This post was originally posted in 2013. It was revised and updated in June 2017.
“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 ten years ago, on July 5, 2007) and is unlikely to be forgotten by those of us old enough to remember him gracing our TV screens while we were growing up. 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, surrealist art and beyond, and delighted audiences of his stage performances with his lengthy spoken introductions to the long forgotten songs that made up his repertoire, telling the stories behind the songs and the artists who sang them.
He was a singer in the 1950s, but gave it up to concentrate on writing, including newspaper columns, a book on popular culture (now thankfully available again due to the wonders of Kindle), and screenplays for two films – one of which was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best English-Language Foreign Film (both of those films are now available for streaming through Amazon). His musical comeback took place in the early 1970s, with his first performance with John Chilton’s Feetwarmers in Norwich (if his on-stage recollections were correct), 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).
I was lucky enough to see him perform three times. The first time I saw George 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 he did, he told the audience, and so the two went their separate ways. He was in fine form that night, singing as well as I ever heard him on records, and he delighted the audiences not only with songs but also lengthy anecdotes – some not for those easily offended, it has to be said, but that was his 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. They didn’t appear to be the same perfect fit as George and John Chilton. He now sat throughout his performance, with ill-heath setting in. His singing voice had lost any subtleties it had, the previous year but Melly knew how to work around such things, and how to work an audience with self-deprecating humour, slightly lewd jokes and fascinating info on each song. By this point his three main volumes of autobiography had been reissued in one volume by Penguin, and he 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. In fact, it was the slowest book-signing I have ever witnessed, and that appeared to have been due entirely to a love of talking – and that, especially in this day and age where we type everything, is no bad thing.
I saw him again the following year, but the signs of struggle were showing more now, and the repertoire was essentially the same as the year before. Hugely enjoyable, all the same. When he visited the city for his shows he would often be seen wandering around the antique, bric-a-brac shops and used record stores. I had seen him around Norwich years before I actually saw him on stage – my love of jazz not arriving until I was in my late 20s. His trademark suits weren’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 he had seemingly left something on stage during the rehearsal or sound check. On he wandered, wearing pyjamas. He turned to the few of us already in our seats and said “you have to forgive an old man. I only get dressed for the performance”.
George 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 I didn’t want to taint those memories. That turned out to be his final performance here. Perhaps not going was the wrong thing to do.
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, ten 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”.
Sadly very little of George Melly’s recorded work is available at the time of writing. There are a few compilations available on CD, but most of his albums with John Chilton have never, alas, made the transition from vinyl to the shiny discs. Perhaps even worse, there are no DVDs of his stage performances and, strangely, relatively little on YouTube as well. Here’s hoping that this will change in the near future, so that a new generation can rediscover his work.
Thankfully, his albums are relatively easy to get hold of on vinyl through Ebay or Amazon Marketplace. It may come as no surprise that many of those being sold have George’s huge signature scrawled across the front or back cover…no doubt added at one of those elongated interval signing sessions at a gig whilst chatting away with his lucky audience!