GEORGIE Fame isn’t embarrassed to admit to crying in public. On stage with Van Morrison some years ago the celebrated Hammond organ player and jazz musician was moved to tears by the beauty of the Belfast soulman’s singing. He stood at his instrument, sniffling quietly. Looking back he feels no shame. He is honoured simply to have shared a forum with an artist he regards as a genius.
“Van is an incredibly talented guy and a wonderful poet in the Irish tradition,” says Fame. “He puts his poetry into music. It is very emotional. He is one of the most emotional performers — probably THE most emotional performer — I have worked with. We were at a concert in Milan. I was playing organ, trying to keep it together. He reduced me to tears. I don’t mind saying that. You want to bring that emotion with you.
“That’s the thing audiences get from live music that you don’t get on record. That powerful feeling of connection.”
Fame has guested with many of the greats. In addition to Morrison he has toured with the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, and Joan Armatrading and is a regular at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. As a solo performer, meanwhile, he has a unique claim to musical immortality. In January 1965 his supremely groovy cover of the Latin soul tune ‘Yeh Yeh’ knocked The Beatles’ ‘I Feel Fine’ off the top of the British charts (there were no hard feelings and he became firm friends with Lennon, McCartney et al). He would have two further numbers ones, ‘Get Away’ in 1966, and ‘The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde’ in 1967.
“I still play ‘Yeh Yeh’ and it still sounds good,” says Fame, who performs at the Triskel in Cork with Hugh Buckley and the Phil Ware Trio on Thursday. “When you’ve a song that is a hit it changes a lot. You start getting offers from all over. We started playing outside England for the first time. We got a lot of invitations to go to Scandinavia and places like that.”
His personal life is as colourful as his music career, albeit tinged with tragedy. In 1972, Fame married Nicolette Harrison. Nicolette was a beauty and archetypal socialite, the daughter of a wealthy stockbroker and one of the last debutantes presented to the queen at a ‘coming out’ ball. She had, it is said, fallen in love with him from afar when seeing him on Top of the Pops in 1964.
By the time of the nuptials, she had already had a child by Fame, her marriage having come to an end when the parentage was confirmed. They went on to have a second son (both his children tour with him to this day).
In 1993, however, Nicolette killed herself by jumping off Clifton Suspension Bridge near Bristol. She had suffered depression for some time.
It wasn’t the first occasion the musician had lost someone close. His mother passed away when he was just nine. All told, his upbringing reads like something from a Ken Loach movie.
Fame was born Clive Powell in Leigh, Lancashire in 1943. His home town was in a heavily-industrialised region of the north of England and he grew up part of a community whose lives were intimately tied to the coal mining industry.
“Where I grew up we had a mine at the back of our house,” he recalls. “My mother died when I was quite young. But it was a stable upbringing in many ways. All the family lived in the same street. Everyone galvanised. The other thing is that, for the first 12 years of my life, we didn’t have a television. We DID have piano. I played it every day and saw classical music as my future. That was until I discovered rock ‘n roll. I heard Fats Domino and Gerry Lee Lewis and that was it.”
He never really warmed to his stage name, forced upon him by an impresario. “He told me that if I didn’t use Georgie Fame he wouldn’t put me on. What choice did I have? I was 16 years old.”
Still, he enjoyed being a pop star in the 1960s, even if there were downsides. In particular, there was tremendous naivety regarding the financial side of the profession.
“We were young and enthusiastic. Our managers at the time were learning the ropes. One reason The Beatles don’t have copyright over many of their songs is that nobody knew about music publishing or any of that. We just didn’t understand what was going on. It was an extremely naive period. Everyone was picking it up as they went along.”
Were there excesses? Fame shrugs. He and his peers were young and enjoyed themselves. But they generally did not go off the rails. “We went to a lot of clubs. But as the mid ’60s passed we began to grow up and got married and had families. You don’t want to hang out that much any more.”
Fame has stated that his most recent album, Swan Songs, is to be his last. He is fed up with the workings of the modern music industry and its prioritising of marketing and commerce over creativity.
Aged 72, he enjoys live performance, which he believes is be still a largely noble pursuit.
“I’m getting to the stage where I’m not sure if I can write quality material any more,” he says, a statement contradicted by the uniformly glowing reviews that greeted Swan Songs.
“If I’m invited to contribute to special projects — if friends want me on a track or two — I will consider it. But the music industry is changing and I’m getting old.
“The recording business is far too soulless,” Fame continues, warming to the topic. “I enjoy playing live much more than feeding the digital corporate machine that has taken over the industry. That may seem like a political statement. In a way I suppose it is.”