Georgie Fame’s Swan Songs
Can it really be true that, as Georgie Fame intimates, we should take the title of his new album seriously? Swan Songs is credited to “Georgie Fame and the Last Blue Flames”. It is, he says, his final recording. “In the twilight of a long career / When dementia’s all I have to fear / If I ever get to lose these blues / I’ve learned to put my life to better use,” he sings, and the compositions with which he fills the album seem designed to provide both a summary and a valediction.
He sounds like he’s saying goodbye, at the age of 72, with a reasonably light heart. “I did my time with Van the Man / ‘Cos that’s the kind of fool I am,” he tells us in the same song, “The Diary Blues”. The album opens with a fragment of brass band music, which is how he started in his Lancashire youth, and a Caribbean-styled song reminds us of the days of “Humpty Dumpty” and “Dr Kitch”. He pays tribute to the late arranger and composer Steve Gray, a friend with whom he wrote a musical called Singer, in a song called “Gray’s March”, and to his mentor, Mose Allison, in the witty “Mose Knows”.
There’s a lesson in hip phrasing in the way Fame delivers these lines at a rapid tempo, every stressed, stretched and syncopated syllable adding to or adjusting the momentum on the fly: “He’s a country boy / Made his home in the city / At once bold and coy / Sometimes sombre, always witty / And his canny observations put to melody / Were meant to be heard by folks like you and me / A man so wise, indeed a sage / Who never fails to surprise when he walks on stage / You can raise the roof, you can tear it down / Don’t be square, just be there when Mose Allison’s in town…”
The 12 tracks — 10 of them written by Fame — canter through most of the familiar modes, from shuffle to swing, with space for a lovely ballad called “Lost in a Lover’s Dream”. The “Last Blue Flames” — Guy Barker (trumpet), Alan Skidmore (tenor), Anthony Kerr (vibes), Tristan Powell (guitar), Alec Dankworth (bass), James Powell (drums and Ralph Salmins (percussion) — acquit themselves with the customary excellence, particularly on a finger-snapping instrumental piece called “Spin Recovery” which sounds like something Lee Morgan and Lonnie Smith might have cooked up circa 1967.
Many of us will be hoping that this isn’t the end. But if it is, there’s further consolation to be found in the release of The Whole World’s Shaking, a five-CD box containing all Fame’s recordings for the Columbia label between 1963 and 1966, including the albums Rhythm and Blues at the Flamingo, Fame at Last, Sound Venture and Sweet Things, plus many singles, EPs, out-takes and BBC broadcasts — 106 tracks in all, very nicely packaged, including a handsome book with an extensive sleeve essay from Chris Welch. I’ve always thought of Fame at Last, with its exquisite version of “Moody’s Mood for Love”, as a perfect album, so it’s good to have it available in this form, with so much else besides, like the moment Colin Green cuts into “Last Night” with the guitar riff from “Nowhere to Run”, or Bill Eyden’s triplet figures on “Green Onions”, or Jimmy Deuchar’s muted trumpet obligato on the gorgeous “Lil’ Darlin'”. Oh, I could go on. I just hope he does.
* Swan Songs is released on Fame’s own Three Line Whip label. The Whole World’s Shaking is on Universal/Polydor. The photograph is taken from the sleeve of the new album.