JJ 07/59: George Melly – In My Opinion

First published in Jazz Journal, July 1959

524

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians, who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop. Our first guinea pig was George Melly, whose happy sounding singing has enlivened the Mick Mulligan Band for just over a decade. George is recently having some well deserved success as a B.B.C. compere, and in addition is balloonist for Wally Fawkes’s famous Flook strip cartoon in the Daily Mail. The records played to him were heavily weighted with vocals.

“St James Infirmary” vocal by Clancy Hayes with the Bob Scobey Band. Vogue LAG 12145.

I never mind the Scobey band at all, in fact I quite like Clancy Hayes. I know a lot of the more solemn jazz lovers think he is terrible, but I think he’s lighthearted and pleasant to listen to. The music has none of that terribly committed feeling that the New Orleans devotees have. It has more of the spirit of the early Lyttelton band or the Graeme Bell band, where jazz was taken much more happily—and why not!

‘This is excellent music to shave to at one end of the day, or to get drunk to at the other. It doesn’t move me much but it’s a jolly noise, though Hayes is a terribly white singer’

This is excellent music to shave to at one end of the day, or to get drunk to at the other. It doesn’t move me much but it’s a jolly noise, though Hayes is a terribly white singer, in the same sense that Bix Biederbecke’s accompanists were terribly white players. A pleasant light voice, usually in tune; and the band produce a very acceptable pastiche of good time jazz, I have less objection to this kind of music than I have to the solemn resurrection of 1918 New Orleans jazz by young men imitating old ones, complete with quivering vibratoes, false notes and all that. Scobey and Clancy are not very profound, but are quite fun.

“Please Mr. Johnson” vocal by Ella Johnson. Mercury ZEP 10009.

That had a nice sort of sophisticated 1940 sound, though I see it was made in 1958, strangely enough. Ella Johnson has that warm, sexy type of delivery that Rosetta Crawford had, and indeed it also sounds like Eartha Kitt in places. Not perhaps in the top flight in its field but it’s good. The pianist, Bud Johnson, does some pleasant Basie things, and the band play a nice kind of singing Harlem music. It’s essentially the kind of party jazz when it’s nice to be able to walk up to a bottle every two minutes, whilst it’s going on, without being asked.

“Fool For You” vocal by Ray Charles. London LTZ-K 15149.

Ray Charles to me is a very curious enigma. I think he’s a very dramatic singer, but I wonder if not too dramatic. I hate his sax playing, I think it’s nasty, but his singing on the other hand I like very much. It’s strange singing because its definitely gospelish rather than the blues. In general I like a bit more acidity—he is a bit sweet, or sweetish, in places.

‘…this is too carefully contrived, almost a subtle Uncle Tom approach, full of false drama in what he does when compared with the real blues singers like Rushing or Joe Turner’

Originally the gospel singers were influenced by the blues singers. They used to listen to Bessie Smith records when the deacon wasn’t looking but now the reverse seems to be happening. People singing non-gospel songs are much more influenced by gospelers than by blues singers.

I am not sure I don’t find Charles a little contrived, as opposed to the more austere singers. That announcement at the beginning of the record—it worried me a bit. It had a kind of fake enthusiasm. It doesn’t present to me the kind of integrated personality like Jimmy Rushing does. You know Jimmy is just a bloke who gets up and sings, and as he sings he swings like mad. But this is too carefully contrived, almost a subtle Uncle Tom approach, full of false drama in what he does when compared with the real blues singers like Rushing or Joe Turner. There seems to be—and by the way I find this with a lot of gospel singers as well—a sort of over-ebullient feeling, an over-dramatic approach. Singers such as this can’t really be moved every night, twice nightly, at night clubs or halls to quite the extent suggested by the shouting and general build up to that opening announcement. Of course they get moved, really moved, occasionally, but I feel with Charles that there are too many spot-lights behind his singing; too many scene shifts going on behind him. I think he is a very good rocking singer, but I only wish he’d calm down—then he’ll go up.

“Ain’t No More Cane On The Brazos” vocal by Lonnie Donegan. Nixa NPT 19027.

I nearly said Lonnie Donegan before I saw the sleeve, but didn’t in case I was told it was some sort of chap from Texas with a leg made out of an oil derrick or something. Dangerous talking about an English singer singing American songs— dangerous for me that is.

‘Lonnie has certain mannerisms I can’t take; that sort of Pagliacci sob in his voice I don’t care for. However, I never did care for his singing, even in those days when he used to play banjo for Barber’

Lonnie has certain mannerisms I can’t take; that sort of Pagliacci sob in his voice I don’t care for. However, I never did care for his singing, even in those days when he used to play banjo for Barber. Mind you I feel that here he understands what is to be found in folk music—he has always understood that. I feel this particular song is a kind of, “all-right-I-do-make-a-lot-of-money-singing ‘Does Your Chewin? Gum Lose Its Flavour’, but I do have a real feeling for folk music and here it is!” I think he’s right, he has. The absurdity is exactly the same as that pinned on my own back—a British singer singing what is essentially an American folk form. In fact, in a way I think the Chewing Gum opus in his case and “Frankie and Johnny” in mine are really no more justified than this song. It’s more serious, more of an attempt to prove one is something that one isn’t—an American folk singer. I think Lonnie is a very good entertainer and a lover of folk music; and also hope I too am a good entertainer and a lover of the blues. Further than that I am not prepared to go.

“Improvisations To Music”. Mike Nichols-Elaine May. Mercury MMC 14005.

Well I certainly wouldn’t spend nearly two quid on buying that! It’s the sort of thing that is quite funny at a party—like flicking the lights off and on, and imitating Charles Chaplin or the Keystone cops. It’s a sort of party trick, but if they do it when sober they are certainly cleverer than if they can do it when drunk. The whole thing displays a semi-admiring, semi-contemptuous attitude towards that new gimmick—poetry with jazz. Edith Sitwell did it in “Facade” 30 years ago. The beatnik generation seems very keen on screaming “knitted kippers” against modern jazz sounds, and this is in a sense a pleasant comment on that sort of thing. Fun, but not quite as brilliant as it might have been.

“Waiting For The Robert E. Lee.” The Axidentals. HMV CLP 1259.

That’s the sort of noise that makes me want to rush and put a real scratched, very old record on the gramophone—a record of some quite obscure blues singer who only made a couple of sides. I hate that sort of cleverness.

‘It is really the worst sort of country-boy-coming-to-town-to-be-frightfully-slick sort of noise. No depth, all pure surface’

Not that they haven’t got talent. They probably know music backwards, and except when they are trying to be too terribly clever they even swing a bit. First chorus swung a bit there, or began to swing, but just as soon as it got going they seemed to think how wonderful it will be if we get eight different lines going all at once contrapuntally, and so it all falls apart. It is really the worst sort of country-boy-coming-to-town-to-be-frightfully-slick sort of noise. No depth, all pure surface. The very name Axidentals, with an X, the whole thing appalls me. Kai Winding’s trombones behind the group were fine, but I don’t like that sort of cleverness. I’m not fond of vocal groups.

“Jumpin’ At The Woodside.” The Lambert Singers with the Count Basie Band. Columbia 33SX 1151.

Of course I should be able to say exactly the same things about that as I said about the last record, but I can’t. It’s a terribly contrived idea to take instrumental noises and turn them into words that have to fit, but in some extraordinary way it works. The words aren’t too wonderful, but they really do fit. In a way it proves something, that the natural way to approach a lyric as a voice is not the natural way for an instrument, because all the way through that record you found endless words pushed in and pulled out in order to make it fit the original instrumental conception of treating the theme. It should be far too clever to exist, but it really swings along. It may be a dead end, like Finnegan’s Wake, I don’t know.

“Goin’ To Chicagco.” Joe Williams and the Lambert Singers with Count Basie And Band. 33SX 1151.

Well I’m not a Joe Williams fan at all. I think technically he’s a very accomplished singer—very accomplished on a terribly superficial level. I feel he never feels a word he sings. I think all singers, however banal the lyrics, must feel what they are singing. In the case of Fats Waller the more banal the lyrics the better, because then his vicious sense of humour had a chance to go to work on it.

‘The words of that song “Goin’ To Chicago” I love very much, but when he sings them they become completely empty’

But I think that Joe Williams could sing, with equal indifference, any song—”I Believe” or “St. Louis Blues” would mean exactly the same to him. It’s just a question of swinging about on the old chords and showing just how long he can hold a note; and just how clever he is. The words of that song “Goin’ To Chicago” I love very much, but when he sings them they become completely empty. I find those splendid imitations of the brass by Annie Ross and the singers, with that wonderfully controlled vibrato much more impressive and moving than Joe’s singing of those lyrics which I like so much. Of course it’s a limited field and not terribly important, but those Lambert singers do swing like mad, particularly when imitating those trumpets. Annie Ross is just terrific—just can’t help swinging. The record is a tiny bit clever clever, but it comes off.

“How Do They Do It That Way.” Victoria Spivey with Henry Red Allen And Orchestra. Parlophone R 2177.

One of the great dangers in absolute jazz criticism is the part nostalgia plays with the critical faculties. One cannot judge sounds as one does a steak—this one is better than that. Nostalgia always enters into it. That Red Allen record, no one playing very well and that extraordinary vocal chorus; so terribly period. It has the charm of the “Boy Friend”, where one is quite seduced by the cloche hats, or Mr. Baldwin’s bowler and anything that happened around that time. One can’t really judge it as music at all—it is merely a part of life at that time. The whole era brings up nostalgia. I have already got to feel that way about early bop. I hated it when I first heard it, but somehow one now feels a certain nostalgia for it. It’s a sort of comic disease.

“Money Is Honey.” Jimmy Rushing with the Count Basie Band. Camden CDN 120.

Basie and Rushing together are probably two of my favourite sounds. Although if you had told me that when the record was first made in 1947, that I would ever think so, I would have said you were mad. Then I would have listened, muttering under my breath, and probably walked away; but now it’s just about my favourite sound in jazz .

‘Rush is definitely one of my favourite chaps as a singer, but I prefer his work today to his earlier singing. It is looser now, less tight, with that relaxed vibrato and that don’t-care-here-it-comes-feeling about his singing’

Of course I do wish it was that period Basie with Jimmy as he sings now, but that is impossible. Rush is definitely one of my favourite chaps as a singer, but I prefer his work today to his earlier singing. It is looser now, less tight, with that relaxed vibrato and that don’t-care-here-it-comes-feeling about his singing. Basie on the other hand has as a band, moved towards Joe Williams—the playing is tighter and not so relaxed. Of course Rushing was singing well enough in those days, he was swinging, but it was tougher singing, less fluent, less open. Basie has a marvellous band today, but I can’t help wishing he played as he did when this record was made. I like that element of margin in jazz, which I think Rushing has now, and Basie had then. Pity one can’t put the two together.