The cover of my EP (45rpm) of George Melly Sings Doom, bought second-hand when I was at school, shows the flamboyant bluesman in a Hamlet pose, contemplating a Yorick-style skull. More than 40 years later, it is Melly himself, the prince – or possibly queen, in view of his earlier inclinations – of British blues whom the Grim Reaper has finally cut down. Alas, poor George: we knew him well, thanks to his unfettered autobiographies and his wife Diana's account of their riotous times.
George went on to become a critic and writer – in particular, on the subject of Surrealism – before returning to the bandstand. The trumpeter Digby Fairweather had been a fan ever since he read Owning Up in the Sixties; he leads the last band with which George sang.
Fairweather was still writing this book when its subject died in July. Finished copies were produced in August, a speed that makes forgivable the fact that its conversational style, like some of George's patter between numbers, could have used a little editing.
This wonderful tribute to George's talents also includes the bum notes. What with his deafness, drink and dementia, George was not an easy passenger to be locked in with during a long car journey between gigs. Then there was the incontinence problem. Caught peeing against a wall in Soho, George explained the medical reasons that led to the urgent unzipping. The copper was sympathetic, but asked if, another time, he could chose a building other than the police station.
Diana made no claim to angelic status, but George was enough to try the patience of the most saintly of wives. At one concert "Babs", George's long-term girlfriend, sat down in the front row without, as became apparent, any knickers.
Fairweather was far from being a fair-weather friend. He became a roadie, nanny and nurse. He found himself caught between the rock of George and the hard places of Diana and the irascible agent, Jack Higgins. George felt that performing was keeping him alive, which might have been true, but Diana feared it might be killing him, which also seemed a distinct possibility. On 10 June, he was singing "Old rockin' chair's got me..." at his own testimonial concert, albeit from the comfort of his wheelchair; afterwards he thought he had been at a pantomime. On 4 July, he was dead. The last chapter is moving without being sentimental, like the best 12-bar blues.
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