Ray Coleman was the editor of Melody Maker during the seven years that I worked on the paper. When he died in 1996 the Daily Telegraph asked me to write an obituary, and that same week obits of Ray also appeared in The Guardian and The Independent, written by Richard Williams and Chris Welch respectively. Ray would have been delighted that three of his former staff members had written his obits in UK broadsheets. Here’s mine, though it’s a bit dry, as befitting the Telegraph!
Ray Coleman, who has died from cancer aged 59, played a leading role in the growth of the British music press in the Sixties and Seventies. Under his editorship Melody Maker became a flagship magazine for IPC Business Press, selling over 200,000 copies a week at its peak in the early Seventies. No other weekly music magazine has bettered this circulation since. In more recent years he became a respected author of solid, unsensational, accurate rock biographies.
Born in Leicester on 15 June, 1937, Ray began his career as a tea boy on the Leicester Evening Mail at the age of 15, graduating to the reporters' room two years later. After two years in the Army on National Service, he joined the Brighton Evening Argus as a general reporter, then the Manchester Evening News where he stayed for five years, specialising in industry and, as a sideline, becoming a stringer for Melody Maker.
Impressed with his work, Melody Maker editor Jack Hutton invited Ray to join the magazine's editorial team in 1960. Ray immediately brought a degree of hitherto missing professionalism to music journalism, digging for stories that might well have been ignored in earlier times. At this time Melody Maker was noted for its jazz coverage and treated pop music with some disdain, but this was to change in 1963 with the advent of Beatlemania. Ray, appointed deputy editor that year, was at the frontline of the beat boom, travelling with The Beatles on tour in the UK and America, and becoming particularly friendly with John Lennon. The Beatles, increasingly irritated at the crassness of trivial questions from reporters who treated them as a novelty act, welcomed the erudite, bespectacled figure of Ray Coleman into their dressing room, and he was soon filing exclusive interviews and stories which, in hindsight, offer a valuable history of the Beatles phenomenon. He became friendly with Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager, and The Rolling Stones, with whom he also travelled on tour.
In 1967 Ray left Melody Maker to become editor of Disc, its sister paper, but three years later, when MM editor Jack Hutton left to launch Sounds magazine, Ray rejoined MM, this time as its new editor. He soon restaffed the paper with young journalists from provincial newspapers whose backgrounds were similar to his own, and under his direction the new team began producing a rock magazine that outsold all its rivals. Indeed, by 1972 MM had become the world's best selling weekly music paper, referred to in the industry as 'The Bible'. New Musical Express, MM's only serious rival in the UK, soon began to look as if it had been designed on the MM subs desk.
Ever the vigilant reporter, Ray placed an emphasis on rock and pop news and insisted that MM's front page always carried a dramatic headline news story about a top act. MM was invariably first with the news about important tours, groups splitting up or the impending arrival of Elvis Presley to British shores – though, of course, Elvis never arrived. To his credit, Ray was willing to take a chance on promising new acts, and the careers of both David Bowie and Roxy Music benefited from front page coverage before they achieved mass acceptance.
Ray was also adept at spotting and encouraging talented young writers and many of the reporters that he employed on MM went on to achieve eminence in journalism. These include Richard Williams, now the senior sports columnist on The Guardian; Michael Watts, Editor of the Independent magazine; and Alan Lewis, Editorial Director at IPC Magazines.
Largely due to its rather serious, apolitical approach, Melody Maker fell behind its rivals with the advent of punk rock, and in 1979 Ray handed over the reins, staying on at IPC in a senior editorial capacity, but he left after two years to concentrate on books. In recent years Melody Maker's circulation has plummeted, which saddened him enormously.
Ray's first book, a two-volume biography of John Lennon published in 1984, was criticised for its blandness, but few could doubt its thoroughness or accuracy. He was, after all, constrained by having to accommodate the wishes of Lennon's first wife, Cynthia, and widow, Yoko Ono, in order to obtain their co-operation. Far more penetrating was his excellent biography of Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager, which spared no blushes when it came to dealing with Epstein's torrid personal affairs.
Ray also wrote biographies of Eric Clapton, The Carpenters and Gerry Marsden, and worked with Bill Wyman, the Stones' former bass player, on his autobiography Stone Alone. More recently he wrote an appreciation of Frank Sinatra and McCartney: Yesterday And Today with Paul McCartney, a book largely devoted to the genesis and subsequent success of the former Beatle’s most famous composition. Up until to his death, he had been working on a biography of Phil Collins, with Collins' co-operation.
Ray's personal choice in music tended towards jazz and sophisticated easy listening but, paradoxically, he always championed those artists, like Lennon, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis, who challenged the status quo. During his editorship of Melody Maker he managed to persuade The Who's Pete Towshend to write a controversial monthly column which to Ray's delight continually questioned the accepted practices of the music business establishment.
A lifelong socialist, Ray was heavily involved with the charity Music Therapy and was a former schoolboy chess champion. He lived in Shepperton and leaves a widow, Pamela, and two sons, Miles, 25, and Mark, 22.