He’s relaxed at home, feeding the birds and a dab hand at cryptic crosswords, but it’s also another busy year for Tony Christie. Tours in January and November, summer festivals, an album release in the autumn, an all-new show being planned for later in the year and his autobiography, which I have had the pleasure of writing with him, due for release in October.
When you’re as close as he and I have been over the past 10 months it’s not all about recording the highs and lows of a career spanning five decades and reliving personal experiences. We’ve imbibed a bottle of Dalwhinnie Winter’s Gold after a long day of recording interviews in Lichfield, supped pints with his mates in a local pub, and reminisced with his lovely wife Sue and his son Sean, who plotted Tony’s career comeback in 2005. It has all been part of an epic journey that will culminate in Tony Christie – The Song Interpreter.
“That’s what I am,” says the softly spoken Conisbrough-born singer who in some people’s minds came back from the dead 14 years ago when Amarillo was revived, following its appearance on TV’s Phoenix Nights with Peter Kay and Paddy McGuinness singing along to Tony’s 1971 recording in a minibus full of Asian elders.
Since then Tony, now 76, has made headline appearances at Glastonbury and V Festival and has recorded what many in the industry believe to be his finest work on two albums, Made in Sheffield in 2008 and Now’s the Time in 2011. The Great Irish Songbook with leading modern folk group Ranagri, released in 2015, took Tony back to his family heritage and also received widespread acclaim.
He’s recently completed his new album, Pop Nonsense, with songs written by a crop of Grammy Award-winning songwriters and goes into rehearsals soon with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra for a show that will feature the songs of his hero Frank Sinatra.
“The big band sound and singers like Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole have always really been where my heart is. They all had the ability to interpret songs and there’s nothing I like better than taking a song and giving it that something that helps it stand out the way the writer had intended.
“I did that with my first hit single, Las Vegas, where I changed the feeling in the opening lines of the song to a much more soulful, gospel style. Mitch Murray and Peter Callander had written it, as they wrote most of my hits in the 70s, and there were plenty of times when they were sticklers for every note and intonation being the way they had intended.
“They used love it when I’d sung around 20 takes of a song and my voice reached that throatiness they liked. I used to say that was all right for them, but I had to perform that night!”
When the going got tougher for Tony in the late 70s, after having had No 1 hits around the world with I Did What I Did For Maria and Amarillo and playing everywhere from the London Palladium to the Talk of the Town and touring South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, he tried opening a club.
It didn’t work, but Tony’s voice has always been his passport and a second career beckoned, in Germany, where he is arguably still more popular than in the UK.
“I had hits in Europe with my big songs of the 70s, but I started having hits in Belgium and Germany, Austria and Switzerland with songs like Sweet September written by a British songwriter and producer, Graham Sacher, and in 1990 I signed with the legendary German record producer Jack White and my first album Welcome to My Music went gold with sales of over 450,000. I became what the Central Europeans refer to as a Schlager singer and played regular 36-date arena tours through the 90s and have appeared on television over there every year since.”
Tony’s success on the continent saw him and Sue leave the UK for Spain where they lived for 15 years in Mojacar on the Costa Almeria. “I always wanted to be successful again back home and in 1999 I had a Top 10 hit with Walk Like a Panther that Jarvis Cocker wrote for me, but it was Sean who saw the opportunity that came up with Peter Kay using Amarillo that started everything off again.”
Hitting No 1 simultaneously in the album and singles charts with The Definitive Collection and Amarillo catapulted Tony back into the public’s consciousness and he’s been non-stop pretty much ever since, but it’s not all been plain sailing. A nasty fall on stage in the German city of Essen sent him through a seriously bad time.
“I’d run on stage to start my act and someone had left a monitor where it shouldn’t have been. The pace I was going meant I somersaulted, landed badly and herniated three discs in my spine. I was on morphine and gabapentin and the effects of the gabapentin saw me not wanting to be around any longer. I didn’t work properly for at least two years.”
Fortunately, Tony’s voice has never suffered and he’s looking forward to working with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra led by Nelson’s son Christopher. “Christopher travelled over especially from the States to meet me in this pub.
“We are planning to take a show of Sinatra’s life and music all around the UK as Christopher has the rights to all of Sinatra’s and his dad’s arrangements.
“I’m truly excited by it as my career will have come round full circle back to the big band era I’ve always loved. I’d go into Rotherham to watch big bands every week when I was in my teens.”
Tony has rubbed shoulders with the greats. He’s met Tony Bennett, Vic Damone and Franz Beckenbauer, one of his favourite footballers, but he has always retained his “regular bloke” status enjoying a pint, or a glass of wine and has always been a real family man, devoted to Sue, their children and grandchildren.
“I’ve been more fortunate than most to have been given fabulous songs and, while I always used to say Amarillo wasn’t really the sort of song I do, I now see just how much joy and happiness it brings and it is a slice of pop history.
“I’m very lucky that Harvey Lisberg, my manager at the time, made the trip to New York to see Neil Sedaka who played it for him. And I mustn’t forget Howard Greenfield who wrote it with him.”
Tony’s fall put an end to his golf. He’s always been a sportsman, enjoying running, cycling with the Conisbrough Ivanhoe Cycling Club, karate where he became a brown belt and golf.
He was also a keen supporter of Doncaster Rovers in his youth, recalling young centre forward Alick Jeffrey who broke his leg playing at 17 and comedian Charlie Williams at centre half.
“Golf became my main sport and I played regularly in Sheffield and in Mojacar. I played alongside Bruce Forsyth a few times in Sheffield. He took it all very seriously.”
Talking to Tony for his autobiography has given me a fascinating insight into the life of a man who has stood the test of time. And it’s been, I’m sure you’ll agree, quite a life.
Tony Christie – The Song Interpreter is published in October by Great Northern Books and is available to order in advance from www.ypbookoffer.co.uk or by calling call 01274 735056. Order before August 15 and you will receive a signed copy with the name of your choice printed in a list of fans at the back of the book.