1965 began with the death of one of the 20th century’s most notable figures. On 15 January, newspapers reported Sir Winston Churchill was seriously ill after suffering a stroke. The 90-year-old’s time had come. 24 January saw Churchill pass away in his sleep at home, 70 years to the day his father had died. The country was in mourning, and prepared for a state funeral, the first time a ‘commoner’ had received one in the 20th century.
At number 1 that fortnight was an entirely inappropriate party song, that it would be impossible to describe without using the word ‘groovy’. In fact, that very word did appear in Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames’ version of Yeh Yeh. These two-plus minutes are the world of Austin Powers, for real.
Fame was born Clive Powell in Leigh, Lancashire back in June 1943. He fell in love with the piano from a young age, and as a teenager he performed with various groups in and around Manchester. His influences included the rock’n’roll pianists of the time, such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino. In 1959 the Powell family moved to London, and Clive was discovered by Lionel Bart, who found fame that year as the writer of Living Doll. Bart took the 16-year-old to meet Larry Parnes, whose ever-expanding roster of Brit rock’n’rollers included Billy Fury, Johnny Gentle, Marty Wilde and Lenny Lovely. I might be making one of those up. Parnes was happy to take him on, but Powell didn’t like the idea of being dubbed ‘Georgie Fame’. Unfortunately for him he had to like it or lump it.
In the summer of 1961 Fame became a member of Fury’s backing group, the Blue Flames, who consisted of guitarist Colin Green, bassist Tex Makins, drummer Red Reece and saxophonist Mick Eve. Fury let the group go at the end of that year, complaining they were too jazzy, and the Tornados replaced them (before their number 1 smash Telstar). Fame graduated to the frontman position in May 1962, and further line-up changes took place. Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames moved away from purely rock’n’roll and began drawing on jazz, R’n’B and even ska. By the end of 1962 they had a residency at the Flamingo, a jazz club in London’s West End. The US servicemen that were regulars at the club helped open Fame up to new sounds by lending him their records. At around this time he also fell in love with the sound of the Hammond organ, which was rare in the UK at the time. This was thanks to hearing Booker T & the MG’s classic Green Onions. In 1963 they signed with EMI Columbia, and the following year they released their first album, Rhythm and Blues at the Flamingo, produced by Ian Samwell, who had been an original member of the Shadows (then called the Drifters). It was a flop and so were their first three singles. After further line-up changes (including a brief spell from Jimmie Nicol behind the drumkit. Nicol famously filled in for an ill Ringo Starr while the Beatles were touring), they released their second album, Fame at Last. The perfect album name.
Among their repertoire at the time was the Latin-flavoured jazz instrumental Yeh Yeh, written by Rodgers Grant and Pat Patrick and recorded by Afro-Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría in 1963. Shortly after, lyrics were added by Jon Hendricks of the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.
The ubiquity of Fame’s verson, thanks to numerous adverts and TV shows over the years haven’t dulled my appreciation. It may sound a bit smug and self-satisfied, even self-consciously hip, but it’s a great time capsule of the swinging 60s, and it’s a nicely robust production. Lyrically, it’s not far off the Beatles’ I Feel Fine, which it had knocked from the top after its five-week stint over Christmas. I particularly like the way the tune changes and the coolness changes into joy when Fame sings ‘We’ll play a melody/And turn the lights down low/So that I can’t see’. Nicely done, all in all.
Two more number 1s for Fame, with and without the Blue Flames, were to follow, and perhaps the greatest year for number 1 singles had begun.
Written by: Rodgers Grant, Pat Patrick & Jon Hendricks
Producer: Tony Palmer
Weeks at number 1: 2 (14-27 January)
Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – 14 January
Rapper Slick Rick – 14 January
Actor James Nesbitt – 15 January
Countess of Wessex Sophie Rhys-Jones – 20 January
Scottish actor Alan Cumming – 27 January
Politician Winston Churchill – 24 January