The young Tony Christie was born Anthony Fitzgerald in 1943 in the South Yorkshire town of Conisbrough. He shared an extended family home with his piano-playing father and harmonium-pumping grandad, and it was only a matter of time before Tony caught the music bug, picked up a guitar and made his way through the tough British working men’s club circuit.
His life – and name – changed (inspired by 60s starlet Julie Christie) and he made Sheffield, the city of steel, his new home.
Now aged 67, Tony Christie is a golden-throated national treasure recognised by fellow Sheffield brethren Jarvis Cocker, Richard Hawley and Alex Turner – not to mention über-comic Peter Kay – and as his new album attests, he’s not resting on his well-deserved laurels just yet.
Take us back to how you started in this malarkey, Tony.
I started out in 1961. I was part of a double act from school called The Grant Brothers. We played guitars and did Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison harmonies. We’d do all the working men’s clubs, but then my partner got a girlfriend so I went solo. Eventually I was approached by The Counterbeats. Would I like to leave my office job and turn pro, they asked. I certainly did – I was an accountant and not a very good one – so I left and went on the road.
The club circuit was legendarily hard work, wasn’t it?
We were a jobbing band. In those days we would gig every night, all over the UK – I did my apprenticeship up and down the M1. In the late 60s I’d do three clubs a night round the Manchester area sometimes. I was forever losing my voice. But that was the life I’d chosen.
How long did it take you to get noticed?
A long time. I did my first record in 1967 with The Who’s producer, Shel Talmy [called Life’s Too Good To Waste, featuring Jimmy Page]. Then I did a record with MGM, the same label as Tony Blackburn. That wasn’t right for me. My next song was a Les Reed tune called Turn Around, but Kathy Kirby had also recorded it and we cancelled each other out. Against Englebert Humperdinck and Tom Jones it was hard to get a break.
What was the tipping point?
It was a song called Las Vegas by a couple of producer-songwriters called Mitch Murray and Peter Callander in 1971. They’d had big successes with Cliff Richard and Gerry And The Pacemakers. Then they came up with I Did What I Did For Maria. And while my manager Harvey Lisberg was in America – he managed Herman’s Hermits and later 10cc – he was talking to Neil Sedaka, saying have you got anything for Tony? And that’s where Is This The Way To Amarillo? came from.
By the 80s you had left the UK. And then Jarvis Cocker came along in the 90s…
When my career took a bit of a dive in the 80s, I went to live in Spain – on the continent I was selling millions of records. Jarvis contacted me and said: “I’ve got two mates who are DJs and producers called All Seeing Eye – we’ve written a song for you [Walk Like A Panther] and they want to produce it.” I went back to the UK to record it and forgot about it. Then a few weeks later I got asked to do Top Of The Pops – I hadn’t been on TOTP for 26 years!
Next, Amarillo was back in the charts.
That was a bolt out of the blue. I saw it on Phoenix Nights and didn’t think any more about it. Then the next day my son rang, saying everyone’s asking “Where can we buy that Peter Kay record?” Which slightly irked me! Eventually it was number one through Comic Relief. That’s when I got so busy in the UK I moved back.
And Richard Hawley made your next record.
Another Sheffield connection. With Richard producing, I did Made In Sheffield in 2008 and was very proud, it was incredible. I think that record could still be played in 1,000 years time. Big strings, great melodies. Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys got involved, then we did a Human League song [Louise] and picked out new songwriters from Sheffield who’d never been heard before.
So what’s the new album, Now’s The Time, all about?
I got back with All Seeing Eye, who’d written me all these brand-new songs with a classic 60s style. I had faith in them and said: “Do whatever you want.” Jarvis got involved again with the track Get Christie [based on the Roy Budd soundtrack to Get Carter] and I’d travel to Sheffield, do two or three vocals, then leave them to it. I could have done a modern digital thing but I like going in a real studio.
Already thinking of the future?
I am. Now’s The Time has been snapped up by Germany and the continent – they’re going mad about it – and I’m always being asked to do a duets album. After Come Dine With Me at the end of last year it was suggested I should work with Goldie, but he’s got his own sort of thing going. I’d like to sing with Tony Bennett, a great inspiration to me, but at the moment I want to keep moving forward. The voice is still there so while I’m able to do it I want to carry on recording, it’s my legacy.
Hall of fame
Tony has played thousands of shows all over the world. But which is his all-time favourite venue?
“The Royal Albert Hall. It’s historic and beautiful with an incredible atmosphere. Although it’s massive, once you get on that stage it’s got a surprising intimacy. I’ve played there four times over the years. The last time was with Richard Hawley and Jarvis Cocker in 2008. Richard was there for his album Lady’s Bridge. We did Danger Is a Woman in Love from the Made In Sheffield album. The place went mad. I can’t wait to go back!”