Georgie from cotton mill via Fury to Fame

Georgie Fame and Family: Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne (2017)

Georgie Fame

What a great evening of music delivered by one the best Hammond organ players in the business. Georgie Fame enjoyed big chart hits in the sixties with hits like Yeh Yeh, Getaway and The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde and decades of life as a touring musician with people like Van Morrison and Bill Wyman.

Now, in his 70s, he’s enjoying a different sort of touring, as family man with a musical legacy to share. And sure enough, with two sons, Tristan and James, on guitar and drums and his granddaughters, Fallon and Merle (I think), as support act. “Grandpa Georgie”, as he was introduced, focused on the story of his musical life.

He played music from his almost 60 year career, including of course all the aforementioned hits, and offered genial and illuminating anecdotes between numbers. There were great songs by influential performers and writers like Booker T Jones, Ray Charles, Mose Allison, Hoagy Carmichael, Floyd Dixon and Peggy Lee and even a spot of country (Jim Reeves and Willie Nelson) as re-imagined by Ry Cooder and Joe Hinton.

There were memories of the legendary all-nighters at Soho’s Flamingo Club and there were wondrous tales of his early years in rock ’n’ roll, of touring with Eddie Cochrane and Billy Fury, why he withdrew from a talent contest at a Welsh holiday camp with a pre Beatles Ringo Starr and much much more. An eye-witness to some serious landmark moments in rock history, Fame even watched as his tearful drummer Mitch Mitchell, distraught at being sacked from the Blue Flames, was snapped up by new boy on the block Jimi Hendrix.

It was illuminating to hear just how much of Fame’s astonishing career has been down to pure chance. Meeting the right people, being close to the right telephones. It was astonishingly effective. One minute he was a junior worker in a cotton mill in Leigh in Lancashire and the next he was being signed by the great pop impresario Larry Parnes to play piano with his stable of hit-makers. 

This involved, at Parnes insistence,  changing his name from plain old Clive Powell to Georgie Fame but it also landed him a gig in Billy Fury’s backing band The Blue Flames. Unfortunately management decided that the Blue Flames were a tad to jazzy for their main man and the entire group were given their marching orders. For Georgie it was too late to change his name back to Clive Powell but not too late to take over as lead vocalist.

The residency as house band at the Flamingo followed and  then a favourite song, Yeh Yeh, gave them a significant hit and briefly turned Fame and his band into pop stars. They toured relentlessly but before long the music industry sharks were circling. It was Fame who was singing the hits and playing the signature Hammond organ. They could make a whole load more money if they axed the band. The rest as they say is history. Georgie Fame was forced to leave his friends and he learned some uncomfortable lessons about the ruthlessness of the music world but he was also suddenly free to enjoy a career that found him able to indulge his love of jazz, blues and R&B. Ironic really that a boy from the Lancashire cotton mills ended up playing music by people who actually picked the damn stuff in the fields of the Mississippi Delta. 

The Tivoli show featured wonderful stories and some marvellous musical finesse. The Hammond organ is an extraordinarily expressive instrument and Fame knows exactly how to handle it. Though he did switch briefly to piano to pay tribute to the great Fats Domino, one of his original heroes, whose death at the age of 89 had been announced only hours earlier. He chose Good Lawdy Miss Clawdy which was  recorded by Lloyd Price in 1952 featuring a classic Fats performance on piano.

It was a lovely evening with the granddaughters returning to the stage and joining grandpa, dad and uncle for a final number. Reflective and poignant, it was simply called Was.

Jeremy Miles

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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