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Is This the way to Pensacola? Record columnist Tam Cowan finds it could all have been so different when he meets his lifelong idol Neil Sedaka at his New York apartment.

Byline: By Brian McIver

IT'S a dusty old town in northern Texas and for the past few months millions of us have been singing about how to get there.

But if it wasn't for a last-minute change of heart and a handy guidebook, everyone heading for Amarillo would have been going in the wrong direction - the song was supposed to have been about a tourist trap in the Gulf of Mexico.

Is This The Way To Pensacola? may not have the same ring about it, but that's how legendary crooner Neil Sedaka first envisioned the tune when he wrote it for Tony Christie 30 years ago.

The easy-listening legend revealed the true nature of the year's biggest hit to Scots broadcaster and Record columnist Tam Cowan for an exclusive new radio series about the best lounge singers of all time.

For Cowan Meets The Crooners, which starts today on Radio Scotland, Tam visits the homes of his boyhood heroes, including Sedaka, Engelbert Humperdinck, Sydney Devine and Jack 'The Love Boat' Jones.

But the real highlight for him was getting invited into the classy apartment of Neil Sedaka last weekend in the Big Apple to listen to some new recordings and hear the story behind Amarillo.

'When we started off chatting to Neil he was telling us about how delighted he was with the success of the song, and that it was the biggest selling single of the year,' said Tam.

'He told us that originally it wasn't going to be Amarillo.

'If he'd stuck to his guns, we'd all have been doing the slosh to Is This The Way To Pensacola, which is a place in Florida.

'But he said there was something about it he just didn't like, the words didn't sound right or whatever. But he'd already written the music and the melody so he still liked the tune.

'Then he basically went through the A-Z of place names in America to find somewhere that had the same beat as Pensacola, and finally saw Amarillo on the map.

'He also told us that from the start of the whole Comic Relief idea, he agreed to sign off the royalties to them. He's away in New York, out the way of it all, so he could easily have creamed off his wee cut, but right away he wanted to give it to charity.'

As well as finding how the famous Tony Christie song was almost named Pensacola - a tourist trap town on the Gulf Coast of Florida, near Alabama - Tam was blown away when Sedaka gave him an exclusive preview of his new album.

Tam is one of the biggest crooner and easy listening fans in Scotland, so getting to meet legends such as Sedaka, famous for hits Oh Carol and Laughter In The Rain, was a dream come true.

And he said it was the highlight of making the new series to be welcomed into Sedaka's lavish home.

TAM added: 'He was so welcoming. He said he very rarely gives interviews these days, but we told him what we wanted to do, how big a fan I was and that on the last night of my honeymoon in Vegas I went to see him in concert.

'So when I walked in to his amazing house on Fifth Avenue, he said to me: 'Congratulations on your marriage. Thanks for coming to see the show!' 'He started talking about my TV and radio shows, so he'd put in some research to find out about me.

'To go into his own house - I just couldn't believe it. It was the most nerve-wracking five minutes of my life walking up to his house from the hotel, and for him to welcome us into his home was just amazing.

'I was a bag of nerves but the guy just put us right at ease. His home was beautiful, the sort of place you see on an open top bus tour.

'He played us two new songs in his house from his new Christmas album, so we're sitting there with Neil Sedaka on his couch, listening to some songs that I'm the first person in the world to hear. Just amazing.'

Tam's new series is a follow-up to a show he did for Radio Scotland two years ago - Cowan's Crooners - where he got to play his favourite crooning tracks to the Scottish public in an attempt to re-educate people about the old school artistes.

Tam said: 'I'm a complete CD-a-holic and 90 per cent of them are crooners like Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones and Andy Williams.

'I was kind of reared on this kind of music.

'When I was young I'd always listen to Frank Skerrit on the radio. He used to play all that old stuff, so it was really drummed into me.

'My dad used to take me to clubs to hear that kind of music and my wee sister Mandy is actually now a cabaret singer.

'I really like the music. It's an absolute obsession.

'Chart stuff is lost on me, but my argument about the crooners is that they could walk into any pub, be handed a mic and they could just start belting them out.

'They wouldn't need a sound check or worry about just miming it.

'After Cowan's Crooners, we thought the natural progression for the show was for me to meet and interview the guys who made this music.

'Unfortunately, to do it any justice, we'd have to do a seance and get out the old ouija board because the majority of them are all pan bread. So we went through the list to see who was still alive and then put in to interview them.

'We're starting off today with Sydney Devine, then Neil Sedaka, then Jack Jones, who did the Love Boat theme, and finally we're going down to see Engelbert Humperdinck at his home in Leicester.'

The Sedaka special is featured in episode two of his new series, which launches today with Tam's encounter with Scottish favourite Sydney Devine.

BUT even though Tam regularly has a joke at the 'Steak and Kidney's' expense in his Record columns and TV or radio spots, he insists he is actually one of his biggest fans For the Scots country star's clip, he took him out to lunch and recorded in a local studio in Glasgow.

'I've had Sydney on the show a few times so I'm quite pally with him. I'm also genuinely a big fan and play his CDs all the time.

'What a career he's had. He's talking on the show about being on stage and singing when Elvis Presley was in the audience.

'He's a big favourite and he's great in it.'

Tam added: 'Jack Jones was the only one we did down the phone line, and that was just because needs must. He was in Palm Springs, California, and he was fantastic.

'Most people know him as the man who sang the Love Boat theme.

'But I'm really looking forward to Engelbert. He's probably one of my all-time favourites and he's a real hero of mine.'

Tam added: 'I thought I'd cracked it just being able to take in my CDs to the BBC and play my favourite songs, but this is even better because the chance to meet these guys is amazing.'

# Cowan Meets The Crooners is on BBC Radio Scotland at 11.30am on Tuesdays, starting today, and is repeated at 10.30pm on Wednesdays

CAPTION(S):

NERVOUS: Crooner fan Tam Cowan meets his hero, Neil Sedaka, at the singer's apartment in the BIg Apple; FOR CHARITY: Peter Kay; starred in the video for the Comic Relief version of Is This The Way To Amarillo, right. But the original song draft actually featured Pensacola; SWOONER: Tony Christie was a pin-up in the Sixties when Sedaka wrote Is This The Way To Amarillo for him. The song was a best-seller again this year
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jul 12, 2005
Words:1323
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