Interview: Tony Christie

Singer Tony Christie — famed for chart-topper (Is This The Way To) Amarillo — is celebrating 50 years in music with another reinvention, an album on Acid Jazz and being cooler than ever. SIMON PARKIN reports.

It's in the Texas Panhandle, off the historic Route 66, before you even start.

Few people in the UK would have even have heard of the US city of Amarillo, let alone know the way to it, were it not for Tony Christie, the Doncaster-born singer who is now celebrating 50 years in showbusiness.

And had Bolton comedian Peter Kay not chosen to re-release Christie's modest 1971 hit as a Comic Relief single in 2005 and propelled it to the top of the charts for seven weeks, chances are Christie might not be on a mammoth UK tour — including three dates in our region — in support of his new, critically-acclaimed album Now's The Time!

'He [Kay] did me a favour,' admits Christie, who had been semi-retired in Spain when his biggest hit was revived by the comedian. 'He gave me the impetus to get back to the UK and carry on my career here. I had fantastic success everywhere else, but I couldn't get a hit here.'

Despite a brief return to the spotlight in 1999 as the vocalist on The All Seeing Eye's Walk Like A Panther (penned by Pulp main man Jarvis Cocker, who chose Christie personally), much of the 67-year-old's success has been in Europe, where Amarillo reached number one in several countries on its original release.

His greatest successes of the 1990s had come in Germany where his crooning style fitted the love of Schlager — schmaltzy love songs, though Christie admits it was largely because it paid the bills.

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That all changed after Kay's intervention.

'I asked him why he chose that song and he said his mum used to have my albums and played them to him as a baby to put him to sleep,' Christie says, wryly. 'A back-handed compliment.'

Kay's love affair with Amarillo did not, as fans of his sitcom Phoenix Nights will know, begin with the Comic Relief single.

The song also appeared in a 2002 episode of Kay's Channel 4 comedy, set in a tacky Bolton nightclub. But if it hadn't been for co-star Paddy McGuinness' inability to remember lyrics to another song, Christie might not, perhaps, be enjoying the revival he is today.

'Apparently it was either Amarillo or Green Door by Shakin' Stevens,' Christie explains. 'But Paddy couldn't remember the words to Green Door. So they went with Amarillo, because its just sha la la.'

The song certainly suits Kay's sense of humour and love of all things slightly tacky about Britain. An old fashioned knees-up of a tune, Amarillo is today a mainstay of wedding parties, discos and birthday celebrations all over the country.

Christie knows it, and is unapologetic about his admittedly old-school approach to entertainment, learning his trade as he did in the bars, pubs and clubs of South Yorkshire in the 1960s.

'Music people these days tend to dismiss us as cheesy,' he says of his fellow so-called 'crooners'. 'They forget that's how music was in those days.

'You had to be slick. You had to be able to talk to an audience and hold them. You couldn't just shuffle on stage, play your songs and leave. Being a crooner in the 40s and 50s used to be cool. They used to call Sinatra and Dean Martin crooners, so it's not that bad.'

The teenage Anthony honed his craft quietly. He and a friend would perfect their Everly Brothers routine as they walked to and from school.

After leaving school, Tony joined northern club sensations The Counterbeats, changing his name from Tony Fitzgerald to Christie after seeing the film Darling, starring Julie Christie.

The Counterbeats were short-lived and in 1966 Tony Christie, now a solo act, moved down to London where he was spotted by mod-guru and Who producer Shel Talmy. A single, Life's Too Good To Waste, which featured the ubiquitous Jimmy Page on guitar, wasn't a hit though so Christie moved back home.

His big singing style meant clubland took Tony to their heart. Soon he was winning awards and, at one such cere-mony at Blackpool's Winter Gardens, he met Harvey Lisberg, manager of Hermans Hermits and, eventually, 10CC. 'I'll make you a star,' he promised.

After a false start when God Is On My Side was banned, Lisberg was right. Once Las Vegas sped to Number 21 at the start of 1971, the international hits flowed including I Did What I Did For Maria, (Is This The Way To) Amarillo, the theme to The Protectors, Avenues And Alleyways and more.

These were big songs which needed a big voice. There were big tours too. 'I didn't have time to enjoy it. I was working 52 weeks a year 7 days a week. I was forever on the road, forever away from my family.'

This year he is celebrating his 50th anniversary in music with his biggest tour in years — 50 dates — and with his new album, Now's The Time! on cult label Acid Jazz. He has also recently achieved a lifetime's ambition, appear-ing on stage in a west-end musical Dreamboats and Petticoats.

Now's The Time! builds on the success of his widely acclaimed comeback album Made In Sheffield, co-produced by Richard Hawley and featuring a series of covers of songs by Sheffield artists.

This time he has explored the soul side of his early career. The album brings together the sound of northern soul, British beat, filmic soundtracks (Jarvis Cocker re-works the iconic theme from Get Carter, dubs it 'Get Christie' and even manages to include the classic line 'he's a big man but he's out of shape').

There's also a nod to Johnny Cash, some wonderful, poignant ballads and some mod-stompers. 'This album has given me the opportunity to be the real me. What could be more exciting?'

? Tony Christie plays the King's Lynn Corn Exchange on May 3, Marina Theatre, Lowestoft, on May 11 and the Regent Theatre, Ipswich, on May 15.

? Now's The Time! is out now.

? Further listening: