Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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Tony Christie: Changing Lanes

Tony Christie
Tony Christie Tony Christie

Once dubbed âSheffieldâs answer to Tom Jonesâ, legendary big-voiced British crooner Tony Christie this year marks his 50th anniversary in show-business with the release of a new, Sixties-soul-influenced album âNowâs The Time!â - a musical biography that sees him re-visit his early musical roots while including collaborations with fellow Sheffield singing icons Jarvis Cocker and Roisin Murphy, with production coming courtesy of friend-cum-fan Richard Barrett of the cityâs hitmaking studio outfit All Seeing I.

Indeed, picking up from where Christieâs last, critically-acclaimed LP âMade In Sheffieldâ left off, the retro-flavoured, richly-produced âNowâs The Time!â effectively brings together the sounds of northern soul, British beat and filmic soundtracks via 12 well-conceived, original compositions that range from the brassy, Motown-inspired pounder â7 Hillsâ and cinematic, entertainingly-tongue-in-cheek âGet Christieâ; to its strutting, punchy single âNowâs The Time!â and soulfully anthemic, orchestrated beat-ballad âNobody In The Worldâ - which (arguably the albumâs cream track) has accurately been described as sounding âlike an escapee from the Brill Buildingâs early-Sixties archiveâ... All of which songs will also shortly be showcased live with the now-67-year-old Tony all set, in April, to embark on a massive, 50-date UK tour to celebrate his half-century of treading the boards - taking in every corner of the country from Buxton Opera House to Truroâs Hall Of Cornwall along the way!

⦠Which in turn sets the scene for a down-to-earth Mr. Christie to appropriately hook up for the first time with âBlues & Soulâ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis to discuss the background behind his soulful new set - which has prestigiously already been acclaimed as âthe best album of his long and impeccable careerâ.

âWell, if you remember, about 11 or 12 years ago I did a single called âWalk Like A Pantherâ with The All Seeing Iâ, begins an instantly-forthcoming Tony in still-identifiable Yorkshire tones: âAnd, because it was a (UK) Top 10 hit, they wanted to carry on and do an ALBUM. But at the time I didnât really fancy it. You know, I was living in Spain and having a great deal of success on the continent in places like Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium⦠But nevertheless, they still kept on pestering me about putting an ALBUM together⦠And so eventually, because itâs my 50th anniversary in show-business this year - I actually did my first gig as part of a double-act back in 1961! - and I wanted to go in a different musical direction, we finally decided to contact them and DO it!â

âSo we had a meeting to talk about what kind of album to doâ, he continues: âAnd I was like âLetâs do some vibey, Sixties-soul/northern-rock-type stuff - the kind of thing I used to do in the early days⦠So they started coming up with the songs, sending me little demos - and, if I liked what I heard, Iâd travel up to Sheffield to do my vocal bits⦠And so, though it took months and months, eventually they got it FINISHED! And as I say, it really is sort of homage to the Sixties sound, with a bit of the Philadelphia sound in there too.â

A landmark release in an already-distinguished and lengthy career, âNowâs The Time!â interestingly comes to us through London-based independent soul/jazz label Acid Jazz: âWell, the thing about being with an independent is that you have more FREEDOMâ, explains a savvy Mr. Christie: âWhereas the big major companies, on the other hand, tend to be tied to their accountants who are constantly putting their hold on the purse-strings. Like when we decided to do a 50th anniversary release and we were discussing what type of record to do, I actually turned a major down because they wanted to put a COMPILATION out - and I was like âNo, I donât want another compilation! Letâs go forwards not backwards! Letâs do something completely DIFFERENT!â!... To which their response was âNo, we need some stuff that we can get radio play with and do an advertising campaign around. You need to put some songs on there that people KNOW!â⦠You know, with an artist like me they basically think that, when people pick up an album, they have to recognise every song thatâs ON it or they wonât BUY it!â

âSo yeah, that was definitely one of the obstacles we had to get over in terms of making and releasing this new albumâ, he continues openly: âWhich is why I ended up going with an INDEPENDENT! Because with an independent you have so much more FLEXIBILTY. You know, the majors are always so geared up to promotion and everything that goes with it, that everything is planned months ahead. So once they start going, it takes them a long time to STOP. Whereas an independent can turn round in ONE AFTERNOON and say âRight, drop that! Letâs change and put THIS out!ââ¦Plus, with me going to Acid Jazz and having Eddie Pillar at the label as a fan, they basically just said âOK, just do what you wanna DO!â.. So went in and did the âNowâs The Time!â album - and when we gave it Eddie he LOVED it, and was like âI couldnât have picked it better MYSELF!â!â

Born Anthony Fitzgerald in April 1943, Tony (who hailed from a musically-inclined family) first began singing in public as a humble back-row chorister at his primary school in Conisbrough - a South Yorkshire village situated between Sheffield and Doncaster. Meanwhile, Christieâs teen years would find him and a friend perfecting their Everly Brothers routine as they walked to and from school, before later going on to join a concert party which entertained the sick in local hospitals. All of which eventually led to the twosome - by now known as The Grant Brothers - ultimately taking their act to the northern working menâs clubs.

âYeah, my mate Dave and I used to walk home from school singing togetherâ, recalls Tony fondly: âHe had a baritone voice, I had this Irish tenor-type voice - and so we used to do close-harmony stuff. And then, because his mum ran this glee club where they used to go out and entertain in old peopleâs homes and hospitals, we ended up becoming part of their choir! So from there we progressed to doing a couple of songs of our OWN - which is when we started performing in the clubs! You know, I used to play guitar, we both used to sing... And so, by the time we were 17/18, I guess we were semi-pro, really! I used to work in an office through the week, and then on weekends weâd perform.â

âAnd so I basically carried on doing that until I was offered a part in a band called The Counterbeatsâ, he continues, now in full flow: âBasically theyâd had a girl singer - Karen Young - whoâd left them because sheâd recorded a song called âNobodyâs Childâ that had gone to Number One in the charts! So, after she left and their manager heard me sing, he was like âDo you fancy turning full-time pro and touring with the band?â⦠So I said yes, left my office job - and went full-time with The Counterbeats, who were mainly a cabaret-type band... Because even back then Iâd already started harbouring ambitions of becoming the sort of English Sammy Davis Jr. or English Tony Bennett!â

With the northern clubs taking the powerful-voiced Christie to their hearts, his big break would finally come during an awards ceremony at Blackpool Winter Gardens, where he met prominent Sixties-Manchester âstarmakerâ Harvey Lisberg (the man behind Hermanâs Hermits and, later, 10cc) who decided to take the now-solo Tony under his wing. A move which would indeed reap huge rewards, as in 1971 the international smashes started flowing - including the UK Number Two âI Did What I Did For Mariaâ plus the song that would become essentially Christieâs signature tune, â(Is This The Way To) Amarilloâ.

Nevertheless, with the British hits having long since dried up and the domestic nightclub circuit disintegrating, the Eighties found a disillusioned Tony (despite a splendid turn as Magaldi on the 1976 recorded version of âEvitaâ) minus a UK record-deal and moving to Spain - from where he was able to concentrate on his then-blossoming career in West Germany, a country where he scored enormous success with the Greek-flavoured Belgian song âSweet Septemberâ.

By the end of the Nineties, however, a whole new generation of artists were breaking through in Christieâs old stomping ground of Sheffield, full of admiration for the vocal abilities of their cityâs early-Seventies/pre-punk hero - including long-time fan Jarvis Cocker. Who, in 1999, sent Tony a new song entitled âWalk Like A Pantherâ. Which, once recorded by Tony, immediately - and amazingly - found him back in the UK Top 10 and performing on âTop Of The Popsâ for the first time in over 25 years!

Nevertheless, even greater, unexpected success was to follow when - in 2005 - high-profile Northern comedian Peter Kay decided to use Christieâs original l971 recording of â(Is This The Way To) Amarilloâ on his sitcom âPhoenix Nightsâ... Which in turn led to it becoming that yearâs official Comic Relief anthem and ultimately topping the UK singles charts for an incredible seven weeks, one of which was spent with Christieâs Triple-Platinum âDefinitive Tony Christieâ compilation also topping the British album charts! An unprecedented career comeback, which has since seen Tony - with his son Sean now firmly at the helm as his manager - selling out a British tour and appearing in the West End musical âDreamboats & Petticoatsâ, as well as recording the 2008 critically-acclaimed concept album âMade In Sheffieldâ. A commercial and artistic success which found the cityâs music intelligentsia (including Arctic Monkeys, Jarvis Cocker, The Human League and The All Seeing I) all out in force and contributing.

⦠All of which pretty much brings us up-to-date, with the current release of his aforementioned 19th studio album âNowâs The Time!â. So how does Christie now look back on the many highs and lows of such a constantly-changing, yet ultimately trailblazing, career?

âWell, as you say, thereâve definitely been peaks and troughs! But, you know, that is the BUSINESS!â, retorts an ever-realistic Tony: âThe fact is that it is very hard to sustain at the very top LEVEL in this business! In fact, just about everybody I know has had their good times AND bad times. But where I was very fortunate is that, when it all went very quiet for me in the UK, another door opened and I had a hit somewhere ELSE! So I then had like 10 years of having hits on the continent before I suddenly got another little tickle in the charts in the UK... Then, after I came back here, it all happened for me again in GERMANY! So, as I say, whenever a gate closes at one place it opens somewhere ELSE for me - and Iâve been very lucky in that way.â

âSo yeah, I just keep on GOING! I can only do what I can DO!â, he adds as our revealing conversation draws to its natural close: âBut, if there IS a secret to it all, Iâd say itâs to keep working with younger PEOPLE! Because theyâre the ones that come out with all the fresh, new IDEAS!... I mean, I get asked the question a lot âWhat is the ultimate thing thatâs happened to you in your career?â⦠And I always say âWell, itâs not HAPPENED yet!â!... Because I do firmly believe my best is yet to COME! I really do!â

Tonyâs upcoming 50-date UK tour runs from April 20 to July 3. Venues include: St. Albans Arena (April 30); Porthcawl The Grand Pavilion Theatre (May 6); London Leicester Square Theatre (May 14); Hull City Hall (June 7); Blackpool Opera House (June 19): and Worthing Assembly Hall (July 2).

The album âNowâs The Time!â is out now through Acid Jazz

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