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Tony Christie

ArtForm: Workshop Panellist, CityShowcase Act/Composer

"I can't tell you how, but I always knew I could sing."

It started early, as these things so often do.  Way back when, young Anthony Fitzgerald was a humble back row chorister at his primary school in Conisbrough, the village on the 277 and 278 bus route between Sheffield and Doncaster, known to every child in South Yorkshire for the impressive castle each local school is seemingly contractually obliged to visit each term.

Anthony's music teacher liked what he heard, found the boy a front row place and a 40-year career which has taken him from Sheffield to Amarillo and very much back again was in minor motion.

The teenage Anthony honed his craft quietly. He and a friend would perfect their Everly Brothers routine as they walked to and from school. They joined a concert party which entertained the sick in the hospitals of South Yorkshire and, soon, they called themselves The Grant Brothers ("we just stuck a pin in the phone book, nobody ever believes we actually did that") and they took their act to the working men's clubs, usually after Anthony had finished his accountancy studies ("my dad wanted me to have something to fall back on, so I did accountancy, but I was hopeless. I didn't have an accountant's bone in my body").

Soon The Grant Brothers parted and Tony Fitzgerald joined northern club sensations The Counterbeats. One afternoon in 1965, before  a show in Leicester, he popped to the cinema to see the film Darling, starring Julie Christie.

"It's cool now, but back then Fitzgerald wasn't really a suitable pop name. So I needed a stage name. Like every young man of the era, I was smitten with Julie Christie and so I became Tony Christie."

The Counterbeats split and Tony Christie was now a solo act. In 1966, during a stint in London away from his wife and child there was even a debut single, Life's Too Good To Waste. It wasn't a hit, much to the chagrin of Christie and the song's guitarist, Jimmy Page.

Times were hard - luckily his father-in-law was a generous man - but a move back to the north and to clubland changed everything. Soon he was winning awards and, at one such ceremony at Blackpool's Winter Gardens, he met Harvey Lisberg (to '60s Manchester what Tony Wilson would be to the city in the '70s and '80s), the 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: I Did What I Did For Maria (Number 2), (Is This The Way To) Amarillo, the theme to The Protectors, Avenues And Alleyways, etc, etc.  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."

Then, as these things do, the hits petered out (despite a splendid turn as Magaldi in the recorded version of Evita), but the road years ensured there would always be a Tony Christie audience.

"Me and punk didn't really mix, but I was always a performer who made records, rather than the other way round. I thought I'd have another 20 years doing this and become an all-round entertainer like Sammy Davis Jnr."

Then, as these things do, the British nightclub circuit disintegrated, even Christie's beloved Fiesta in Sheffield. He simply concentrated on West Germany, a country which adored him more than any other after his enormous hit, Sweet September ("a Belgian song with a Greek feel"). 

Mystifyingly, he couldn't get a British record deal ("that really hurt"), so he left sold his Sheffield house to Def Leppard's Rick "Sav" Savage, and, with his European career blossoming, went to live in Spain since. By the early '90s according to Piccadilly Radio in Manchester, he had died.

"One of our friends rang them and said they'd just had dinner with me and my wife in Spain and I looked quite well."

And yet Christie hadn't been forgotten in his Sheffield stomping ground, where a new generation lauded their pre-punk hero. In 1999, out of the blue, old fan Jarvis Cocker sent him a new song with the same title as an old Christie album track, Walk Like A Panther.

"The lyrics were great, it was all about somebody stealing your limelight. My son Sean said 'do it dad, it's quirky, it's got something about it'. Next thing, blow me, we're getting Radio 1 plays, it's a Top 10 hit and I'm back doing Top Of The Pops after 25 years. Amazing, absolutely amazing."

And just when Britain was rediscovering Tony Christie, his German manager told him to get back to Germany. There were gigs to do. "I just went home to Spain and forgot about it."

In 2005, he'd already booked a rare British tour and was about to release a greatest hits album when the funniest moment of Phoenix Nights saw Max and Paddy singing (Is This The Way To) Amarillo to some bemused Asian elders.

"I nearly fell of my chair laughing. Then the phone started ringing..."

It never stopped. The tour sold out, 'The Definitive Tony Christie' reached Number 3 and then (Is This The Way To) Amarillo - the unadulterated, original 1971 version, mind; not a remix or a re-recording - found itself as that year's Comic Relief anthem. After seven weeks at Number 1 (one of which was spent with the triple platinum Definitive Tony Christie topping the album charts), everyone remembered Tony Christie. As if they'd ever really forgotten. "It was mental, but nice mental."

Soon after, Tony moved back to Lichfield, 200 yards away from son Sean and two of the grandchildren.

Coming back from yet another gig in yet another town, he and Sean heard Richard Hawley's Coles Corner. The song was great and so was its production. "Dad," said Sean, "do you remember that Richard Hawley sent you Coles Corner a couple of years ago? But you couldn't record it as you were busy with Amarillo?"

Father and son - now artist and manager - thought the same thing at the same time. Hawley was called. Like Jarvis Cocker, he was a big fan. In fact he was such a big fan, he didn't just want to produce a version of Coles Corner, he wanted to produce a whole album.

Residing in the city's Yellow Arch studios, Tony, Hawley, and co- producer Colin Elliot masterminded the record from start to finish. The result is 'Made In Sheffield', an album made in Sheffield (hence the title) by Sheffield musicians and songwriters. It's the album Tony Christie was born to make. There's the epic Arctic Monkeys ballad The Only Ones Who Know; Jarvis Cocker's Born To Cry (the first single from the album); and an especially beautiful version of Louise, The Human League's update of the Don't You Want Me characters ("it made my wife cry, that one"); Coles Corner of course, and even a couple of songs from the pen of one Tony Christie, who never really pursued his songwriting despite US superstar Robert Goulet recording his 'I Don't Want To Hurt You Any More' as a '60s single.

Tracks also feature by some of the city's unsung talent, predominantly one Martin Bragger whose 'Danger Is A Woman In Love' is one of the record's standout recordings.

It is, as you might imagine, a gorgeous collection, heartbreaking and uplifting, and sung by a master of his art.

As an accompaniment, there is also a documentary directed by Don Letts (Soul Britannia, Dancehall Queen, The Punk Rock Movie) which goes behind the recording process and follows its protagonists in all their dynamic glory.  Tellingly, it will be premiered at Sheffield's 'Doc/Fest' festival in November 08.

As a whole package, 'Made In Sheffield', is the ultimate reinvention for Tony Christie, and when he introduces these songs for the very first time on a ferry in Liverpool for the BBC's 'Electric Proms', that sense of expectation is palpable.

Beautifully conceived, and movingly delivered, Tony Christie deserves the last word.

"These songs aren't fashionable; we just went for quality. I want to get across that I'm not just Amarillo and that I can really sing. I'm so, so proud of it. I promise you I've got plenty years and plenty albums left in me, but if I never do anything else again, this will do me as a legacy."

JOHN AIZLEWOOD - Tony Christie has just wowed the crowds

2008 Biog

Featuring In:

City Showcase: Session with Tony Christie
Tuesday 13.04.2010
Tony Christie in The Apple Store
Saturday 08.05.2010
Feedback ! 2010
Saturday 08.05.2010
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