This piece is from Chris Wade's book, THE LIFE AND WORK OF GEORGE MELLY...
George enjoyed his time as a cultural commentator in the 1960s, but even though he had a strong family life, nice house, good job, money, success, the right kind of fame and a generally steady going on, there was an itch that needed to be scratched. Only problem was, Melly didn't know what it was. At the end of 1960s, the mainstream music scene began to open up. The R and B boom of the mid sixties, which had put to death anything that wasn't beaten out by four or five hairy young lads with six strings, had lost its steam, and thanks to The Beatles and other mind expanding groups, more varied musical forms were acceptable once again in the mainstream. Even jazz, often a dirty word in the 1960s, was finding new popularity. George began making the odd appearance in the provinces and singing the odd song in London, not making money he says but just enough to cover expenses. He soon realised that this was the itch that needed scratching. "A performer is very similar to an alcoholic," George wrote, and one can see his point. He pined for the crowd once again, the musician's life style, the lure of the open road.
Melly admitted this desired return to the stage was ego driven, but the truth is that in the ten year gap since he had last been performing, his voice had taken on a whole new tone. Not only that, he was older, wiser perhaps, and singing those old jazz standards in a more weathered, world weary tone offered the material pathos, humour and genuine excitement. Melly had lived, no longer a snotty young lad, but a middle aged writer who found himself tempted enough by jazz to return, against all odds, to the dazzling (and often undazzling) world of show business.
At first, George began gigging with Alan Elsdon and his band, but he sought something more tight and reliable. Melly became interested in a band called The Chilton-Fawkes Feetwarmers who played every weekend at Merlin's Cave in King's Cross. They were a killer group, and George wanted in! He loved watching them at the "shabby" pub, where the landlord had split the bar and the live room in half so children could come into the venue, and drinkers could simply carry their pints in from the bar. It was a way of saving money, but as a result George said the atmosphere was grand, and obviously the audience was larger.
Wally Fawkes and John Chilton were up front in the band, as Melly described, blowing their respective instruments with passion (ooer!) and precision. Backing them up was a band including Bruce Turner on the sax, and Melly was tempted then convinced, upon request of course, to sing a few numbers with them. Melly felt a new excitement, with old chums returning to the scene, a buzz he'd not had since the 1950s.
“It was lovely to have some drinks, get high and sing with old friends,” he said. “The audiences began to go cuckoo. The place became fashionable. We were asked to do concerts and to make a record. Suddenly, one day, I decided to take another crack at it. It had to do with the applause. It's like the alcoholic thing—applause is like the first fatal sip of sherry.”
When George Melly seriously (though he was never that serious) returned to the jazz scene in 72, it was Derek Taylor who snapped him up quick and urged him and John Chilston's Feetwarmers to record and release an LP. Gigs had been coming more solidly, and Melly found that the thing missing from his life which he could not previously identify was that old mistress named jazz. With a fabulous band backing him up, and possibly the greatest music PR man in the world by his side, Melly set his sights on fame and mass adoration. Never physically vein by his own admission, he was hungry for the attention, and the best way to get people to look at him was when he was singing on the stage the jazz songs he knew and loved, injecting them with his characteristic individuality and his love of bawdy, good time thrills.
Melly and the band decided to record their first album together live at Ronnie Scott's Club in London. Typically, Melly didn't hold back during the performance and consumed a considerable amount of alcoholic beverages to aid him in his feral outbursts. A gathered crowd of friends - including Melly's very close chum Margaret Anne Du Cane, a countess - thoroughly enjoyed the night, as did Melly and the lads. The next morning however, Margaret advised Melly to listen back to the tapes before getting too excited about the record's release. When he did hear the tapes he was horrified, though also amused, by a rather less than polished vocal performance. The booze was clear in his voice, and it was evident in the general musicianship of the band too. The whole thing, save a few numbers, was in George's words, "an escalating shambles."
"There were hundreds of people at Ronnie's when we recorded Nuts and some very outré behaviour," Melly recalls, going on to describe women undressing and unleashing their inner beasts. "Everybody was terribly drunk, including, alas, us. At the end, I went raving up to a girlfriend of mine who was sober and said, `Wasn't that great?' and she said, `Wait until you hear it in the morning'."
Though the recording was a wreck, Melly and the boys did impress Ronnie enough for him to hire the group for a week, and continued to do so for years, often at Christmas for a festive night of lewd fun ("Here's George Melly," Ronnie used to say, announcing him from the stage, before adding, "God help us all!") and bawdy thrills. With the recorded cuts not being up to scratch, the band and Taylor went into a recording studio in South London to lay down some new renditions. Famously, they ran up an expense bill that consisted of 87 bottles of wine and fish and chips for the whole gang.
As well as its frantic recording, the cover art for Nuts has also gone into Melly folk lore. According to George, Taylor took him to a professional photographer down Oxford Street to get a nice snap of him for the cover. "They airbrushed out every line" Melly recalled, "and hand tinted the resultant bland visage which in consequence resembled the work of an American mortician."
George Melly may have looked reserved and respectful on the album cover, but on the contents of the record he was anything but. In fact, he was more wild and feral than ever before, while holding it all together with effortless cool. One of George's friends, Louisa Buck, spoke to me recently and summed George up as a man who was both out of control but also in control at all times. The Nuts album seems to prove that theory. The recording was done in a studio, but the added audience sounds from the other recording lend it a certain authenticity, while George's charismatic performance keeps a certain level of excitement up at all time, not to mention an atmosphere of camp naughtiness that is very much of its era.
The album is full of crisply recorded, wonderfully played Melly gems, to which the great man brings his effortless charm and relatable approachability. Anyone put off by the J word must learn that there are all types of sub genres within that large encompassing genre, and Melly's music sits on the authentic but accessible border. Indeed, Nuts is an album even a jazz hater might enjoy. The musicianship is, of course, flawless, with the band on top form. Chilton's colourful trumpet, always complimenting Melly's vocals, is continuously solid throughout, and the arrangements by Chilton himself are tastefully well observed.
His take on the old classic Dr Jazz is a striking cut, with Melly's voice at its most fun and care free, while their rendition of T'Ain't Nobody's Business is fabulous and among the best here. The band swing nice and cool, while Melly holds back a little and stays faithful to the song. He holds the band with his deep tones.
The title track is simply wonderful too, among his most well known numbers and a definite crowd pleaser. Swerving double entendres or subtle innuendo all together, Melly goes all out and enjoys himself shamelessly, unapologetically. One wouldn't think that hearing a middle aged man say "he plays with his nuts every night in bed" would continue to please you after countless listens, but for some reason it does. This is Good Time Melly magic. "I hate Nuts," Diana Melly told me with a smile. "How many times can you hear about a man playing with his nuts?" My answer is a lot.
Elsewhere there are more sombre and bluesy cuts, like a wonderful version of Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out, which Melly gives real depth and weight. Sugar is so smooth it almost hurts, with Melly's vocals more restrained and giving way to a beautiful arrangement. Viper Mad, the energetic closer, is simply marvellous, featuring some great solos and a wound up and rather wild Melly vocal. As a stand alone record, outside the folk lore of Mellydom, Nuts is of its time but also timeless, like all good trad jazz music truly is, and is an all round solid album in its own right. Melly's risqué lyrics and fun loving crooning style might jar with the ears of some modern listeners more used to polished, clean pop and PC lyricism, but for me he gets it right. These are solid interpretations, and some 46 years on from its recording it remains a rich and endlessly enjoyable LP, one which gets spun quite often in my domicile. More music should be like this - unashamedly fun and a little naughty to boot.
The Guardian gave it a glowing review during its 2004 CD reissue. "Everyone should have a George Melly CD in the house, for those moments when life gets a bit too solemn, and this is the one to have. It features the original Feetwarmers, with Wally Fawkes (also formerly of this paper) on clarinet and Bruce Turner on alto saxophone, both playing beautifully, as does trumpeter John Chilton. George excels himself, especially in the title song, a masterpiece of single entendre."
Anyone reluctant to dip their toe into Melly waters, perhaps put off by sniffy, snobby critics who turn their noses up at his habit of making jazz light and full of humour, might want to take on Nuts, because even though it does feature trademark Mellyisms and harmless Carry On style smut, the musicianship is staggering and undeniably good. You never know, even if you're a full time Melly doubter you might find your foot-a-tappin' to this record.
Chris's book is on Amazon now. His film on Melly is at http://wisdomtwinsbooks.weebly.com/