Climbing 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.