MEL, MEL & JULIAN ~ South Africa's Top 60s Folk/Comedy Band
Mel, Mel & Julian
The talented trio began their career in 1965. Their first LP "Songs about mines, people, places & one train" was just recorded as a Mel & Mel project, and when it had been judged "bloody good" a second contract at the Edward Hotel was offered to the duo, who then asked Julian to join the band! Going pro as a trio, they performed at various hotel residencies around South Africa, performing nightly marathon musical and comedy performances. Their frequent gigs at Johannesburg's Troubadour and their long-running club residencies in Durban, East London and Cape Town were known for drawing full houses during the heady times that were the mid-60s. How they began is another story... part good luck, very good timing and a perfect example of "being in the right place at the right time!"
So, here's the"short" version of how it all happened!
The 60s difference: Mel, Mel & Julian grew up in that era, when Beatle- and Rolling Stones- influenced bands were common, and when they got together, the "folk boom" had also begun, so instead of becoming another Mersey-beat wannabe band, they stood out with their simple vocal/acoustic guitar set up, singing and playing for attentive, hushed audiences, who were alternately rolling helplessly in their seats, convulsed with helpless laughter at the high jinks of Mel Miller's jokes and stories. They were different, and good!
Mel, Mel & Julian were mostly employed working at their residencies in large hotels around the country, and occasionally headlined shows at University concerts in Cape Town, Grahamstown, Durban and Johannesburg... when they were in-between these long-term gigs, they would be doing shows at local coffeehouses like The Troubadour, or performing at the occasional folk festival (where Julian would conduct guitar workshops).
They kept busy all the time adding to repertoire and playing out when the new material was ready for a live audience. These "breaks" between long gigs had them returning to their homes in Johannesburg and were also when their recording company would schedule the band to go into the Gallo recording studio, where their three distinctive LPs were produced.
Their reputation grew and over time critics and audiences would describe their combination of well-played folk music, mixed with comedy and social commentary as a cross between The Kingston Trio and the Smothers Brothers ... but then South Africans were always compared to overseas acts. In fact they were actually unique on the folk scene in South Africa and proved to be something of a phenomenon, and yet their sound was unique, combining the tight harmony vocals of Big Mel and Little Mel with the brilliant, innovative guitar picking of Julian Laxton, who stood head and shoulders above most guitarists in South Africa.
Their repertoire included music from all over the Globe, and they earned face-to-face compliments from the Everly Brothers, the Seekers, The Ivy League and other internationally known stars. One of their biggest fans was the famous South African country & western singer, Billy Forrest, who became their manager, and who promoted them into the top layer of South African show biz.
They recorded ground-breaking LPs that turned the local folk music scene on its head, and which were standard setters for musical entertainment. All within a short span of a little less than five years! Read on about how these three different characters met, and coalesced into a tight musical unit and became a wonderfully consistent band.
Lead Vocals, Upright Bass & Very-very Funny Comedian
Harmony Vocals, Rhythm & Fingerpicked Guitar, Harmonica & Straight-Man
JULIAN LAXTON Lead Guitar
Mel, Mel & Julian were a famous Johannesburg-based, mid-60s South African folk-comedy group, who rose quickly to national prominence in Durban and Cape Town. After their first recording prompted Mel & Mel to invite Julian to join the band... they became a welcome attraction in the various cities and were a guarantee for a good night out. Their popularity at The Edward Hotel in Durban was such that they were contracted to repeat long-term residencies there from 1964 through 1967, and they also played residencies at Deal's Hotel in East London, as well as at Cape Town's Grand Hotel. During the rather short period of time they were together, they recorded three LPs for Columbia Records (South Africa)... of which, their last LP "Miscellanea" was voted one of the Top 10 South African Folk Albums. The group disbanded at the end of 1967, after making a considerable contribution to a contemporary folk music sound and even early folk-rock in South Africa!
How the band started... the short version: Mel Green transferred from the University of Cape Town to do his final year at the Johannesburg School of Art, where he met Mel Miller, the school comedian... they snagged a Wednesday night gig at the Troubadour Coffeehouse, which became quite a draw, attracting audiences rapidly. Mel & Mel were among the few who performed at the first Johannesburg Folk Festival concert with their pal Louis Meyer backing them on banjo. An LP of the festival concert was recorded, after which the record companies were quick to sign up every folksinger in sight, Mel and Mel among them.
After a year the duo was establishing a nice reputation, but also working day jobs after they both graduated from art school... Columbia, their record company asked them to make their first "real" recording, a 45, which was backed up by blues band, John E. Sharp & the Squires... and then the second folk festival rolled around, and their manager, Billy Forrest invited Don Hughes, a booking agent, to come and see the duo perform. He offered them a contract shortly afterwards at The Edward Hotel, Durban's only 5-star establishment. The duo gave up their day jobs and plunged into a 6-night a week job, and after 4 months returned to Johannesburg to fulfill their record company's demand for their first album of songs.
Enter Julian... After returning from Durban and their first hotel gig, Mel and Mel were discussing what to do next in their plans to record their first LP for CBS They happened to strike up a conversation with a friend, David Sapire, a young doctor who was a fan and who happened to like their sound. He suggested that they might consider recruiting a lead guitarist, and by the way, he had just the right one in mind. He was referring to his half-brother, Julian Laxton, the lead guitarist of a band called "Them" which had just broken up. David arranged for the Mels to audition Julian... and they were duly impressed. Thanks to David Sapire, Julian was recruited to add lead guitar to their first LP ("Songs about mines, people, places and one train"). His musical talents exceeded all expectations!
Shortly afterwards, Mel & Mel were offered a 6-month contract at The Edward Hotel in Durban and so they negotiated with their agent to have Julian join them permanently... and that is how Mel, Mel & Julian came to be... His contribution as lead guitarist to the band turned the South African folk scene scene on it's head, because no other folk group was making "folk" music like they were. Another string of hotel residency contracts soon followed and Mel, Mel &Julian were on their way.... making a huge contribution to the local entertainment scene. A night out at a Mel, Mel & Julian show included musical interludes, broken up by hilarious storytelling by "Big" Mel Miller, who had audiences rolling in the aisles. He used "Little" Mel Green and Julian as his "straight" men to good effect.
Their original vinyl was converted to digital back in 2001, when Mel Green took it upon himself to continue letting old fans know about his wonderful old group. Their recordings evidently made waves back on the South African folk- and entertainment scene. Their first album could not be salvaged in it's entirety due to the condition of the vinyl LPs available, and so Mel Green added a track from their last recording "Miscellanea" to the list of tracks, which he released as "Ethnic/Shmethnic" on his own label, MLG Limited Editions. [M = Miller, L = Laxton, and G = Green] named in honour of the old band.
The CD is still available. It is available at $10 (US) + the current mailing rates, so please send inquiries on the Contact page.
FYI: Their other 2 recordings "One More Town" and "Miscellanea" were also digitized although funds were inadequate to manufacture digital facsimiles of those marvellous LPs, which had the 3 musicians delving into covers by other famous singer-songwriters, as well as into other folk-music genres, such as blues, jug band and world music.
There have been thwarted attempts at a reunion over the last decade, and unfortunately prospects for a get-together were unfortunately derailed.
Mel Miller still continues his Stand Up Comedy appearances in South Africa, In 2011 he was honoured as the very first recipient of the Comics Choice Lifetime Achievement Award.
Julian continues to play his wonderful guitar music in and around Johannesburg to this day.