First Published November 2016
‘AMARILLO’ LEGEND ON HIS WAY TO TULLAMORE
If you have any doubts at all about how cool Tony Christie is, there are three magnificently easy ways to dispel them in the space of less than a few heartbeats. And I heartily recommend all three. In fact, you can join me in the third!
The first is to just take a look at the photo accompanying this piece. Because that, ladies and gentlemen, is the essence of cool captured in black and white. The second way is to spend a little time in this man’s company. The conversation will flow as if you’re both living proof of that witty old compliment that goes, ‘You’ll always be my friend….you know too much!’ And by that I mean that you’ll feel like you’re in the company of a man who is, first and foremost, a gentleman, and with whom hours could pass like minutes. That he’s a legendary entertainer known the world over, well that just happens to be a by-the-by. And the third way, and this is something I must confess I’m really looking forward to now, is to spend some time with Tony in the world where Tony Christie comes alive….when he’s on stage!
Tony Christie is coming to Tullamore to play the Tullamore Court Hotel on Thursday week, and he’ll be accompanied by a certain Tony Fitzgerald. Or Tony Fitzgerald will be accompanied by Tony Christie. Either way, it actually means the same thing! Because one thing about Tony which I hadn’t been aware of until quite recently was that Christie was, in fact, a stage name! Tony’s ‘real’ name is actually Fitzgerald. So when I had the pleasure of spending some time in his company the other week, our chat got underway with Tony explaining how he came to chose Christie for performing.
“Well at the time I didn’t have a stage name because I was singing as part of a double act with a friend of mine called Dave, so we went out as Tony & Dave. We were both working during the day as well and then at weekends we did the social clubs. But his girlfriend was a little bit jealous of the attention he was getting from the girls in the audience so he said to me that he was going to have to pack it in. So I went solo, but then was asked to join a professional band. So their manager asked me what my full name was because he’d need to put it on the posters as Tony-whatever and the Counterbeats, that was the name of the band. I said well it’s Fitzgerald, and he just said, ‘No, no, no, no, that’s not going to work! We need something that’s snappy, because this is a pop group’ I’d gone to see a picture with Julie Christie in it and I thought it was a good name. Tony Christie definitely sounds more snappy! [laughs]. So that’s how my name came about. Plus the fact that I fancied Julie Christie like mad, as most young men did! [laughs].
Many of Tony’s album titles reference love; Simply In Love, Time For Love Again, In Love Again, From America With Love, With Loving Feeling, and many more. I wondered if such titles were a good indication of Tony being a bit of an old romantic at heart, or was it more that such titles simply made good commercial sense?
“To be honest with you, Anthony, I’ve never ever thought about that. But in February I will be married 49 years, and to the same girl by the way! [laughs]. So maybe so. But I’ve never really thought about it. Most songs are about love anyway, aren’t they.”
Any artist who finds success soon finds they’re dealing with a workload to match. And as big as it might have been before their fame reached a certain level, there quickly comes a time when balancing work and something resembling a normal life becomes a struggle. Tony has spoken in the past of how his workload probably stopped him from enjoying his success as much as he should have in the early days of his career.
“My wife and I got married in 1968, started a family, and I was working in the clubs, while we were living in a little apartment and struggling, really struggling. So when I suddenly had some success, I thought it wasn’t going to last very long, I never had any faith in myself really! [laughs]. So I just worked myself into the ground, I never turned anything down. I traveled the world doing tours of Australia, then onto New Zealand and the Far East just to make money so we could buy a house and just better our lives basically. Things carried on being good for a long time, thankfully, but I still had that mentality to carry on working and never turn anything down anyway. I’ve been very fortunate. In the early days, my wife and our babies would come with me on the road, but as soon as it came time for them to go to school my wife stayed at home. Which meant that I was away a lot, a hell of a lot, but that was the only way to do it.”
As regards the travelling side of the business that is show, Tony had this to share…
“Well I got it all out of my system in the early days and now it’s the downside of the job for me. There’s a lot of driving involved and a lot of flying involved, you get sick and tired of hotels [laughs]. But fortunately these days my wife is with me because our own children are grown up with families of their own. So now I’m in a position where I’ll only do it if my wife can come with me.”
As a man who’s very proud of his Sheffield roots (Tony hails from the coalmining town of Conisbrough), but who is equally aware of and proud of his Irish heritage, and with a hugely successful career which has taken him around the world and back again, I couldn’t help but wonder what he made of Brexit?
“To be perfectly honest with you, I’m definitely a Brexit person. I was born in south Yorkshire, although my grandparents are from Mayo, so every wedding I went to as a little boy was an Irish wedding! So Ireland is in my DNA. But I’m a very proud Yorkshireman and a very proud Englishman, and I just feel that we need to govern ourselves [as opposed to being dictated to by unelected officials in Brussels].”
I put it to Tony that it was sad the way a definite majority, a very vocal majority at any rate, of people seem to view politics, and anyone involved in it, with such disdain and disrespect nowadays.
“It used to be about public service, you see, Anthony, but now it’s turned into a career. All we ever seem to hear about politicians is that they’re milking the system, when they’re supposed to be in politics for their communities. But I don’t think [enough] people get involved in politics for that reason anymore.”
Back in 1999 Sheffield outfit Pulp were one of the acts at the forefront of the Britpop movement, with leadman Jarvis Cocker one of the most instantly recognizable of performers. Tony collaborated with Jarvis and The All-Seeing I for the single ‘Walk Like A Panther.’ Was there anyone on today’s scene who Tony would like the chance to work with?
“I think most of the people I’d love to work with are actually dead! [laughs]. Frank Sinatra was one of my big heroes, but of them all, I think there’s only Tony Bennett left. The music I actually listen to these days comes from the radio, because I spend so many hours driving.”
I asked Tony what his experience of meeting ‘Ol Blue Eyes had been like, thinking that he had actually met him. The truth, however, was a case of so near….but yet so far away….!
“I was supposed to, but it didn’t quite work out the way it was meant to! My wife and I were in Hamburg, and Sinatra was doing an outdoor concert there with the promoter who did my shows too, and I let that promoter know that I’d love to meet Sinatra. But on the particular day of the concert, there was a march of Turkish people through Hamburg and they completely clogged up the roads and the traffic. So the taxi taking me to the venue could only go so far before we had to get out and walk the rest of the way, which was a good mile, at least. And my wife had her high heels on! It was arranged that we’d meet him before he went on-stage, but just as we got there his P.A. told us that he was already standing in the wings, just moments away from going on. So I never did get to meet him, I’m afraid. And every time he ever came to England, I was always abroad somewhere so I missed all of his English shows!”
What was it about Sinatra that made him such a looked-up to figure for Tony?
“It was his phrasing, his voice. He thought about the lyrics, and you felt he was singing just for you. My dad had that same ability, he was called Paddy, by the way. And my dad felt the same way about Bing Crosby, he was a big Bing fan. My dad was in the R.A.F, and when he came out, after being stationed in India, and Egypt and all these places, he came back with a huge pile of ’78 records, all American big bands, with Sinatra and all of these great singers. And that’s how I got hooked. I went from being a rock ‘n’roll fan, Bill Haley and Little Richard, to being a huge fan of the big bands and a Sinatra fan.”
I remembered hearing a story once about how some songwriters absolutely hated Sinatra because he would take it completely upon himself to change a lyric if he felt like it. And as few songwriters, especially those who Sinatra would have been recording songs by, just threw their lyrics together, such behavior was understandably frustrating. Was Tony a singer who took songs exactly as presented to him, or was there a little bit of Sinatra in him, too?
“I sing it as it’s written, Anthony. When I was recording with Mitch Murray and Peter Callander, Mitch wrote the music and Peter wrote the lyrics. If I made even one note different from what Mitch had written, I’d have to do the whole thing again! And Pete would say to me, ‘I can’t hear what you’re saying there, and I want to hear every word that I’ve written.’ Songs like ‘I Did What I Did For Maria’ , I must have sung that song over 20 times before they accepted it, by which time my throat was getting sore [laughs]. But that’s how we used to record in those days. It was one-take, so you had to get it right. ”
There’s an amazing video of Tony performing ‘(Is This The Way To) Amarillo’ at Glastonbury where the on-stage shots of Tony looking out at the audience are simply unbelievable! The sheer size of the crowd is hard to fathom.How does Tony prepare to go in front of so many people? Does he ever feel nervous at all?
“Oh I feel nervous before every performance, even now. You’ve got a reputation [as a performer], so it’s almost like being a gunslinger in the old wild west! When you step out onto that street you’ve got to be that sure-shot. And when you step out onto that stage, you’ve got to be that star. The audience expects a performance the same as what they hear on my records. And that’s what makes me shake before I go on! [laughs]. I’m a different person on-stage, I’m Tony Christie. But off-stage I’m Tony Fitzgerald. It’s like being an actor really. The change before a show starts in the dressing room. I’ve got little things I do, and everything’s got to be in its place and ready to put on. As soon as I start putting my stage suit on my head starts thinking about what my audience wants.”
As it came time to bid Tony farewell until meeting again over a Tullamore Dew in the Tullamore Court Hotel on November 17th, I had one last question to ask. After more than 50 years in the business I had no doubt that Tony could probably write several volumes recounting his experiences with the galaxy of stars he’s crossed paths with along the way. But from his career, is there a stand-out memory that he particularly cherishes?
“I had a picture taken in the sixties with Tony Bennett, which I can’t find now, but you know how you think people are bigger because of how they look on screen? Well he’s exactly the same height as me, which is only 5 foot 8, so he’s not a big person. It’s the same with Tom Jones, who looks like he’s 6 foot 6 on television. But he’s not, he’s only my height, too. But that was one of the highlights of my life, just to be able to stand there with Tony Bennett. Unfortunately I just don’t know what happened to the photo, and I can’t find it anywhere. I’d love to get hold of it. And the other thing that’s a real standout memory for me is playing the Royal Albert Hall, I think it’s probably my favourite venue in the world. It has a great atmosphere and a great stage, just everything about it.”
If you want an answer to that last question in your own life, folks, at least with regard to musical experiences, get yourself along to the Tullamore Court Hotel on November 17th where one of the smoothest operators ever to grace a stage will leave you with the memory of a night few others will match for class, warmth, style, fun, and above all, utterly stunning music.