Georgie Fame

A deluxe five-disc box set of music, from 1963-1966, by Georgie Fame has been released by Universal Music Catalogue. We caught up with Fame at the French House pub to speak about his life and career

Annabelle South is a manager at the famous French House pub in Soho. Her father is Harry South, a highly respected big band leader. In the early 1960s, Georgie Fame met Harry in a pub in south London. Soon after, they started work on the album, Sound Venture.

It’s like a relentless musical trawler has come along the seabed saying, anything down there?

For connoisseurs of Georgie Fame's output, this album is just one of the many highlights to be cherished in the man’s superb career, one that has lasted over 50 years. Fame shot to prominence with his band the Blue Flames. This outfit was dedicated to bringing to British audiences the musical rainbow of contemporary black music. R&B, soul, jazz, the band even threw in Latin numbers as they wowed crowds with their high octane musical set.

By covering their songs, Fame laid the seeds for artists such as Mose Allison and Jon Hendricks to gain awareness in this country. And to this day, Fame remains dogged in his quest to bring and explain the music he adores so much. In 1963, the Blue Flames secured a famous three-year residency at the Flamingo club in Soho, and in 1964 hit big with their cover of 'Yeh Yeh'. The band and Fame were involved in four great albums before splitting up in 1966.

Those albums, plus some fine rarities have now been collected in the box set, The Whole World’s Shaking Georgie Fame Complete Recordings 1963-1966.

Dividing his time between Sweden and the UK, Fame had flown in to talk about the Box Set. And where did we meet? The French House, of course.

Congrats on the box set. Your first one I believe?
Yes, full of morbid historical curiosities! This is the first compilation since Polydor put out a comp, which was a bit of a mish mash. Someone else did one, which had a picture of me at the Ricky-Tick trying to make it look like the Flamingo.

They put out a lot of tracks from the EPs, which had never been released. The only thing that pissed me off about that was that they used an interview, which I had done for a jazz magazine in which the writer twisted the words around and quoted me as calling Christine Keeler a prostitute. I would never have said that. As far as I am concerned, she was never a prostitute.

When the time comes and I can’t remember the words to the songs ... then I’ll quit

But we were talking about the all-nighters, and Lucky Gordon and the scene and all that, and then the journalist takes it home and then uses that as a quote. Suddenly, it’s legend and it pisses me off.

But this is the first comprehensive box set. It’s like a relentless musical trawler has come along the seabed saying, anything down there? I put the block on a couple of tracks, I can’t remember what they were.

I certainly wasn't keen on the version of ‘Lil’ Darlin’ with me singing with a small group. At that time, I could hardly play it let alone sing it. There’s also a version of ‘Moanin’ that, the reason we didn’t put them put it out to begin with is that at the time we did not think they were good enough. We did have a certain amount of integrity but because of this morbid historical curiosity everything is out.

I can sing my ass off now. I can sing ‘Moanin’ properly. I have even written lyrics to Lee Morgan’s trumpet solo now but in those days we were just trying. Around the time of the first album we were pretty competent live but in the studio we would be trying a lot of stuff out.

Were you heavily involved in the box set?
I wouldn’t say heavily. They could have put it out with any consideration for me but because there are royalties involved, through a deal that was negotiated years ago, and because my son Tristan is interested in all this stuff, he did some work on it.

That is why when they said, you need to talk to somebody for the sleeve notes I said well let’s get in someone who was around at the time. Which is why I did a long interview with Chris Welch because Chris wrote the sleeve notes to Sound Venture. I wanted someone from that era who still had his or her marbles!

The interview is very wide ranging and very impressive. Your band went through so many changes in the 1960s but you seem to recall the name of everyone who played for you.
That’s why I am still playing. I am 72 now and when the time comes and I can’t remember the words to the songs I am meant to be singing then I’ll quit.

I was wondering what feelings were evoked when you went through the music you made from 1963-1966?
I have got a box set but I haven’t opened it yet and I don’t know that I ever will. I’ll probably give it to my grandchildren and say this is what I did at that time. I am curious about some of the tracks. There’s a Freddy Roach instrumental on there, which was recorded and put to one side. I think it might be an outtake from the Live at the Flamingo album. It’s actually got a terrible balance – the organ is right out there – but it was part and parcel of our learning curve.

That is what we were doing at the time, we were learning, so some of those recordings are not going to be anywhere near pristine or on the case so I am not worried about that. I am not ashamed of anything on there. It is just that out of my own wisdom and taste, I would have left out a couple of the tracks.

From a comprehensive point of view it is all there and to be honest I am amazed we recorded so much stuff.

Yours first album is a live one from the Flamingo Club, which is a bit unusual for a debut. Can you tell me how that came about?
The interesting thing about that album is the music which is so eclectic and gives you good ideas to where we were coming from, what we were listening to, and the kind of music we had to play to the audience.

The black American GIs who came down, they wanted dance music so they could dance with the girls. This is before the Mods came in. You got Smokey Robinson’s ‘Shop Around’, you got Oscar Brown’s lyrics to Cannonball Adderley’s ‘Work Song’, you got Mose Alison’s ‘Parchman Farm’, you got James Brown’s ‘Night Train’, you got Paul Anka’s ‘Eso Beso’ which is a Latin American thing because there was a lot of Latin American people in the joint!

Our conga player had been detained under Her Majesty’s Pleasure ... on a dope charge

We had ‘Let the Good Times Roll’ although we hadn’t heard Louis Jordan when we recorded that. We knew the Ray Charles version with the Quincy Jones arrangement. So when you look at the material on the album, it is a great cross over.

The idea behind the album was that we had been playing the Flamingo for a year and we decided to record the set. We got Glyn Johns as engineer. Then someone suggested we needed a producer. We said we didn’t know any producers so they brought in Sammy Samwell (Ian Samwell) who had written the song ‘Move It’ and played guitar on the track.

He came in and he said, I think we need a guitar player. Now at that time we did not have a guitar player because Colin Green had left and gone off to play with Eddie Calvert in Switzerland. John McLaughlin had come in and left so we had been playing without a guitar player. We had a baritone sax, a tenor sax, Hammond organ, congas, drums and bass. Everything was working.

But the producer thinks he is making a record so he needs a guitar player. We didn’t know any guitar players; they had all gone. All I could think of was Joe Moretti and Big Jim Sullivan who we knew from the Larry Parnes era. He came in and did a great job but he was from the Larry Parnes rock’n’roll era and that was not how the band were sounding in the club every night.

Furthermore, our conga player Speedy Acquaye, had been detained under Her Majesty’s Pleasure in Pentonville for two months on a dope charge. We got in Tommy Thomas. He was a West Indian guy who used to come down the all-nighters and hang out. He had a gig playing watered down calypso on bongo drums at the top of the Hilton hotel in Park Lane.

So when he came in and played the bongo drums, the sound changed again and so in many ways the album is not representative of what we were doing. But then things were happening so fast in those days, that is what happened. The album did well. It sold because we knew we had an audience. The guy on the BBC the other night was trying to say it was a flop. Not so.

The only thing that really changed is
that the office got a bit bigger

That is why the Flamingo album was an independent production. The manager Rik Gunnell used my money to finance it. I didn’t know it was an independent production. All I knew is we were going to make a record! John Gunnell, Rik’s brother, was at that BBC gig the other day and he told me it sold very well.

When, a year later, the single ‘Yeh Yeh’ hit big, I was wondering how you coped with the fame. You had been underground for all this time and suddenly you were all over the media. Must have been strange?
The recording sessions used to interfere with the gig schedule. We had been playing ‘Yeh Yeh’ round the clubs and it was getting a better reception than a lot of our other songs.

We had done the Flamingo album and we had put out a couple of singles, which, although not Top 20, had got people talking. One day, somebody in the office said, why don’t you do that ‘Yeh Yeh’ song that is going down a treat? We went into the studio on the way to the gig and recorded that and the b-side (‘Preach and Teach’) and then went off to the next gig.

After it had come out, I can remember Rik Gunnell calling me one day and saying, Jesus, it has just sold 35,000 copies in a day. This is going to go high in the charts. I said great. The only thing that really changed is that the office got a bit bigger.

One of the greatest levellers was when we did our first gig outside of England and we went to Sweden. We flew in economy class from London to Stockholm. When we landed we saw all these blonde, longhaired Swedish girls waiting in the terminal. We had seen Beatlemania so we thought, great this is our time now. We got off the plane walked into the terminal and they had all disappeared. Why? Because Roger Moore who was playing the Saint in those days was also on the plane but had traveled First Class.

Let’s move onto the Fame at Last album.
Half of the album were tracks done in the studio with no guitarist so you can hear how we truly sounded at that time. Listen to ‘Green Onions’, ‘I Love the Life I Live’, ‘All About My Girl’ – they have no guitar player on them.

The girl singers are on there, the Ladybirds. Sammy Samwell was partly involved in the production, the other half was us going into Abbey Road and playing live. That’s the way it was put together. No one outside of the band knew what they were doing.

I don’t know if the album did well. We didn’t chase figures we were too busy playing live. It was only when the singles got into the charts we thought, oh we are in the music business.

Which is why the material is on the album because there was no one breathing down our necks saying you can’t play that, it’s not commercial.

Prior to your third album sweet things, you played on the Motown tour. Did that influence the record?
Yes, because it was done soon after that tour. It’s probably the best produced album. Denny Cordell was a great producer, a man of good taste and a great A&R man. He was a great selector of songs and he understood our band. Plus, we had had such a good time on the Motown tour. The people there were marvelous. I got a tune from Jack Ashford on that tour, ‘It’s For Love the Petals Fall’. He was messing around with it one day and I said what’s that? He told me and I said can I have it? And I got it.

Tell me about your 1965 solo album Sound Venture. I mean its swinging London, the time of the Beatles and Dylan and the Stones; and you go and make a big band album.
I wasn’t purposefully trying to be anti-commercial. I just thought it was a natural musical progression. Plus, as always, I wanted to expand my musical education. And the baritone sax player in the band Johnny Marshall had played with Harry South in another band. When I expressed an interest in playing with a big band he suggested Harry.

Integrity is a very important word

I met him down the Bulls Head in Barnes when he was playing with Dick Morrissey. I had to pay for all this because no one wanted to finance it. Colin Green played on it as did Stan Tracey, Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes – oh man! We did four tracks and then I had to wait for ‘Yeh Yeh’ to be a hit and then I could finish the album.

Whenever I have seen you play live, you always take great care to inform the audience about a song’s history.
That’s very important. The way that history is being changed weekly by this new generation brought up on multi-media, I think it is important to tell people where the music came from. A lot of people think, through no fault of their own, that the original people behind ‘Yeh Yeh’ were Matt Bianco. At gigs it is important I tell them that is not so, tell them where the source is.

Finally, the word integrity always seems very important when discussing your career.
Yes, integrity is a very important word. As you get older it really is. I have always tried to maintain a sense of integrity throughout. By pursuing my love and wanting to expand my education in music and life at the same time, integrity has been important in both cases. If you are half successful you get to travel, you get to see other countries, other cultures and you get to play with other musicians, and it’s all good for the soul.