Pop music: Fame at the Flamingo: golden years in Soho

Georgie Fame and his band were regular performers at a nightclub that was a catalyst for British music in the early Sixties. He looks back at the scene of his best years in London with James Maycock.

The early Sixties: political scandals, mods, defecting spies, the Pill, and TV shows such as Ready, Steady, Go. The class system was crumbling, sexual morals were changing and American clothes, comics and music, especially black music, were in demand. And Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames were performing regularly at The Flamingo, Wardour Street, between 1962 and 1965.

This bawdy Soho nightclub played a small but important part in the intrigue and excitement that generated the atmosphere of the first half of the Sixties. Fame recalls that "there were only a handful of hip young white people that used to go to The Flamingo. When I first went there as a punter I was scared. Once I started to play there, it was no problem."

The club closed at 6am, enabling musicians like Alexis Korner to play there after performing elsewhere. Christine Keeler finished working in Bond Street at 3am and often dashed over to Wardour Street for the next three hours. Fame remembers that half the clientele were West Indian while "the other half were black American GIs mixed up with a few gangsters and pimps and prostitutes". The West Indian "Lucky" Gordon, and Johnny Edgecombe were, according to him, "both involved with Christine Keeler down The Flamingo". "Lucky" Gordon's brother, "Psycho" Gordon, occasionally joined Georgie Fame's group on stage.

As well as being captivated by jazz and such blues musicians as Willie Mabon, Fame was one of the first white artists to be intrigued by ska, sniffed at by the British music press. He heard it in Jamaican cafes in and around Ladbroke Grove, and his trumpeter, Eddie Thornton, was Jamaican.

His group also performed at The Roaring Twenties, a nightclub off Carnaby Street run by Count Suckle, an influential Jamaican DJ. Fame says: "Suckle had a fantastic record collection. He used to get direct imports from Memphis and the Caribbean ... all the old bluebeat stuff was being played in the clubs where we played."

Fame made firm friends with many black American soldiers who visited the Flamingo. They would play him the latest jazz and blues releases from America, three of which affected him so powerfully that they inspired him to move from the piano to the Hammond organ. Hearing "Midnight Special" by Jimmy Smith, "Grooving With Jug" by Gene Ammons and Richard "Groove" Holmes and "Green Onions", the seminal single by Booker T and the MGs within two days convinced him he had to change.

Fame describes the Flamingo as "a great breeding ground". The lauded British jazz musician Tubby Hayes and the Johnny Birch Quartet, which included Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, who later launched Cream with Eric Clapton, often performed at the club. Members of Duke Ellington's orchestra and Count Basie's group, when touring England, were also drawn to it. Fame remembers one face in the crowd: "Cassius Clay, as he was then, came down when he first fought Henry Cooper. Cassius would come into town and say, `Where do the brothers hang out?' He'd be told they all go down The Flamingo."

During these years, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames completed a forbidding but exhilarating schedule. As well as performing at Klook's Kleek, Ricky Tick's and The Scene during the week, they would often appear in two non- adjacent counties on Saturday night. "We'd be coming in from playing an American air force base somewhere in Suffolk and we'd throw the gear back in the wagon and drive back to London and get back to the all-nighter in time for our set. We did the one o'clock and the 4.30am set. The guys would open the way through the crowd for us and help us carry the shit on to the stage." A stabbing at the Flamingo prompted the American air force authorities to ban servicemen from the nightclub, which would soon throng with mods.

"Yeh Yeh" was originally recorded by the Latin percussionist Mongo Santamaria, but the jazz singer Jon Hendricks added the lyrics and performed his version at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1963. Fame bought the album of this concert and the song was soon added to his repertoire. His own recording of it reached the top of the British charts in January 1965, displacing "I Feel Fine" by The Beatles. His success led to less frequent performances at the Flamingo, which today he confesses was "my greatest time in London".

In 1966, Rik Gunnell, the owner of club and manager of Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, persuaded Fame to dissolve his group and concentrate on a solo career, "Mitch" Mitchell, the drummer in the Blue Flames, was hired to join Jimi Hendrix's group the day that Georgie Fame and Blue Flames disbanded. Fame was not overjoyed at some of the material he was expected to record as a solo artist, but it did give him the opportunity to tour with Count Basie, an experience he describes as "terrific".

Today, Fame, who was christened with the name of Clive Powell, exudes a boyish charm and commands respect from his musical peers. For the past 10 years he has worked intimately with Van Morrison's projects as well as performing his eclectic style of music with his own group, which now includes his two sons, Tristan and James. He has recently recorded with Bill Wyman and regularly plays with big jazz orchestras in England and on the Continent.

His passion for the power of the blues, jazz, ska and Sixties soul music remains undimmed: "When I do gigs in England I have a lot of young people coming up and asking me to take the back off the Hammond organ to look inside it because they can't believe it makes that noise. They've all been raised on that digital nonsense."

George Fame performs at the Jazz Cafe in Camden on 20 and 21 January, price pounds 12 at the door, pounds 10 in advance (0171-344 0044).

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.


ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

    Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

    £40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

    Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent