242. Georgie Fame – The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde (1968)

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On with 1968, then, and what a strange year of number 1s it is. We have the good, the bad, and even The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to listen to.

The Beatles were still at number 1 for most of January with their Christmas chart-topper, Hello, Goodbye, before finally running out of steam. They were replaced by Lancashire-born jazz cat Georgie Fame and his third and last number 1, The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.

Before hearing this track I assumed it would be taken from the soundtrack to the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. I was wrong, but that didn’t surprise me, as not only have I never seen the film, I don’t actually know much about the subject matter either.

Arthur Penn’s multi-Academy Award-winning landmark crime biography detailed the rise and fall of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Burrow. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, the duo captured the imagination of the US on a two-year crime spree. Although the romantic image of the duo as Robin Hood-style characters has endured, the reality is their many bungled robberies resulted in innocent people being killed. The movie is considered one of the first films of the New Hollywood era, prompting more filmmakers to show sex and violence in their work. At the time, the duo’s death was considered a truly shocking end to a Hollywood movie.

Songwriters Mitch Murray (the man behind both Gerry and the Pacemakers number 1s – How Do You Do It? and I Like It) and Peter Callander saw the film and felt inspired to write a 30s-style jazz spoof telling the tale of the duo. Georgie Fame, who had enjoyed two number 1s with his backing band the Blue Flames (Yeh Yeh and Get Away) was the perfect artist to record their new track.

Since Get Away topped the charts, the band had enjoyed two further top 20 hits with Sunny and Sitting in the Park. They released one more album, Sweet Thing in 1966, before Fame chose to sign with CBS Records and go solo. The Blue Flames disbanded, and drummer Mitch Mitchell became a third of the Jimi Hendrix Experience soon after. Fame released his first solo album Sound Venture later that year. His first two solo singles failed to chart, but The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, released in 1967, became number 1, and was his only top ten hit in the US.

This quirky, rickety little track certainly gets 1968 off to a weird start. It may not have been in the film, but without it, there’s no way Fame would have outsold the Beatles. It’s not without its charm, and I always enjoy a Georgie Fame vocal, but by reducing the story of Bonnie and Clyde to a bit of fun, it’s nothing more than a throwaway novelty track.

It’s quite a sparse recording, featuring mainly Fame and a banjo, but there’s some brass too, plus sound affects, including the sound of gunfire as it reaches its climax. I think we’re supposed to go ‘Awww!’ when Fame sings ‘Bonnie and Clyde/They lived a lot together/And finally together/They died’, which is going a bit easy on bankrobbing murderers really. I’m now trying to imagine other inappropriate tunes, such as The Ballad of Fred and Rose West, or Peter Sutcliffe’a Sad Sad Song.

Fame’s hits began to dry up soon after, but Somebody Stole My Thunder in 1970 is a strong shot of R’n’B. He formed a partnership with organist Alan Price, formerly of the Animals, and they had a hit with Rosetta in 1971, but they split two years later. Much of the early 70s was spent writing jingles for television and radio, and making the soundtrack for the Till Death Us Do Part big-screen spin-off, The Alf Garnett Saga (1972). In 1974 he reformed the Blue Flames, but by the 80s he was back in the advert industry.

In 1989 he began working with cantankerous Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison as his producer and performing in his live band, as well as recording their collaborative LP, How Long Has This Been Going On in 1996. This partnership lasted until 1998, with occasional work together ever since.

Fame suffered tragedy in 1993 when his wife, Nicolette Powell, jumped off the Clifton Suspension Bridge to her death. They had married in 1972 after having a baby while she was still married to Alistair Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 9th Marquess of Londonderry. When tests proved the baby was theirs, the Marchioness had divorced him for Fame. Suffering from depression, Powell had left a suicide note in which she said she had no purpose in life now their children had grown up.

In 1998 Fame also became a founding member of former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, with whom he worked for a couple of years before going it alone again. He has released albums ever since and has performed at Glastonbury Festival. His live band sometimes includes his two sons Tristan and James. What a shame Nicolette didn’t live to enjoy their performances.

Written by: Mitch Murray & Peter Callander

Producer: Mike Smith

Weeks at number 1: 1 (24-30 January)

Births:

Journalist Matthew d’Ancona – 27 January
Rapper Tricky – 27 January

Deaths:

Spymaster Maxwell Knight – 27 January 

219. Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames – Get Away (1966)

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After coming out on top in their group, England’s World Cup winning ways continued in the knockout stages. On 23 July they defeated Argentina at Wembley Stadium thanks to a goal in the last 15 minutes from Geoff Hurst. Three days later, two goals from Bobby Charlton against Portugal, also at Wembley, saw England secure their place in the final. Their opponents were to be West Germany, who had defeated the Soviet Union 2-1 the previous day.

At number 1 that week were jazz and R’n’B group Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. Since their previous number 1, Yeh Yeh in January 1965, the group had released three singles. In the Meantime, Like We Used to Be and Something didn’t make it into the top 20. Fame, real name Clive Powell, wrote Get Away to be used in a television advertisement for National petrol. Four years since Cliff Richard and the Shadows’ Summer Holiday, this was a more swinging, hip way of celebrating British summertime, and with the World Cup ongoing, all eyes were on England. Its release proved timely.

Set to an upbeat acoustic guitar, Fame’s gravelly but chipper vocal and chiming brass, Get Away is one of the lesser-known number 1s of the 60s, and is certainly not a classic like the recent Paperback Writer or Sunny Afternoon. That’s not to say it’s a bad track, and I’d imagine it worked very well as an advert jingle., but it rather outstays its welcome as a single. The lyric ‘Don’t mind the weather girl’ proved prescient, as although we like to imagine the summer of 66 was always glorious, in reality July was wet and dull most of the time.

Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames released two more singles that year, making the top 20 with Sunny and Sitting in the Park. They released third album Sweet Things (featuring new drummer Mitch Mitchell, only a year away from joining the Jimi Hendrix Experience) and shortly after, Fame made the decision to sign with CBS and become a solo artist. He would have one more number 1.

In the 70s, Get Away (which was also known as Getaway due to misprints on records) found further life as the theme tune to a long-running travel show in Australia called, you guessed it, Getaway.

Written by: Clive Powell

Producer: Denny Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 1 (21-27 July)

Births:

Politician Diana Johnson – 25 July 

184. Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames – Yeh Yeh (1965)

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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)

Births:

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

Deaths:

Politician Winston Churchill – 24 January