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Iconic singer Tony Christie reveals exact moment he realised he had dementia | Music | Entertainment

Tony Christie photographed for his new album We Still Shine (Image: Supplied)

For six decades now, singer Tony Christie has been plying his mellifluous trade all around the world and he shows no sign of hanging up his mic. Next month he releases his first album in 12 years, having recorded We Still Shine, in Nashville, over three weeks. “I honestly think it’s the best I’ve made,” he says today. “The local musicians are world class; the guitar player was Dolly Parton’s musical director.”

Country-flecked, most of its 11 tracks have a wistful quality, with gently poignant songs recalling lost love. The exception is the title track, an upbeat paean of praise to a relationship that endures.

You don’t have to dig very deep for its inspiration. It was 1968 and Tony was performing at Greasbrough Social Club near Rotherham. Sue Ashley worked at a folk club down the road in Sheffield and accepted an invitation from an Irish band to go and see Tony perform.

“I walked on stage and midway through Stranger In Paradise, I saw this pretty brunette sitting in the front row. I turned to my bass player, ‘Mike,’ I said, ‘I’ve just seen the girl I’m going to marry.’ He fell about but I wasn’t joking. Afterwards, the band came backstage to see me and brought Sue with them. I tried to get a date with her but she wasn’t having any of it. She later told me she thought I was big-headed. ‘Just because you’re on stage…’ But we were married within the year. I was 23, she was 18.”

Christie will be 81 in April but you wouldn’t know it. Trim as a whippet, he’s dressed today in black from top to toe, a full head of luxuriant white hair brushed back from his face. We meet in his record label’s King’s Cross offices and he’s in genial form but he’s brought along his son, Sean, once his drummer, now his manager, just to be on the safe side – and for reasons that will become apparent.

Last night he kicked off a 25-date tour of the UK, Ireland and Germany (perhaps his most consistently loyal market) with a Tenerife show thrown in for good measure.

The schedule would test the stamina of a man half his age and particularly given his condition. In 2021, Christie began to worry that names of people he knew well were slipping his mind.

“And one of my favourite pursuits is doing the cryptic crossword in the Daily Express. But the answers weren’t coming to me as easily anymore,” he admits.

His devoted wife suggested an appointment with a doctor and, following a brain scan, the singer was diagnosed with early onset dementia. How did he feel?

“Well, I wasn’t happy but they gave me pills which they said won’t cure me although they should help slow the degeneration.”

In the intervening three years, has he noticed a gradual cognitive decline? “No, I don’t think so,” he says, although Sean’s widening eyes tell another story.

Tony with wife Sue, speaking to the Mirror after his dementia diagnosis

Tony with wife Sue, speaking to the Mirror after his dementia diagnosis (Image: Julian Hamilton/Daily Miiror)

He claims not to be worried about the demands of his upcoming tour.

“I have an autocue with all the songs’ lyrics but so do lots of singers. Anyway, I’m a different person when I’m performing. They call me the Quiet Man at home but I come alive in front of an audience. And I always have Sue with me. She’s my rock. I call her my dresser,” and he chuckles, affectionately. “Seriously, I’d never go anywhere without her. I hated it when I was touring and the children were babies and she had to stay at home.”

Sean, at 55, is the eldest. Then comes Antonia Maria, 52, (her second name a nod to another of Tony’s hits, I Did What I Did For Maria), married to a Frenchman and living in Brussels. The youngest, Sarah, is 45 and a former headmistress. There are seven grandchildren spread among the siblings.

For 15 years from the beginning of the 90s, the family lived in Spain. “We came back to the UK in 2005 when Amarillo entered the charts again and I was being offered work here. We settled in Lichfield in Warwickshire because it’s central and I do like to come home wherever possible after a gig.” His Greatest Hits album, The Definitive Collection, was released in the same year and topped the charts. In 2005, Christie was given the freedom of Amarillo. “I’d never been there. I was playing the Embassy Theatre in Skegness and an English newspaper offered to fly me over to Texas for a four-day break in my schedule to receive my award.”

On arrival, he was met by the mayor, one Trent Sizemore Jnr III. “He presented me with a Stetson and a pair of suede boots which I’ve still got at home.” And what was Christie entitled to courtesy of the freedom of the city? He roars with laughter. “The Mayor said: ‘You can have my wife but don’t touch my horse!’”

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He will never tire, he says, of singing the song written by Neil Sedaka. Amarillo first charted in the UK, racking up sales of a million, in 1971. Then, in 2002, off the back of Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights, it was a hit again. But it was courtesy of Comic Relief three years later that it soared to number one.

Falkirk FC adopted it as their unofficial club anthem. In 2006, it was a hit once more, the lyrics re-written as Do You Know The Way To The World Cup? On his recent trip to Nashville, Christie made a new recording giving it a gospel treatment. He plans to put it on the next album.

He was six when a teacher singled out his singing voice. His father, Paddy, wanted him to follow in his footsteps as an accountant. But he and a schoolmate started singing at the weekend in working men’s clubs and care homes. “We’d do close harmony stuff like the Everly Brothers.” He got a job working in the wages department of a local steelworks in South Yorkshire. “One day, my boss said he needed me to work that weekend. I said I couldn’t because I had four singing gigs. He looked at me: ‘Do you want to be an accountant,’ he said, ‘or Adam Faith?’

“Well, I didn’t want to be Adam Faith. Like Matt Monro or Vince Hill, I was a crooner who later got lucky with a few pop songs. But I sure as hell didn’t want to be an accountant. So, I quit my job.”

In 1965, he was approached by the manager of a professional band whose girl singer, Karen Young, had just had a Top 10 solo hit with a song called Nobody’s Child and had decided to leave the band. Would Tony consider becoming her replacement?

But he needed a stage name. A Fitzgerald by birth, his ancestors hailed from County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast. “My surname was a bit of a mouthful. Then I went to see a film called Darling starring Julie Christie.” Sean takes up the story. “Dad has a joke he likes to share with audiences. He tells them about going to see Darling and how that gave him the inspiration to change his name. ‘Which is why,’ he laughs, ‘I came to be known as Julie Fitzgerald’.”

Tony in 1976, a popular star with big hits Amarillo and Maria to his name

Tony in 1976, a popular star with big hits Amarillo and Maria to his name (Image: TOPIX)

While singing at the Blackpool Ballroom, Christie was spotted by talent manager Harvey Lisberg who’d discovered Herman’s Hermits and went on to manage 10cc and Sad Café. “I was a solo singer, he said. If I ditched the band, he’d get me a record deal.”

And he did. His career really took off with his song, Las Vegas, followed by Maria and Amarillo. Later came Avenues and Alleyways, theme song of the TV show, The Protectors, starring Robert Vaughn and Nyree Dawn Porter.

He also performed the role of Magaldi on the original album of Evita with his soaring ballad, On This Night of A Thousand Stars.

He was offered the part when the musical opened in London. “But I was committed to two years’ worth of singing engagements around the world. I regret that although I did later appear in the West End in Dreamboats and Petticoats.”

That was in 2010 and here he is almost a decade-and-a-half later still going strong. But then there’s an understated indomitability about Tony Christie.

Tony's hit single (Is This The Way To ) Amarillo

Tony’s hit single (Is This The Way To ) Amarillo (Image: .)

Last April, he accepted the offer to become an ambassador for Music for Dementia, a charity set up to support the carers who devote their lives to looking after people suffering from the condition. Because public speaking can be demanding, he opted to record Andrew Gold’s Thank You For Being A Friend on behalf of the charity. “My guitarist is a good friend of Sting’s and he agreed to sing on the record with Nile Rodgers doing back-up vocals.”

Says Music for Dementia’s MD Sarah Metcalfe: “We were thrilled to release Tony’s charity single last year. He’s already done a phenomenal job of helping us to raise awareness about the power music can have on people living with dementia.”

“My doctor told me music is one of the best therapies for anyone with dementia,” Tony adds.

“So, I’m lucky: God gave me a voice and I’m happy to keep using it.”

· For tour dates, visit tonychristie.com

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