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Georgie Fame: the man in full

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Georgie Fame at the Cinnamon Club, Manchester, in 2007 (photo: William Ellis)

You wait decades for a proper anthology of Georgie Fame’s best stuff, and then two of them come along almost at once. Last year there was the beautifully produced five-CD box called The Whole World’s Shaking, including his first four albums for the Columbia label between 1963 and 1966 — Rhythm & Blues at the Flamingo, Fame at Last, Sweet Thing and Sound Venture, each with bonus tracks — plus a fifth disc of rarities and oddities from the period. Now there’s an equally handsome new six-CD set, also released on Universal/Polydor, called Survival: A Career Anthology 1963-2015, which ranges from the Blue Flames’ first two instrumental 45s for the R&B label to the lovely album, Swan Song, which came out last year, and which he billed as his last (although I gather he might be having second thoughts on that). This new box is so full of good stuff that I hardly know where to begin, although I suppose I should point out some of the less obvious highlights.

I was at Island Records in the mid-’70s when Chris Blackwell signed him, to the surprise of those at the company who thought his adventures in the middle of the road during his time with CBS (“The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde”, and so on) had destroyed his credibility. From a commercial perspective, the Island liaison was a failure.  First, with J. J. Cale taking over from Mose Allison as the dominant influence on his music, Blackwell sent him to Tulsa with Denny Cordell to make an album that never saw the light of day, and then Glyn Johns took over for one that was released but made no impact. There’s a whole disc from those sessions, including the slinky blues “Ozone” and a high-stepping version of Bobby Womack’s “Daylight”.

But what we also have from the Island vaults are seven tracks from the previously unheard tapes recorded at a Lyceum gig in the autumn of 1974 with an expanded 12-piece all-star Blue Flames line-up, including Marc Charig alongside Eddie “Tan Tan” Thornton on trumpets and Elton Dean in a saxophone section also including Alan Skidmore, Stan Sulzmann, Steve Gregory and Bud Beadle. Brian Odgers (bass guitar) and Brian Bennett (drums) are the rhythm axis, with Colin Green and Bernie Holland on guitars and Lennox Langton on percussion. Thanks to careful remixing supervised by Tristan Powell, one of Georgie’s talented sons, it’s a treat to hear them roar through “Point of No Return”, “Parchman Farm” and so on in front of an enthusiastic audience at a venue that was once a great place for gigs, before The Lion King took up permanent residence.

The other big surprise to me was a track from his sole album for Pye, Right Now, produced in 1979 by the rather unlikely team of Karl Jenkins, then midway between Soft Machine and the knighthood earned for his classical compositions with Latin titles, and Jimmy Parsons, for many years the suave maitre d’ of Ronnie Scott’s. The song is called “Eros Hotel”, and Georgie wrote it with the UK-based American poet Fran Landesman, best known for her lyrics to “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” and “Ballad of the Sad Young Men”. A gentle reverie, swathed in strings, it’s a most elegant evocation of seduction in London, and it makes me want to seek out the album from it comes.

We know what Fame can do with other people’s songs, but “Eros Hotel” is a reminder of what an accomplished composer he became. From “Getaway” through “Flamingo Allnighter”, “Vinyl” and “Mose Knows”, his stuff is hip. There’s another example of his lovely ballad-writing in “A Declaration of Love”, one of the 11 tracks here from the fine New York sessions supervised by Ben Sidran in the early ’90s. The eight-minute title track, the bluest of blues on altered changes, comes from those sessions: you can imagine how much he enjoyed sharing the studio with A-Teamers Richard Tee (piano), Robben Ford (guitar), Will Lee (bass) and Steve Gadd (drums).

An abundance of great material among the 111 tracks includes items from the two tremendous live albums, Name Droppin’ and Walking Wounded, recorded live at Ronnie’s in 1997. There’s also a glorious “Since I Fell For You” on which he’s accompanied only by his Hammond B3 and Guy Barker’s trumpet, and a fine “Funny How Time Slips Away” from the Pye session, and tons of other things that you might never have heard before but will be very pleased to meet in the course of a journey through a wonderful life in music, in which even the occasional misstep was simply the preface to a graceful recovery.

The team who put this exemplary package together — Tristan Powell, the disc jockey Dean Rudland and the Universal A&R man Chas Chandler — deserve the highest commendation. The blemishes are few: the Basie drummer Sonny Payne is mistranscribed as Sonny Cain, Bill Eyden is wrongly identified as Phil Seamen (the man he replaced as the Blue Flames’ drummer) in a caption to one of the many fine photographs in the accompanying 48-page hardback booklet, and I’d have liked the generally comprehensive musician credits to have extended to identifying those who played on the Island studio sessions. But those are quibbles. If I didn’t already have Survival, it would be the only thing I’d want or need for Christmas.

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19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Richard Harris #

    Excellent stuff! A 20 track anthology of the Pye material, “Funny how time slips away”, was released in 2001 on Sanctuary, “remastered and with quotes by the man himself”. Much of its far too ” 70s pop” for me but “Eros Hotel”* is, as you say, drop dead gorgeous. So gorgeous that I got married to it. Well, a BBC tape was played throughout the reception! As for the Marc Charig, Elton Dean band material…lead me on.

    *”At that time Pye had the budget for an orchestra. I enjoyed doing that album and I thought it was really good: unfortunately Pye were on their way down and didn’t promote it” – GF, sleeve note.

    December 11, 2016
  2. John Walters #

    Always loved the track “Peaceful”. Bought the single when it came out in the year God knows when. Still got it. Still love it.
    Last saw Georgie on the Rock the Boat cruise a couple of years ago celebrating the 50th anniversary of Radio Caroline. Really enjoyed his set.
    The whole of “Survival” on Spotify by the way.

    December 11, 2016
  3. Yeah, Peaceful, one of the great late sixties singles. Why hasn’t this man had his BBC-4 doc yet? Long overdue.

    December 12, 2016
  4. Georgie’s set at Ronnie’s earlier this year was an amazing swan song ( without Hammond) .
    Georgie had 3 number one records and no other top 20 single ( discounting Rosetta with Alan Price) – surely a record!

    December 12, 2016
    • Dean Rudland #

      He actually had four other Top Twenty singles – but it is really odd that his only Top Ten’s were number 1s.

      December 13, 2016
  5. Richard Harris #

    One regret I’ve got (amongst many) is that the original Blue Flames, or a varient of them, never cut a full instrumental album. There are some doted around the records but it would have been good to hear them stretch out a la John Patton etc. They certainly had the soloists. The baritone solo on Moodies Mood (John Marshall?) is a real gem, a Lars Gullin “moment”.

    December 12, 2016
    • Yes, that’s one of the most beautifully shaped baritone solos ever, on my favourite Fame track. I’ve always assumed it was by Johnny Marshall, but I see from Uli Twelker’s GF biography that it could have been Peter Coe. Marshall left the band in April ’64, and Coe took over on bari before switching to tenor when Mick Eve left in July. Glenn Hughes didn’t join until after the release of Fame at Last in October. And maybe somebody can tell me whether the drummer on “Green Onions” is Phil Seamen or Bill Eyden…

      December 12, 2016
  6. Tim Adkin #

    We caught GF at the Cheltenham Jazz Fest circa 96(when he was serving time with Van The Man) and sadly he was pretty lacklustre despite having Skid and Guy Barker in the ranks. However he opened that night with a solo rendition of “Eros Hotel” that was sublime. Thankfully the memories of that gig were subsequently exorcized when we saw him in a trio setting (with his 2 lads) when he was quite superb.

    Agree with the comments about “Peaceful” and I always liked the “Survival” album and the version of JJ’s “Everlovin Woman” that’s on it.

    December 12, 2016
  7. Love this blog (and they say blogging is dead)

    December 12, 2016
  8. Love this blog too!

    As well as being a great exponent of R&B (the best in Britain?), Georgie also cut a couple of fabulous South African tunes on the Name Droppin’/Walking Wounded sessions – Zulu (which is also on Funny How Time Slips Away) and Zacks Nkosi’s Zavolo. They show he had a great assimilation of and sympathy with that joyous music. He’s such a versatile musician – much more than many realise. And yes a BBC 4 documentary is well overdue and would be wonderful.

    December 13, 2016
  9. Dean Rudland #

    Thanks for the kind words Richard. Both these box-sets have been labours of love and wouldn’t have gotten close to fruition without Tristan’s hard work.
    This is especially true on the Island live tracks – which had some severe technical issues which may explain their non-appearance at the time.

    December 13, 2016
    • Thanks, Dean. I’d be interested to hear about the stuff you weren’t able to license for the new box.

      December 14, 2016
      • Dean Rudland #

        Hi Richard,
        After a busy end of the year, I’ve finally got hold of a finished mastered copy of the album, and may even prefer it to the one we did last year. With it in my hands and understand your high praise for the box (I knew it was good, but the production team raised it a level!).
        To (not really) answer your question, I think that the music we were unable to license was probably from the later period as Columbia, CBS and Island all cleared.
        My greatest disappointment was that the Mira Sound NY session produced by Denny Cordell from 1967 went about as well as could be expected from the description of it in Andrew Loog Oldham’s book on impresarios. Though possibly due to poor song choice, rather than the ‘tea’ and shopping suggested by ALO. We got a couple of tracks from it, but there is a whole lot more, that I don’t think Georgie really wanted to be reminded of.
        Dean

        January 23, 2017
  10. Colin Harper #

    One amazing aspect of Island is it seems – by policy or happenstance – to have made at least one professional concert recording of most of its artists during the pink label era, most of which were not used or only partly used at the time. Another amazing aspect is that they kept the stuff. Hence, a slew of releases – by Universal or licensee labels – in recent years utilising this stuff by Free (a second night to the Free Live LP), Quintessence (St Pancras Town Hall & QE Hall), Fairport Convention (several nights at the LA Troubadour), John Martyn (Hanging Lamp), Richard & Linda Thompson (Rainbow, I think), Bob Marley (Lyceum), even Spooky Tooth somewhere or other (on a recent box set), and no doubt a few more waiting to be dusted down. Could we yet see (hear) Wynder K Frog ‘Live At The Twisted Wheel’?

    December 13, 2016
    • Colin — I guess the reason for that was Island’s mobile recording truck, 16-track I think, which was constantly available, along with several excellent and enthusiastic in-house engineers — Tony Platt, Richard Digby Smith, Phill Brown, Phil Ault, etc, plus John Wood from Sound Techniques (who engineered the June 1 1974 concert from the truck parked at the back of the Rainbow, and the R & L Thompson gig in Oxford).

      December 14, 2016
      • Colin Harper #

        Clearly a tremendous resource. Pye had a mobile unit, didn’t it? But I can’t bring to mind any previously unreleased concerts from the Pye vault. Island’s habit (certainly in the early years) of giving artists a lot of leeway in the studios and with their mobile and making a point of keeping the stuff is certainly unusual, in my experience of being involved in archive-trawl projects.

        Maybe Dean can say more on whether Island were unusual among 60s/early 70s UK labels in their tape retention policy. For instance, just on the Quintessence example, from enquiries, RCA – for whom they recorded their last two albums – after three with Island – do not seem to have kept any multi-tracks or outtakes from the 1972 ‘Self’ album at all, including the Exeter University concert that was excerpted on its second side. Island, in contrast, kept almost everything.

        December 14, 2016
  11. John Jennings #

    Hope this update isn’t too late in coming. Caught Georgie at Ronnie’s with The Guy Barker Big Band last Oct. 2016. He was in the best vocal form I’ve ever heard him, in a dozen shows over the last 10 years. As usual, he told some great stories and was backed by an absolutely smokin’ band. Let’s hope reports of his recording “demise have been greatly exaggerated”. A national treasure…

    March 28, 2017
    • I saw him too. Zoot Money turned out for one number. At first I was disappointed he did not play the Hammond but then realised what a great singer he is. It has only taken me 54 years to see him in this light. Incidentally ‘Live at the Flamingo’ was the first LP I ever heard closely followed by ‘Sweet Things’, my brother was a mod who provided all the material.

      March 29, 2017

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