Tony Christie has been in the music game for more than 50 years, but after the ups and downs he’s now simply enjoying performing
(Is This the Way to) Amarillo singer Tony Christie reckons he will be breaking new ground when he plays this year’s Priory Park Festival, part of the 2017 Festival of Chichester. ‘I have never worked in that part of the world before,’ he says. ‘I have done lots in the north and the midlands, but there are certain areas I have never done because I have tended to do the cabaret clubs. That’s where I have been most of my career.’
Now he heads south for the latest date in a career which stretches back to the 1960s. His big breakthrough came in 1971, but on the back of a long apprenticeship in the business.
Tony started out in the accounts office of a steel company in Yorkshire while at the same time singing semi-professionally in working men’s clubs. The turning point came when his boss suggested he had a choice to make, ‘either knuckle down and become an accountant or keep trying to become the next Adam Faith.’
Tony’s musical heroes weren’t Faith and the other rock ‘n’ rollers, but Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, singers he’d heard on his father’s collection of 78s. But it was the pop world that started to claim him once he’d established himself on the circuit: he was offered a job as the singer with a band. Tony Christie and the Trackers were born.
‘I did my first record in 1966. I got this call out of the blue from an American producer. He rang me and said he had heard about me. I said “How?” He just said he had heard that I was a good singer and he said he had a song written by a girl called Life’s Too Good To Waste, and we should do it. He sent me a demo. I quite liked it apart from the middle eight which I didn’t like at all, so I rewrote it, and we recorded it. It was released, but I don’t think anyone knew!
‘We recorded it, and he said he didn’t think the sound was full enough so he sent me out while he got a couple of session musicians. I went out for a coffee and came back and there were two geezers there, one on keyboards and one on guitar. I said “Who’s that?” He said “The organist is Billy Preston!” and he said the guitarist was an up-and-coming player who was very promising. It was Jimmy Page!’
But that wasn’t enough to change Tony’s fortunes: ‘I was a club act. I had no representation.’
However, he got his break in 1971 with his first hit single.
‘I was put in contact with a couple of songwriters Mitch Murray and Peter Callander. They had had hits for lots of people, and they gave me a song called Las Vegas. They had sent it to Tom Jones, but his manager had turned it down. But it changed things for me. They said: “Get rid of the band. You are a solo singer.” And things took off for me. It became a worldwide hit.
His follow-up was another Murray and Callander song, I Did What I Did for Maria which steadily climbed the charts to reach the number two position. And then came arguably his best-known song, (Is This The Way To) Amarillo, written by Neil Sedaka. It was a hit all over the world, but surprisingly, it made only the lower reaches of the top 20 in the UK. As Tony recalls, the lack of UK success baffled his record company until they found out that loads of people were buying it in Spain, where it was number one, and bringing it home with them.
However, as Tony says, every song has its day: in 2005 it soared to the top of the UK charts, staying there for seven weeks, after Peter Kay mimed to Tony’s record for Comic Relief.
Other ’70s chart successes followed, but with the arrival of punk, Tony’s popularity in Britain waned as the 1980s began. In continental Europe, however he continued to go from strength to strength, particuarly in Germany. Eventually, things turned full circle when Tony returned to the UK top 10 in 1999 with Walk Like A Panther, a song written for him by Jarvis Cocker. A few years later, his British comeback with assured with the resurgent Amarillo.
‘When I started singing, my hero was always Sinatra. I always thought I would be a big-band singer. I never pictured myself as a pop star. It was not something that I had ever craved.’
So is that how he managed to take it in his stride?
‘I am very easy-going. I always have been. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t!
‘I have just always kept working. What I have got is innate in me. It is what I have been given. Singing is just something I can do and have always done. I don’t know whether it is my Irish background.
‘My grandparents were from Ireland and loved music. I was surrounded by people that loved music. My dad used to play the piano, and if my Irish grandparents came over to visit, my dad would stand me on the stool and play the piano and I would sing. And they would put sixpence in my hand! I thought “That’s a good thing!”, and I just carried on from there.’
n Also on the bill at this year’s Priory Park Festival will be Georgie Fame, S Club, Dodgy, the Deborah Bonham Band with guest vocalist Chris Farlowe, The Bog Rolling Stones, and Jim Cregan – Rod Stewart’s right-hand man – and his band, all part of an eclectic three-day weekend of music, comedy and food and drink on July 7, 8 and 9 in Priory Park, Chichester.
Friday will be jazz and blues; Saturday will be rock; and Sunday will put the emphasis on family fun. Tony appears on Sunday.
For more information and tickets, go to prioryparkfestival.co.uk.