When it came to trust, rock stars from Eric Clapton to John Lennon gave it in full to Ray Coleman, the British writer who died of cancer ten years ago, September 10, 1996, at his home in Middlesex, a county near London. Coleman, who was 59, wrote authorized biographies of both Clapton and Lennon, as well as an authorized book with the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman and, lastly, McCartney: Yesterday and Today, with Paul McCartney.
Considering how many rock writers would surrender their favorite air guitars in a heartbeat to get an hour with such rock royalty — let alone a book — it is a distinguished list indeed. But what is even more distinguishing is how Ray Coleman went about his work. For while he would bend an ear to the legendary subjects of his books, he never bent a knee to them. That was one of the main reasons they worked with him and respected him. He did not fawn, grovel or otherwise kiss up to gain that much-sought-after access.
Rather, he listened. He observed. He researched. He noted. Then he wrote. Ernest Hemingway once said that the hardest thing about writing was to tell a story truly, and that was the edge on which Coleman cut his crystalline prose. Since he was a man of both compassion and honesty, he wrote carefully, yet candidly.
His subjects never saw a glimmering halo in his portraits. Yet they never accused him of inaccuracy or misrepresentation, either. He researched thoroughly, interviewed thoughtfully, and wrote tightly, so what they saw was a courageous attempt to get at the truth. In turn, readers in many countries came to know that the Ray Coleman byline on a rock-star bio meant that you weren’t getting pandering adoration or, conversely, hatchet-job sensationalism.
The readers sensed what the subjects knew: the man was a pro. He didn’t kneel and he didn’t hit. Coleman did the hard thing: he strove to write truly. He did it in his nine books; he did it as editor-in-chief of Britain’s Melody Maker; and he did it as a contributor to publications ranging from Billboardto England’s Daily Express.
Born on June 15, 1937, in Leicester in northern England, Ray worked at the Leicester Daily Mail when he was 15. He went on to report general news, crime and industrial affairs as a staffer with the Manchester Evening News and Brighton Evening Argus.
When he joined Britain’s weekly music paper Melody Maker in 1960, he maintained his detail-oriented, hard-news approach to reporting. In 1962 he became the first music journalist that Brian Epstein introduced to the Beatles. Over the years, he traveled the world with them, becoming a respected friend of the band.
Ray left Melody Maker in 1967 to edit its sister publication, the weekly Disc and Music Echo. In 1970 he returned as Editor-in-Chief to Melody Maker where his objective journalism and incisive interviewing techniques would transform the state of pop music writing in England.
Any semblance to gushing fan writing would give way to tightly constructed pieces built around fact, observation and quotes. Besides reporting on major groups, such as the Beatles, Ray also had an eye for upcoming talent and trends.
During the 70s, Melody Maker gave banner-headline ink to the early careers of performers such as Queen, Elton John, Bob Marley and Led Zeppelin. In the process, Ray also started a monthly magazine, Black Music, to recognize the impact of reggae.
He left Melody Maker in 1979 to embark on a career as a freelance writer and biographer. As a journalist and author, he won Britain’s Editor of the Year and Writer of the Year awards in national competitions.
Ray was the first journalist to receive the Gold Badge of Merit from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors. He was working on a biography of Phil Collins at the time of his death.
At a party, in front of several people, Paul McCartney once said to Ray Coleman, “We never could turn you on, could we, Ray?” By avoiding the drugs and other excesses of life on the road, Ray’s clear memory, work ethic and appetite for the truth were deeply treasured.
He was one of the few people ever to get Cynthia Lennon and Yoko Ono to agree on something important about John Lennon – which was that he should write Lennon’s authorized biography. From previous experience, both women knew that Ray would write truly and help them remember truly.
Ray also strove to help his peers write — and live — truly. I, for one, never understood how he could turn out so much top-shelf work and, in the process, give so much of himself to other writers.
In my long, cherished friendship with him, he never refused to listen to a story idea, read my stuff, ferret out a source, or commiserate over publishing woes (more often mine than his). And this was a guy on a first-name basis with John Lennon! Whatever was he doing, bothering with my sloppy copy? Through the years, I discovered that he was a mentor to quite a few writers all over the world.
As with his writing, so it was with his mentoring: what distinguished Ray Coleman was not just the number of people, but more so how he went about things. In a business of loudness, he never raised his voice. In a world of gossip, he never talked badly about his colleagues or their work. He was invariably kind, gracious and generous beyond measure.
On a stayover at my home in New Jersey a few years before his death, Ray reached into a bookshelf and removed his biography of John Lennon. I recall thinking of John’s line, “Just give me some truth,” and how Ray had worked himself to the bone to give John the truthful portrait he deserved.
Ray held the book in his hands a few seconds and stared at the cover. Then a warm smile filled his face. I interrupted his thoughts by snapping a picture. He looked up.
“Memories of John?” I asked.
“Wonderful memories,” said one of the very few people who had ever seen life through the fabled eye of the Beatle hurricane. “Wonderful memories of all of them. There was so much laughter. So much music. So much great music. And so much life.”
Ray’s own life turned around in late 1995 with a four-hour operation during which a cancerous kidney was removed. He described himself afterwards as being at “30% energy” – which was still a good deal faster than most people at 100%.
Unfortunately, the cancer spread during 1996. In my last conversation with him, he was having trouble breathing. There was a tumor pressing against his lung. He talked about how his wife Pamela was, as he put it, “a tower of strength” in attending to him before and after his several operations in the past year. He also talked a bit about his two sons, Miles and Mark.
Then he asked me how a book I was working on was progressing, and if he could be of any further assistance. Here he was, heading for his last moments, and he wanted to help. It reminded me of how so many of the truly great ones — from Michelangelo to Sandy Koufax — are so gifted that they don’t just run their race and win it; they also keep an eye on everyone running with them, and they stop and go back if someone is down.
They dust him off, see if he’s all right, and get him started again. Then they start again, graciously, and regain the lead with the speed of the 1966 Beatles leaving Candlestick Park. When one sees such a rare race, the kindness is even more dazzling than the talent.