Tony Christie's quiet comeback
Legendary crooner Tony Christie seemed to be gone and forgotten but then a series of breaks brought him back into fashion
Spare a thought for poor Tony Christie, would you? He thought he was getting to retire to sunny Spain with his wife for some dotage crooning to the blue rinse brigade: warm weather, good food, the occasional invasion of grandchildren, perhaps. But then a couple of much younger Englishmen - Jarvis Cocker and Peter Kay - made him cool again, reviving his career, and now he he's back on the road, recording new albums like The Great Irish Songbook (he forgets which great Irish songs exactly) and touring relentlessly. It's like being "born again" and he wouldn't want it any other way, he tells me, smiling wanly as we sit opposite each other in an empty Bord Gais Theatre. But I get the feeling he'd also quite like a lie down.
I'd always vaguely thought of Christie as "like the English equivalent of a showband singer" - perhaps it was his Yorkshire roots - but, what do I know, because unlike most of our own dance hall band leaders, Christie had an enviable international career, scoring a few European-wide hits. He grew up in a small village between Doncaster and Sheffield, the child of Irish parents - his real name is Anthony Fitzgerald, he tells me, and his grandfather came from Mayo. As a child he was an avid trainspotter, with an abiding fascination for steam engines. He also sang in the church choir and harboured ambitions of becoming a singer; he would sing at night to earn extra money. The name-change came while he was playing the working men's pubs and clubs of South Yorkshire in the 1960s. One afternoon in 1965, before a show in Leicester, he decided to go to the cinema to see the film Darling, starring Julie Christie. Her name had more of a glamorous ring to it than Fitzgerald and his new stage persona was born.
His great stroke of luck was meeting Harvey Lisberg, manager of Herman's Hermits. He promised to turn Christie into a star and the material he sought out fit with Christie's big voice. Once Las Vegas soared to Number 21 at the start of 1971 and the international hits soon followed: I Did What I Did For Maria, (Is This The Way To) Amarillo, the theme to The Protectors, Avenues And Alleyways. He toured relentlessly in those years.
"I will say that the workload at the time may have stopped me fully enjoying the success; there was a lot of touring," he recalls.
Soon the work dried up, however, until all he was being offered was the odd Butlins gig in the UK, although he is careful to add the usual 'big in Germany' caveat; he still had a career ticking over there. He moved to Spain in 1989 with his wife and expected to live out his days there. "I'd only been there about five years when I got a call from my sister-in-law in Sheffield and she said 'someone called Jarvis Cocker rang asking for your number, but don't worry I didn't give it to him.' And I said: 'Cocker? From Pulp? Give it to him!' And he got in touch and he told me he'd written a song for me called Walk Like A Panther. It made the top 10."
A few years later his son tried to organise a tour for him in the UK on the back of a best-of album that the record company Universal were putting out. As the record slowly made its way up to the chart penthouse he took a call from comedian Peter Kay asking if he would come down to London to take part in a recording of (Is This The Way To) Amarillo for Comic Relief.
"That weekend it went out and the single went to number one, the album went to number one, it was incredible."
Did he ever wonder why Kay, who was then probably the most popular comedian in the UK, had picked him particularly? Christie grimaces slightly: "(Kay) said it was a choice between Amarillo and This Old House by Shakin' Stevens but that they couldn't remember all of the words to This Old House. He told me that his mum had all my albums and that she used to play them to get him asleep. I said: 'hang on a second, is that a compliment?'" he laughs.
He came back to the UK to do a new tour and his son put his name down on a beautiful Georgian house in The West Midlands. Christie bought the house eventually, re-establishing a base for himself in England. "That was 10 years ago. We sold the place in Spain and I was very happy with that." He went on to record the well-received album Made In Sheffield which included collaborations with The Human League and Arctic Monkeys.
So many figures of his era seem to come into the present trailing some form of scandal behind them. I wonder what is Tony's secret to so much clean living. "Well, once I got married, that was it for sure", he says. "You have to grow up some time. I've been married for 47 years."
Now 72-years-old, he's had a lifetime in the industry but says he still can't conceive of retiring. "Well I am excited by the new material and I think people will really like my version of She Moves Through The Fair", he tells me. "It's a very full-on schedule, but I take a lot of enjoyment from it and I count myself lucky to be doing something I love for a living. I'm still quite fit for my age, I have an incredible band who make it all a lot easier for me, and the fans still enjoy it, so why not?"
Tony Christie will play the Bord Gais Energy Theatre on July 17. Tickets from €39.50. Ticketmaster 0818 719377/ UK&NI 0844 2485101 or book at www.bordgaisenergy.ie
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