Whenever I hear the name George Melly, I don’t immediately think of the flamboyant suits, the big fedora hats or the even bigger voice.
I think of my mum heckling him…
When I started to take interest in the music of the 50s and 60s, and the characters within it, my old man took great delight in telling me that one night, and Gods knows where, my Mum and Dad were at a performance of Melly’s.
In between each song he’d tell a story or two, only whatever he talked about really upset my old mum ‘you’re disgusting you are’ she shouted at him ‘you want locking up’ and then stormed off out of the venue with the old man bringing up the rear.
Mum never really spoke about George after that, but if he ever appeared on her telly, she was off again, ranting at him ‘oooh aint having any of him I aint, he’s a right wrong ‘un’.
Of course, all that made me want to check out naughty old George even more. What I discovered was that he had a voice like a foghorn and his music was basically old 1920s New Orleans songs by the like of Fats Waller & Bessie Smith. Not really my cup of jazz if I’m honest, but I discovered I had more time for the man himself. He seemed to live for pleasure alone and had right old time carousing wherever he ended up, which from what I read on him seemed to be mainly in Soho.
During the 80s and 90s he was a regular on my telly too, always good for a raucous comment or three on chat and panel shows. I also hunted down some of his books, such as ‘Revolt into Style; Pop Arts in Britain’ from 1971 and ‘Rum, Bum and Concertina’ his autobiography covering his war service in the 1940s, which was particularly ribald in nature.
He was born Alan George Heywood Melly in Liverpool in August 1927 and educated at Stowe, the liberal boarding school in Buckinghamshire. There, uninhibited in every way, he developed an early interest in art and music with a particular interest in Surrealism and the Blues.
He joined the Royal Navy as an able seaman at the end of the Second World War ‘much nicer uniforms’ he recalled later. He served both on land and sea, though never saw actual active duty.
He did however narrowly avoid a court martial having been found to have been distributing anarchist leaflets. Melly was bisexual and an active homosexual as a younger man, though mainly heterosexual in his later years. He later married twice and became the father of two children.
Once discharged from the Navy, he found employment in following his passions. He worked at an Art Gallery specialising in Surrealism and in music, when he joined the Mick Mulligan Magnolia jazz band as a singer in 1947.
This was very much in the trad jazz idiom alongside the likes of Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk and Monty Sunshine. Melly featured on many albums over the years that followed, both as front man in his own right and as part of various other line-ups.
Later in the early 60s his own music took a backward step as he began to write as a music and film critic for The Observer. He also supplied the words for the comic strip ‘Flook’ for 15 years as illustrated by fellow jazzer Wally Fawkes under the name of Trog. George also wrote the script for the 1967 film ‘Smashing Time’.
He returned to his musical life in the mid 70s and is probably remembered most of all for his time in the John Chiltern Feet Warmers line up.
Melly also had a love of fishing and had a second home in the Brecon Beacons where he could indulge that passion on the River Usk, escaping the business of his London life. Indeed he later sold paintings by Picasso and Magritte to enable him to buy a stretch of the river.
He continued to be active in all fields of his life, right up until he began to suffer the effects of going deaf, Dementia and ultimately lung cancer. Even in ill health he joked that he actually quite enjoyed the Dementia because aspects of it reminded him of past LSD trips he had in the 60s.
George Melly died aged 80 in the July of 2007. Kenny Ball played a New Orleans funeral march as he led George’s cardboard coffin, decorated with hand drawn cartoons and photographs, to the crematorium
‘I don’t understand people panicking about death. It’s inevitable’ he said near the end.
George Melly was undeniably a larger than life character and to whom I will leave the last word…
He once asked Mick Jagger why his face was so wrinkled. ‘Laughter lines’ Mick said with a grin.
‘Nothing’s that funny’. Replied Melly
The Mumper of SE5