When I was considering candidates for a list of great English eccentrics, it became quite a depressing exercise as I realised just how many are no longer with us. And one of who has shuffled off this mortal coil is the late, great George Melly.
Perhaps the nearest thing to a Bohemian Renaissance Man that 20th Century Britain could boast, Melly was a rather shambolic but always nattily-dressed figure known to many as an erudite and entertaining TV personality.
But what really made him tick was his passion for jazz and blues, writing and modern art. Over the years, he sang, wrote, judged (as a film & TV critic) and lectured with the authority and passion that only a true eccentric can muster.
Melly was born in August 1926 in Liverpool and discovered an interest in modern art and jazz and blues while still at school. He joined the Royal Navy towards the end of the Second World War – opting for the navy because the uniforms were “so much nicer”. But, according to his autobiography ‘Rum, Bum and Concertina’ he was disappointed when he was not sent to a ship and was thus denied the bell-bottom uniform he had set his heart on. Later, however, he did see ship duty but never saw active combat - but he was almost court-martialled for distributing anarchist literature.
After the war, Melly found work in a London surrealist gallery, and gradually drifted into the world of jazz music, finding work with Mick Mulligan's Magnolia Jazz Band. His distinctive singing style was heavily influenced by his idol, Bessie Smith, and he rejoiced in the earthy bawdy side of the music. At a time when many British jazz enthusiasts treated the genre with almost religious solemnity, Melly stood out for his exuberant stage performances.
He retired from jazz in the early 1960s when he became a film critic for The Observer, and started writing the Daily Mail’s satirical newspaper strip ‘Flook’. He also wrote the script of the 1967 satirical film ‘Smashing Time’.
But Melly couldn’t stay away from sirens of jazz for long. He returned to the scene in the early ‘70s with John Chilton’s Feetwarmers, a partnership that lasted until 2003. He later sang with Digby Fairweather's band. And all the while, he kept writing, including the ‘Mellymobile’ column in Punch magazine which described his life on tour.
His humour was never far from the surface, as reflected by his recording of a track called 'Old Codger' with The Stranglers in 1978 especially written for him by the band.
Melly married twice and had a child from each marriage. His second wife, Diana, gace birth to their son two days after their wedding in 1963 – a real scandal in those conservative times.
Not content with his wide range of professional interests, Melly was an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association. He was also a member of the Max Miller Appreciation Society (Max Miller was a celebrated English music hall comedian and actor who died in the early 60s) and in May 2005 joined Roy Hudd, Sir Norman Wisdom and others to unveil a statue of Miller in Brighton.
George Melly was larger than life, brimming over with brio and with a wit as sharp and infectious as a contaminated needle.
As the end of the 20th century approached, Melly started suffering from a range of health problems, including vascular dementia, emphysema and lung cancer. Nonetheless, he remained active in music, journalism and lecturing on surrealism and other aspects of modern art.
His last performance, at the 100 Club in London, was on 10 June 2007, less than a month before his death at the age of 80.
Until the end, he lived life to the full – and I guess that’s the way it should be.