A date with an old flame
PUBLISHED: 10:52 16 April 2009 | UPDATED: 15:56 20 February 2013
Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames top the bill at the Midsummer Music Festival at Spencers in Great Yeldham this summer. Pat Parker meets the sixties pop icon
THIS is the third year of the Midsummer Music @ Spencers festival in Great Yeldham - home of the Courtauld family and the late Lady Butler.
In the past two years, audiences have enjoyed performances by top names in the jazz world, including the late Humphrey Lyttelton and, last year, Courtney Pine. This year the Courtaulds are delighted that Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames are topping the bill.
Georgie Fame is a hard man to track down. He spends much of his time abroad, and when I spoke to him, he was in Stockholm, Sweden, midway through a recording session. 'I've just finished a three-week tour around Europe with Bill Wyman. After this, I'm going to Holland to play two concerts with my sons, and then I come back to England and play a week at Ronnie Scott's,' he tells me.
Georgie promises an eclectic mix at this year's Midsummer Music @ Spencers. 'It will be a mixture of everything - jazz, rhythm and blues, and even a bit of rock 'n' roll. I'll play one or two songs from the 1960s that have stood the test of time - songs like Yeh Yeh. But I also have a new CD out, and we'll play some things from that too.'
Georgie has lived near Shaftesbury in Dorset for the past 35 years, but he still spends much of his time touring - sometimes with The Blue Flames, which now includes his two sons, Tristan and James, but also with Bill Wyman's The Rhythm Kings, of which he is a founder member. And since the 1970s, he has performed with some of the world's finest orchestras and big bands. He has a strong and devoted following in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and
all over Europe.
Celebrating 50 years
It's a pretty hectic schedule for the 65-year-old, who is celebrating his 50th year in the music business. But he thrives on it.
'Performing keeps you young,' he tells me. 'It keeps you alive and the adrenaline flows through your veins. I think it keeps you healthy. I'm pretty fit and I exercise, and I enjoy playing. It just so happens that during the course of a 50-year career I've made a lot of friends all over the world, and I can pick and choose where and when I want to work.'
Georgie Fame began his career earlier than most of his 1960s pop contemporaries. He was born Clive Powell in 1943, in the industrial town of Leigh in Lancashire. His interest in music was initially inspired by family entertaining and musical evenings in the nearby church hall. 'When I was seven years old, I had piano lessons like most kids, but I didn't have the patience to practise, and after a couple of months I gave up,' he tells me. 'So I'm largely self-taught, but basically, I've had a wonderful musical education throughout my career by learning from other musicians.'
It wasn't piano lessons, but listening to American rock 'n' roll greats of the 1950s which really inspired the young Clive to become a musician. 'It was people like Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and Little Richard who really fired me - it was my enthusiasm for the music and what was happening at the time. Lots of working-class kids were doing it all over Great Britain. The Animals were doing it in Newcastle, The Beatles in Liverpool and we were all just 16 years old. We didn't know where it was going to take us, but we wanted to play this music.'
At 15, though, it looked as if Clive was destined to spend his life working in a cotton mill. He left school, and, following the family tradition, became an apprentice weaver. But in his spare time, he played piano in pubs, clubs and with a local group, The Dominoes.
Shortly after his 16th birthday, he was given the chance to join a London-based rock 'n' roll group. 'I said to my parents I'd give myself a couple of months, and if it didn't work, I'd go back to work in the factory.'
Broke to Blue Flame
The promise of regular work didn't materialise, however, and the band split up. Clive was broke, but was offered lodgings in the Essex Arms pub in London's Dockland. Luckily, later that year, he auditioned for impresario Larry Parnes, who had nurtured popstars such as Marty Wilde and Billy Fury. As with his other male stars, Parnes came up with a stage name for Clive - Georgie Fame. While still only 16, Georgie, as he was now known, was
touring Britain with the likes of Wilde, Fury, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent
and many more.
Billy Fury selected Georgie to form part of his backing group and The Blue Flames were born. They parted company with Fury in 1961, but the band
went on to become resident house band at the Flamingo Club in London's Soho. It was quite an education for a young lad. Georgie explains: 'We played rhythm and blues all-nighters to black American GIs, West Indians, pimps, prostitutes and gangsters.'
But it led to pop stardom. Georgie and the band became known as, 'the epitome of cool,' and had their first hit single, Yeh Yeh, in 1964, which knocked The Beatles off the Number One spot. Getaway followed a year later, followed by The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 - both topping the charts.
By the late 1960s, Georgie had gone solo and was increasingly pursuing his enthusiasm for jazz. 'In 1967 and 1968, I toured with Count Basie's orchestra,' says Georgie. 'It was a real milestone in my career. I was really young and I had a wonderful experience singing with him. He gave
me a lot of help.'
In the early 1970s, he teamed up with Alan Price, formerly with The Animals, and the pair starred in their own TV series The Price of Fame, which made both of them household names. They also had a hit single, Rosetta.
Big bands and big names
But in 1974, Georgie reformed The Blue Flames, which have continued through various incarnations to this day. At the same time, he began singing with some of Europe's top orchestras and big bands, and also composed the music for feature films such as Entertaining Mr Sloane.
In 1981, he co-produced and performed with jazz artist Annie Ross on the album, In Hoagland, featuring music from the legendary Hoagy Carmichael - one of his great musical heroes. Then in the late 1980s, he teamed up with Van Morrison - and continued to record and tour with him throughout the 1990s. He and Van also co-produced and performed on two Verve albums.
Also in the 1990s, Georgie started to perform with his two sons, Tristan and James, in a family trio called Three Line Whip. Tristan and James will be joining Georgie at Great Yeldham as part of his seven-piece band, The Blue Flames.
'Tristan plays guitar and James plays drums,' says Georgie. 'They have been playing in the band ever since they left school. They're both fully-qualified musicians, although more or less self-taught. They didn't want to go to university, so I took them on the road with me to get an education.'
The Blue Flames also features the distinguished Guy Barker on trumpet and Alan Skidmore on tenor sax. 'The current line-up of the Blue Flames has remained unchanged for about 15 years,' says Georgie. 'It's been together longer than any other incarnation of the band, although I'm the only original member. In the 1960s, the personnel were changing all the time.'
After problems with managers in the past, Georgie now manages his own affairs, and publishes his own CDs. The latest, released in April, is the eighth to come out on his own label. 'I have been debating whether it was worth producing another CD, because of changes in the music business such as downloading, but I have a lot of compositions, and I thought they
ought to be documented.'
He gives the impression of a man who is now lucky enough to control his own destiny, and whose love of music and performance remain undimmed. And he is still distinctly 'cool'. 'I've had a pretty good life,' he reflects. 'In fact, the concert at Great Yeldham is the day after my 66th birthday. But I've still got my hair, and as long as I've got my enthusiasm for music and there's
an audience willing to come and listen, I'll just keep on doing it.'