting a small biplane below. So for years that was a possibility... Glenn’s plane got hit by a stray bomb.
“There was another rumour that went around, that he was a German spy because his name was Miller [Muller].
“Then, two years ago, by using the technology they have now, they found that the kind of plane he was in, when it went above 15000ft, the engine would cut out. It couldn’t take the pressure. That was it.
“It was one of those fleeting announcements from America. Most people missed it, so the mystery remained... but you can’t put your money on that either, because there’s always someone else who will argue, ‘Ah, but he wasn’t at 15,000ft he was only at 7000ft.
“As I say in the show, ‘This story is a mystery right from the beginning’.”
The idea for the production came after a chance discussion over dinner between the showman and his producer Bill Kenwright.
“I wrote it as a wonderful idea. When Bill came to me and said he wanted to do it as a new musical I assumed they would be looking for an American or someone to play the lead role. He said, ‘No, I want you.’
“I said, ‘You’re crazy, you’re talking about a great American icon, you’ll never get away with it.’
“But he said, ‘It’s a song and dance show...’ and I realised what he was saying.
“A song and dance man has to play the part because it’s an all-singing, all-dancing musical, so therefore, my Glenn Miller is me being me, being Glenn Miller, rather than the other way around.”
“Transported” is how he describes being on stage in the show.
“All the songs in the score came back to me instantly, not just the Miller numbers, which are abundant. We take him through that whole era. Through all the wonderful swing songs of the 30s, until he finds his sound and all of a sudden becomes... Glenn Miller.
“Again, as he says in the play, ‘I have this sound in the back of my mind and I can feel it but I can’t hear it.”
With a 16-piece band and full supporting company tapping, jiving and jitterbugging their way through the show, The Glenn Miller Story is an authentic recreation of that sound.
“I said I’d do it but that it had to be the same size band and the same arrangements, so we have a 16-piece Glenn Miller band,” adds Steele.
“You can’t do it with less, especially with fanatics like me. You need the 16-piece band because of the arrangements, I’ve seen it tried with less a few times and been very disappointed.
“Doing this show is like being taken on a wonderful tour, I go on the stage and get transported because everything on the stage is authentic.
“It’s like when I do Scrooge, you are transported to Dickensian London; in this, we transport them back to the swing era...”
He laughs, “When you hear these numbers, they are going to take you by the hand and make you dance whether you’re 18 or 110.”
The Glenn Miller Story, Playhouse, Greenside Place, next Tuesday-Saturday, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £14.90-£48.90, 0844-871 3014