It’s true to say the tropical palm house at Sefton Park shaped the whole life of Liverpool jazz singer, writer and entertainer George Melly.
The incongruous sight of wounded soldiers sitting and smoking among the exotic plants in the 1940s awakened a love of surrealism in the young Melly that never died.
Born in Liverpool in August 1926, Melly found his passion for modern art and jazz music after attending Stowe School.
His uncle was shipping line owner George Holt, who built up a fine collection of paintings at Sudley House, Aigburth. It included works by J.M.W. Turner, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds and Edwin Landseer.
Melly’s father made a comfortable living from the wool trade, but the exuberant George was determined not to follow in his footsteps.
Towards the end of the Second World War, he was already developing the flamboyant streak that would become his trademark in later life.
Melly decided to join the Royal Navy because the uniforms were ‘so much nicer’ than the other services, particularly the bell-bottomed trousers.
Unfortunately he did not serve on ships so had to make do with the regulation uniform for desk duty.
Melly could never be described as a model serviceman – he nearly faced a court martial for handing out anarchist literature. Subversion was natural to his surrealist beliefs.
After the war, he worked in a London art gallery and soon got swept up in the New Orleans jazz revival that had taken the capital by storm.
He joined Mick Mulligan’s Magnolia Jazz Band and played at the ground-breaking Alexandra Palace jazz event in January 1963. Other performing artists included Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball, Diz Disley and Monty Sunshine.
Melly mixed with writers and playwrights, including Fay Weldon and Harold Pinter with whom he wrote the show Mixed Doubles. He also took part in protests and demos with activists like Vanessa Redgrave and Salford writer Shelagh Delaney.
Melly’s sister, Andree, was herself an actress, appearing extensively on stage and in a series of movies. She played Gina in the 1960 Hammer Horror film The Brides of Dracula.
As music lost out to other elements in his life, Melly gave jazz a rest in the later 1960s to concentrate on writing. He was film critic for the Observer and penned the Flook cartoon for the Daily Mail.
But he was back on stage in the 1970s as the front man of John Chilton’s Feetwarmers. An accomplished jazz trumpeter, Chilton had strong Merseyside connections as he had worked with the Swinging Blue Jeans and the Escorts.
Melly stayed with the Feetwarmers until 2003, releasing a number of albums. These included Nuts in 1972 followed by Son of Nuts a year later. The LP It’s George was released in 1974 followed by Melly Is At It Again in 1976.
He made four singles with Mick Mulligan, including Heebie Jeebies and Kingdom’s Coming, and eight more with the Feetwarmers.
While many jazz singers almost paid homage to their craft, Melly was larger-than-life, rumbustious and sometimes downright rude!
The Stranglers were so in awe of Melly that they recorded a track with him in 1978. The band wrote it themselves and called it Old Codger!
Melly was instantly recognisable, dressing in striped gangster-style suits. He often wore an outsized hat and projected a decidedly louche style. His genial humour, however, always shined through.
He liked stage characters and was a keen member of the Max Miller Appreciation Society, dedicated to the comedian known as ‘The Cheeky Chappie’.
A serious art collector in his own right, Melly lectured on surrealism and became president of the Contemporary Arts Society for Wales.
Melly died of lung cancer at his London home the age of 80 in July 2007. His humanist funeral included a hearse led by a jazz band with trumpeter Kenny Ball at the front.
*Hundreds of pictures from an unforgettable decade are packed into Clive Hardy’s fascinating book Around Merseyside in the 1960s. It’s available at £9.99 plus postage and packaging.
Just go to inostalgia.co.uk to place your order or ring the hotline on 01928 503777.