Alfie Boe may have performed in some of the world’s great classical venues, but he also has the rare ability to bring together all sorts of music lovers. Not many artists can lay claim to having appeared in Les Miserables, La Boheme and a spectacular orchestral version of the classic rock album Quadrophenia. He is a singer who transcends categories, often to the bemusement of critics who prefer to keep him in a pigeonhole. “When I look at the crowd at my concerts,” he says, “I can see I’ve got Who fans, classical fans, musical theatre fans and jazz fans as well.”
His new album ‘As Time Goes By’ finds him venturing down another avenue as he explores the songs that were the pop music of the 1930s and 1940s. Revisiting classic songs such as “Sing, Sing, Sing”, “Stompin’ At The Savoy” and the Glenn Miller signature tune “Moonlight Serenade”, he brings to life an era when British audiences discovered a brand new kind of American music, full of energy, optimism and romance.
It is the music that was part of the soundtrack of Alfie’s childhood in Lancashire. In a way, the new project is a homage to his parents, who – along with their passion for tenors and sopranos – introduced him to the glories of big bands and classics by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra.
“They were really into the big bands – Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie,” Alfie recalls. “Dad’s range in taste was huge. I always say my first musical education came from him: he introduced me to so many fantastic artists who have influenced me all my life. I remember a story my mother told me. When she was pregnant with me she was watching a TV show and Gene Krupa came on and started the drum solo from Sing Sing Sing. She had a cup of tea on her tummy, and immediately she felt me kick and the tea went up in the air. She always told this story and it made me realise I was connected with music even before I was born.”
Ever since he exploded onto the music scene nearly 20 years ago, Alfie has racked up one extraordinary achievement after another, building a loyal audience on both sides of the Atlantic. He has two UK Number 1 albums to his credit, while ‘Together’ and ‘Together Again’, his collaborations with another versatile singer, his good friend Michael Ball, have together sold more than one million copies. The pair performed live for tens of thousands of fans during a six-week sold-out tour, and starred in two ITV specials. They took New York by storm last year as well in a show at one of The Big Apple’s most prestigious venues, City Center. Earlier this year, they won two Classic BRIT Awards and topped the poll in Classic FM’s Album of the Year list.
Alfie’s rise to classical fame was anything but conventional. Born in Blackpool in 1973 and raised in the fishing port of Fleetwood (his unusual surname comes from a sea-faring great-grandfather from Norway) he grew up in a home where
music was ever-present. His parents introduced to all sorts of styles, from opera to country, rock ‘n’ roll to big band swing, pop to rhythm & blues. Before he set his sights on becoming a professional singer, he fell in love with the drums, which remain a passion to this day: he has a drum-kit in his home, along with an impressive collection of guitars.
Working in a sports car factory, he sang in clubs and appeared in amateur-dramatics in his spare time. His big break came when a customer with music industry connections overheard him singing at the factory and advised him to try auditioning with the D’Oyly Carte company in London. It was the start of an extraordinary new chapter. (“D’Oyly Carte was really exciting, I loved every minute,” Alfie recalls. “Eight shows a week, different towns each week, lots of B&Bs.”) Soon afterwards, he gained a much-coveted place at the Royal College of Music, and later joined the Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House, where, he admits, his rebellious streak wasn’t always appreciated.
His career exploded into the stratosphere in 2002 when stage and film director Baz Luhrmann cast him in a lead role in his acclaimed Broadway revival of ‘La Boheme’. Alfie’s powerhouse performance brought him a Tony award and marked his arrival on the international scene.
In the years that followed, he continued to tackle fresh challenges in opera and musical theatre. He appeared in Kismet at the English National Opera in 2007. And in 2010, in one of the biggest triumphs of his career so far, he stole the show as Jean Valjean in the 25th-anniversary concert performance of Les Miserables at the O2 Arena. He subsequently played the role in the West End and on Broadway.
2013 saw Alfie awarded a Fellowship of the Royal College of Music; he also appeared in ITV’s hit series, Mr Selfridge, playing a music hall singer. Two years later he broke new ground again when he collaborated with one of his heroes, Pete Townshend, in Classic Quadrophenia, an ambitious re-working of the classic Who album featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Billy Idol. Alfie’s performance as the young mod, Jimmy, won rapturous applause at the Royal Albert Hall in London and in Vienna. He reprised the role last year in a US production, once again alongside Pete Townshend. In 2017 he was also back at ENO’s Coliseum to play Billy Bigelow in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s vintage musical ‘Carousel’, co-starring with the best-selling soprano Katherine Jenkins.
There was huge acclaim, too, for his performances at the Queen’s diamond jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace and Her Majesty’s 90th birthday celebrations at Windsor Castle.
Throughout his career, Alfie has followed his own path, putting authenticity and emotion ahead of the convention. In his autobiography, he reflects on the challenge of “learning all the rules so I’d know how to break them.” Part of his quest has also involved seeking out musicians “who play instinctively without having to
have it spelt out for them.” As he enters the next intriguing phase of his career, he is still pushing against the boundaries.