On 2nd August 2002, Tony Christie enjoyed a good laugh, watching Max and Paddy on Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights, belt out Christie’s Seventies hit single (Is This The Way To) Amarillo for a group of thoroughly unimpressed Asian elders.
What he could not know was this brief Channel 4 sitcom sketch was about to relaunch his career, making him more successful than ever.
It took another three years but, in 2005, the reissued Amarillo, promoted by a Peter Kay video specially made for Children In Need, gave Christie his first ever number one single and first double-platinum album in a career which has endured for half a century.
Tony Christie was born Anthony Fitzgerald in Conisbrough, West Yorkshire, on 15th April 1943. He cannot remember a time when he could not pick out a tune on the family piano and, in the primary school choir he soon found himself moved into the front row because of his exceptional voice.
A love of Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers led him to form singing duo The Grant Brothers with a schoolfriend. “That’s how I came to play my first gig, 50 years ago, in 1961,” he explains, “in the working men’s club in Conisbrough.”
For much of the rest of the Sixties,Tony Christie focused on live work, carving out a sizeable reputation, especially on the club scene in the north of England. The decade was almost over when he came to the notice of manager Harvey Lisberg who made his name as the discoverer of Herman’s Hermits but was seeking a fresh challenge.
“It was that phenomenal voice,” states Lisberg, “most of what I did was groups and concerts but I saw Tony as more like Las Vegas, London Palladium, all of that. Even then he was the best singer in England, for his interpretive powers and his perfect clarity when he delivered a lyric.”
It was Lisberg who put Christie together with a songwriting duo who would be very important to him – Mitch Murray and Peter Callender.
Murray and Callender’s story songs were intended for Tom Jones but never got past his manager Gordon Mills. When they found themselves working with Christie, they knew his powerful voice was perfect for those songs. Their first significant hit together was Las Vegas, a Top 20 near-miss early in 1971, but their next composition, I Did What I Did For Maria took Christie right up to number two.
Murray and Callender, however, were not convinced they had a strong enough follow-up for Maria until Harvey Lisberg brought them a song he had discovered in New York.
While visiting Screen Gems boss Don Kirshner in mid-1971, Lisberg asked if he had any songs that might suit Christie. “Neil Sedaka whose songs I had always loved, was working at Screen Gems, and he came up to the office, sat down at the piano and started to play.”
As soon as Sedaka launched into (Is This The Way To) Amarillo, Lisberg and his wife Carole turned to each other and beamed. This, they knew, was the one. Looking around the room, however, they noticed that no-one else was paying it much attention. “I immediately asked them to send me a demo,” Lisberg remembers, “and they looked at me like, ‘You want that one?’. None of them, not even Neil Sedaka, seemed particularly impressed by Amarillo.”
Even after returning to the U.K., Lisberg had to ring New York repeatedly for two months before he finally received Sedaka’s piano and voice demo, but as soon as he played it for Murray and Callender, it clicked for them too.
In November 1971, Amarillo became a huge hit all across Europe but, incredibly, rose no higher than number 18 in the UK.
The post-millennium reissue featuring Peter Kay was the best selling U.K. single of 2005 selling more than 1,000,000 copies.