Obituary: Ray Coleman
Friday 13 September 1996
His own brand of hard-hitting popular journalism helped revitalise what could have remained a cosy trade journal. Banner headlines proclaiming "Beatle Mania!" and candid interviews with John Lennon and Paul McCartney brought a bold new realism to pop reporting. Tenacious and competitive, Coleman demanded and got the best interviews, in which he probed the characters of pop stars previously treated as mere fanzine fodder. He also delighted in controversy and confrontation and was not averse to such abrasive headlines as "Stones Flop In America" even if it meant angry calls from their manager, Andrew Oldham, or scowls from Mick Jagger. Typically Colemanesque headlines would proclaim: "Boiling Beatles Blast Copycats", "Beatles Blast Knockers" or "Would You Let Your Sister Go With A Rolling Stone?"
Yet, behind the tough exterior of the "foot in the door" reporter who became the copy-chasing editor was an essentially shy and nervously energetic man, who loved traditional jazz, chess, the songs of Bob Dylan and the music of Miles Davis. He was fond of making snap judgements. "Losers" or "boring" would be his response to heavy promotion for artists he couldn't stomach. But in the fast-moving pop world he liked to keep his finger on the pulse, using the phrase himself with conscious irony.
The son of a Polish immigrant, Coleman was born in Leicester and started his career on the Leicester Evening Mail at the age of 15. He served as a copy boy and managed to sneak in reports about his own chess matches. A keen and determined player, he eventually became a runner-up in the Great Britain Junior Chess Championships.
At the age of 20 he joined the Brighton Evening Argus where he spent a year "covering courts, councils, fires and murders". His ambition was to become a Fleet Street reporter, but for a while he went to the Manchester Evening News to specialise in industry. At the same time, he became a "stringer" for Melody Maker. His brother was a semi-professional jazz guitarist and the MM was considered essential family reading. He said later: "As a practising journalist, I kept looking to Melody Maker, which I thought was much better than the typical fan magazine of the time, and I was vain enough to think I should write for it."
After five years in Manchester he was offered a job with the MM. "I laughed actually because all I had ever wanted was to get on the Daily Telegraph as a news reporter. I wanted to wear a dirty raincoat and get my foot in the door. I liked to think I didn't take 'No' for an answer." Coleman joined the Melody Maker at their Fleet Street office in 1960, and at first found it hard to adjust to a different style of showbiz journalism. He couldn't see what was "newsworthy" about a string of Cliff Richard tour dates and preferred to stir up a row with the BBC or research a heavily angled investigation into the music business. Feeling frustrated, he planned to defect to the Daily Telegraph. Then he encountered a classic put-down from a Telegraph executive at his job interview. Asked where he worked, he replied: "The Melody Maker." And before that? "The Manchester Evening News." After a long pause, the executive inquired icily: "Tell me, Mr Coleman, why did you leave journalism?"
Coleman was now determined to stay and prove the MM was a "real" newspaper. The paper vigorously covered the Trad jazz boom when Chris Barber, Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball were headline news. Then, in 1963, the Beatles stormed to the top of the charts and the music scene changed overnight. Coleman became both their confidant and biggest fan. They enjoyed his enthusiastic support and his perceptive interviews gave them a chance to be witty and outspoken. MM's circulation rose on a tidal wave of Beatlemania. Coleman became friends not only with the Beatles, but with their manager, Brian Epstein, and was welcomed on their historic early trips to America.
Within three years, Coleman became assistant editor under Jack Hutton. Says Jack: "Ray was merciless when it came to getting interviews. He'd tell a prevaricating PR when he was trying to get hold of John Lennon: 'Don't give me all that. Somewhere he's within three yards of a telephone.' He was a master at tracking people down. If people weren't co- operative he'd ignore them and go his own way. We used to beat the NME every week with his exclusive interviews. And people trusted him. He never misquoted people and never fantasised. He never used fancy phrases but managed to convey the artists' feelings in an honest and straightforward way and in some depth."
In 1965, Coleman was promoted to become Editor of Disc, another IPC magazine. He returned to edit Melody Maker in 1970, when Jack Hutton left to start a new rival weekly, Sounds. During the boom years of rock, the MM covered the rise of David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Led Zeppelin and Genesis, and the circulation rose to over 200,000 copies a week. As Editor-in-Chief, Coleman oversaw the establishment of an American edition of the MM, created new titles, Black Music and Musicians Only, and continued to champion new acts like Bob Marley and Queen on the MM's "real newspaper" front page. In the late Seventies, critics claimed the MM had become out of step with changing times. Coleman responded by commissioning new writers like Caroline Coon and Allan Jones to tackle punk rock and the New Wave.
As an avowed socialist and a man of firm principles, Coleman never much enjoyed kow- towing to management. After an uncomfortable spell in the role of publisher, he quit IPC in the early Eighties and handed over the editorial reins of the MM to Richard Williams and Mike Oldfield. He applied all his old energy to his chosen role as a freelance author and produced a series of biographies noted for their accurate portrayals and meticulous research.
After making his debut with a book about the singer Gary Numan (1982), his first major project was a two-volume biography of John Lennon, first published in 1984. The first volume, John Winston Lennon, covered his career until he met Yoko Ono and the second, John Ono Lennon, covered the rest of his life. The first book was authorised by Cynthia Lennon and the second by Yoko. "It was quite a coup," says the Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn. "Ray managed to bridge the gap between the two widows, who were usually at loggerheads. The book was very successful and it was the first exhaustive biography of Lennon. It was candid but it wasn't scurrilous and you could be sure that everything in Ray's book actually happened. He loved Lennon and he didn't hide that, so it was an affectionate biography."
Coleman next wrote Eric Clapton's authorised biography, Survivor, in 1985. His book on the life of the late Brian Epstein (1989) was written with the help of Brian's mother, Queenie, who was blind, and he read every single line of the manuscript to her before publication. Subsequent books included Stone Alone (1990) with Bill Wyman, another with Gerry Marsden of the Pacemakers (1993), and most recently books on the Carpenters (1994) and Frank Sinatra (1995). With Paul McCartney's assistance he wrote a book about one song, McCartney's classic "Yesterday". Says Lewisohn: "Everybody thought it was not only a daft idea but it would be a very slim volume. He quite cleverly turned out the book called Yesterday and Today comprising 80,000 words which really went into the song and the times when it was written."
At the time of his death, Coleman was working on a biography of Phil Collins, due to be published next year. Apart from his writing, Coleman was closely involved with a fund- raising committee in aid of music therapy and also served on committees at the Performing Rights Society which helped set up an annual John Lennon Music Award.
Ray Coleman became ill last summer and was found to have a rare form of cancer of the kidney. He had the kidney removed and underwent intensive care and treatment. His wife, Pamela, says: "He refused to admit defeat and carried on working. He loved to sit in our 17th-century thatched cottage overlooking the sea near Land's End, writing and holding seven-hour phone conversations with Richard Carpenter and Paul McCartney. People would always ask him: 'Did you really know the Beatles?' We joked that would be on his memorial. He still loved to play chess with his friends - but as in everything, he always played to win."
Ray Coleman, journalist and author: born Leicester 15 June 1937; married 1965 Pamela Rudd (two sons); died 10 September 1996.
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