Tony Christie: Changing Lanes
Once dubbed “Sheffield’s answer to Tom Jones”, 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 ‘Now’s The Time!’ - 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 city’s hitmaking studio outfit All Seeing I.
Indeed, picking up from where Christie’s last, critically-acclaimed LP ‘Made In Sheffield’ left off, the retro-flavoured, richly-produced ‘Now’s The Time!’ 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 ‘7 Hills’ and cinematic, entertainingly-tongue-in-cheek ‘Get Christie’; to its strutting, punchy single ‘Now’s The Time!’ and soulfully anthemic, orchestrated beat-ballad ‘Nobody In The World’ - which (arguably the album’s cream track) has accurately been described as sounding “like an escapee from the Brill Building’s early-Sixties archive”... 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 Truro’s 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 ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis to discuss the background behind his soulful new set - which has prestigiously already been acclaimed as “the best album of his long and impeccable career”.
“Well, if you remember, about 11 or 12 years ago I did a single called ‘Walk Like A Panther’ with The All Seeing I”, begins an instantly-forthcoming Tony in still-identifiable Yorkshire tones: “And, because it was a (UK) Top 10 hit, they wanted to carry on and do an ALBUM. But at the time I didn’t 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 it’s 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!”
“So we had a meeting to talk about what kind of album to do”, he continues: “And I was like ‘Let’s 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, I’d 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.”
A landmark release in an already-distinguished and lengthy career, ‘Now’s The Time!’ interestingly comes to us through London-based independent soul/jazz label Acid Jazz: “Well, the thing about being with an independent is that you have more FREEDOM”, explains a savvy Mr. Christie: “Whereas 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 ‘No, I don’t want another compilation! Let’s go forwards not backwards! Let’s do something completely DIFFERENT!’!... To which their response was ‘No, 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!’… You know, with an artist like me they basically think that, when people pick up an album, they have to recognise every song that’s ON it or they won’t BUY it!”
“So yeah, that was definitely one of the obstacles we had to get over in terms of making and releasing this new album”, he continues openly: “Which 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 ‘Right, drop that! Let’s change and put THIS out!’…Plus, with me going to Acid Jazz and having Eddie Pillar at the label as a fan, they basically just said ‘OK, just do what you wanna DO!’.. So went in and did the ‘Now’s The Time!’ album - and when we gave it Eddie he LOVED it, and was like ‘I couldn’t have picked it better MYSELF!’!”
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, Christie’s 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 men’s clubs.
“Yeah, my mate Dave and I used to walk home from school singing together”, recalls Tony fondly: “He 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 people’s 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 we’d perform.”
“And so I basically carried on doing that until I was offered a part in a band called The Counterbeats”, he continues, now in full flow: “Basically they’d had a girl singer - Karen Young - who’d left them because she’d recorded a song called ‘Nobody’s Child’ that had gone to Number One in the charts! So, after she left and their manager heard me sing, he was like ‘Do you fancy turning full-time pro and touring with the band?’… 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 I’d already started harbouring ambitions of becoming the sort of English Sammy Davis Jr. or English Tony Bennett!”
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 “starmaker” Harvey Lisberg (the man behind Herman’s 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 ‘I Did What I Did For Maria’ plus the song that would become essentially Christie’s signature tune, ‘(Is This The Way To) Amarillo’.
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 ‘Evita’) 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 ‘Sweet September’.
By the end of the Nineties, however, a whole new generation of artists were breaking through in Christie’s old stomping ground of Sheffield, full of admiration for the vocal abilities of their city’s early-Seventies/pre-punk hero - including long-time fan Jarvis Cocker. Who, in 1999, sent Tony a new song entitled ‘Walk Like A Panther’. Which, once recorded by Tony, immediately - and amazingly - found him back in the UK Top 10 and performing on ‘Top Of The Pops’ 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 Christie’s original l971 recording of ‘(Is This The Way To) Amarillo’ on his sitcom ‘Phoenix Nights’... Which in turn led to it becoming that year’s official Comic Relief anthem and ultimately topping the UK singles charts for an incredible seven weeks, one of which was spent with Christie’s Triple-Platinum ‘Definitive Tony Christie’ 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 ‘Dreamboats & Petticoats’, as well as recording the 2008 critically-acclaimed concept album ‘Made In Sheffield’. A commercial and artistic success which found the city’s 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 ‘Now’s The Time!’. So how does Christie now look back on the many highs and lows of such a constantly-changing, yet ultimately trailblazing, career?
“Well, as you say, there’ve definitely been peaks and troughs! But, you know, that is the BUSINESS!”, retorts an ever-realistic Tony: “The 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 I’ve been very lucky in that way.”
“So yeah, I just keep on GOING! I can only do what I can DO!”, he adds as our revealing conversation draws to its natural close: “But, if there IS a secret to it all, I’d say it’s to keep working with younger PEOPLE! Because they’re the ones that come out with all the fresh, new IDEAS!... I mean, I get asked the question a lot ‘What is the ultimate thing that’s happened to you in your career?’… And I always say ‘Well, it’s not HAPPENED yet!’!... Because I do firmly believe my best is yet to COME! I really do!”
Tony’s 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 ‘Now’s The Time!’ is out now through Acid Jazz
Words PETE LEWIS