“Larger than life” are words that could apply to no-one more than George Melly. The jazz and blues singer, art critic, writer, journalist and raconteur passed away just six years ago, but my fear is that this huge character will soon be all-but-forgotten. He didn’t have the greatest voice in the world, but nor did he have to. His stage presence and cheeky humour more than made up for that. He was a walking talking encyclopedia of everything related to early jazz, early blues and surrealist art and delighted audiences with his lengthy introductions to the long forgotten songs that made up his repertoire, telling the stories behind the songs and the artists who sang them.
I was lucky enough to see Melly perform three times. He was a singer in the 1950s, but gave it up to concentrate on being an art critic and writing a newspaper column. His musical comeback took place in the early 1970s, with his first performance with John Chilton’s Feetwarmers in Norwich, where I live, prompting him to return to the city many times over the next three decades (a little longer than his associations with the Feetwarmers). The first time I saw Melly was actually at his very last full-length concert with the Feetwarmers. John Chilton no longer wanted to tour to the same extent that Melly did, and so the two went their separate ways. Melly was in fine form that night, singing better than he had for years, and he delighted the audiences not only with songs but also lengthy anecdotes – some not for those easily offended, but that was Melly’s style. The show lasted nearly three hours including the interval – not bad for someone in their mid-70s.
I wasn’t quite so keen on his association with the Digby Fairweather band that followed. I always found Fairweather slightly patronising towards the now-ailing Melly when they were on stage. Melly now sat throughout his performance, with ill-heath setting in. His singing voice had lost any subtleties it had, but Melly knew how to work around such things, and how to work an audience with self-depracating humour, slightly lewd jokes and fascinating info on each song. At this point his three main volumes of autobiography had been reissued in one volume by Penguin, and Melly did a lengthy book-signing session during the interval, which was meant to be twenty minutes or so, but which was double that due to his lengthy chat with each person.
I saw him again the following year, but the signs of struggle were showing more now, and the repertoire wasn’t all that different from the year before. Hugely enjoyable, all the same. When Melly visited the city for his shows he would often be seen wandering around the antique, bric-a-brac shops and used record stores. His trademark Zoot suit wasn’t only worn on stage, but also off as well as he went about his business. The only time I saw him not wearing it was about half an hour before this final performance. The audience had started filing in, but Melly had obviously left something on stage during the rehearsal or sound check. On he wandered, wearing pyjamas. He turned to us and said “you have to forgive an old man. I only get dressed for performances these days!”. After the show he joined some of the audience in the bar, and I was lucky enough to chat to him for a while. And, despite his ill-health (he had emphysema and lung cancer by this point) and the onset of dementia, he remarkably remembered my name from the book-signing the year before. It goes without saying that he got through about four drinks to everybody elses one.
Melly returned the following year, but I didn’t go and see him. There were reports that he was a shadow of his former self, and I wanted to remember him as he was. I had spent six or seven hours sitting just a few feet away while he was on stage, and spent an hour or so in his company off-stage, and I didn’t want to taint those memories. That turned out to be his final performance here.
Melly was a household name here in the UK for many years, with his skills as a raconteur making sure he was a staple of the chat show circuit for decades. He also wrote and presented one-off documentaries on surreal art and forgotten jazz musicians, and had his own music series in 1982. Much of his stage act (and the LPs he made with Chilton) was centred around reviving songs from the early jazz era which would otherwise be forgotten. But, five years after his passing, Melly himself now seems destined to be forgotten himself. The chat-show today is a place to sell your wares; there seems to be no place in the world today for people who simply like to talk and share their knowledge. Stephen Fry is probably the only real raconteur we have left. An article in The Independent newspaper sums Melly up:
“…to meet the delightful Mr M is to encounter a constant blizzard of amusing tales. You soon learn that he would much rather swap literary stories, showbiz gossip and Green Room hilarities than talk soberly about his Life and Current Projects. Amazon explorers…have an easier time of it than the hapless interviewer who tries to steer Mr Melly through thickets of anecdotal charm towards a straight answer about what he is up to these days.”
Melly finishes the interview by saying “You know, I started life with an adolescent enthusiasm for three things – Surrealism, Bessie Smith and fly-fishing – and I finish up with exactly the same three. Isn’t that extraordinary?” In one of his last interviews he said “I’m no genius, but I do have a talent to amuse”.
Melly is featured as part of a BBC4 documentary on the 1950s British jazz scene this coming Friday. It will be sure to remind people of this charistmatic, talented man.