This is the brief back-story about how Big Mel met Little Mel, who later met Big Julian, and how their brief career took off!
Little Mel – Mel Green grew up in Mayfair, in Johannesburg's southern suburbs. After matriculating high school at Queen's College, he spent two years at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town, and in 1964, transferred as a third-year student to the Johannesburg School of Art... where he and (taller, bigger) look-alike, Big Mel Miller eventually got together at lunch breaks to sing and tell stories for their fellow classmates.
“One day in my classroom, I was playing guitar and singing a folk song, and out of nowhere I was aware of this great voice harmonizing with me, I turned around to see that funny guy — that’s how I met Mel Miller.”
Little Mel was a regular of Johannesburg’s famed Troubadour coffeehouse and during a singalong, Gary Bryden, (of We Three) stopped right in the middle of a song and asked him to come up on stage to sing with him. A pivotal moment for Mel, who eventually persuaded Big Mel to come to the Troubadour to “do a few songs”...
Big Mel – Mel Miller was raised in Yeoville, a suburb north of Johannesburg. After his high school years at King Edward High School, he studied Industrial Design at the Johannesburg School of Art. A natural comedian, Miller occasionally entertained his fellow art students during lunch breaks. He had been a singer in a rock band with another friend from art school, so connecting with the "other Me;" was natural...
One day he heard about some other Mel singing and entertaining his class mates during their lunch break upstairs in the Graphic Design Department... which was where he found his namesake, Melvyn Green, and creeping up behind him, spontaneously began to harmonize with him.
Mel and Mel and sudden popularity
Little Mel eventually persuaded Big Mel to come to the Troubadour, and they asked folk singer Keith Blundell, one of the managers if they could have an opportunity to sing. They did, and Keith immediately offered them a regular Wednesday night gig! (They only knew three songs at the time, but Big Mel told Keith they knew 30... before Little Mel could stammer out "Th-th-three!"!)
So, for the next month they "bunked/played hooky" from art school and learned 28 new songs, not quite enough for a 4-hour night... so, on the night of their first gig, Big Mel filled up the time between songs with his jokes and stories, thus setting the format for their future stage act.
Soon the previously quiet Wednesday nights at the Troubadour were filling up, as Mel & Mel’s reputation as a first class folk-comedy act grew ... and grew... until they were doing weekend sets on the same nights as more established folkies, like Des & Keith and Leon & Mike, holding their own and becoming contenders for top spots at the club. The reputation he and Little Mel were establishing on the side in folk music at The Troubadour Steak- and Coffee house had not quite "sunk in" yet...
They spent some Sunday afternoons with their banjo playing friend, Louis Meyer, traveling around the Witwatersrand to perform at open talent shows, which served as great training for facing large audiences who were not folk fans. Significantly, Mel, Mel & Louis were invited to perform at the very first Johannesburg Folk Festival in 1995, which was recorded, by CBS ... and they had the distinction of having 3 of the tracks on that LP... And they were also the first South African group to attempt to play Bluegrass.
Their friends Johnny Kongos and John E. Sharpe had established recording careers at the time, and Sharpe's manager, Billy Forrest, the reigning king of South African Country & Western music, hit making recording artist producer, and an aficionado of music in general, and manager / mentor to other young singers on the South African music scene... was introduced to the Mel's at the Troubadour after seeing the Mel's in action one evening in 1965. He was very impressed with their talent and thought their folk / comedy act could go far, with an attentive manager, a booking agent and their own recording contract ... he offered to become their manager, and the momentum of their career began...
By 1965 Mel and Mel had established themselves as a sure thing for a good night's entertainment at the Troubadour. Both were happily occupied in their respective day jobs - Interior Designer and Assistant Advertising Visualizer/Art Director. They continued building their repertoire, and were quite content with their successful regular Wednesday night gig at the Troubadour, which had grown to such an extent that the size of their audiences were rivaling Des Lindberg's and Keith Blundell's Saturday night shows!
With Billy Forrest as their manager, a real recording contract was negotiated for them with Columbia, where they recorded their first single, Hedy West's “500 Miles”, with “Sorrow & Pain” (supposedly ghost written by Lennon & McCartney and recorded by Unit 4 + 2, on the flip side, which was backed up by their friends Johnny Sharpe and the Squires, the popular R&B group. (These cuts were recently remastered and are on the "One More Town" CD!)
They were introduced to international music stars who were passing through South Africa on their own tours... amongst them The Byrds, Theodore Bikel, The New Christy Minstrels and later, the Everly Brothers from the USA, the Ivy League from the UK, Geula Gill from Israel and The Seekers from Australia.
The Mel's were grooming themselves as a “Peter & Gordon” type duo, wearing black turtlenecks, blue jeans, Cuban heel boots and Dylan caps. Of course the Beatles had just taken the pop music world by storm, coinciding with the ongoing Folk Boom in the USA, which was dominated by singer-songwriters in particular. Mel and Mel were incorporating these new folk songs into their act, getting advice on repertoire from their friends Brenda Newfield and David Sapire...
They were invited again to be one of the featured main stage acts at the second Johannesburg Folk Festival, where they performed with Louis Meyer. After that their fame grew even more. At a post-Folk Festival show at the Troubadour, Billy Forrest introduced the Mel's to agent Don Hughes, who was very impressed by their dynamic act and on Billy Forrest's recommendation, he returned the following Wednesday evening to see them do their multi-set show, comedy, music and all. He left that evening with the boast that he would soon have a full-time gig for them at one of the top hotels in the country... both Mel's were skeptical at the time, and weren't considering music as a full-time career.
Don Hughes was true to his word, and when he returned from Durban, he offered them a 3-month gig at The Edward Hotel, and another 1-month residency at Deal's Hotel in East London. Mel & Mel were faced with making a major decision ... to leave their new found day jobs. After heart-searching discussions with their employers, relatives and friends ...
Mel & Mel took the plunge, and were soon on their way to Durban as professionals, their first three-month residency in their own cabaret room at Durban's 5-star Edward Hotel, which the management imaginatively dubbed "The Troubadour Room". Soon they were filling up the 100 seat room nearly every night of the week! And before long they established long-standing friendships with many of the rock groups and entertainers playing at the other hotels in this premier coastal resort city.
And Julian Laxton makes three. When they returned to Johannesburg from their first two long-term gigs in Durban and East London, Mel & Mel were asked to make their first album. After a well-earned break, they started to rehearse their favourite songs for the LP. They asked their music fanatic friend and ”sounding board", David Sapire, for assistance and advice on the repertoire for the LP... David advised Mel & Mel to “improve their sound”....By adding a lead guitarist to the group, at very least for the recording, as Little Mel was a relatively rudimentary folk guitarist at that time, and an album featuring his sole guitar accompaniment was not in the duo’s best interests for a debut album, so ...David recommended his brother, Julian Laxton. Julian was an out-of-work Rock & Roll guitarist, as his last group "Them" had just broken up. Big Mel was a bit skeptical, and Little Mel went to meet Julian and run through some tunes...
He convinced Big Mel that Julian was versatile enough to adapt to any kind of music. After hearing Julian for himself, Mel Miller eventually agreed that he was just the guy to improve their group sound! Julian was a quick study and could play anything.
Julian added his terrific acoustic lead guitar work to that first LP, which set a South African folk music standard. His uncanny knack for adding innovative rhythmic and lead parts, really helped establish the group's unique sound. And so, because the Mel's were so impressed by Julian they asked him to join the group, and needing a job, he agreed to join the group immediately … which quite naturally became known as Mel, Mel & Julian...
Because their first contract at The Edward had been such a great success, Don Hughes contacted Mel & Mel to let them know they had been offered a 6-month contract to return to the Edward Hotel in Durban, followed by a return engagement at Deal's in East London. The Edward Hotel contract was to begin in a month .... so they persuaded their agent to include Julian in the contract...
After rehearsing with Julian for the rest of that month, the new group drove down to Durban and were set up in a larger “Troubadour Room” at the Edward. Their contract ran right through the busy July winter holiday season, and word of their reputation for a great night of entertainment spread quickly, and they were soon filling every show to capacity!
What became quickly apparent was that the various quirky personalities of the group enhanced their entertainment value... Mel Miller's rubber face and natural talent as a comedian, as well as being a talented lead singer, made him a huge draw, which was previously offset by Little Mel's "straight man" roll and guitar playing and harmony singing. Now with the addition of Julian's deadpan reactions as a foil to the comedy, plus his fleet-fingered lead guitar playing, the group's audience appeal became irresistible.
Julian was soon establishing a name for himself as a prime lead guitarist, and his reputation grew among the many musicians and bands playing professionally in Durban. His innovative musicianship added stature to the group's fame, and he became a huge influence on both Mel and Mel ... Their daily rehearsals included guitar lessons for Little Mel, who credits Julian as his most important guitar and music teacher... and he also encouraged Big Mel to take up double bass to augment the group's already innovative acoustic sound.
Mel, Mel & Julian – Because their first contract at The Edward had been such a great success, Don Hughes contacted Mel & Mel to let them know they had been offered a 6-month contract to return to the Edward Hotel in Durban, followed by a return engagement at Deal's in East London. The Edward Hotel contract was to begin in a month .... their agent persuaded the hotel management to include Julian in the new contract. Ultimately this proved to be a brilliant move, because advance publicity was changed to announce the addition of Julian, and the anticipation about the now stronger trio set them up for what proved to be an immediate success...
Freshly recovered after their album recording session, they continued to rehearse with Julian for the rest of that month adding to the repertoire and which Julian augmented brilliantly, and the newly expanded group drove down to Durban and were set up in a larger “Troubadour Room” at the Edward. Their contract ran right through the busy July winter holiday season, and word of their reputation for a great night of entertainment spread quickly, and they were soon filling every show to capacity!
They became a must see attraction of Durban Nightlife. The trio was "something new for a great night's entertainment!" What became quickly apparent was that the quirky personalities of the group enhanced their entertainment value... Mel Miller's rubber face and natural talent as a comedian, and talented lead singer, made him a huge draw. And what was was previously offset by Little Mel's "straight man" roll, which along with his guitar playing and harmony singing was, with the addition of Julian's deadpan reactions as a foil to the comedy, and especially his fleet-fingered lead guitar playing, irresistible to the group's audience appeal.
As a trio, the group became a welcome attraction in the various cities they played. Their popularity at The Edward Hotel in Durban brought them back for repeat long-term residencies from 1964 till 1967, and they also had residencies at Deal's Hotel in East London, as well as at Cape Town's Grand Hotel, during which period of time 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!
Three years of playing and living at different hotels around South Africa eventually took its toll, and each of the three members were beginning to realize their talents and quite naturally conflicts began. As the focal member, Mel Miller was taking more and more time to tell his stories and become the stand-up comedian he would eventually excel at. Mel Green and Julian Laxton were beginning to feel like book-ends to Mel Miller sitting there doing nothing for what felt like most of the time. Although they were at the height of their development and talent, the arguments and some resentment that ensued was only natural, and by the end of their last residency at the Edward, they decided to break up the group. They shook hands amicably and went their separate ways...
Although the group lasted for a relatively short time (until late 1967), their contribution to a contemporary folk music sound and early folk-rock in South Africa was considerable.
There is a lot more to their story, as individuals and as a famous South African trio.
M,M&J in the Future... In 1969 Mel Green signed on to become a member of the Dream Merchants, (with Billy Forrest and Billy Andrews), but they too broke up before anything came of that group as a trio.
Mel moved to the United States in 1970, and has lived in Boston ever since, with earlier stays in New York City and Bangor, Maine. He is a songwriter these days and plays regularly on the New England Acoustic music/folk scene as a solo. His folk-rock quintet "The Maple Street Project" broke up in 2010 after a run of 25 years, on and off.
To this day Mel Miller is a major star on the South African & International comedy circuit. He was awarded A Lifetime Achievement Award for Comedy in South Africa in 2010, and he goes from strength to strength, selling out the Sydney Opera House in 2011! He continues to produce successful comedy shows in South Africa.
Julian Laxton is still a major force in the South African popular music scene to this day, still gigging and still making wonderful rock music, recordings, award-winning commercials and soundtracks for South African movies.
For more information... Please contact Mel Green at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mel Green has completed a new book, tentatively titled "Shut Up & Sing" which tells the fascinating story of Mel, Mel & Julian.
Watch this space for details!