Is this the way to County Mayo?

Tony Christie and Ranagri, The Great Irish Songbook
Tony Christie and Ranagri, The Great Irish Songbook

South Yorkshireman Tony Christie has gone back to his family roots in recording his latest album, The Great Irish Songbook.

The singer grew up among an Irish ex-pat community around Conisbrough with a piano-playing grandfather from County Mayo, his gran a fiddler in a ceilidh band, and his father (born here but with the good old Irish name of Paddy Fitzgerald) who played the squeezebox.

“I had the idea for this album for 25 years, tunes that I used to hear when I was growing up – at Irish weddings,” he explains. “I never did anything about it because if you went to a record label and said I want to do an Irish album, they wouldn’t want to know.”

It was Donal Rogers from folk band Ranagri, previously in a group with Christie’s son Sean, who got things moving. He mentioned the idea to their German producer, Gunther Pauler, and they ended up recording the album at his studio in an old castle in Northeim. Coincidentally Germany is where Tony Christie’s biggest following remains.

The Great Irish Songbook is dedicated to Christie’s dad who didn’t exactly encourage his son’s singing career, insisting he follow him into accountancy which he did until moonlighting on the club circuit became more lucrative.

“My dad was a typical Yorkshireman, he could be a bit dour, except playing music. I never got any praise from him and it was not until after he died and I came back in 2000 to clear up and pulled out this drawer and there was everything I had ever done, cuttings and programmes and things. I broke down when I saw it.”

It was a career that moved from clubland singer (instructed to find a more showbizzy name he went to see the film Darling and “instantly fell for Julie Christie as many 18-year-olds did at the time and thought the name was good too”) to hitmaker.

It started in 1971 with Las Vegas, I Did What I Did for Maria and (Is This the Way to) Amarillo. By then Christie was living in Sheffield after marrying Sue whose father ran Norfolk Engineering and their three children were all born here before the family moved to the West Midlands.

“My sister and brother-in- law are in Sheffield, my mum who’s 93 and my brother are still in Conisbrough,” he says.

In 1990 he and Sue moved to Spain after work in the UK had dried up, though he continued to tour abroad.

They returned to the UK 15 years later to fulfil a record and concert deal and soon after came the call from Peter Kay to participate in the Comic Relief video of Amarillo which proved an even bigger hit than first-time round.

Did he feel it had been hijacked? “No I was pleased because I honestly thought my career was over in the UK.”

At 72 he is as busy as ever. Last week after launching the album in London he flew to Germany for a weekend of concerts and then back in time for his weekly show at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool. Next he will do some gigs for The Irish Songbook to prepare for a full UK tour next year.