Writer Mark Youll caught up with legendary singer and pianist Georgie Fame for a rare and exclusive interview
It's crazy to think that it's now been 57 years since Ronnie Scott's first opened its doors in the busy, effervescent heart of Soho. First, from a basement bar in Gerrard Street for six years, before switching sites to nearby Frith Street in the summer of 1965, where it still stands proudly today as the greatest jazz venue in London, if not the world.
In celebrating the big birthday of this grand establishment, four concerts from one of the club's resident fixtures over the years, Georgie Fame, were announced for late October. The shows sold out instantly and the 73-year-old Fame came and blew the roof off the place. Engaging and energetic, his distinct jazzy vocal soared across a packed room night after night, while his warm signature B3 Hammond whistled and purred around the brassy blare of Guy Barker's wonderful orchestra. The music selected for these special shows was naturally arranged for big band and drawn from Fame's five decades in the business. It also served as a reminder of just how much Fame - like Ronnie's - has always been open to musical change and the rich mix of blues, jazz, gospel, calypso, R&B, bop, bossa and bluebeat resonating from the stage luminously verified this.
Should you have missed out on the shows or are maybe new to Fame's work, a stunning new box set, Survival, is released later this month. A weighty set spread across six discs, it features a selection of nuggets from 1963-2015, beginning with some the first material he recorded as a leader following his formative years as a backing musician to such quiff-rockers as Tony Sheridan, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. Back then he was still a naive, 15 year-old Clive Powell, a passionate pianist having just escaped the likely prospect of labouring in a cotton mill in his native Lancashire by winning a singing contest at a Butlins talent show in Wales. His big win that day earned him a regular gig for a year playing with Rory Blackwell's Blackjacks, before he found himself in London, on the books of pop manager and impresario Larry Parnes and receiving some serious schooling, touring with all the aforementioned quiffs.
Powell's vibrant piano style flourished on the road and by 1959 Parnes had rechristened him Fame after hearing the boy could sing. It was also in that same year that he was introduced to the music of Ray Charles, a game-changing moment that would direct Fame down a new musical path, towards the blues and the music of the church, the combination of which would exemplify much of his work in the years thereafter. In the winter of 1961 another significant shift in Fame's career followed an incident in Paris while touring with Billy Fury and the Blue Flames. Friction had flared during a sound-check and Fame finished up as the band's new front man. It was a position he would hold and find great success with over the next three years, sweating his way through late night sets with the Flames, now the new resident band at the infamous Flamingo Club on London's Wardour Street.
It was at the Flamingo, discovering more Blue Note and bluebeat, and tearing through tunes by James Brown, Mose Allison, Booker T and Tamla Motown, that Fame would start to make his name, fusing together a sound from a myriad of influences and relighting his Flames as an all-out R&B outfit. The band was also by now represented by the club's promoter Rik Gunnell, who kept them busy touting their sound around the country, as well other popular London hangouts like Klooks Kleek and The Roaring Twenties. To top all the excitement of the band's live show, in which sludgy Hammond had replaced tinkling piano, Fame and his Flames found fame in the pop charts with a tune called 'Yeh Yeh' in early 1965. The song was a huge hit, eventually furnishing the 22-year old Fame with his first number one and dropping the group into a kind of screamy pop hysteria fleetingly, thanks to appearances on TV shows such as Ready Steady Go and The Scene.
But a change was gonna come, and a year later, despite more chart success with tracks 'In the Meantime', 'Getaway' and 'Sitting in the Park', Fame would be pushed by Gunnell to disband the band that helped make him a household name. He was signed to CBS and was, for the first time, now recording and touring as a solo artist. For a while the hits kept coming too, thanks to the seductive 'Sunny' and the banjo-twanging 'Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde', but they were to be his last major sellers. The seventies were around the corner and it become all too clear that the sixties dream was over and his days in the mainstream were numbered.
Not that this stopped Georgie from generating more great music. In fact, many still believed in his star quality. Notably Island records boss Chris Blackwell, and also jazz pianist Ben Sidran, who in the late '80s helped revive Fame's status by plonking him in the studio with some top New York sessioners (Steve Gadd, Will Lee, Robben Ford and Richard Tee) to record the groovy Cool Cat Blues album for his Go Jazz imprint. Fame even toured and recorded with Van Morrison for ten years around this time, a back-breaking schedule he somehow managed to squeeze into his own active solo pursuits into the noughties, writing more great music, establishing his own record label, forming a successful trio with his two sons and collaborating with Bill Wyman, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters and countless other great artists and musicians around the world.
Speaking exclusively to Mark Youll for Jazzwise the usually interview-shy Georgie Fame agreed to discuss his long, diverse career so far. The highs, the lows, the Ronnie's shows and where his motivation for the music lies now.
I'd like to begin by asking you about the birthday shows you did at Ronnie's. How did those go and how did you decide on material for these gigs?
The shows were a lot of fun. I called up some arrangements from my personal big band library that I did with the Harry South big band in 1965. I also included a lot of later stuff. One tune that I composed in honour of Mose Allison ('Go Down Moses') was arranged by Guy Barker and performed for the first time at these shows.
Do you remember anything about the first time you played the club, and could you tell about your relationship with the venue over the years?
I first played at Ronnie's in the late seventies I think, when I had a new version of my (Blue Flames) band. I'd done a recording for Pye records and we did a few nights there. When I moved further into the world of jazz and I'd recorded an album in England with Annie Ross of Hoagy Carmichael tunes (In Hoagland, 1981) I was then playing a lot in Europe with jazz combos. I remember I went back to the club around 1988 when I did an album associated with the songs of Chet Baker, this was with Peter King on alto and I think Ron Mathewson on bass.
Then I returned to the club later with a larger band with King, Alan Skidmore on tenor and Guy Barker. I think that was the first time I worked with Guy. It was basically the be-bop singing bit and some Chet Baker trumpet solos which me and a friend added lyrics to. The original idea was to do an album with Chet and I spoke to him about it, but unfortunately he fell out of a window, or was pushed, and we'll never know the truth. Anyway, I went ahead and did that album (A Portrait of Chet, 1989) with some fine musicians in Holland and this led me to working at Ronnie's every year after that.
Your music has taken many shifts stylistically, what do you enjoy about working in a big band situation?
Well, playing with a jazz orchestra like Guy's is a luxury. I financed the first big band album I did in England with Harry South's band (1965's Sound Venture) and that band contained some of the greatest musicians of the time – Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Stan Tracey, Phil Seaman. I was a kid but I wanted to try and sing with a big band, so Harry and I put that thing together. I remember my manager at the time (Rik Gunnell) was all against it, he thought big bands were dead, and that it would be a waste of money. It was like my parents saying "what do you want to go gallivanting down to London for?", like I should stay in Lancashire working in a cotton mill factory.
Music has always been at the centre of things for you. What was the first music you remember hearing?
The first music I heard was every Sunday in the chapel, singing hymns. We also had a piano in the front room and my dad played a little bit. We would have regular social evenings. Things happened in the church hall and then there was Sunday School where there was a stage and a band in which my dad played accordion. It was in the church that I also learned the popular songs of the day.
Would you say music was imposed on you at a young age or did you naturally gravitate towards it?
Music was part of our lives. In the days when I was growing up, in Lancashire after the war, there was no television, and every house, no matter how poor you were, had a bloody piano in the front room.
During your shows you always make an effort to explain the history of the material you perform. Why is this?
I think it's very important to educate the audience. A lot of people don't know where the music came from. A lot of people in their innocence think that 'Yeh Yeh' began with Matt Bianco in 1986. That was a very fine record and people think it started with me and it didn't, so it's important that I inform the audience. Especially nowadays, with the way the media is, and life being so fast and flippant, people don't have any depth to their knowledge. I think it's important that people know where I got my inspiration from.
Where did you get your inspiration from?
I was inspired by Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino, and by the age of sixteen I was touring with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent and I've never stopped learning. Colin Green, my first musical mentor and first guitarist in the Blue Flames, turned up at Ronnie's the other day, we worked together for donkey's years and we're both into our seventies now but still I'm learning. Ever since I left Lancashire I've been learning. So it was Jerry and Fats until I came to Soho and I started hanging out with other musicians, and then I heard Ray Charles and the sky opened.
Tell me about that time – how would you describe the impact Charles' music had on you?
We were called to a rehearsal in Gerrard Street, Soho by Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, and it was there, along with a pool of musicians that Larry Parnes employed and Marty Wilde's band the Wildcats, that we found out who was gonna play with who. Eddie was sat on a stool with a Grestch guitar and asked if anyone had heard of Ray Charles and nobody put their hand up. So he started to play the intro to 'What'd I say' on his guitar and we all flipped. As it happened, the Wildcats were chosen to play with Eddie and we were selected to back Gene Vincent, but that was not how it worked out. You can ask any of the Beatles that are still alive, or Tom Jones who remembers me playing 'What'd I Say' with Eddie Cochran in Cardiff in 1960. Eddie Cochran was responsible for introducing the music of Ray Charles to the masses of this country. The Beatles were in the audience when we played at the Liverpool Empire and within three months of that tour every guitar player in Britain was trying to play 'What'd I say', most of them were playing it wrong too! Eddie played it perfectly.
When we first heard that recording by Ray Charles we didn't know what the instrument that opened the tune was. We'd heard of a Wurlitzer piano, but we thought it was some strange guitar sound. Ray Charles was so deeply rooted in gospel and jazz and it was the kind of music I wanted to play from day one. We all know that rock and roll, as white people call it, came from black rhythm and blues, but you couldn't mention that fifty bloody years ago, people just didn't want to know. When my band had its first hit with 'Yeh Yeh' we couldn't get booked in America because I had two black guys in the band. They had integrated bands in America in the early sixties but with the British invasion they just wanted the guitar bands. They didn't know how to place me. I had an African conga player and a Jamaican trumpet player and they couldn't be bothered to find us a place to play.
Let's not forget Ray Charles commercialised the gospel. He mixed the gospel and the blues together. In America the blues was known as the devil's music and so Ray Charles made a fundamental shift in that he combined the devil's music with the gospel, the Lord's music. When you look back on it it's one of the most radical things you can do.
How would you say working as a backing pianist for the likes of Gene Vincent, Tony Sheridan and Billy Fury helped you later as a leader?
Well you have to wear a different hat. There is an old legend, that's partly a joke, that the band leader is the worst musician in the band, mainly because leaders need to concentrate on other things like logistics and who's going to be in the band. It's important that members of an orchestra or band get on with each other. To start with, we formed the band because we were all friends together. When egos are flying around left right and centre it can turn unpleasant and I don't want that, which is why in the last 25 years or so I've only worked with friends.
What happened exactly in Paris with Billy Fury that resulted in you leading the Blue Flames?
As I remember it, we were doing a sound-check and the Olympia theatre was empty. Chubby Checker was top of the bill and the Shadows played without Cliff Richard. Colin Green had persuaded us to learn a song by the Percy Faith orchestra called 'Summer Place'. Because Billy wasn't at the sound-check there was no need to play any Fury numbers and so Colin was cheering us on to try other things. So we were playing that tune and the road manager came rushing down to the front of the stage yelling "It's not rocking, it's not rocking!" We told him to get stuffed and that was it, we got fired. Billy Fury didn't fire us, the road manager did.
The journey from Butlins to the big time was a short one. How quickly were things happening in the early sixties and how comfortable were you with your new role as ambassador of R&B in the UK?
That was a journalistic thing, I never called myself that. We were out of work after we got sacked from Fury's band. I stayed in a friend's apartment for two months with no work. Somebody came round and paid for me to have a haircut one day, I was looking a bit of a mess I suppose. But this friend took me round to the Flamingo club and introduced me to Rik Gunnell who was running the all-night sessions there. We stood in for the resident band and ended up staying for three years. That's where it became Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. Before that it was Billy Fury and the Blue Flames. We were all in this together and we played with lots of musicians down there. We were all living and learning at the same time. Once we were in the Flamingo we were working regularly. Then the club scene started in London and later places like Manchester and Sheffield opened up and we were playing up and down the country.
So 'Yeh Yeh' took you into the charts and to Number One, did you enjoy your time in the pop limelight?
I enjoyed some of it. 'Yeh Yeh' is still a strong song and I opened my gigs at Ronnie Scott's with a wonderful big band arrangement of it that Tubby Hayes did for me in 1967 for my first tour with Count Basie. That song opened a lot of doors for me, as Ray Charles did. It gave me the opportunity to play outside the country and to witness other cultures and languages, forming relationships through the music. In music there's no language barrier. And that's what I've done over the years. I've made a lot a friends all over the world, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, America, South Africa, Europe and that's the kind of places I work and those are the people I play with.
Were chart placements important to you at that time?
I think they were important to my manager and the business. I got a brand new Jaguar S Type for my birthday in 1965, it was a gift from my manager, but of course he used my money to pay for the bloody thing. So I financed a lot of people's livelihoods and with building up a business chart placements were fairly important. Even John Mayall, who worked out of the same office as us, was convinced to get in on the commercial end of it all and composed what would be for him a commercial song called 'Something'.
How busy did that period get for you?
We used to rehearse once a week and put new tunes in the programme. We could play four one hour sets without repeating ourselves. I wasn't composing much at the time. I didn't really start writing until I started to make records and my first attempts weren't very good. One of my compositions, about leaving the Flamingo and six o'clock in the morning, was 'Dawn Yawn' which I sang at Ronnie's last weekend too and it sounded ok.
I read that Prince Buster would often be escorted from town to town by mod fans on scooters whenever he toured in the UK. Did you ever get preferential similar treatment from the modernist fraternity?
In Tokyo and Northern Spain there are still large mod movements these days and I get fated every time I visit. In the old days, the Flamingo at first wasn't a mod joint; it was full of black American GIs that were stationed in the US air force. There were also a lot of West Indians, Africans, even gangsters. The week after the US air force authorities put the Flamingo off limits to the GIs it was suddenly taken over by the mods, once it was safe to go in there.
How did the Blue-Beat influence come about with tracks like 'Madness' and 'Tom Hark'?
It was the Jamaican friends we had at the Flamingo. There was also a great West Indian disc jockey called Count Suckle (one of the originators of Jamaican music in Britain) who had the best record collection of anybody I've ever met. We used to do blues dances down at a club in Ladbroke Grove and Suckle would have his sound-system and the Blues Flames would play with hardly any PA system. We'd play at the Porchester Hall and places like that, it would be full of West Indians and a few Africans. Suckle found a place to play in the basement of a place on Carnaby Street called the Roaring Twenties. This was, I think, 1962 before it was a big fashion street. We opened it with him on a Sunday from Midnight to 6am. That's where I met Prince Buster, Rico Rodriguez and all those guys. My first recordings on Hammond organ were with Prince Buster.
How much of an effect did the breakup of the Flames have on your career?
Personally it had a very detrimental effect on my state of mind, mainly because it was the band that had led the way. It was the reason we all did it in the first place. My manager had different ideas from a commercial point of view and I was very upset with that and spent quite a while in the wilderness trying to resolve all that. My manager had other plans for what my image should be. He thought the R&B and club scene was dead. People like John Mayall had moved to America and onto greater success and he thought I should become a solo artist. He also wouldn't have had the over-heads of having to worry about a band (laughs).
The new box-set features, for the first time, a steaming set from the Lyceum from 1974. What was the hold up on the release of this recording?
The recording quality was a disaster. I can't remember who the engineer was but it was a pretty hairy band, a bigger Blue Flames. I put it all together for (Island Records boss) Chris Blackwell. Other musicians heard about it and I had people like (saxophonist) Elton Dean asking if they could be in the band. It got too big and the recording of the gig at the Lyceum was so bad that nothing was usable. My son Tristan is a fully-qualified engineer and so Universal passed the original tapes to him and he worked and worked to make them sound acceptable. The original set lasted about an hour and a half but what's on the box set is all that was salvageable. Most of it was unlistenable and unplayable.
How would you describe the 1970s compared to the huge success you had in the 60s? Was it a challenging time for you musically?
Not a challenging time musically, it was a challenging time commercially, just trying to survive. My friend in America (musician) Ben Sidran and I sometimes talk about how the seventies were a dead decade for us. The suits had moved into the business and certainly the recording industry. This changed the whole procedure. But I kept on going and was lucky to get some work in TV commercials which helped to pay the mortgage, and I wrote some music for a couple of films.
But it was decided by the powers that be that it was the end of that whole sixties era. Bands like Led Zeppelin came in and cleaned up, made loads of money, and good luck to them. Our managers were telling us what to do, but if you look back at it all historically our managers didn't know what they were fucking talking about. Simply because they were still learning to be managers at the same time we were learning to play. And that unfortunately is the hard truth of why John Lennon and Paul McCartney do not own the copyright to the great early Beatle compositions. Their manager wasn't advised properly. I remember we were all told to go to a publisher and get our songs published. The publisher would agree on a 50/50 deal and they would have the copyright. We didn't know about the business side of it and our managers certainly didn't. We didn't care; we were just interested in the music.
After the seventies my manager moved to America and I decided I didn't need a manager, I knew what I wanted to do and I've pursued that ever since. I've obviously done something right because I'm one of the few people that play for a week at Ronnie Scott's and it's sold out before I have time to think about it.
As well as Alan Price, another major figure you ended up working with was Van Morrison. What kept you in his band for what was nearly a decade?
I liked it and he liked it. He came to see the show on Saturday and said it was the best fucking band he'd ever heard. We have a great relationship and it was only due to other commitments that I had to quit his band. It just so happened that after I left the band Bill Wyman called and asked me to join his Rhythm Kings group. These people are all friends and working with them doesn't stop me doing what I want to do. There's something in the pipeline possibly with Van next year and I'd be happy to do it because he's a fantastic performer and also a wonderful poet, like Bob Dylan. He bares his soul on stage. He bares his soul through his songs and his poetry, and he's always been an inspiration. He's also one musician that's made me cry on stage from pure emotion.
The music you made with Richard Tee, Steve Gadd and Will Lee in the early 1990s was quite special, how did those sessions come about?
It was around 1989 and I was in Australia working with an Australian band. I met up with Ben Sidran who told me about his plans for the Go Jazz label and asked if I would like to do an album. We agreed, started sending each other material and I went to New York I we did it. The first (Cool Cat Blues) album with those guys didn't take long to make because they are serious players, they don't take prisoners. It was a wonderful experience and I ended up doing three albums with Ben in New York. I think they are included in some of the best albums I've ever done. I did 'Rocking Chair' on Cool Cat Blues and sang in the piano room next to Richard Tee and he was a fantastic musician, a really warm guy as well.
Is there a particular style or setting you prefer working in these days?
Not at all. At the moment I work with a fantastic jazz quartet in Sweden featuring a wonderful female soprano sax player that plays bebop. I've done Guy Barker's big band at Ronnie's because it's what was needed and I've worked with Guy for over thirty years now. Soon I'm going to Hong Kong with Guy and a Chinese guitar player who we met through our frequent trips out there. I've got four concerts coming up in Holland with one of the great European jazz orchestras on a par with Guy's big band. I also like to play on my own at the piano sometimes. I'm actually looking for a quiet little place somewhere that I can just play on my own without any publicity, just word of mouth kind of thing. Because that's how it was in the beginning. No distractions, you know?
How do you think you managed to encapsulate so many genres into your work?
Well it's all part of the same tree. Its different branches coming from the same root and they all belong together.
Looking at all the material amassed on this amazing new box set, is there a particular era and recording you feel most proud of or that best represents you as an artist?
I would probably say some of the best things I've done in my career would be on my own Three Line Whip label, tracks with the latest and last edition of the Blue Flames with Alan Skidmore and Guy Barker. Those recordings are at the back end of the box set I think. I wanted control over it all and when I had new songs I wanted to just record them and having now owned a label I could because I was my own boss. I think that material is more representative of where I'm at, and they do encapsulate everything that I've been involved in from day one.
Finally, after five long decades what motivates you to keep going musically?
The emotion of actually performing. I don't play anything or sing anything I'm not happy with and it's a wonderful experience to have that adrenalin running through your system. It's an emotional thing and when I'm working with my two sons there's an added dimension to that emotion. Playing with your own flesh and blood adds another dimension. As long as I have my health, my enthusiasm for the music and I can still remember the words to the fucking songs then there's no reason to quit. I'll just keep doing what I do and keep my head down. Like Van Morrison, I bare my soul on stage.
Survival - A Career Anthology 1963-2015 is released on November 25th through Universal.