Obituary: Ray Coleman

"Somewhere - he must be near a telephone." Ray Coleman's insistent demands could instil a sense of urgency into the most indolent and laid- back rock writer. As the editor of Melody Maker, the world's best weekly music paper, Coleman was determined to exact Fleet Street standards from his staff. Through his own strong will and professionalism, he helped create a dynamic newspaper that prospered throughout the heyday of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, into the era of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

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."

Chris Welch

Ray Coleman, journalist and author: born Leicester 15 June 1937; married 1965 Pamela Rudd (two sons); died 10 September 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future