Pop music: Fame at the Flamingo: golden years in Soho
Friday 16 January 1998
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).
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