An article by
Maya Radcliffe for PRS For Music, the magazine of the Performing
Rights Association, written in 2020 to commemorate Yellow
I WROTE THAT
Yellow River: Christie
FIFTY years ago, April 23, 1970, English rock band Christie
released their chart-topping hit Yellow
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.
It has been covered by the likes of Elton John,
R.E.M and Cliff Richard, and continues to be heavily synced
in film, including the Oscar-nominated Roma
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 songwriting,
which eventually led to us getting a recording contract.
"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!
It was 50 years ago today: Jeff outside
the Cornwall Gardens apartment block he stayed in when Yellow
River became a worldwide smash.
"In 1968, a TV documentary
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 60s, 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
"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
"Amazing to think that at its
peak, in the UK alone, it was selling 80, 90 and 100,000
"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 26 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 30 million,
but it just became a number to me eventually.
"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
"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
"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
"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.
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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.
"Looking back, I realise the
song was unlike anything else at the time, and the major/minor
chord progression and top line which 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 world, 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."