First Night: Fame's flame burns blue in the night

Georgie Fame Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
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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, the Lancashire-born Fame and the 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 the American singer/ pianist Mose Allison looked to the British artist for inspiration when it came to making R&B records. Fame's big-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 blunt, measured delivery squeezes the emotion out of a standard in a way that must make the likes of Bacharach, Donovan or 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 ingenious arrangement by the director Steve Gray and 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 Bulls 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/arranger Lalo Schifrin once remarked that he'd told his wife he wanted the BBC Big Band for his next birthday. But Mrs Schifrin's lack of generosity was Georgie Fame's gain. This long-running orchestra's association with Radio Two 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. The BBC Big Band did it all, from rich ballads to forceful R&B and an exciting rendition of Fame and Gray's original "City Life". It was a worthy commemoration of a 40-year career; and Georgie Fame still has what people's dads call star quality.