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Melly, Mick...London 1953

I lost count of the interviews I have conducted over the years, but my very first one took place in London on March 16th, 1953. My victim: Humphrey Lyttleton. I will devote another post to how that came about—this one deals with the eye-opening immediate aftermath.

My B&O Beocord recorder weighed about 60 to 65 pounds, and the base of my microphone stand added about 15 to that. I had lugged it up a couple of flights of stairs to Humph’s office, which was around the corner from 100 Oxford Street, where the Lyttleton band played. After the interview, I took the equipment to the club where I would record the band and, at the suggestion of Lyn Dutton, Humph’s manager, leave it overnight in the cloak room. Since I had to catch the boat train at Liverpool Street Station the following morning, Dutton’s suggestion was a practical one—or was it?

The club became Mack’s Restaurant during daytime hours so there was very little going on there the following morning, when I returned to pick up my gear. It was nearly ten thirty and my boat train would depart at eleven. I was playing it dangerously close, but a cab would get me there on time—or so I thought.

The day staff was now on duty and I found the man who had the keys to the cloak room. He was one of those uniformed retirees that always seemed to work in such places, and while he remembered seeing my tape recorder, he was not about to hand it over without a cloakroom ticket. Nobody had given me a ticket, I explained. “It may be your property, but I can’t give it to you,” he said, pointing out that it looked expensive and he needed proof of ownership.

The clock was ticking away and I explained that I had a train to catch. I offered to describe the tape recorder in detail, including the Danish labeling on the inside, but the old man was adamant. As I was pleading with him, practically on my knees, an angel approached—well, she was a waitress who had been a patron the night before, and she recalled seeing me operate the tape recorder. That did the trick, I grabbed the recorder and stand and rushed upstairs to hail a cab on Oxford Street. At Liverpool Street, I rushed through the sooty air and reached my platform just as the train pulled out.

Checking my gear in the baggage room, but holding on to my three precious reels of tape, I headed for Cook’s Travel Service to book passage on the next train. I had some money left but I was expected back at work in a couple of days and I couldn’t afford to lose my job, especially since my equipment wasn't yet paid for. Imagine how I felt when the travel agent informed me that the next boat train was three days hence and that the only alternative was to fly, which was out of the question on my down-to-the-wire budget. Making things worse, the ship’s tourist class was fully booked, so, while I could buy third class train tickets, the overnight sea leg of the trip would have to be on first.

Click on letter to enlarge

After paying for the upgrade, I was left with one shilling, just enough for a tube fare to Rex’s Restaurant and a cup of tea. I knew Rex’s was a hangout for Chris Barber—who was booked to appear in Copenhagen with Ken Colyer, the following month—so I gambled on finding him there. Sure enough, he walked in an hour later.

I told him of my predicament and, knowing that I would be seeing him again in Denmark, built up enough desperation courage to ask him to lend me a pound. Chris handed me a pound note along with a kind offer to let me stay at his house for the next three nights. The thought of actually staying at a jazz musicians house was thrilling and I suddenly found that I was rather enjoying my predicament. He then told me to meet him at “The Metro” that night at ten thirty and to tell the bouncer that Chris Barber invited me.

The Metro was a lively basement jazz club next door to Rex’s. Its low ceiling was arched and French posters adorned the walls, combining to give it a Parisian subway look—well, with a little imagination. The place was packed with enthusiastic trad fans whose bodies simply couldn’t keep still when Mick Mulligan’s band took it way down yonder to New Orleans. There were added screams of delight from the patrons when George Melly stepped to the microphone, cigarette in hand, and morphed himself into Bessie Smith for the evening’s last number. As the fans began their ascent to the street, Chris introduced me to the band members as a "chap from Denmark." I stood there, wide-eyed and speechless, clutching my tapes as George Melly gave me a thorough look. “You must come to the jazz party,” he said, “there’s going to be a jazz party.” I had no idea what that might be, but it sounded interesting and Chris assured him that we would be there.

Several of us piled into a cab and Chris gave the driver an address, “Get there as fast as you can,” he urged. Then, turning to me, explained, “It's first come, first serve, we may not be able to get in if we don't hurry.” The driver sped through dark, empty streets and it all began to feel very unreal to me, but I loved it—the withdrawn, naïve little Dane was having an adventure. It seemed like an endless ride, but we finally reached our destination, a dark street in the northern part of London, with rows of houses, each indistinguishable from the other.

It took a while before the front door was cautiously opened and a whispery voice asked for a head count. “Five,” said Chris, and the door opened wider. A thin, anemic looking young man gestured for us to keep it down as he led the way up a narrow staircase and to a door on the second floor. It was his flat. One sensed the presence of others, but saw only the darkness, felt the smoke making its way to the open door, and noted that it carried with it a peculiar odor. I was making my first contact with something I knew only from Mezz Mezzrow’s autobiography: reefer. We were shown to one end of the room where there were cases of beer and bottles of gin. As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, I could barely make out the pianist, but I recognized him as Johnny Parker, from the Lyttelton band. My eyes wandered around the room, scanning a weird assortment of couples, some standing, others spread out on the floor, drinking, smoking and having intimate moments. I guess I must have looked rather shocked for Chris felt a need to explain that these parties were very common and that everybody had “a lot of fun”. He also told me that the pale young man was our host and that this was his first “jazz party.” I got the impression that being host to one of these affairs was a great honor and it was obvious that the young man was eager to make everyone feel comfortable. There seemed to be an ample supply of beer and gin, and it was all on the house.

The crowd was very similar to the one I had observed dancing to Humph’s band the night before, right down to the cigar-smoking girls with their long hair and odd costumes. The crowd was also growing, for soon a new group of people entered, including Mulligan and Melly. As they walked in, I noticed that people were backing into the walls, creating a small clearing in the middle of the room. No, they were not making way for the newcomers, but for a show. Two of the cigar puffing ladies—aspiring dancers, I was told—moved a couple of dining room chairs into the clearing and proceeded to perform a bizarre, sensual dance. They wore one-piece black corduroy outfits and, like snakes satisfying a curiosity, slowly wormed their way around, over and under the chairs and each other while Johnny Parker, now joined by Bruce Turner’s soprano saxophone, laid down a dirge-like accompaniment. Looming over the girls as best he could, his hands and arms writhing suggestively, George Melly assumed the conductor's role.

There was something surrealistic about the whole scene and if I looked like someone who had dropped in from another planet, that is also how I felt. I had only recently set foot on the Danish scene, but it seemed ever so wholesome compared to this. I had never thought of myself as a prude, but, in this hedonistic environment, I became one. As my shock wore off and wonder turned to judgement, I found myself feeling disdain for what I saw as painfully artificial hipness. I still don’t like that sort of thing, which I detected in the singing of Mark Murphy and latter day Betty Carter, but I have long since come to realize that what I witnessed in this dim London flat was anything but strained—people were genuinely having a good time and part of it was to give convention a slap in the face.

The performance was paused by an unexpected knock on the door. Our young host admitted a lady in her early thirties who wore a sheer nightgown through which the hallway light could be seen. She appeared to have just stepped out of bed—a complaining neighbor, I thought, but it turned out to be the landlady and all she wanted was to join the party. A second interruption occurred a few minutes later, and this time it was, indeed, a complaining neighbor. His children couldn't sleep because of the music. “We shall all go downstairs to my flat,” the landlady announced—and so we did.
In the flat below, the party continued along the same lines, but now there was a half-clad landlady lying across her bed, inviting others to do likewise.

It was about nine o'clock when the sobering effect of daylight brought everything to a halt. As we stumbled out into the grey London air, I heard George Melly's voice somewhere behind me, “That Danish boy was very quiet—I'm sure he has marvelous legs, those Scandinavians all seem to have.” I felt my face turn red and breathed a sigh of relief when Chris Barber suggested that we have breakfast at the Moo Cow Milk Bar. Two days later, I caught the boat train at Liverpool Street station, still clutching my three tape boxes.

When Chris and the Colyer band arrived in Copenhagen, we had a little press introduction at Lorry, an old entertainment complex, and I recorded the band playing "Tiger Rag." It was not our intention to release it, but I made a copy for Karl Emil Knudsen and sent it to him from Iceland. He released it on Storyville. I hope you enjoy hearing it here.

George Melly passed away July 5, 2007, at age 80, leaving behind two wonderful, highly colorful autobiographies... and all sorts of interesting footprints.

Google his name to become more enlightened.


  1. Hello Chris,

    Thanks for the link, it's very interesting and I'm very jealous of your attendance at the jazz party. While I generally prefer later music I have a very romantic view of the fifties - one that your story does nothing to dispel.

  2. Thank you for the visit, Artog. I hope you will return and peruse. Not being stuck in the past, I am finding much of interest in your blog. :)

  3. Hi there Chris - what a vivid account of a great period. You get a real sense of the feeling of liberation, temptation and general raucousness of the times and that party in particular. Fantastic stuff. Also enjoying delving around other parts of the blog!

  4. I loved this article -- a very entertaining and personal perspective and a close look at some of the "pioneers" of nearly 60 years ago. With your permssion I'd like to put a link to it on the Chris Barber website (www.chrisbarber.net), which I manage. (Please let me know at edjackson@shaw.ca).

    Your blog as a whole is terrific. I'll be spending a lot of time looking through it.