A vital and varied collection of salacious, sinister and silly trad-jazz tunes from the legendary raconteur.
George Melly was one of those figures who was, for many years, omnipresent on television back in the days when arts coverage existed as more than a token gesture – as an art expert and cultural raconteur, he was always seen as good value for money on a chat show. He was also hated with a vengeance by my mother, for reasons that were never made clear, though it may have been because of her deep and possibly unconscious aversion to jazz (she also loathed Cleo Laine). Because although Melly was a writer, a broadcaster and a personality, he was also originally a jazz singer, part of the bohemian, decadent and sexually adventurous pre-rock ‘n’ roll scene of the 1950s.
Whenever I saw Melly singing on TV, it was usually a number knocked out with a studio orchestra, a bombastic but ultimately lifeless affair that would send the likes of Michael Parkinson into raptures but which felt bland and dull. But then, BBC studio orchestras did rather have the uncanny ability to strip the life out of anything back then. So this new release, a collection of singles and EPs, recorded as both solo artist and singer with The Mick Mulligan Band between 1955 and 1962, was always going to be interesting. Would the authentic stuff be better than the pastiches from a man in his twilight years?
Well, ‘yes’ would be the quick answer. This is the elusive, mysterious beast known as ‘trad jazz’, a short-lived trend in the UK adored by Fifties hipsters and beatniks who looked with disdain at the new rock ‘n’ roll. As the name suggests, it’s old-school jazz – none of your fusion or experimentalism here, thankfully. And while it might seem rather tame today, you can still get a whiff of the subversiveness and the hedonistic world that the jazz scene was a part of in a buttoned-up society before rock ‘n’ roll came along to blow everything up.
The album opens with Frankie and Johnny, the much-recorded traditional number given a swinging feel and a sense of… well, not exactly sinfulness, but a definite decadent edge to it. Melly’s voice is startlingly smooth and clear – not the grizzled vocals I’d heard on TV shows. As a white man singing the black man’s music, Melly is of course a bit of a tourist, and his life was far removed from that of the original jazz and blues men, but he does a good job of creating a strong pastiche – and there’s no questioning his sincerity.
What’s immediately obvious is the fine line that separated jazz and blues. Down in the Dumps is the first of many tracks here that fit easily into the latter genre, while the next four tracks that follow, with Mulligan, also have that blues feel – Muddy Water is, after all, (almost) the name of a blues singer as well as a jazz song. Slow jazz numbers seemed to begat blues, but the difference between the two genres is clear on swinging numbers like Miss Jenny’s Ball, which has that Dixieland brass sound and fast pace. And then there’s the variation on the theme with songs like Organ Grinder, a sleazy blues number that is awash with innuendo of the none-too-subtle variety – this feels like the sort of thing that strippers should be bumping and – ahem – grinding to. Burlesque dancers looking for something a bit more original to perform their faux striptease to are advised to pick this up. You could say the same of You’ve Got the Right Key but the Wrong Hole, a song that feels filthy without ever actually being filthy.
Rather less interesting are the novelty Southern numbers like Kingdom Coming (which is at least interesting in being a civil war number sung from the slave’s point of view) and the swinging I’m a Ding Dong Daddy. The same six-track selection that they came from also includes a couple of railway tunes – Waiting for a Train and Railroadin’ Man – and the comedy numbers My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes and Heebie Jeebies. It’s probably the weakest selection here – a bit too slick and smooth to really work, especially in comparison to the rest of the album.
The EP that lends this album its title is a lot better – less polished and grittier in content, it’s a four-track trip into death and violence, with Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair setting the scene nicely with grubby trumpet and tinkling piano leading the way to create a darkly cynical and discordant little number about unashamed murder. Cemetery Blues is a moody slice of necrophilia, Blue Spirit Blues is a funereal tale of dying and going to Hell and Death Letter is a story of a dead girlfriend with minimalist backing. This blues four-track is a pretty damned excellent precursor to doom rock, and it’s possibly the best on the album.
Black Bottom and Magnolia are rather livelier, rather more modern Dixieland jazz, the latter notable mainly for mentioning Marilyn Monroe and Eartha Kitt. Things return to the stripped-down blues sound for the EP Nothing Personal. Michigan Water is backed solely by piano, before a return to the black bottom, in the form of the more lecherous sounding Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. St Louis Blues is a solid blues number while Spider Crawl is altogether wilder – unlike the fast-paced but soulless numbers of Melly’s singles, this is a frantic, authentic-sounding number that should get the joint jumping.
The album finishes up with four tracks from whimsical humourist Frank Crumit, and they are decent numbers, though clearly no match for the earlier stuff. Abdul Abulbul Amir is the sort of thing that would be widely condemned as racist today, though, of course, it isn’t really. Get Away Old Man, Get Away is a warning to young women not to marry pensioners, while Granny’s Old Armchair is a tale of a man inheriting a chair that turns out to be stuffed with money and i is about golf. Well, whatever excites you I suppose. These are charming enough comic numbers, but I’d cheerfully trade them for more doom or smut.
The album finishes with a bonus track, a couple of minutes of TV interview recording with Melly discussing the appeal of jazz, which includes the classic line “many people see the world of jazz as one of hysterical teenagers and dope cigarettes”. I have to admit, that’s never really been how I’ve seen the world of jazz. But if teenagers – hysterical, doped up or otherwise – were to start listening to this sort of thing again, the world would certainly be a better place. On the basis of this record, Melly was a fine recording artist worthy of further exploration. Sorry, mum.
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