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Georgie Fame: R&B in Maida Vale

Georgie Fame Maida ValeClimbing the stairs from the basement of BBC’s Maida Vale studios yesterday, it was a shock to emerge into bright autumn sunshine. Just like coming out of an all-nighter 50 years ago, in fact. “Don’t forget to grab a pint of milk for the journey home,” a fellow member of the audience said, remembering old rituals. The actual time was five o’clock in the afternoon, but the illusion was understandable. Downstairs we had just spent two hours in the company of Georgie Fame, reliving the night he made his first album, Rhythm and Blues at the Flamingo, back in September 1963, for the benefit of Radio 4’s Mastertapes series.

As you can see from the photograph above, the old studio provided a period setting — although not much resembling the basement on Wardour Street that was Fame’s headquarters. Quite a lot like the settings for his occasional BBC broadcasts from that era, however. And it was certainly a period audience: a large majority of the 200 or so looked as though they could remember the sense of mingled delight and disappointment when “Yeh Yeh” knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts, turning Fame overnight from a cherished cult hero to a star of mainstream pop.

Georgie turned up for the gig with the two men who have been his travelling guitarist and drummer for many years, his sons Tristan and James Powell, thus recreating the old Jimmy Smith line-up, in which the organist uses his pedals to supply the bass line. The surprise was the presence of three comrades from the early editions of the Blue Flames: the trumpeter Eddie “Tan Tan” Thornton, the tenor saxophonist Mick Eve and the guitarist Colin Green.

Together they played a nice version of “Humpty Dumpty”, the ska tune from the Flamingo album. Only Eve had been present on the original recording. Tan Tan was probably playing his regular gig at the Blue Angel in Mayfair that night and Green had, as Fame put it, temporarily opted for a quiet life in Switzerland playing with Eddie Calvert. John McLaughlin, Green’s replacement, was otherwise engaged, so Big Jim Sullivan was brought in at short notice. The great conga player Speedy Acquaye was “detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure” (again in Fame’s words) at the time, and replaced for the night by Tommy Thomas, who played bongos — not the same thing at all. The album, Fame explained, had not been truly representative of the band’s sound.

But it was nice to hear him and his sons as they worked their way through tight versions of “Eso Beso” and Nat Adderley’s “Work Song”, with its Oscar Brown Jr lyric. “Green Onions” didn’t appear until the next album, Fame at Last, but was played in tribute to the inspiration provided by Booker T and the MGs. Fame’s answers to questions from the programme’s presenter, John Wilson, and members of the audience elicited some fascinating stories about hot nights at the Flamingo, including the volatile relationship between three regulars: Lucky Gordon, Johnny Edgecombe and Christine Keeler.

An extra touch of authenticity was provided by the presence of Johnny Gunnell, who, with his late brother Rik, ran the Flamingo all-nighters and managed the early stages of Fame’s career. We had a chat, during which he gave me an unexpected story. It began with him leaving school in his early teens and landing a job as a trainee journalist at the Church Times, of all places, reporting on ecclesiastical matters. He spent four years there, learning the craft skills; when called up for National Service in 1958, his knowledge of shorthand won him a desk job in an Army office in the West End, which was a whole lot better than being posted to Aden or the Rhineland. Working 9 to 5 in central London and earning £20 a week (“from the Army!”), he was able to spend his nights in clubland. I couldn’t help but be amused by the idea of such a significant figure of the Soho demi-monde having served his apprenticeship on the weekly newspaper of the Church of England.

When yesterday’s recording began, Gunnell was handed the microphone and invited to introduce the reunited Blue Flames. He asked the audience for “a big Flamingo welcome”. He got it.

* Georgie Fame’s Mastertapes will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in December, in two hour-long episodes. A new five-CD box of his early recordings, titled The Whole World’s Shaking, and including his first four albums plus rarities, BBC sessions and unreleased material, is released by Universal on October 9.

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16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Phil Shaw #

    Seems the long-overdue Georgie Fame revival is happening. I’d no sooner finished reading a four-page interview with him in Mojo than I turned to your latest post, Richard. Any indication as to when the R4 programme might be scheduled for, please? And Mr Fame – if you’re reading this – any chance of playing anywhere in the Midlands any decade soon?!

    September 29, 2015
  2. Phil Shaw #

    Sorry – I missed the italic bit at the bottom saying it will be broadcast in December. Look forward to it greatly.

    September 29, 2015
  3. Yeh Yeh!!!

    September 29, 2015
  4. John Walters #

    Really pleased with the resurgence of interest in Georgie. Always one of my favourite artists. Seen him live a couple of times……last time on the Radio Caroline 50th anniversary cruise last year.

    September 29, 2015
  5. Richard Harris #

    Memories of drug busts at the Flamingo and the floor after a carpet of Dexedrine. Georgie has always had great taste (well, except for the Pye years) – about 10/15 years ago R2 gave him his own one hour slots to play his formative influences; great radio, great music, shouts of “Clark Terry” to intro Yeah Yeah.

    Looking forward to the upcoming broadcasts. Surely Georgie must have a book in him?

    (Lovely baritone solo on his take of Moody’s Mood from the 60s. John Marshall?)

    September 29, 2015
  6. Howard Kruger #

    HI nice review and great to see the club being remembererd , but I would like to correct an error you say ” Johnny Gunnell, who, with his late brother Rik, owned the Flamingo ” They did not at any time own the Flamingo, it was owned by my late father Jeffey S Kruger. Who founded the club and owned it till it closed. The Gunnell brothers ran the all nighters on Friday and Saturday nights.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flamingo_Club_(London)

    Kind Regards

    Howard Kruger

    September 29, 2015
  7. Sometime between The Higsons & The Scapegoats I played with Uttoxeter combo Yeah Jazz. We recorded a couple of radio sessions at Maida Vale and for one we booked the BBC’s Hammond organ. On the day we had to wait for it to become available as a certain Mr Fame was using it in an adjoining studio. When I played it it was still warm!

    September 29, 2015
  8. Ian Harris #

    I was so pleased to be asked to comment from the audience about my memories from 1964. Georgie seemed touched by the heartfelt respect we have for him. He is still an inspirational figure for me and what a privilege to be in that room yesterday. Terry Tonik.

    September 29, 2015
  9. John Pidgeon #

    Ubiquitous session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan was credited on the album. The record was engineered from the cramped band room beside the stage by Glyn Johns.

    September 29, 2015
  10. eric silbermann #

    You say there was a sense of dismay when Yeh Yeh took him mainstream, but look at it another way: a host of 12 year olds like me dug deeper and discovered Jazz.

    September 30, 2015
    • Of course, Eric! I was just expressing the view of a snobby mod. Which I was. Or am.

      September 30, 2015
  11. Thanks for the heads up on Georgie Fame. I saw him + Blue Fames at Newcastle City Hall a couple of months ago (complete with vibes player). A terrific gig peppered with anecdotes. So, a couple of hours on BBC very, very welcome. Got lots of his stuff but opportunity to fill gaps like his version of the wonderful Dr Kitch! Thanks again

    September 30, 2015
  12. GRAHAM ROBERTS #

    I have been looking forward to the reissue of all those great 60s Columbia recordings by Georgie Fame for years and placed an order for the new box set as soon as I heard about it; I know how great this music is and I cannot believe that ‘Uncut’ magazine has seen fit to give ‘The Whole World’s Shaking’ set only a 6 out of 10 rating; some mistake, surely – perhaps they chose the wrong reviewer, Richard. The forthcoming Radio 4 ‘Mastertapes’ broadcasts are an unexpected Christmas bonus – can’t wait.

    October 1, 2015
  13. …as a follow on. Last night (Sunday/Monday) BBC4 repeated the BBC Four Sessions with Georgie…very good indeed. It’s available on Iplayer until 4 November, in case it passed anyone by

    October 5, 2015
  14. I remember a night at the Flamingo as a teenager, when, with some friends, we had queued for some time for the Stones last London cub gig at the Club Noreik in Tottenham. Giving it up as a bad job we wound up all night at the Flamingo where we ended up in an extended chat with Andrew Loog Oldham and Lionel Bart. The band was “Bluesology” which would at that time have included Reg Dwight and possibly Elton Dean. “Am I growing old?” (Quote, not question – obviously unnecessary!).

    October 5, 2015

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