FREDDIE PORTELLI: LONG LIVE THE KING!
Mention Malta and rock ‘n roll in the same sentence and the name Freddie Portelli usually follows, and with good reason too. A local icon with a career that now spans close to five decades, Portelli will perhaps always be remembered for classic tunes such as Viva Malta, Ħallini, Se jkolli nemmen, Ma Kellekx Tort and Għal Dejjem, to name but a few. There is however, much more to Malta’s King of Rock ‘n Roll than simply those evergreens, proof of which is the prominent profile he still enjoys thanks also to a steady stream of releases, the latest of which being the albums Ġej il-Maltemp (released earlier this year) and the more recent Il-Kbir Għadu Ġej, which features some revisited vintage cuts alongside more recent releases. Still busy performing regularly at the ripe old age of 70, Portelli speaks here to Michael Bugeja about the past, the present and what keeps him going.
What would you say is the most memorable moment in your career?
I’ve had many special moments, but one that stands out was our tour in the US. Not only was it an incredible experience but we also got to meet important industry people, among them Mike Asquino, who had even managed to get me an appointment with Elvis Presley, which I unfortunately missed.
I’m sure there have been ups and downs in your career. What has kept you going despite any setbacks you have encountered?
In this business there will always be setbacks, as I’m sure every artist will agree. There was one in particular which I won’t go into detail about however that was quite challenging indeed, but I kept pushing myself to stay focused on the music and in the end I came out on top.
It’s no secret that you have a very loyal fanbase. What is it about your music that connects so strongly with your audience, and on your part, what do you seek to present to the fans through your songs?
I think that primarily it’s that my songs are mostly inspired by factual events that everyone faces on a daily basis. I’ve always made sure that besides matching the music, my lyrics are easy to grasp and comprehend. Having said that, when I perform I try to adapt my song choices according to the audience I’m singing to, as that will be easier for both sides to connect.
Despite having released many songs in English, your Maltese language repertoire seems to appeal more strongly to your fans…
Yes, my songs in Maltese have always been the ones that people really enjoy the most. Whenever I release an album, the first question I’m usually asked is ‘dawn bil-Malti?’. I find that a record with Maltese songs sells better, appealing even to tourists seeking to experience our language in a musical setting. I love to sing in Maltese, but of course, during a performance I also throw in some songs in English.
This summer you released the Ġej il-Maltemp album, which features several new renditions of some of your older songs and was very well-received…
It was, so let me just say I’m very happy with the response to Ġej il-Maltemp and not only from an artist’s perspective but also because the proceeds from this album go to Puttinu Cares. It took off despite the sad fact that many younger radio DJs tend to overlook, and often totally exclude songs in Maltese from their playlists. I am grateful to all those DJs who still believe and appreciate Maltese songs, and who continue to show their support by playing them on their shows.
You’re quite a prolific songwriter. What do you feel most inspired by, lyrically and musically?
As I mentioned earlier, I mostly like to write about factual situations. The song Ġej il-Maltemp for example, directly expresses my concerns about the state of the world today, and Kien Ċampjin Kbir is a song I wrote after watching a documentary about the legendary boxer Rocky Marciano, who remained unbeaten until he retired only to lose his life tragically in a plane crash. Even the simplest love songs I write are factual and are often inspired by personal experiences from both my days as a young bachelor and my life as a happily married man.
The two albums you released this year are both aimed at helping charitable organisations. How important is it that artists use their popularity to support worthy causes?
In life, there is nothing more rewarding than knowing you’ve used the talent God has given you to help others. This has always been my belief and I wholeheartedly encourage all local artists and media personalities to give a helping hand whenever possible. I know a lot of them do already, but there can never be enough. It’s been a hectic year for me to finish these two albums in time and there’s another on the way in aid of the Malta Community Chest Fund.
You’re well-known and have clocked up a huge body of work, and yet your internet presence remains scarce. Are there any plans to boost your web presence, maybe even release a comprehensive anthology or stage a live concert?
Let me start with the internet… I think someone did once set up a website for me but I honestly have no clue on how to get to it (laughs). As for my body of work, up to and including Il-Kbir Għadu Gej, I’ve now recorded well over 300 songs, with more to come. I hadn’t really thought of an anthology but it definitely sounds like a good idea. I’ve been approached many times by people wanting to write my biography and always turned their offers down. However, the latest offer I received included giving part of the proceeds to a charity organisation so I couldn’t refuse really; in fact the book is being written as we speak. As you can see, I’m quite busy so I don’t really have the time to rehearse and put together a full-scale professional concert right now but I’ve learnt to never say never, and as I always say, 'Il-Kbir Għadu Gej', so who knows? Meanwhile, I’d like to wish you and all your readers a Merry Christmas!
Il-Kbir Għadu Gej is available either from RTK or D’Amato Records (Valletta), which also stocks a large selection of previous releases from Freddie Portelli.
An edited version of this article was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta (21 December 2014)