Fifty years ago tomorrow, 23 April 1970, English rock band Christie released their chart topping hit Yellow River.
The song, published by Concord, sold in excess of 20 million records, reaching number one in 26 countries, netting 10 gold discs and many other accolades including an Ivor Novello Award, a Carl Allan Award and the B.M.I. Citation of Achievement Award.
The song has been covered by the likes of Elton John, R.E.M and Chris Rea, and continues to be heavily synced in film, including the Oscar nominated Roma in 2018.
To celebrate the song's 50th anniversary, we asked frontman and songwriter, Jeff Christie, to take us back to when he first brought Yellow River to life.
'I wrote Yellow River around March/April 1969 in a couple of hours on the piano when I was still living at my parents’ house in Scott Hall Road, Leeds.
'I started writing songs around 1964 as my band Outer Limits had failed a couple of recording auditions because we were still a covers band. I remember the A&R man at the second audition saying, 'you've got a good band but you need to write your own songs if you want a recording contract.
'So, I started writing as no one else in the band could either be bothered or perhaps didn't have the aptitude. I didn't know which but historically it always fell to me to find the songs, get the words, and work out all the chords and arrangements for us all to rehearse so I guess looking back it was quite probably natural that sooner or later I would get into the craft of song writing which eventually led to us getting a recording contract.
'I got to meet Gene Pitney, Roy Orbison, The Marmalade, The Seekers, Alan Price and the Tremeloes to name a few. I left songs with some of them.'
'We (Outer Limits) released two singles written by me, one of which just bubbled under the top 50 and the other having the dubious honour of being banned by the BBC. It wasn't till we toured with Jimi Hendrix in 1967 that I had the bottle to play my songs in a live setting after Lee Jackson, bass player from The Nice, also on that tour, complemented me on one of my songs that we sneaked into our short opening set. After watching us, he said that we should be playing that song and our other own songs instead of Motown covers. From then on that's how it was, a sort of paradigm shift so to speak. Thanks Lee!
'In 1968, a TV documentary titled Death of a Pop Group featured the band's break-up story and from then on, I concentrated on writing songs with the aim of trying to get major artists of the time to cover them. In those days, you could actually get to artists to play those songs and as my band was the support band for so many of them in the sixties, that also helped a little.
'It was a prolific songwriting time for me and I listened, studied and learnt a lot from the great songwriters of the times - Jimmy Webb, Bacharach & David, The Brill Building writers, Leiber & Stoller, Holland, Dozier and Holland, Lennon & McCartney, Ray Davis, Pete Townsend, to name a just a few. I'd always loved American music – rock 'n' roll, the blues and country music as so much of the pop music from our shores was just so anodyne.
'I grew up with a fascination for the old west, the Indian wars and the American Civil War and eventually that influenced a string of songs that echoed some of those influences but it was actually Jimmy Webb's Galveston, brilliantly interpreted by Glen Campbell that sparked my imagination and propelled me to write my own Galveston. I think this happens to every songwriter whether they admit it or not. Great songs inspire you to try and write great songs too I guess, and in that sense, Galveston acted as a catalyst to the birth of Yellow River.
'Amazing to think that at its peak, in the UK alone, it was selling 80, 90 and 100,000 a day.'
'The song was loosely about a shell-shocked confederate soldier's return home at the end of the war. Although I was thinking about the civil war, it was soon adopted as a Vietnam song in the US. It then became a massive hit there as well as number one here and twenty-six other countries. I never found out exactly how many millions it sold around the world, I'd heard industry figures talk of it shifting globally north of thirty million, but it just became a number to me eventually.
'Amazing to think that at its peak, in the UK alone, it was selling 80, 90 and 100,000 a day. What mattered I think was the haul of gold and silver discs awarded, when gold meant a million sales and silver meant a quarter million sales. Plus a basket of awards like the Ivor Novello and BMI Certificate of Excellence from the US.
'I originally demoed it at BBC Radio Leeds in the winter of 1969, singing the song over an acoustic guitar, a rolling piano and snare drum along with a couple of other songs that they played locally which got a lot of positive feedback from listeners. I had a Grundig tape recorder and put all my songs, including Yellow River, on reel to reel tape and would haul it and start knocking on doors in London.
'My dad was really supportive as was my mum through all this. Dad would drive me to London and was hands on in helping me get to see agents and record companies. I would also often go to Batley Variety Club which wouldn't have been out of place in Las Vegas, except that it was in a small Mill town not far from Leeds where the biggest stars on the planet performed.
'I got to meet Gene Pitney, Roy Orbison, The Marmalade, The Seekers, Alan Price and the Tremeloes to name a few. I left songs with some of them. I was writing two or three songs a week in those days. The minute I finished one I'd get enthused with the next one, so I never really considered any of them to be better than the others.
'I never found out exactly how many millions it sold around the world, I'd heard industry figures talk of it shifting globally north of thirty million, but it just became a number to me eventually.'
'They were all quite different and varied in style. I felt I had a decent selection of songs that were good enough to play to these artists. I had encouragement from many of them, but it was the Tremeloes who picked out Yellow River, they loved it and wanted to take a copy back to London. I had written a song for them called Tomorrow Night. It was very much in the style that they were having hits with and that's what I thought they'd pick up on. However, they said that that was exactly the kind of song they were trying to distance themselves despite all the hits they'd had and were looking for something totally different.
'They took it back to London and recorded it and then basically sat on it for months on end which was very frustrating for me. I was gutted when after all their talk of putting it out they shelved it in favour of one of their own songs. Their PR man Brian Longley called me up and said he thought the song was a hit and he'd heard my original demo and felt I should do it myself.
'He never promised anything, but he believed in the song and my ability to do it justice. I went down to London that November to meet Brian and we hit it off straight away. He said that CBS were keen to release it with me singing over the Tremeloes backing track and that should it take off we could put a band together to tour. One suggestion should the record 'happen' was to team up with Alan Blakely's (Tremeloes) brother Mike, a drummer, and Vic Elmes a guitarist. I didn't like the sound of this as I was used to working with handpicked players that were known to me as well as being against using someone else's recording of my song with my only contribution being lead vocalist.
'I was used to playing guitar and keyboards on my own records as well as being the arranger. By this time, there was buzz about the song with other artists managers wanting the song for their artists smelling a hit, Long John Baldry was one. A great blues man, he'd expressed interest in recording a few of my songs particularly Yellow River and San Bernadino which were a sort of hybrid pop, rock and country songs.
'Pressures and deadlines started rearing their ugly heads from people in the CBS camp and everyone else on the periphery like PR, management, agents etc. I eventually agreed to go in to the studio with Mike Smith as producer and it went well enough despite being somewhat nervous. I was out of my comfort zone working with complete strangers as opposed to the tight knit group I'd had in the Outer Limits.
'The record was released in April 1970 and the national radio play was on Tony Blackburn's show. It sounded great on my small portable radio, listening and nervously smoking in bed for his after-play comments. When it ended he said 'that's going to be an absolute smash and set the charts on fire, which in a manner of speaking it did, and almost my bed. After a few weeks it stormed into the top 50 and then worked its way up to the top within a few more weeks.
'It was a heady time for sure and it felt good to reach the top after struggling for years to break through. I started playing in groups at 14 and finally hit the jackpot at 23. A life changing experience for sure, much of it good and some of it bad, especially when you suddenly find lots of new best friends that you hardly knew before. It's been said before that success doesn't change you as much as it changes others around you and I found that to be true.
'Without stating the obvious, it totally changed my life, brought me opportunities that were not available to me before and I never forget that.'
'Looking back, I realise the song was unlike anything else at the time and the major/minor chord progression and top line produced a tension that would roll into an upbeat chorus with a great hook seemed to hit the spot for millions of people around the world and that was and still is a freaky, awesome and wonderful feeling to have.
'The song spawned hundreds of covers worldwide some of the most notable being Elton John, R.E.M, Lobo, Joe Dassin, and Cliff Richard. It was also used in more than a few films around the worl,d the latest being Alfonso Cuaron's Roma which won BAFTA's and Oscars in 2019. It's stood the test of time and is to this day considered a seventies classic in the music biz.
'Had it not been such a massive worldwide hit, I wouldn't have been able to tour the world, get well paid for the job I love, meet and work with artists and writers that were massive influences on me and that I was also a fan of. Without stating the obvious, it totally changed my life, brought me opportunities that were not available to me before and I never forget that. That success allowed me to carry on making music that I love and gave me some financial security to this day.
'Last but not least it made me realise what a powerful unstoppable force music is for breaking down barriers and a unifying force in a troubled world giving so much pleasure to people everywhere. I am proud to be a tiny cog in that wheel in the industry of human happiness.'