For the Love of Christie
A 60s Pop Star and His Personal Historian
By Dave Hoekstra
Lou Christie's trademark falsetto propelled his song "Lightnin' Strikes" to the top of the charts in February 1966. Lightning didn't strike twice, though--Christie never had another number one record. In a career that's spanned four decades, the pop singer has posted just three hits in the Billboard top ten.
But that doesn't matter to Harry Young, the 44-year-old president of the Lou Christie International Fan Club. He's been following the singer's every move since 1977, when he began publishing Lightning Strikes, the club's twice-a-year newsletter. Young has also penned detailed liner notes for five reissues of Christie's recordings. Backstage after a 1982 concert at the Holiday Star Theatre in Merrillville, Christie pointed to his tall and studious-looking fan and said, "This guy knows me better than I do."
"Lou Christie is a much bigger story than me--I'm just a behind-the-scenes guy," says Young, who runs the club out of his studio apartment in Hyde Park when he's not working part-time for a retired history professor. A pile of newspaper clippings about Christie stands at least a foot high. "His voice has a purity to it....If there is only one record I could own, it would be 'Lightnin' Strikes.' For sure. Without any doubt at all."
A Tulsa native, Young was nine years old when he first heard Lou Christie. "The Gypsy Cried," the singer's first hit, blared out of his transistor radio in the winter of 1963. But the music didn't become an obsession right away. "All this didn't come on until the mid-70s," Young says. "I wouldn't write off to Australia to get a one-of-a-kind Lou Christie picture sleeve."
You do that now?
In 1977, after graduating from Antioch College, Young went to the University of Chicago, where he earned a master's degree in Egyptology. He says he now approaches Christie's music "in the same way an Egyptologist would approach ancient history."
But Christie's only 55 years old.
"History is the same thing as music for me," he explains. "And that's studying obscure subjects in detail and depth. After a while you can dig into anything. Chronology is your big deal. Always establish a dateline, and that's the first thing I do when I start on a CD project. The 60s weren't 4,000 years ago, but there's still plenty of holes to fill."
Lou Christie was born Lugee Alfredo Giovanni Sacco in Glen Willard, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. Christie's mother still lives in the area.
"Yeah, I went to his mother's house," Young admits when pressed.
Was Lou there?
"No," he responds, a bit uncomfortably.
"It's truly amazing, but Harry is so precise in his findings," Christie says in a phone call from Hollywood, where he says he's hoping to land some television gigs. "He finds obscure things, and I go, 'I didn't know I had that come out in Italy.' He is the keeper of the Lou Christie castle. It's all interesting to find out, but it's not up to me to question it. When you do art, it's best if it's not analyzed too much."
Young's fan club currently has about 500 members. He writes, edits, and assembles the newsletter himself; each issue runs around 40 pages. Members pay $11 annual dues, which offsets some of his production costs. "There's no question it's a nonprofit enterprise," he says.
Bound volumes of the newsletters are kept under a bedside table. "People call in the middle of the night and ask, 'What was the date of Lou's things-I-like-and-things-I-hate in 16 magazine?'" He reaches for a tome about the size of the Bible. "And then I can say, 'Well, just wait a minute.'" Smiling, he begins to thumb through the book. "I'm left-handed," he says, "so this starts from back to front."
Reaching under the nightstand again, Young pulls out a Japanese copy of Christie's 1970 record "She Sold Me Magic." He waves it like a wand. "The Billboard chart says it only went to number seven in Japan, but it definitely went gold in Japan." His voice drops to a whisper. "Because I saw the gold record at his mother's house."
Young's most recent project was writing and researching the liner notes for the Varese Vintage reissue of Beyond the Blue Horizon/Hey You Cajun, originally released in 1974 as Lou Christie. Despite the minor hit "Beyond the Blue Horizon"--which was later used in the 1988 film Rain Man--this is not Christie's best work. He sounds as disoriented singing the country song "Wilma Lee and Stoney" as he does singing standards like "Mack the Knife" and "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah."
"Researching this was a real problem because most of the principals besides Lou were dead," explains Young. "It was 1974. Lou was coming out of his Buddha Records bubblegum period."
Buddha was the home of such bubblegum stars as the Lemon Pipers and 1910 Fruitgum Company. Christie was living in England, where he married Francesca Winfield, a U.K. beauty queen. His career was flagging, and he decided to break with his manager Stan Polley, who also handled the band Badfinger.
"So Lou comes back to the United States and begins working with the late Tony Romeo, who wrote hits for the Cowsills ['Indian Lake'] and the Partridge Family ['I Think I Love You']. Yet Lou does a country album for Creed Taylor's fusion jazz label. So you got a guy known for falsetto 60s pop doing country on a fusion jazz label!"
Young takes a breath and shakes his head. He can't find it in his heart to say anything bad about Christie, though he will admit to being "totally confused" by the singer's lounge treatment of "Mack the Knife." He walks over to a box of CDs near his bed and takes out a copy of Christie's latest solo CD, Pledging My Love, released in 1997 on Varese Sarabande. The laid-back texture of the record signals a departure. Young says, "In Billboard magazine, Gene Sculatti wrote, 'Most Impressive Comebacks: Tie--Bob Dylan, 'Time Out of Mind'; Lou Christie, 'Pledging My Love.' And should anyone doubt that endorsement, Sculatti's column is reprinted in Lightning Strikes, volume 35.
"Lou went to North Carolina and cut this record with a couple of young musicians. And then he did some songs with Tony Visconti [who produced Sparks, Marc Bolan, and David Bowie]. Visconti plays bass and accordion on two of the record's tracks." Young points to a picture of Christie with the North Carolina musicians, Visconti, and May Pang (an ex-girlfriend of John Lennon, she's now married to Visconti). Christie travels in some interesting circles.
Young picks up a magazine called Perfect 10, which features photos of naked women with "almost no retouching," according to the publication's mission statement. What does this have to do with Lou Christie?
"Of course, there's a whole lot of nudity in here," Young says, turning pages. "But there's a three-page interview with Lou. And here's Bianca." He holds up a color picture of Christie's 25-year-old blond daughter, who is wearing nothing but a bikini bottom.
Young is most gratified by his liner notes for last summer's reissue package, The Complete Co & Ce/Roulette Recordings. "I account for his movements on almost every fucking day," he says with pride. "I list all his performances over two years. I dug up information from the wife and daughter of Bert Burns, who produced some of the tracks--he worked with Van Morrison [he produced 'Brown Eyed Girl'] and wrote 'Hang on Sloopy' and 'Twist and Shout.'" Burns wrote the music for Christie's ballad "You May Be Holding My Baby." The lyrics were by Paul Colby, owner of the Bitter End nightclub in New York City and a former gofer for Frank Sinatra. "So I called Paul Colby," Young says. "He's still at the Bitter End. It turned out that was the only song he had ever written. I asked him so many questions he stopped and asked me, 'Are you writing a book about this song?'
"As you might well imagine, I'm on a constant search for new and exotic forms of Lou memorabilia." Young has copies of Christie's albums from Australia, Japan, South Africa, Taiwan, and Israel. "You meet some of these fanatics, and they'll only listen to their favorite artist all day long," he says. "I treat this much more like a wine collector. I savor it."
Young even owns a copy of Walks Under a Northern Sky, a project headlined by Russian conceptual poet and painter Dmitri Strizhov and his band Obermaneken. Lou Christie guests on two tracks. "It's the most wigged-out thing Lou's done," he says. On the song "The Admiral's Last Adventure at Sea," Christie raps in English over what sounds like industrial bluegrass. "Lou Christie has big ideas," Young says.
But though he may be Christie's biggest fan, Young has also written liner notes for artists as well-known as Desmond Dekker and as obscure as Bob Kuban ("He had a big hit in Saint Louis called 'The Cheater'"). He says he brings to every project the same devotion to detail. Once, he recalls, his constant digging for information upset Phil Walden, the onetime manager of Otis Redding. Young was writing liner notes for Sweet Soul Music: The Best of Arthur Conley. "Otis Redding had a label called Jotis Records that he released Arthur's stuff on. Since Phil managed Otis and Arthur, I asked, 'What does Jotis mean?' And he said, 'OK, it breaks down to Joe Galkin and Otis Redding.' Joe Galkin was a promo man for Atco Records, which distributed Jotis. I asked him how to spell Joe Galkin, at which point he started screaming. He went on about how I was an anal retentive idiot. I stopped him and said, 'Sir, I am a historian.'"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Harry Young photos by Nathan Mandell.