THE MANTLE of musical elder statesman rests easily on the shoulders of Tony Christie. When I meet the ‘Is This The Way To Amarillo’ singer backstage at Dublin’s Bord Gais Energy Theatre, he is chatty and mild-mannered. Seven decades in the business have provisioned him with an endless store of anecdotes. But he is notably free of ego and seems happiest reminiscing about those who have crossed his path rather than burnishing his own legend.
“I remember when Peter Kay invited me down to do the video for Amarillo,” he says, referring to the 2005 chart-topping re-release of his best-loved song, originally a hit in 1971. “It was over in one take. I was like — is that it? And they said, ‘yes thank you’. It was done in an afternoon and then I went back on tour. I didn’t give it a second thought.”
A week later, Kaye’s Comic Relief video was all over television and Amarillo had rocketed to number one, giving Christie his first UK chart-topper since the ’70s. “I’d moved to Spain because I was doing really well on the Continent. In the UK, they were offering me gigs at Butlins, things like that. In Europe, I was playing big theatres. I released an album in Germany and it sold 930,000 copies. I had sort of forgotten about the UK.”
Christie is synonymous with a cheesy brand of easy listening. But he is no schmalzy crowd pleaser. Born Anthony Fitzgerald he grew up in a rough and tumble Irish emigrant family in the hardscrabble coal-mining town of Conisbrough, outside Sheffield. He learned how to sing and hold a crowd in working men’s clubs across the north of England — rooms where punters signaled their dislike by lobbing a pint glass at your head.
“It was a huge circuit back then,” he says.”You were performing every night. It wasn’t very glamorous — you were in a van most of the time, driving around to all these little clubs. If they didn’t like you they let you know about it. These men had been down the pits working all week. They wanted to be entertained.”
Amarillo — named after a Texas town Christie had never heard of — was penned by the American hit-maker Neil Sedaka. Christie’s manager had been in New York foraging for new songs. When Sedaka struck up the opening to Amarillo, he knew he had to have it.
“My manager said to Sedaka, ‘ I’ve got this singer and he’s just had a top 20 hit. Have you got anything?’. Sedaka said: ‘I’m working on something at the moment, but it’s not finished’. He sat at the piano and played Amarillo.
“Because he hadn’t finished the lyrics, he put ‘sha la la la’ in as filler. My producers felt it was perfect as it was. Which is correct. The ‘sha la la la’ chorus is what makes the song.”
Christie has always felt close to his Irish heritage. His people hail from Mayo and he has toured Ireland from the start of his career. Later this year he will fulfill a lifetime’s ambition by releasing a collection of Irish standards — songs he grew up listening to among the huge migrant community in South Yorkshire. He is especially proud of his version of ‘She Moves Through The Fair’, a tune he has loved from childhood.
“The funny thing is — we actually made the record in Germany. It’s the real deal, with harps, a flautist, a bodhran player. A lot of people in England won’t know the songs. Everyone in Ireland does — I mention them and they recognise the names straight away.”
As a pop star in the ’60s, Christie crossed paths with a who’s who of celebrated artists — he was on first name terms with The Beatles and speaks glowingly of Sinatra. He also met many Irish performers and was especially close to Joe Dolan.
“Good old Joe. I remember one occasion, I was doing four weeks at this club in Sydney and he was due to take over from me and do another four weeks,” Christie said. “We overlapped. He was staying at the same hotel. He was a bit of a lad, was Joe. He arrived well watered from the flight and went on the town. He was delivered back in a taxi, black and blue and bleeding. Obviously, he’d upset someone and they’d given him a good hiding. What a character.”
The success of Amarillo in 2005 introduced Christie to a new generation. In 2008, a collection of Yorkshire musical luminaries, including producer Richard Hawley, Arctic Monkey leader Alex Turner, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and The Human League’s Phil Oakey came together to work with Christie on what would become the Made In Sheffield album.
“I remember getting a message from my sister — she said there was this guy trying to contact me but that she didn’t want to give out my number,” he recollects. “She said his name was Cocker something-or-other… maybe Jarvis. I told here it would be alright.”
Aged 72, Christie continues to tour. He cannot imagine a life without music. He did try to step away once — before Amarillo ushered him back into the spotlight. He and his wife had moved to Spain and were trying to forget all about the music business. But he couldn’t stay away.
“I attempted to semi-retire. I was still doing one gig a week. I got very bored. Then my son rang me — was I interested in coming back to tour the UK? Universal Records wanted to put out a best-of and to advertise it on TV. What would swing it was if I went out on the road. I told him that if he could fix it I would do it. That’s how my son became my manager. And then, in the middle of that tour, Peter Kay called me up. Nothing was ever the same after that.”