Georgie Fame heading for Essex

Sixties heartthrob Georgie Fame is heading for Essex. He tells Steven Russell about some of the highlights in his 50-year career

Steven Russell

Sixties heartthrob Georgie Fame is heading for Essex. He tells Steven Russell about some of the highlights in his 50-year career

HAVING done 50 years in their chosen field, most folk are happy to embrace retirement, kick off their shoes and take things easy. That's not Georgie Fame's style. He might be a week off his 66th birthday, but life is still busy, busy, busy. And that's the way he likes it. The day before speaking to the EADT, he'd flown in from Zurich after playing six European countries in as many days - and then, no sooner had he touched down in London, he was off to watch a favourite jazz pianist and singer do his stuff in Soho. And now he's heading for his native Lancashire, where the concert at Leigh Miners Welfare Institute will both celebrate Georgie's signing with his first manager all those years ago and swell the coffers of the Rugby League Benevolent Fund. “Tonight will be a reunion of guys I went to school with, and what's left of my family up there will be there. It will be a great evening,” says the rhythm and blues and jazz legend, who visits his old stamping ground near Manchester once a year or so.

What he doesn't need, then, are hold-ups and frustrations after a week of Euro-efficiency. “Now we have to deal with England, which is the worst country, logistically, to get around,” he groans. “The roads are rubbish, the island is over-crowded and everybody's got a bad attitude. 'Let's go, let's go. I haven't got time. Let's go!'“


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He's doing the Leigh gig for free. The money will help folk, professional or amateur, who have been hurt playing the game. Georgie himself graced the field as a youngster, and was captain of the school team. Some of his mates became British internationals, and their old headmaster - now in his 90s - is invited to the celebration.

“The rugby league of today is different to when I was a kid. If you got to Wembley and lost, you got a fiver,” he laughs in his gravelly voice. “I think the standard of play has become higher, the wages are a lot higher for the top guys, but a lot of the other players could do with help.”

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It's easy to forget how young was Clive Powell (his real name) when he found himself propelled into the showbiz big-time during those heady days of the sixties.

He'd grown up in a musical household, starting to learn the piano at the age of seven. Then rock and roll caught the ear, with characters like Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Fats Domino proving Pied Pipers for a lad from an industrial northern town. After leaving school he worked as an apprentice weaver in a cotton mill, playing piano in pubs and with a local group.

Not long after his 16th birthday his promise was spotted by the band leader at Butlins holiday camp in Pwllheli, Wales, and he was offered a job there with Rory and the Blackjacks. Goodbye t-mill; hello showbiz - or the first rung, anyway. When the season ended, and the Blackjacks headed for London, the boy from Lancashire went with them.

Chances proved few and far between, and the band broke up. He stayed on in the capital, just about getting by. Then, in the autumn, Rory Blackwell (of Blackjacks fame) swung it for Clive to audition for music promoter Larry Parnes at Lewisham Gaumont, where the Marty Wilde Show was on. He impressed immediately and was taken on as a pianist for the impresario's stable of singers.

As well as the job, Parnes also gave young Clive the name Georgie Fame.

The renamed musician got lots of experience criss-crossing the country and playing for stars such as Wilde, Eddie Cochran, Billy Fury and Gene Vincent. Fury chose Georgie as a member of his backing group, the Blue Flames, but the collaboration was shortlived and Fury and the band split.

After a period in limbo, the reincarnated Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames became the resident band at the Flamingo Club in Soho, playing rhythm and blues.

The group became part of the cool set, pushing The Beatles' I Feel Fine off the number one spot in January, 1965. Get Away deposed The Kinks' Sunny Afternoon in the summer of '66, and Georgie had another chart-topper with The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde as 1968 dawned.

Heady stuff. What does he think when he looks back at the very early days?

“They were the formative years, when we were learning how to play the music and the audiences were learning how to listen to it and enjoy themselves at the same time. It was a much less controlled and organised society. I'm not referring to the free love of the '60s or anything like that; it was just a dawn of a new era after the post-war depression and what-not, and the advent of rock and roll, which freed the society.”

He chuckles. “I can remember when we got our first �50 gig, which was in Cleethorpes, and we drove from London to Cleethorpes, the whole band, and got 50 quid between us. That was a milestone.”

The first half of the 1970s saw a fruitful collaboration with Alan Price, formerly of The Animals. It brought TV exposure and a hit song: Rosetta.

There have been more successful partnerships. About 20 years ago, Georgie linked up with Northern Irish R&B/folk/jazz legend Van Morrison for recording and touring as an integral member of the band and sometime musical producer. In 1997 he became a founder member of ex-Rolling Stone (and Suffolk resident) Bill Wyman's band The Rhythm Kings.

Last November he was honoured in a BBC Four programme showcasing a session recorded in London, where Georgie played tunes from his long career, taking in jazz, R&B and pop - and several anecdotes.

What highs would he pick from the past five decades?

“I don't think that way. The highlights just continue. I went to see one of my musical heroes last night when I got off the plane: Mose Allison, who's from Mississippi. He's been one of the biggest influences on the way I play and sing. He's also been a great influence for people like Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Pete Townshend. We all love this guy: 81 years old and playing a regular gig in London. So that was a highlight. They keep on coming.

“As long as you've got your health and enthusiasm for the music, and people willing to keep coming to listen to it, then there's no reason to quit. So you just keep going while you're capable of doing it. It's not like any other job, this job. I know a lot of great musicians who have struggled, but I've been very fortunate.

“My sons (Tristan and James) play in my band: much against my better judgment, because I always say they should have had a proper job! But they became professional musicians and I'm very proud of them.”

What about personal highlights?

“Obviously having the first number one was a breakthrough, because it gave us our first opportunity to play outside the country. Touring with Count Basie's orchestra when I was a young lad, when most of my peers thought I had no right to be on the same stage as him, because I was too young. But I did two fantastic tours with him, '67 and '68; one of the finest jazz orchestras ever. That was a wonderful education.”

The music industry has lost some of its freshness since those emergent days of the 1950s and '60s, he feels.

“I think the music business is now controlled more by accountants and lawyers. That all started in the '70s. We were just learning to play the music, and our managers were just learning to become managers at the same time, in the '60s. And then the accountants and lawyers moved in because it was a big-money industry.

“Now the media plays a huge part in it; you have to have a business plan, for Christ's sake, nowadays! You have to deal with the media and budgets and all this. They can create a star out of nothing - whether he's got talent or not - if you've got the budget. We just came through on raw talent and the skin of our teeth.”

The man whose UK residence has been in the West Country for 35 years (with another home abroad) meanwhile continues to do it his way, and has fun.

“I became a professional musician soon after my 16th birthday - 50 years ago next month - and I'm still at it. My diary's full and I'm not booking any more work until next March. I can't complain. I only work with people I know, really - with friends I've made in the business.”

Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings are tuning up for another outing towards the end of 2009, for instance - The Royal Albert Hall in October and then a 32-venue UK tour taking them up to early December. There's a huddle of dates in East Anglia early on, including Ipswich Corn Exchange on November 4.

Last night he had a gig in Cheshire and next week's calendar has concerts at the Jazz Cafe in London. On Saturday week (June 27) he headlines the Midsummer Music @ Spencers 2009 swing and jazz festival in Essex.

That's the day after his 66th birthday. Hope he finds time for a fitting party.

“Well, the music will be the celebration - playing with fine musicians. That's how I get my high nowadays.”

GEORGIE Fame and the Blue Flames headline Midsummer Music @ Spencers 2009 on Saturday, June 27 - the Essex swing and jazz festival being staged in the gardens of a Georgian estate for the third year running. The band, including Guy Barker on trumpet and Alan Skidmore on tenor saxophone, is described by organisers as “a contemporary jazz outfit that has become a major attraction at festivals throughout the world”.

Following close behind are “pop and soul with jazz fusion” duo Swing Out Sister - hits include “Breakout” and “Surrender” - performing a semi-unplugged show.

There's also Robin Jones (billed as “The Godfather of the British Latin music scene”) and King Salsa - an amalgam of Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican and jazz influences.

The line-up is completed by Anita Wardell Quartet, Partisans, Monica Vasconcelos, and Art Themen & The Roger Odell Trio, with music performed under a huge marquee.

It's not just about the tunes, though. MM@S (as it's known in shorthand form) is also a family day with entertainment and activities for the children. This year there are masterclasses for those keen to learn how to play drums. Spencers park and woodlands are open for exploration and relaxing in, too.

The house was the former home of politician RA “Rab” Butler, who was MP for Saffron Walden and, at various times, Minister of Education, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Leader of the House of Commons, chairman of the Conservative Party and Deputy Prime Minister.

Spencers is close to the Essex-Suffolk border, near Great Yeldham and about seven miles west of Sudbury.

Ticket prices: all-day �48; 12noon-6pm �15; 6pm-midnight �38. Children aged 15 and under (accompanied by an adult) admitted free.

Mercury Theatre booking line: 01206 573948 or www.mercurytheatre.co.uk

Web link: www.spencersgarden.net

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