This film is part of Free

Tommy Steele Returns to the Sunderland Empire

Tommy Steele returns to Sunderland Empire in the 1970s and recalls his early years as Decca's dynamic new star of the rock 'n' roll era.

Magazine and Review show 1976 7 mins

From the collection of:

Logo for North East Film Archive


Tommy Steele, former merchant seaman on the Mauretania and an early rock 'n' roll sensation hailed as "Britain's answer to Elvis", makes a nostalgic return to Sunderland Empire, scene of his first professional stage success with The Steelmen, his teenage fans that night like 'locusts'. He was catapulted to the top of the bill at the theatre after he was talent spotted 'twanging his guitar' at the legendary 2i's coffee bar in Soho and signed to the Decca record label in 1956.

On 5 November 1956, toothy Cockney Tommy Steele debuted in the Empire variety show with an eccentric mix of entertainers including comedy duo Mike and Bernie Winters, Welsh boogie-woogie maestro Thunderclap Jones and Ballet Montmartre. This old music hall tradition of programming continued throughout the 20th century amid keen competition from cinemas and ballrooms. In the 50s varieties proved popular with a television audience through shows such as ATV's 'Sunday Night at the London Palladium'. Local theatres like the Empire could not compete so started to hire young music acts favoured by teenagers as a survival strategy, despite the media publicity about 'Teddy Boy riots' at rock and roll concerts.