Arts: The rhythm and blue flame

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The Independent Culture
CLIVE POWELL has been Georgie Fame since 1959, when the promoter Larry Parnes wanted someone to play keyboards in Billy Fury's band, and to take the heat off him a little in the daft name department. It worked, but just for two years. Fame left with Fury's band, the Blue Flames, and took up residency at the equally unlikely sounding Flamingo Club in Soho, launching a career that has swerved effortlessly in and out of R&B, pop, novelty tunes and big band jazz ever since. In some ways, Lancashire- born Fame and Geordie Alan Price paved the way for the Northern Soul movement; a northern accent somehow seems more in tune with the loose delivery of African American blues and swing artists. Fame does it so well that the American singer/ pianist Mose Allison looked to the British artist for inspiration when it came to making R&B records.

Fame's band work has a lot going for it. He's powerful and sure-footed enough to be comfortable in front of an 18-piece band. His measured delivery squeezes the emotion out of a standard in a way that must make the likes of Bacharach, Donovan and Lennon and McCartney proud. You'd want him to sing your song.

The band did a couple of tunes by themselves before Fame made an authentically showbiz entrance, finger-clicking and air-punching to his first great hit, "Yeh Yeh". Gershwin's "But Not For Me", complete with an ingenious arrangement by the director Steve Gray and a skilful lyricised version of a lovely old Chet Baker trumpet solo, was a masterpiece. Eight tunes in, he sat at the Hammond organ, briefly turning a homage to the Bull's Head Jazz Club into a Jimmy Smith-style soul jazz shuffle blues.

But Fame spent almost every other moment pacing in front of the orchestra.

The cult composer Lalo Schifrin once remarked that he'd told his wife he wanted the BBC Big Band for his next birthday. From the composer of the themes to Bullitt and Mission: Impossible, this was some endorsement. But Mrs Schifrin's lack of generosity was Georgie Fame's gain. This long- running orchestra's association with Radio 2 has done nothing to blunt its sharp edges.

There's something about the opening shock blast of a good jazz big band that makes the corners of your mouth curl. Steve Gray looked as if he were trying to suppress a grin all night. The BBC Big Band did it all, from ballads to R&B and a rendition of Fame and Gray's original "City Life" that almost defined swing.

All in all it was a worthy commemoration of a 40-year career; and Georgie Fame proved he still has what people's dads call star quality.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper.

Linton Chiswick