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The larger-than-life singer George Melly was the most beloved and notorious exponent of Britain's postwar trad jazz renaissance. A respected memoirist, art critic, and bon vivant, his appetites for sex and alcohol were the stuff of legend, and his sobriquet "the Oscar Wilde of English jazz" was richly earned. Born Alan George Heywood Melly in Liverpool on August 17, 1926, he later documented his upbringing in the 1984 book Scouse Mouse, crediting his affection for the music hall to his mother, a socialite who rubbed shoulders with a circle of intimates including actor Michael Redgrave and dancer Frederick Ashton. While attending Stowe, Melly discovered both surrealism and jazz, the two forces most instrumental in shaping his singular perspective. In 1944, he joined the Royal Navy, engaging in a series of homosexual affairs that were later the subject of the 1977 memoir Rum, Bum and Concertina. After World War II Melly worked at the London Gallery, owned and operated by René Magritte's longtime friend and London Bulletin editor E.L.T. Mesens. He also engaged in a torrid affair with Mesens' wife, Sybil, prior to spending the winter of 1946 distributing anarchist literature on Senior Service ships deployed across the South Coast and the Mediterranean. On returning to civilian life in London Melly discovered the new vogue for the American jazz and blues traditions of the 1920s. Despite no musical training of his own, his gravelly voice, acid wit, and colorful zoot suits made him a natural for the stage, and in 1949 he joined Mick Mulligan's Magnolia Jazz Band.
With his vast repertoire of Bessie Smith and Fats Waller tunes as well as an equally impressive stockpile of ribald jokes and double entendres, Melly emerged as the toast of the trad jazz cognoscenti. Critic John Mortimer said his voice possessed "the raucous charm of an old Negress." Melly's Benzedrine-fueled adventures both on and off stage were grist for his 1965 memoir Owning Up. However, performing took a backseat to writing in 1956, when he was hired to pen gags and captions for the long-running comic strip Flook, illustrated by clarinetist Wally Fawkes. Melly nevertheless continued performing and recorded a series of EPs for Decca before the outbreak of Beatlemania spelled an end to the general public's interest in jazz. In response he accepted a position as pop music and film critic with The Observer, and in 1967 completed his first screenplay, Smashing Time. Melly returned to the stage in 1974 with jazz band John Chilton & the Feetwarmers, and toured with them off and on until Chilton retired in 2002. As usual, Melly rolled with the punches, and immediately inaugurated a new collaboration with trumpeter Digby Fairweather's Half Dozen. In the years to follow his health began to fail, and after an operation he was forced to adopt a pirate's eyepatch. In 2005, Melly was diagnosed with lung cancer, then vascular dementia, but he continued performing and refused medical treatment for fear of its impact on his voice. During a January 2007 performance in East Sussex Melly collapsed on-stage, and that June he played his final concert at London's 100 Club. He died July 5, 2007.