Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Georgie Fame’

Johnny Marshall 1930-2017

If you asked me to make a short list of my favourite solos by British jazz musicians, very close to the top of the list would be the 16-bar baritone saxophone solo on Georgie Fame’s “I’m in the Mood for Love (Moody’s Mood for Love)”, from the 1964 studio album Fame at Last. A version of the Eddie Jefferson/King Pleasure recasting of James Moody’s 1949 recording, which put words to Moody’s tenor improvisation on a song by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, it’s also my favourite Fame track.

Fame sings it quite beautifully, with just his Hammond B3 — on a heavy vibrato setting — plus the bassist (probably Tex Makins) and the drummer (probably Red Reece) for company. The solo is played by Johnny Marshall, who was a member of the Blue Flames from October 1962 to April 1964. He steals in between verses, improvising in the way that jazz musicians once aspired to do: creating a new and memorable melody from the bones of the old.

The tempo is slow-medium, and Marshall allows his solo to unfurl in a completely unhurried way. His airy tone is perfect for the big instrument: using its range but avoiding any hint of gruffness or stodginess. The phrasing and overall shape of his improvised melody develop with exquisite balance. When he hints at doubling and tripling the tempo, it never sounds rushed. It’s a solo that any bop-and-after baritone player — Serge Chaloff, Gerry Mulligan, Cecil Payne, Pepper Adams, Ronnie Ross, Lars Gullin — would be proud to own. After listening to it for more than 50 years, I know it off by heart, but it never gets old.

Today I heard, via Tim Hinckley, of Johnny Marshall’s recent death at the age of 86. Born in Cornwall, he died in North Devon, where he had lived since the 1990s, with a weekly residency at a club in Bideford. The story posted on mentions that he played with Sarah Vaughan and Stevie Wonder (and Romano Mussolini, Benito’s piano-playing son). But to me he’s the man who, in a London studio one day half a century ago, used his allotted 16 bars to make a small but indelible mark on the world.

Georgie Fame: the man in full


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.

Georgie Fame’s Swan Songs

Georgie Fame Swan SongCan 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.

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.

Georgie Fame: back home in Soho

Georgie Fame 1“I never thought I’d get to sing a Bob Dylan song in Ronnie Scott’s jazz club,” George Fame said tonight, and proceeded to dedicate “Everything Is Broken” to David Cameron’s cabinet. He and his Blue Flames made it sound like a Mose Allison song set to a Horace Silver boogaloo rhythm, an arrangement that worked quite beautifully.

This was the first night of a week’s sold-out residency on Frith Street, and Fame’s serious illness last year meant that it was the first time he and the modern Blue Flames — Guy Barker (trumpet), Alan Skidmore (tenor), Anthony Kerr (vibes), Tristan Powell (guitar), Alec Dankworth (double bass) and James Powell (drums) — had played together in many months. The good news is that the leader was in great form, and that the reunion seemed to have infused the band, which includes his two sons, with a terrific freshness.

Between 1964 and 1966 there was no band I looked forward to seeing visit the Dungeon or the Beachcomber in Nottingham more than this one: the Blue Flames were the coolest of the cool. Put me near a Hammond organ — in my view, an invention to rank with moveable type and penicillin in the history of western civilisation — and I’m not going to stop smiling all night. Back then, the addition of musicians like Eddie Thornton, Mick Eve, Peter Coe, Glenn Hughes, Colin Green, Cliff Barton, Bill Eyden, Mitch Mitchell and Speedy Acquaye guaranteed a blissful experience.

Their successors live up to the legend, and so does Georgie, sprinkling his songs and introductions with anecdotes and references that illustrate his unflagging love of jazz and R&B. There were mentions of Count Suckle’s club on Carnaby Street and of Strickland’s, the jazz record shop on the corner of Old Compton and Dean Streets. Introducing “Preach and Teach” (the B-side of “Yeh Yeh”, the song with which he knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts in 1965), he mentioned its composer, the pianist Johnny Burch, whose wonderful octet — including Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker — happened to be the other featured attraction on the night Fame made his BBC radio debut on Jazz Club. When Dankworth took a lengthy and impassioned solo on the tune, his leader encouraged him with the famous utterances of Charles Mingus on “Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me”: “Don’t let them drop it… stop it… bebop it!”

“Moondance”, in an arrangement borrowed from Van Morrison’s great 1993 live album A Night in San Francisco (on which Fame was the organist), cleverly adapted a chorus of “Blue Moon” to the song’s contours, while Barker’s solo made references to Johnny Coles and to Gil Evans’s arrangement of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” for Miles Davis, and Kerr showed how important he is to the band’s overall sound. Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin'”, the battle hymn of the soul-jazz era, was given a first outing, with Georgie putting lyrics to Lee Morgan’s trumpet solo from the Jazz Messengers’ version and Barker responding with a dramatic solo of his own, and the singer also quoting from Nat Adderley’s “Work Song”. Introducing Willie Nelson’s “Funny (How Time Slips Away)”, a perennial Fame favourite and the last song of the night, he spoke fondly of the late Denny Cordell, who had produced the version on the 1966 album Sweet Things, the last real Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames album; the current arrangement gives it a mid-tempo Chicago soul feel, allowing the singer to namecheck Curtis Mayfield, Major Lance, Billy Stewart, Phil Upchurch and other Windy City greats.

This was a great night on Frith Street, in the old style: a lesson in the kind of authentic hipster cool for which Soho was invented. If somebody were to record the show this week, in the spirit of Fame’s 1963 debut, Rhythm and Blues at the Flamingo, they might find themselves with a candidate for the list of all-time great live albums.

* Quite properly, Ronnie Scott’s doesn’t allow photography while the musicians are performing, but they won’t mind this shot of the stage and Fame’s Hammond organ waiting for the band’s arrival.