Review: Georgie Fame – Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival

Georgie Fame is cool! There’s no other way to say it. At just weeks away from his 75th birthday he could teach many modern artists a thing or two about that. An evening with Georgie is full of his own music, jazz and blues standards, and stories where he drops so many legendary names, it’s hard not to trip over them. For those who didn’t attend the CQAF’s final show of 2018, you missed a real treat.

One such standard was Ray CharlesI Got a Woman, quickly followed by a soul version of Willie Nelson’s Funny How Time Slips Away.  In the intro to the song he discussed his work with the celebrated producer Danny Cordell who found this version, which is so different from the original; in the outro, he namechecked every jazz great you can think of; Curtis Mayfield, Quincy Jones, Oscar Brown Jnr., George Benson – this guy knew everybody!

And the whole evening continued in that vein, each story as entertaining as the song it preceded. He asked by show of hands how many of us had never heard his Roger Moore story and when almost every hand in the place was raised, he resigned to tell it again but protested, “I’ve been telling this story for fifty years! Where have you been?”

The story went like this; in 1963 Fame had his first number 1 hit with his band, The Blue Flames. That success got him out of a three-year residency at The Flamingo Club and out of the country for the first time in his life. On approaching Stockholm airport, from his view in his economy seat to the rear of the plane he could see hordes of beautiful, blonde girls waving excitedly, atop the terminal building. Thinking they were due their own slice of fan “mania” the band got very excited, but by the time they’d disembarked the plane, the girls had disappeared. It transpired that Roger Moore, at that time famous for his role in The Saint, had been sitting up front in first class and the welcome party was for him.  Ever since then Georgie said, he’s never had any delusions of stardom. With a “thanks Roger”, he launched into what’s probably his best-known hit, Yeh Yeh.

On stage with Georgie tonight were his sons, Tristan on guitar and James on drums; the Brothers Powell rather than Fame, for although he was born Clive Powell, that name was never gonna cut it for a cat as cool as Georgie. Unfortunately, Tristan broke a string right at the beginning of the show which rather restricted what he could play for the remainder of the evening since apparently a new one could not be found in the whole of Belfast on a Sunday night. Dressed in salmon pink trousers, a casual tee and a linen sports jacket, Georgie could have passed for their brother rather than their father, he cuts a fine, fit looking figure for a man of his years.

Tristan took lead vocals on the next number, a Ry Cooder inspired version of Jim Reeves’, He’ll Have to Go. He has a much thinner voice than his father, it sounded a bit like a best man doing a “turn” at a wedding, but it was enjoyable enough for that and was even better when dad joined in. Next it was groovy time, and some hep cat in the row in front of me snapped his fingers along beatnik style to Get on the Right Track Baby. I couldn’t blame him, it was difficult to resist.

Tristan Powell on guitar

Another classic and another great story was his version of the Hoagy Carmichael track, Georgia on My Mind. He recalled being asked to perform on a tribute album for Carmichael many years earlier and having the chance to drive out to the desert in Palm Springs to play him the original pressing of the record. Carmichael’s sage words to him had been, “Just remember, it doesn’t matter what you sound like, my songs will make you sound great.”  This version, Georgie warned us, had an intro that wasn’t exactly PC, but at his age he said, he didn’t give a damn about that. He wasn’t wrong; the intro was a medley of Oh Susanna and Dixieland. With their confederate associations, and amidst calls for a statue of composer Stephen Foster to be pulled down, it’s hard to fathom why these tunes would be included. Still, the music was so good, (including a little touch of Morse code on the organ dedicated to Edwin Starr), you could almost forgive the casual racism, as he marched off stage for the interval.

On his return, he played one of the sexiest pieces of instrumental music ever composed and his main reason for buying a Hammond organ; Booker T and the MGs’ Green Onions. Tristan demonstrated here that he’s a much better guitarist than he is vocalist. Both Georgie’s sons in fact, proved that the Fame Family Trio are all talented musicians.

James Powell on drums

Extending a dedication to some dear departed friends, the next song was offered up to Humphry Lyttleton, George Melly and Spike Milligan, whom he said would appreciate the sentiment of Don’t Send Me Flowers in the Graveyard, ‘Cos Baby I Can’t Smell a Thing. Melly he said, had often accused Georgie of having a portrait of himself in the attic, à la Dorian Gray – he had a point.

Speaking of George Melly, the audience for this gig was peppered with some very snappy dressers. There were lots of mustard trousers, double-breasted blazers with shiny brass buttons, and I counted at least half a dozen fedoras.  Those who enjoy music of this ilk, have to have the style to match.

Perhaps my highlight of the evening was the Carole King/Gerry Goffin penned, Point of No Return. My love of Georgie Fame began almost thirty years ago when I saw him play many times with Van Morrison, who would thank him profusely, urging the audience to show their appreciation by calling over and over, “One more time, Georgie Fame!” After that first experience I rushed out and bought 20 Beat Classics on which this track was my immediate favourite. He blended it here with a little bit of the Woody Woodpecker theme tune, just for laughs!

The Fame Family Trio

Another great showbiz anecdote recalled the inspiration behind the song that he still refers to as his “pension plan”. He was commissioned to write a track that would be given away for free with sales of National Benzole Petrol. He was given fourteen days to come up with something, wrote it on the thirteenth night, and laid down the recording of Get Away at 10am the next morning. Once recorded though, he and his producer Denny Cordell instantly recognised that not only did it sound really commercial, it didn’t mention petrol in the lyrics anywhere! So, the track was put on sale, went straight to number 1, and between the commission fee and the royalties, earned him a small fortune.

His third and final number 1 hit record he told us, was somebody else’s “pension plan” – the wonderful Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, which of course he played for us too. Then he wanted to pay tribute to a very good friend and a “local boy made good”. Now, I had heard whisperings before the gig that it was thought Van Morrison might make an appearance since they are such old friends and Van is rumoured to be in town. I could tell by the reaction of people around me that others had heard the same, as eyes scanned the various exits for a sign of a surprise guest. Sadly, it wasn’t to be, but Georgie’s stunning version of Vanlose Stairway more than made up for it.

An invitation to a little karaoke was next. Georgie told us that growing up in an upright family, where the children attended Sunday school and were taught to respect their elders, he never swore as a kid, for fear of a clip round the ear. Now at 74 though he said, “What do I care?” We were encouraged to enjoy being as profane as we liked during a rendition of Bob Dylan’s Everything is Broken, and as a man we joined in shouting, “It’s all fucked up man,” which he dedicated to governments everywhere.

Georgie’s Famous Hammond organ

If anything soured the experience of this otherwise fabulous night, it was a group of four particularly obnoxious punters several rows behind me who talked incessantly and increasingly loudly to the point where people six rows in front of me were looking back at them in frustration. Not only that, but they pointed ipads and cameras at the stage after being explicitly asked not to. Georgie himself said that if his health holds out, the thing that is likely to stop him performing live is those damned cameras. The most ironic part was that they enthused about each artist he mentioned, waxing lyrical about how much they loved this type of music, while seemingly not listening to any of it. Kudos to the plucky CQAF volunteer in pink who did his best to quieten them down, but they weren’t having any of it!

Still, the night ended on a high with a cover of a song by one of Georgie’s personal heroes, Mose Allison’s Was; then his spirited version of I Live the Life I Love and I Love the Life I Live. When the lights came up we thought no more about the earlier annoyance and people of all ages chatted in groups about their highlights of the night. You just can’t talk about the songs without mentioning the stories that go with them, it’s a package deal. They just don’t make them like Georgie Fame anymore.