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    Tony Christie

    I can’t tell you how, but I always knew I could sing.” – Tony Christie

     

    With his 50th anniversary in music fast approaching and just before announcing his brand new record deal with Acid Jazz, Tony Christie achieved a lifetime’s ambition – he appeared on stage in a west-end musical – Dreamboats & Petticoats. To find out the whole story we have to go back – 49 years to be precise!

    It started early, as these things so often do.  Way back when, young Anthony Fitzgerald was a humble back row chorister at his primary school in Conisbrough, the village on the 277 and 278 bus route between Sheffield and Doncaster, known to every child in South Yorkshire for the impressive castle each local school is seemingly contractually obliged to visit each term.

    Anthony’s music teacher liked what he heard, found the boy a front row place and a 40-year career which has taken him from Sheffield to Amarillo, and very much back again.

    The teenage Anthony honed his craft quietly. He and a friend would perfect their Everly Brothers routine as they walked to and from school. They joined a concert party which entertained the sick in the hospitals of South Yorkshire and, soon, they called themselves The Grant Brothers (“we just stuck a pin in the phone book, nobody ever believes we actually did that”) and they took their act to the working men’s clubs, usually after Anthony had finished his accountancy studies (“my dad wanted me to have something to fall back on, so I did accountancy, but I was hopeless. I didn’t have an accountant’s bone in my body”).

    Soon The Grant Brothers parted and Tony Fitzgerald joined northern club sensations The Counterbeats. One afternoon in 1965, before a show in Leicester, he popped to the cinema to see the film Darling, starring Julie Christie.

    “It’s cool now, but back then Fitzgerald wasn’t really a suitable pop name.  So I needed a stage name. Like every young man of the era, I was smitten with Julie Christie and so I became Tony Christie.”

    The Counterbeats were short-lived and in 1966 Tony Christie, now a solo act, moved down to London (and away from his wife and child) where he was spotted by mod-guru and Who producer Shel Talmy. A 45 was cut: “Life’s Too Good To Waste” which featured the ubiquitous Jimmy page on guitar – sadly, it wasn’t a hit and so Christie moved back home. To clubland.

    Times were hard – luckily his father-in-law was a generous man – and the northern clubs took Tony to their heart. Soon he was winning awards and, at one such ceremony at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, he met Harvey Lisberg (to ’60s Manchester what Tony Wilson would be to the city in the ’70s and ’80s), the manager of Hermans Hermits and, eventually, 10cc. “I’ll make you a star,” he promised.

    After a false start when God Is On My Side was banned, Lisberg was right.  Once Las Vegas sped to Number 21 at the start of 1971, the international hits flowed: I Did What I Did For Maria (Number 2), (Is This The Way To) Amarillo, the theme to The Protectors, Avenues And Alleyways, etc, etc.  These were big songs which needed a big voice. There were big tours too.

    “I didn’t have time to enjoy it. I was working 52 weeks a year, seven days a week. I was forever on the road, forever away from my family.”

    Then, as these things do, the hits petered out (despite a splendid turn as Magaldi in the recorded version of Evita), but the road years ensured there would always be a Tony Christie audience.

    “Me and punk didn’t really mix, but I was always a performer who made records, rather than the other way round. I thought I’d have another 20 years doing this and become an all-round entertainer like Sammy Davis Jr.”

    Then, as these things do, the British nightclub circuit disintegrated, even Christie’s beloved Fiesta in Sheffield. He simply concentrated on West Germany, a country which adored him more than any other after his enormous hit, Sweet September (“a Belgian song with a Greek feel”). Mystifyingly, he couldn’t get a British record deal (“that really hurt”), so he left sold his Sheffield house to Def Leppard’s Rick “Sav” Savage, and, with his European career blossoming, he went to live in Spain since. By the early ’90s according to Piccadilly Radio in Manchester, he had died.

    “One of our friends rang them and said they’d just had dinner with me and my wife in Spain and I looked quite well.”

    And yet Christie hadn’t been forgotten in his Sheffield stomping ground, where a new generation lauded their pre-punk hero. In 1999, out of the blue, old fan Jarvis Cocker sent him a new song with the same title as an old Christie album track, Walk Like A Panther.

    “The lyrics were great, it was all about somebody stealing your limelight.  My son Sean said ‘do it dad, it’s quirky, it’s got something about it’. Next thing, blow me, we’re getting Radio 1 plays, it’s a Top 10 hit and I’m back doing Top Of The Pops after 25 years. Amazing, absolutely amazing.”

    And just when Britain was rediscovering Tony Christie, his German manager told him to get back to Germany. There were gigs to do. “I just went home to Spain and forgot about it.”

    In 2005, he’d already booked a rare British tour and was about to release a greatest hits album when the funniest moment of Phoenix Nights saw Max and Paddy singing (Is This The Way To) Amarillo to some bemused Asian elders.

    “I nearly fell of my chair laughing. Then the phone started ringing…”

    It never stopped. The tour sold out, ‘The Definitive Tony Christie’ reached Number 3 and then (Is This The Way To) Amarillo – the unadulterated, original 1971 version, mind; not a remix or a re-recording – found itself as that year’s Comic Relief anthem. After seven weeks at Number 1 (one of which was spent with the triple platinum Definitive Tony Christie topping the album charts), everyone remembered Tony Christie. As if they’d ever really forgotten. “It was mental, but nice mental.”

    Soon after, Tony moved back to Lichfield, 200 yards away from son Sean and two of the grandchildren.

    Coming back from yet another gig in yet another town, he and Sean heard Richard Hawley’s Coles Corner. The song was great and so was its production. “Dad,” said Sean, “do you remember that Richard Hawley sent you Coles Corner a couple of years ago? But you couldn’t record it as you were busy with Amarillo?”

    Father and son – now artist and manager – thought the same thing at the same time. Hawley was called. Like Jarvis Cocker, he was a big fan. In fact he was such a big fan, he didn’t just want to produce a version of Coles Corner, he wanted to produce a whole album.

    The result is ‘Made In Sheffield’. It was the album Tony Christie was born to make and the city’s music intelligentsia were out in force. Arctic Monkeys, Jarvis Cocker, The Human League and The All Seeing I all contributed. The making of the album was filmed by award winning director Don Letts.

    The album was a major commercial and artistic success, leading right up to his next and most recent project; ‘Now’s The Time!’.

    Two years on and Tony Christie is again visiting his roots, not geographical this time, but musical. He has explored the soul side of his early career, recording an incredible album with Sheffield producers (and former collaborators) The All Seeing Eye. The album brings together the sound of northern soul, British beat, filmic sound-tracks (Jarvis Cocker re-works the iconic theme from Get Carter, dubs it ‘Get Christie’ and even manages to include the classic line “he’s a big man but he’s out of shape”).

    There’s a nod to Johnny Cash, some wonderful, poignant ballads and some mod-stompers. Quite simply, it’s the best album of a long and impeccable career.

    Beautifully conceived, and movingly delivered, Tony Christie deserves the last word.

    “This album has given me the opportunity to be the real me. What could be more exciting?”