Tommy versus Elvis
When I mention to Canadians that, once upon a time, school yard verbal battles were fought in the UK over the respective rock ‘n’ roll virtues of Tommy Steele and Elvis Presley, they look at me with a sense of puzzlement.
Those who even know who Tommy is, think of him solely as a toothy song and dance man who appeared in frothy cinematic confections like Half a Sixpence and The Happiest Millionaire.
Tommy versus Elvis? No way!
But, incongruity and befuddlement notwithstanding, it’s true. They were once seen as prime rivals in the teen idol stakes. And the summer/autumn of 1957 was ground zero.
In the NME Top 30 for August 16, both were well represented. Elvis had two separate entries whereas Tommy had two plus, the plus being his presence – via his cover of Butterfly – as one of the six artistes on the All Star Hit Parade disc.
Mind you, the Elvis positions were particularly auspicious. All Shook Up was at the very top, and Teddy Bear had just climbed to No3.
Tommy, on the other hand, wasn’t in the Top 10, Butterfingers being on the way down while the new one – the double-sided Water Water/Handful of Songs – was just starting its ascent.
Then, before the month was out, both of them added another entry. For Elvis, it was Paralysed; for Tommy, it was the self-written Shiralee. Between them, they took up a substantial chunk of the hit parade.
And the battlefield also extended to the big screen. At the end of May, The Tommy Steele Story opened to modest reviews but enthusiastic audiences. Loving You followed in late August. Both were very popular, but Tommy had the edge at the box-office.
It’s interesting to compare the movies, both for their similarities and their differences. They had three things in common.
First, they were both designed to quickly capitalise on the (perhaps) transient popularity of their stars. Better get something in the cinemas before the fad wore off!
Second, they were both structured as narratives of a singer’s rise to fame. In the case of Loving You, Elvis played the fictional Deke Rivers. In The Tommy Steele Story, Tommy played himself, although the version portrayed on the screen was itself substantially fictionalised.
And third, the songs were all important. For Loving You, the likes of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Kal Mann and Bernie Lowe, and Aaron Schroeder and Ben Weisman were called to songwriting duty.
For The Tommy Steele Story, Tommy and his songwriting confederates Lionel Bart and Mike Pratt knuckled down for a couple of weeks hard graft.
Beyond that, the films were quite different. One was made on a British shoestring budget, while the other was a glossier Hollywood production.
Indeed, The Tommy Steele Story had all of the hallmarks of a quickie exploitation piece. Shot in black and white on a compressed four-week schedule, it was a cheap “B” picture successfully marketed as an “A.” As such, its percentage return on investment was spectacular.
In contrast, Paramount allowed Loving You a relatively luxurious two-month shoot. And it was filmed in bright Technicolour, which, among other things, showcased its star’s newly-dyed black hair – a shade that he pretty much retained for the rest of his life.
The Tommy-Elvis cinematic duel also played out in the album market, which Record Mirror had started tracking in July 1956. Album sales being very modest back then, reporting was confined to a Top 5.
Competitively, Tommy’s sound-track was first out of the traps, beginning a 21-week run on June 8, 1957. Four of those weeks were spent at the very top, thus making it the first British album to go all the way in what had hitherto been an American domain.
But Elvis was no slacker. On August 31, the Loving You soundtrack entered the fray to equally estimable results – three weeks at the top in the course of a 25-week run.
Another interesting aspect of the rivalry is the way in which their personalities and presentations differed. In no sense were they two peas in a pod.
Where Elvis was tall and dark, Tommy was small and blonde. Where Elvis projected an aura of unsettled moodiness, Tommy was all chirpy Cockney.
Elvis pouted, Tommy grinned. Elvis was exotic and mysterious, while Tommy exuded matey extroversion – you could readily envisage him leading a knees-up in his Bermondsey local.
In contrast to other early British rockers, Tommy never gave any indication of wanting to “be Elvis.” In fact, he didn’t seem to have any awe of America or Americans. Yes, he was happy to appropriate their songs when it suited his purpose, but he was a Londoner and proud of it: end of story.
Then there’s the matter of sex appeal. Conventional wisdom has it that sexual suggestion was an essential part of rock ‘n’ roll, and that Tommy’s persona was anodyne in that regard. At best, though, it’s a dodgy argument, one that smacks of working backwards from conclusion to starting premises, and defining terms to fit the point one wants to make.
In any event, sex appeal comes in more than one flavour. Anyone who actually remembers 1957 will know that hormonally-active teenage girls were a big part of the Tommy phenomenon. Granted, his attraction was different from that of Elvis. But it was still very real.
Finally, there’s the issue of credibility. Tommy, so the argument goes, wasn’t really a rock ‘n’ roller at all. If you stack-up, say, Rebel Rock against Hound Dog, they’re clearly birds of a different feather. Whereas Elvis sounds like he means it, Tommy is clearly just having a zesty laugh, perhaps even poking a little fun.
That critique, however, presumes there can only be one style of rock ‘n’ roll. But credibility, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
In 1957 Britain, Tommy was the real thing to significant numbers of people. With his colourful shirts, jeans, big guitar, and unruly mop of blonde hair, he briefly caught the spirit of the time.
When he strutted through the likes of Long Tall Sally and Razzle Dazzle, or purveyed his jauntily swaggering version of Singing the Blues, you’d have had a hard time telling the audience that it wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll.
Yes, implausible though it may seem, there really was a moment when Tommy versus Elvis was the schoolyard topic of the day.
A native of Ireland, Pat Murphy now lives in Toronto, Canada.
Elvis Presley’s London visit confirmed by Tommy Steele: he says he did take did take Elvis Presley on a trip around London in 1958. It was previously reported by Bill Kenwright that Presley visited England, despite it being generally thought he never visited the country in his lifetime. Steele confirmed the trip did occur, but said he regrets the news leaking to the press.