Having taken piano lessons at an early age the man born Clive Powell in the cotton weaving area of Leigh, Lancashire became a professional musician in the 1950s playing at holiday camps before departing to London aged 16 to seek his fortune. He touted his talents up and down the legendary Tin Pan Alley area of Denmark Street just off Soho where he was spotted by impresarios Lionel Bart and Larry Parnes who christened him Georgie Fame – somewhat against his will. Working with touring rock and rollers like Joe Brown, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran young Fame became battle hardened and was snapped up by Billy Fury in 1961 to lead his backing band The Blue Flames for whom he arranged and sang. The Blue Flames and Fury parted company and so Georgie took over and secured a three-year residency at the Flamingo Club. The debut Rhythm and Blues at the Flamingo came out in 1963 and was engineered by Glyn Johns and produced by Cliff Richard’s console maestro Ian Samwell. After promoting himself via the offshore pirate radio stations Fame struck gold with his version of “Yeh, Yeh”, a tune first recorded by Mongo Santamaria in the Cuban style. The next significant hit, “Get Away”: was another #1 in 1966 with production from Denny Cordell and a Clive Powell writing credit. The perfect sound for the emerging summer of love with its carefree mood “Get Away” also did well for Georgie in America where Imperial signed him.
In 1967 Fame followed the Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye” to the top slot with the million selling “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde”, inspired by the then current movie. Using an authentic depression era arrangement, banjo, trumpets, trombones, bass and drums, Fame made a smart career move by shifting himself away from the pin-up status he had grown tired of and headed towards mainstream entertainment as a solo artist with high class material like “Sunny”, “Peaceful” and “Seventh Son” ushering him towards the new decade as a household name rather than a straight forward pop star.
He was back in the charts in 1971 thanks to the super catchy duet “Rosetta”, recorded with his old friend Alan Price, and the two kindred spirits shared a career path for a while until George reformed The Blue Flames and then took to working with classical orchestras and big bands, writing jingles for TV ads, and theme music for TV shows and feature films. His excellent contribution to the movie adaptation of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane gave him extra kudos.
Georgie is such a prolific artist that it would take several books to deal with his catalogue adequately but there are many key moments: Sound Venture (1966) is a jazz pop crossover with a crack horn section and a sound that was a definitive influence on the young Elvis Costello. His self-titled debut for the Island label in 1974 is a marvellous thing with covers of J.J. Cale’s “Everlovin’ Woman” and the Slickers’ “Johnny Too Bad” bookending his talents.
The Sonet release Sylvia Vrethammar and Georgie Fame – In Goodmansland is a gem from 1983 and the Verve issued Tell Me Something – The Songs of Mose Allison (featuring Van and Georgie, Mose and Ben Sidran) is a classic worthy of discovery as is How Long Has This Been Going On (Georgie, Van and various friends).
In the new millennium we point you towards Sweet Things, part of the British Beat 40th anniversary series. Hear Fame pour his magic over Lee Dorsey/Allen Toussaint’s “Ride Your Pony” and Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” and then dig his take on the soulful beats of “Walking the Dog”.
If you’re after a fine compilation then 20 Beat Classics has what you need with fantastic interpretations on “Green Onions”, “Sunny” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”.
The collection called Funny How Time Slips Away documents Georgie’s Pye Records tenure and is remastered and full of quotes from the man himself.
Always the coolest of the cool, Fame continues to perform today, having recovered from illness we are pleased to say. He appeared recently reprising “Yeh Yeh” on the Wallflower (Deluxe Edition) with Diana Krall, thus bringing his immaculate career full circle. A matchless interpreter of swinging jazz vocalese (check his 2000 release Poet in New York) Georgie Fame can take you everywhere from a Gershwin tune to a Bob Dylan protest. He remains a most vital and respected first gentleman of contemporary music.
Words: Max Bell