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Nicky Crewe reflects on the life of her friend, Mancunian musician, writer and Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias frontman CP Lee, who died in July.
On the 25th July I read an announcement of Chris’s death from John Robb and 'Louder Than War' with dismay and disbelief. I began to get texts and messages from friends who were in a similar state to me, hoping against hope that it wasn’t true.
Later that evening his wife Pam confirmed the news and the circumstances of his passing. He had a heart attack while meeting a friend who worked for Cherry Red Records in a favourite pub, Fred’s Ale House in Levenshulme, Manchester.
Since then there have been obituaries online and in the national press.
Chris, or CP Lee as he is known, is a public figure.
These obituaries have tended to concentrate on his time with the Albertos, or Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias to give them their full title. It was a significant time in his life and career, hilariously and vividly captured in his 2007 book 'When We Were Thin'.
But there was so much more to Chris.
Some of you reading this may have been fans of the Berts. You might have gone to see their snuff rock musical 'Sleak' during its record breaking run at the Royal Court Theatre. Your childhood TV viewing might have included the unsuitable 'Teach Yourself Gibberish' on Granada TV. You may even remember Greasy Bear, the Magic Village and the happenings at Holdsworth Hall in Manchester. A few of you may have been on Chris’s wonderful music history guided walks and tours. It’s possible some of you were taught by him when he lectured at Salford University. He was the man who identified the Free Trade Hall as the venue where the cry of "Judas" rang out when Dylan went electric with the Band in 1966. He was there. You could even have taken his Bob Dylan option as part of your degree. Viewers of BBC4 music documentaries will have seen him give his opinion and share his knowledge on many aspects of Manchester music and Northern culture. He was an expert on subversive Lancashire comedian Frank Randle and the Mancunian Film Studios as well as Dylan. Some lucky readers may have witnessed the one man show he created to share the dark hipster humour of American 40’s comedian Lord Buckley.
These are just some of his achievements. There are more.
He is one of the founders of the award winning Manchester and District Music Archive. He was a great contributor to 'Louder Than Words', a festival of music journalism and writing that takes place in Manchester each year. He always had a musical project on the go too, having been in many groups over the years. Jacko Ogg and the Head People, the George Sugden Eleven, Gerry and the Holograms (chosen by Frank Zappa as one of his top ten records in 1980) and the Salford Sheiks to name a few. Most recently he appeared with harmony group Vocal Harum, or on his own as Just One Alberto.
And there’s more.
He and Pam would have celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary next year and their time together was an inspiration to all who knew them. They complimented and complemented one another in a way that was a delight to see. Chris became stepfather to her two sons, encouraging them in their chosen creative careers. Chris was always a sharp dresser, but his sartorial elegance achieved new heights with Pam’s influence and her talent for design and sewing skills. Chris became the man he was destined to be, personally and professionally, with Pam by his side.
Chris was already a Manchester music legend because of the band Greasy Bear when I first met him as an impressionable teenager, over fifty years ago. A couple of years later we worked together at Manchester’s first hippy emporium and workers’ cooperative On the 8th Day. The work ethic was very relaxed and often creative. Chris, Bob Harding and Jimmy Hibbert spent happy hours creating the first incarnation of Alberto y Los Trios Paranoias.
I followed the Albertos for years but eventually our lives went in different directions. In the nineties, when I didn’t get out much, there was the thrill of hearing him talk about music and culture on the radio and TV, always knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
Eventually I went back to live and work in Manchester for a year in 2013. Chris and Pam took me under their wing, gave me a social life and put me in touch with old and new friends. I was so grateful for their kindness and friendship and enjoyed their company so much, as everyone who knew them did.
In January we celebrated Chris’s 70th birthday. "Anything after 70 is bonus tracks," he quipped. On August 10th the same group of friends were there at his wake.
Pam told us his funeral songs were 'Love’s Alone Again Or' and Liam Clancy’s version of 'Spanish is the Loving Tongue'.
Tom, his stepson, paid tribute to the fun and encouragement he had brought into their lives.
John Robb reminded us that the Albertos’ parodies were actually better than the originals.
Dave Haslam spoke of him as a supportive colleague during the time they both taught at Salford University. He’d found an interview with Chris from a 1970 edition of 'Grass Eye', a Manchester underground magazine. Discussing fame and elusive fortune, Chris was quoted as saying, "There’s nothing I enjoy more than the life I have chosen.2
A university friend who knew him as a mature student told us Chris had a fount of knowledge and he wasn’t afraid to use it, and that he loved to teach because he loved to learn.
His great friend John Burscough kept a promise made many years before, as they poured a libation of Mackeson over Frank Randle’s grave in Blackpool. He delivered the eulogy and channelled Chris channelling Lord Buckley in a way that sent shivers down my spine. He finished with Lord Buckley’s version of Mark Antony’s speech from 'Willie the Shake’s Julius Caesar'. "My ticker is in the coffin there with Caesar and, yea, I must stay cool, till it flippeth back to me."
At the family’s request, John Reid, who had been with Chris when he collapsed told us of the circumstances of his death, a difficult and courageous speech to make.
The last word went to Bruce Mitchell, another Manchester legend and long time friend and drummer in both Greasy Bear and the Albertos. He turned 80 in June this year and took to the stage to the tune of 'Gobbin’ On Life' from Sleak.
I never imagined I would write a kind of review of a wake, but, as they keep telling us, these are unprecedented times.
As one of his friends said, his greatest hits are the legacy of our memories of him.
If this tribute has caught your interest, be curious, as he was, and find out more about him.
Read his books, chase up the videos.
And in a simple twist of fate his wake took place on the anniversary of another Manchester legend’s death. Tony Wilson died on August 10, 2007.
Photos by Melanie Smith
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