Georgie Fame and The Last Blue Flames ‘Swan Songs’ (Three Line Whip) 4/5

georgie-fame-last-blue-flamesGeorgie Fame’s early career as a ‘Pop’ artist is very well documented and he has held together the Blue Flames, in one form or another, for many years. The genesis of the band goes back to the time when Fame played piano for Billy Fury in his backing band, called none other than the Blue Flames. When the backing band got the sack towards the end of 1961, the band were re-billed as “Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames” subsequently enjoying great success with a diet of rhythm and blues material. Later, Fame enjoyed considerable solo success and success with his close friend Alan Price, but he never abandoned the Blue Flames project.

Fame’s musicality is never in doubt. His attractively light vocal style, clearly modelled on Mose Allison was also influenced by Jon Hendricks. He is a more than competent keyboard player and we get to hear many examples of this throughout the album, especially, Hammond organ.

The one thing that has always seemed to remain constant with Fame is his ability to surround himself with the best musicians, many of them from a jazz background. In particular ’Sound Venture’ from 1966 with the Harry South Big Band whose ranks included saxophonists Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Dick Morrissey and Ray Warleigh, Kenny Wheeler, Jimmy Deuchar and Ian Hamer in the trumpet section and a rhythm section of Stan Tracey on piano, Phil Bates, bass and Bill Eyden and Phil Seamen at the drums. I think this album could have marked a turning point for a musician hitherto more concerned with rhythm and blues and clearly shows his jazz credentials. He subsequently appeared live with Count Basie at the Royal Albert Hall on 20th April 1968.

Fame is often cited to be a rhythm and blues and jazz artist, but his music also contains influences from ska and soul.

Can this really be Fame’s final performance of his career, as the album title intimates? If so, it’s a great way to bow out. The vocals are as strong as ever, as are the keyboard skills. The band is billed as “The Last Blue Flames” seemingly adding to the finality of it all. This edition of the “Flames” is as strong as any with stalwarts of the British jazz scene Guy Barker (trumpet), Alan Skidmore (tenor saxophone), Anthony Kerr (vibraphone) and Alec Dankworth (bass) aided and abetted by Fame’s sons, Tristan (guitar) and James (drums) and not forgetting percussionist Ralph Salmins. Add to this the presence of vocalist Madeline Bell on two tracks and we have all of the ingredients for success.

The songs seem to provide something of a commentary on Fame’s career. The music being an act of bidding farewell to his fans and bringing the curtain down on a productive recording career.

A parting is often accompanied by sorrow. There is no feeling of sorrow here, however. When Fame, during “The Diary Blues” sings “In the twilight of a long career/When dementia’s all I have to fear”, he has his tongue firmly in his cheek. “De Caribbean Way” follows in a style typical of the music of the sunny West Indies. I imagine that “Gray’s March” is a tribute to the late keyboard-player and composer and arranger Steve Gray who was a friend of Fame’s.

The comparison between Fame and Mose Allison is an oft made one and no summary of Fame’s career would be complete without a tribute to him and here we have “Mose Knows” which is tellingly subtitled “The Catalyst”. The album covers a well-trodden path including elements of swing, shuffle and a tasteful ballad “Lost in a Lover’s Dream”.

My only quibble is that I would have liked to have heard more from the wonderful backing band. There is only one instrumental “Spin Recovery”.

Can this really be the last that we will hear from Georgie Fame? Possibly so, but he has certainly left us on a musical high. There will, of course, be the regular re-issues of earlier material to enjoy and, in fact, the aforementioned ‘Sound Venture’ is due for re-issue in November.

Alan Musson

Leigh born singer Georgie Fame has enjoyed a lengthy and successful career stretching back to the early 1960s when he was a regular keyboardist at the cult Flamingo club in London’s Soho scene and later at Ronnie Scott’s, as well as enjoying pop chart hits including the immortal, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’. This album is reputedly his very last studio recording and if that does prove to be the case, and he is always welcome to break that pledge, then at the very least we will have gone out on an artistic high. Each song has a subtitle, which seems to reflect a specific personality of character, and maybe reflective of a different musical facet of Fame’s own armoury. In musical terms, the music covers much of the stylistic changes that Fame has undergone throughout his career and that means influences ranging from ska and R &B to calypso, blues and soul-jazz, to name but a few. Surrounded by a stellar cast of musicians including Guy Barker on trumpet, Alan Skidmore (sadly one of his final appearances before his recent passing), and Anthony Kerr on vibes, Fame is in fine form throughout with his creative brand of songwriting an additional treat.

Big band boogie greets the listener on, ‘The diary blues (the diarist)’ where the leader operates on vocals, Hammond and piano. He strikes a decidedly uplifting tone on the Caribbean big band jam of, ‘De Caribbean way’ (the fantasist)’ and the horn phrasing hints at South African jazz and especially Abdullah Ibrahim on, ‘Uncle Ezra (the realist)’, with a lovely piano vamp and some soloing on vibes.

If Georgie Fame had to cite one seminal vocal influence, then it would surely be Mose Allison who towers over all other singers in Fame’s estimation (and there are many more who he revers) and fittingly there is a tribute to the latter on, ‘Mose knows (the catalyst)’ where horns and Hammond work in tandem. A more sensitive side to the Fame repertoire is showcased on the ballad, ‘Lost in a lover’s dream (the ecologist)’.

Interestingly, Fame adopts something of an Al Jarreau soul-jazz feel on, ‘My ship (the optimist)’ which has an attractive mid-tempo soulful groove and with Fame himself on Hammond organ, and with plenty of percussive support whereas it is another soul-jazz groove that is referenced on the excellent, ‘The Lurper (the isolationist)’.

Crucially, and typical of the man, Georgie Fame is not so much looking back here, but rather looking forward with a new set of compositions to go out with listeners wanting more. For those who wish to re-examine his career, the Columbia back catalogue has been re-issued and is available individually, or a part of a larger box set edition. Neophytes should sample the Harry South Band recording first before moving on to the other albums.

Tim Stenhouse