GEORGIE FAME’S been at the top of his game for over fifty years, and to celebrate, Universal Music is about to release a remarkable 5 CD box set which focuses on his early years…. 1963-1966. The collection, entitled THE WHOLE WORLD’S SHAKING, offers Georgie’s first four albums – including his breakthrough live set with his Blue Flames, ‘Rhythm And Blues at The Flamingo’ and the acclaimed and in-demand ‘Sweet Thing’, named for Georgie’s exceptional version of the Spinner’s Motown song. The box set is out later this month and next month Mr F will be releasing an album of brand new recordings. SJF recently caught up with the Leigh, Lancashire-born jazz man to discuss his wonderfully garlanded career but the first thing we wanted to know was how on earth he kept going and what’s the secret of his longevity in the business…
Hard to say but I’m guessing it’s a combination of diversity, dedication and lots and lots luck.
OK – so how does a young lad does from Leigh get interested in music… who or what inspired you?
First it was family entertainment with the piano in the front room and then Chapel every Sunday. That gave me harmonic education. Then there was the wireless…. stations like AFN (American Forces Network) and then the advent of Rock N Roll on the radio… people like Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and Little Richard. I also saw a film called ‘Sanders Of The River’ with Paul Robeson. I remember the song he sang, ‘The Canoe Song’ with the phrase ‘I E I KO’. It stayed with me and I used it later in my version of Sir Van’s ‘Moondance’.
Then there was the talent show at Butlins where you were “discovered”. Tells us about that and had you worked in a pro/semi-pro capacity before that?
I was in a local Leigh band called the Dominoes and the Satellites before that. I was on holiday with mates from the Dominoes at Butlins in North Wales. Some of my mates encouraged me to get up and play in the bar and Rory Blackwell (of “and the Black Jacks”) who was there at the time, approached me before the final of the contest and asked me to join his band. Rory was one of the UK’s first proper rock and rollers.
It was down to London then… how did that move affect your musical influences… you were still playing rock n roll at the time, I’m guessing.
Sure. I hadn’t heard any Jazz records then and was still learning how to play Rock N Roll!.
Explain, then, how and when Clive Powell became Georgie Fame… I’m guessing too that you weren’t keen on the name?
In 1959 Larry Parnes – a London-based music manager – decided to take me on. He gave me the name as he thought Georgie Fame was a good tag. I wasn’t keen at all. He knew I could sing and play piano (he’d heard me backing others) so he gave me a slot opening his show (he ran all kinds of package tours) but in order to appear on his show every artist had to have a given ‘stage name’. At the time it seemed like a fair price to pay for touring with his stable of musicians. .. people like Billy Fury, Duffy Power, and Dickie Pride…. great names! Eventually I became part of Billy Fury’s backing band –The Blue Flames.
When you went out on your own did you retain the Billy Fury era name as a tribute to James Brown … were you aware of him at that time? And also if you weren’t keen on being “Georgie Fame” why didn’t you change?
The Blue Flames were named by Billy Fury and we kept the name because we thought the association with Billy as his backing group would get us more work. When the Afro (Black) American GI’s at the Flamingo (the Soho club where we ended up as residents) would say “Holla ‘Hey …Fame”, I thought, actually, it sounded pretty hip … so I kept it.
Aa you say, you found yourself with a residency at the Flamingo – how did that happen and can you explain the club’s unique atmosphere and how it might have helped your sound and style to evolve….
Mike O’Neill (who I knew form Leigh) was in a band called Nero and The Gladiators … he was actually Nero. Well he took me down to the all-nighter at the Flamingo and introduced me to Rik Gunnell, the owner. The atmosphere was dark, funky and intimidating! 80% of the clientele were black – a mix of American GIs and London Afro-Caribeans; they all loved jazz, soul and ska and often brought records down to the club for us to listen to. The effect it had on what we wanted to play was good because we were all into the same music.
Your first album was the Live one at the Flamingo… was the music your set at the time and was the recording actually “live”?
Yes the recording was actually live and yes, the music was part of our set at the time. It’s a good reflection of our shows at the Flamingo.
Then there was ‘Yeh Yeh’… the one that kick started things. Tell us about that one….
It was the first no. 1 we had. We’d been playing that song in the clubs for weeks before we recorded it. Jon Hendricks (who made the original vocal version) called me after he heard our version and loved the tempo we did it at because his version was slower. This was a song in the repertoire that was getting a good response from audiences in the club scene so it seemed natural to record it. It was a very quick recording session and we played the two sides of the single like a gig and headed off to the next show! Having a hit record back then certainly broadened our horizons!
Your version of ‘Yeh Yeh’ is a fairly straight rendering of Jon Hendricks’ version… maybe a wee bit faster. Similarly, at this time, you played and/or recorded faithful copies of things like Louis Jordan’s version of ‘Point Of No Return’ and Joe Hinton’s version of ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’… did you see yourself as an evangelist for all this great music or an opportunist – enjoying success with music that others found hard to access?
Neither (laughs). We were just doing what came naturally because it was part of our listening environment. Denny Cordell, the producer, found the great Joe Hinton’s ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’ for us.
Another of your great covers from this time is ‘Sweet Thing’ – how did you find the Spinners song? Why was it never a single?
Denny Cordell produced the album by the same title so after ‘Yeh Yeh’ was a hit we were invited to appear on the UK Tamla Motown tour as we were ‘compatible’. We worked with people like Earl Van Dyke…. so the ‘Sweet Things’ album has a lot of Motown influence in it. Don’t know why it was never a single though.
Another focal point in your Columbia era is surely the ‘Sound Venture’ album with Harry South’s band… how did this come about? And do you consider it one of the highs of your career?
My baritone saxophone player at the time, Johnny Marshall, recommended I speak to Harry South – a great jazz arranger – who was playing with The Dick Morrissey Quartet then. And yes, it was an important milestone in my musical education. Having listened to Jon Hendricks and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross I thought I’d try my hand at singing with a big band.
The new box set includes all four of your Columbia LPs… then there’s a collection of ‘demos, rarities and outtakes’ … is there anything in there that you’d particularly like to point us to?
No, not really because as I’ve said in previous interviews we didn’t release these things in the first place back then because we didn’t think they were good enough! Nowadays there’s a kind of warts n all approach to catalogue releases and I suppose it part of a morbid curiosity culture.
After your time with Columbia you moved over to CBS. Some would say that your sound then became a little poppier, even a little MOR (I’m thinking of the ‘Thing With Strings’ album… just reissued). Was this a conscious choice of yours or was it foisted on you by CBS execs…. did you ever regret leaving Columbia/EMI.
It was simply a managerial strategic decision which I wasn’t too happy about at the time. And no, I didn’t regret leaving Columbia/EMI. I needed to move on
Then there was your collaboration with Alan Price (a TV show too) and recordings deals with labels like Reprise, Island and Pye… what can you recall about those days?
Chris Blackwell apart from being a very sharp business man had great musical taste and gave me an opportunity to come back after the years I’d spent with CBS. It didn’t last long with Chris but I respect him a lot. In the Pye period I had Karl Genkins doing the arrangements. He did my first Pye record (‘Right Now’) and I enjoyed doing those two albums. But Pye was in decline at the time and those albums didn’t get much exposure … but I enjoyed making them.
When did you make the decision to get back to jazz/R&B and soul?
After I left CBS. Alan Price and I did ‘7th Son’ which was heading back to that type of material.
Thankfully you made the decision and went on to make great albums with labels like Go Jazz and your own Three Line Whip – what would you say were the highlights of this period?
The 3 albums I did with producer Ben Sidran ….’ Cool Cat Blues’, ‘The Blues & Me’ and’ Poet In New York’ were all great ‘live in the studio’ records that I enjoyed. We played with some very fine American musicians. I’m also proud of my Three Line Whip records that feature the current Blue Flames line up and my sons on guitar and drums…. Tristan (guitar), James (drums).
You tour regularly and anyone who sees the shows can see you love what you’re doing… how do you keep things fresh?
I don’t know. The kind of music that I play is refreshing. The songs that I compose and even the old stuff that I continue to play is the kind of music that still sound fresh partly due to my enthusiasm for the music and my own capacity to deliver. I am constantly on the move too, working with different outfits and combinations of bands/orchestras so that too keeps things fresh.
You’re usually accompanied by your sons (James and Tristan)… did you encourage them to go into the business? Do you prefer live work with them or with an augmented band as on your last tour?
I encourage my sons to play and enjoy music to the best of their ability. I enjoy all aspects of my musical career but I do have a preference for live performance.
And apart from the reissues are there any new recordings on the horizon. Last time I saw you, you mentioned a new album coming out in October… any news of that. You said it was going to feature a song you’d never recorded before … but you played it live … words by Mike O’Neill, I think, it was a beautiful song. When can we enjoy that?
The new album will be called ‘Swan Songs’. It’ll be our last album! Should be released before the end of this year and the song you’re talking about is ‘My Ship’ by Mike O’Neill…. remember Nero? Most of the other songs are originals and Madeleine Bell helps me out with the vocals.
Almost finally I’m not the only music lover who considers you a national treasure and you’ve done loads and loads for UK music… have you ever been honoured officially (maybe you’ve refused a knighthood or MBE?) … even your old mate Van Morrison has a knighthood! Do you see yourself as a National Treasure? What about being called a “mod icon”? Indeed how do you see yourself?
I’m not mod icon!!! And I don’t know what a national treasure is apart from the crown jewels! No, I don’t consider myself anything else apart from a musician that has survived playing the music that I like for 50 plus years.
Finally and back to the Universal box set….. on the spot now…. what is your single most abiding memory of that period… which of the LPs are you the most proud of…. which is the one that says ‘This is really Georgie Fame’?
You know, they are all different but they all say ‘this is me’. Diversity is the key to this … and my music …as they all show the broad outlook on music that I have and love.
GEORGIE FAMES’ THE WHOLE WORLDS SHAKING is released on October 19
Georgie is touring through the Autumn in support of the release… your local press will fill you in if he’s coming to venue near you.
‘Swan Songs’, the new album, is set for release on November 6.
Catch a great selection of great Georgie Fame pictures @ www.ansvanheckphotography.com