Born on May 12, 1942, in Harrow, west London, England, and raised in Upminster, Essex; died of cancer on March 27, 2000, in London, England; married Betty, 1985 (divorced); married Sophie Tilson, a sculptor, c. 1996; children: (first marriage) Jemima and Baxter; (second marriage) Bill and Albert. Education: Graduated from Walthamstow Art College and the Royal College of Art.

Pop icon Ian Dury, the man responsible for coining the expression "Sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll," succumbed to cancer on March 27, 2000. His songs, including the innuendo-laden number-one hit "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick," were instantly memorable, combining streetwise humor with verbal cleverness. Paying tribute to the life and career of his close friend, Madness frontman Suggs, also known as Graham McPherson, called Dury "the people's poet laureate, one of the finest lyricists this country has produced," as quoted in the Mirror, "he was still giving it his all to the end."

In addition to his contributions to pop music, Dury was equally regarded for his warmth, humor, and charitable endeavors, despite all his efforts to remain the naughty cockney rocker in the eyes of his fans. He always maintained a positive outlook about his own physical limitations, resulting from a bout with childhood polio, as well as his later struggles with depression and colon cancer. Even while performing a charity concert at the London Palladium just one month before his death he remained upbeat. "I believe in the power of positive thinking. I think 51 percent of it is down to spirit, whatever you're fighting," he told the Daily Express, speaking bravely and matter-of-factly about facing his own death. "The polio has made me fatalistic, able to laugh at most things--I'm a pretty cheerful person in most of my doings." Aside from music and later acting, Dury spent much of his energy campaigning for the disabled, working with those with mental illnesses, and helping others stricken with polio and cancer, and actively supported charitable causes like the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), and Cancer BACUP.

Born on May 12, 1942, in Harrow, west London, England, and later moving with his family to Upminster, Essex, Dury contracted polio at the age of seven, leaving him partially crippled. In a strange way, he later told the Daily Express, the polio actually helped him deal with cancer later on. As a boy, he grew accustomed to dealing with pain and coping with periods of incapacitation, but refused to feel sorry for himself or allow a disability to disrupt his life's plans. In spite of teasing, stares, and physical limitations, he would become one of Great Britain's most beloved rock stars, never letting the fact that his left hand and leg were lacking in muscle tone stand in his way. According to Dury, who always felt uncomfortable when people pitied him, he never saw any point in being bitter. Likewise with cancer, he decided, "I'm not here to be remembered. I'm here to be alive."

After spending two years in a hospital recovering from polio, Dury attended a school for disabled children for many years, leaving at the age of 16 to study art at Walthamstow Art College in London. Subsequently, he won admittance to the Royal College of Art. Upon graduation in 1967, he took a position lecturing and teaching painting at the Canterbury Art College. Around the same time, Dury also began writing and playing songs. In 1971 at the age of 28, he formed his first band, Kilburn and The High Roads, and embarked on the pub/college circuit in London playing simple, '50s-style rock and roll with an occasional detour into jazz. Over the next three years, the band became a fixture on the pub-rock circuit as Dury honed his lyrical prowess with songs like "Billy Bentley" and "Upminster Kid."

By 1973, the group's success allowed Dury to quit his teaching job. Among Kilburn and The High Roads' legion of dedicated fans were several British music critics, and one of them, Charlie Gillett, signed on as the band's manager, helping them to secure a record deal with the Warner imprint Raft Records. In 1974, the group presented Warner with an album that the label refused to release, though it was later issued under the title Wotabunch after Dury became popular. After some struggling, Kilburn and The High Roads broke away from Warner and signed with Dawn, a subsidiary of Pye Records, who released the Warner-rejected material as Handsome in 1975. By now, however, the pub scene was in decline, and the record went largely unnoticed. Thus, after one album and many line-up changes, Kilburn and The High Roads called it quits at the end of the year. Afterward, guitarist Keith Lucas formed the band 999, while an undeterred Dury concentrated on a solo career.

Assembled The Blockheads

Continuing to work with Kilburn pianist and guitarist Chaz Jankel to write new songs, Dury in 1977 secured a contract with Jack Riviera's new indie label, Stiff Records. Joined by Jankel, whose compositions now suggested a move away from solid rock toward a lighter, jazzy style, Dury gathered a variety of session players and pub-rock veterans for studio work. Many of the participants--including former Kilburn saxophonist Davey Payne, drummer Charley Charles, and bassist Norman Watt-Roy--would become The Blockheads. During the recording sessions, Jankel's musical sophistication, along with Dury's earthy delivery and a skilled backing band, resulted in a formula that was to produce some of the singer's biggest hits.

In August of 1977, Dury released his first solo record, "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll," a single that became the definitive statement on the rock 'n' roll lifestyle that also appeared on New Boots and Panties, released in November. Widely hailed as a brilliant debut LP, New Boots and Panties demonstrated Dury's talent for writing punchy couplets and music-hall parodies ("Billericay Dickie" and "Clever Trevor"), showing his street smarts and rougher edge ("Blockheads" and "Plaistow Patricia"), and creating the ultimate rock tribute ("Sweet Gene Vincent"). The album went gold, reaching number five on the United Kingdom charts thanks in large part to a punishing touring schedule.

By this time, Dury had added keyboard player Mickey Gallagher and guitarist John Turnball to the Blockhead lineup. After playing the inaugural 1977 Stiff Records package tour dubbed "Stiff's Live Stiffs" alongside Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and others, followed by a headlining slot with the "Dirty Dozen Tour," Ian Dury and The Blockheads traveled to the United States as the opening act for Lou Reed. However, audiences in America met The Blockheads--decidedly a very British band--with a mixed reception. While songs off New Boots and Panties did receive some airplay on college radio stations and eventually breached the United States album charts at number 168, most mainstream listeners found Dury's clever wordplay and inherent "Englishness" incomprehensible. Moreover, Stiff failed to organize adequate distribution for the U.S. market. Therefore Dury, like so many of his contemporaries, most notably Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe, never really had a chance to establish much more than a cult following in the States.

But back home, Ian Dury and The Blockheads had evolved into one of the most powerful bands in Britain, touring almost constantly throughout Europe. Their sets, usually lasting two hours or more and featuring Dury decked out in all the fancy trappings of a pop star, delighted audiences. The band never played the same list twice, and during Dury's peak years, it is said that no band could follow up The Blockheads' atmospheric performances, no matter how hard they tried. Whether clad as a pearly king, prince of darkness, used car salesman, or a cockney wildman, Dury commanded attention. The combination of his onstage alter-egos, riveting performances, and stark balance of cheerful and dark material always made an emotional impact. But on the downside, Blockhead gigs were exhausting affairs and would eventually prove detrimental to Dury's health.

"Rhythm Stick" Topped the Charts

In the meantime, Dury and his band landed on the United Kingdom singles chart for the first time in April of 1978 with "What A Waste," which peaked at number nine. An even bigger hit followed in December of 1978 with "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick," which rose to the number one position in January and remained at the top of the charts for two weeks. It was Stiff's first number one hit and first million-selling record and set the scene for a second LP, Do It Yourself, released in May of 1979. Although it made less of a long-term impact than New Boots, Do It Yourself was an instant success, rocketing to number two on the U.K. album chart within weeks of its release and climbing to number 126 in the United States later that summer. In addition, Ian Dury and The Blockheads, despite their undeniably English style, enjoyed increasing popularity throughout Europe, especially in Germany. "Rhythm Stick" charted at number 24 in March of 1979, New Boots and Panties followed on the German album charts at number 29, and Do It Yourself sold steadily as well, peaking at number 23.

In September of 1979, Dury and his group arrived with another hit, the jazzy stream-of-consciousness single "Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part 3)," which climbed to number three in the United Kingdom. But after another tour in support of Do It Yourself, Dury's fortunes began to wane. Upon its conclusion, Jankel decided to move on to solo work, feeling that his contributions to the band had not been fully appreciated. This would prove a devastating blow because Jankel had served as the musical inspiration behind Dury's lyrics. Former Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson stepped in as Jankel's replacement in time to play on the next single, "I Want To Be Straight," a reflection of Dury's concerns about his worsening health. Although it was a minor hit, the song only reached number 22 on the United Kingdom charts. A follow-up single a couple months later titled "Superman's Big Sister" only reached the number 51 position, while the band's first album without Jankel, Laughter, released in November of that year, peaked at a disappointing number 48 and was met with only modest approval.

In 1981, Dury signed with a major label, Polydor, and released the upbeat single "Spasticus Austicus," a song he had written for "The Year of the Disabled," a cause he had devoted much of his energies to that year. However, radio stations, misunderstanding Dury's direct, in-your-face sense of humor, refused to play the song, perceiving it as being in bad taste. Polydor reacted by deleting the single soon thereafter, though it would resurface on Dury's first album for the label. For the new LP, Dury reunited with Jankel, creating a sense of optimism among fans. But despite Jankel's involvement and good reviews, Lord Upminster, released in October of 1981 and recorded with a top-drawer rhythm section team of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, only reached the number 51 slot on the United Kingdom album chart.

After this disappointment, Dury made only brief returns to the recording business. His subsequent records were always met with a warm reception, although they were never big sellers. In 1984, he released the optimistic 4,000 Weeks Holiday, credited to Ian Dury and The Music Students, which featured some of the Blockheads and charted at number 53. His last significant hit, 1985's "Profoundly in Love With Pandora," the theme for the television show The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole written and recorded with Jankel, reached number 45.

By the late 1980s, Dury had returned to his first love, painting, and also forged an acting career. In addition to landing spots for radio and television commercials, he also appeared in numerous television productions, including King of the Ghetto, for which he played the title character, in 1986, and Night Moves, for which he also wrote the musical score, in 1987, and acted in plays, most notably Talk of the Devils in 1986, Road in 1987, and Apples, a musical co-written with Mickey Gallagher, in 1989. In 1985, Dury acted in his first film, Number One, opposite Bob Geld, followed by roles in several more big screen productions, among them Roman Polanski's The Pirates in 1986 and Peter Greenway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover in 1989.

The Blockheads Reunited

Although Dury's musical career appeared at rest for good, he suddenly reformed The Blockheads at the end of 1990 to play some reunion benefit gigs in memory of Charley Charles, a victim of cancer. These shows proved so successful as well as enjoyable that the group continued to perform on occasion, and Dury began collaborating again with Jankel. Their efforts resulted in the 1992 release The Bus Driver's Prayer and Other Stories, Dury's first new LP in nearly ten years. Hailed as one of his best since Do It Yourself, the album featured many of the old Blockheads, including Jankel, Gallagher, Turnbull, and Payne.

In 1996, Dury was diagnosed with colon cancer. After an operation, secondary tumors appeared on his liver, signaling that his condition was terminal. In addition to Charles, Dury's first wife, Betty, had also died of the disease in 1994. Though they had separated in 1985, Dury was greatly grieved by her death. Rather than dwell on what was to come, Dury instead chose to make the most of his situation. "I haven't shaken my fists at the moon," he said, as quoted by the BBC Online. "I'm not that sort of geezer. I'm 56 and mustn't grumble. I've had a good crack, as they say." Soon after his diagnosis, Dury married Sophie Tilson, a sculptor and mother of his two youngest children, then decided to record a new album. Mr. Lovepants, issued on Ronnie Harris Records in 1998, was met with praise from critics and fans alike.

Dury maintained a high profile even while his condition worsened. His health progressively deteriorating, Dury toured in support of Mr. Lovepants beginning in the fall and made a trip with UNICEF, for whom he served as an official ambassador, to Sri Lanka promoting polio vaccination with pop star Robbie Williams. In 1999, he started recording material for a new album with The Blockheads. Sadly, however, Dury passed away on March 27, 2000, before the material saw the light of day. One of the songs, "You Are the Way," was played at his funeral. He was survived by Tilson, the couple's two young sons, five-year-old Bill and two-year-old Albert, and Dury's two grown children from his first marriage, 29-year-old Jemima and 26-year-old Baxter. In memory of Dury's contributions to the music business, The Blockheads, along with several celebrities including Robbie Williams, Madness, Neneh Cherry, The Clash, and others, played a special "Tribute to Ian" gig on June 16, 2000, at the Brixton Academy.

Dury dies on March 27, 2000, at his home in London, England, at the age of 57 following a battle with liver cancer.

by Laura Hightower

Ian Dury's Career

Began lecturing and teaching painting at Canterbury Art College, 1967; formed Kilburn and The High Roads, 1971; released Handsome, group disbanded, 1975; signed with Stiff Records, released "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll" and New Boots and Panties, played first Stiff package tour, 1977; "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" peaked at number one on the U.K. singles chart, 1978; released Do It Yourself and "Reasons To Be Cheerful," 1979; concentrated on painting and acting, mid- to late-1980s; reformed The Blockheads and released The Bus Driver's Prayer and Other Stories, his first new LP in nearly ten years, 1992; released Mr. Lovepants, toured with The Blockheads, and played benefit gigs despite his deteriorating health, 1998; The Blockheads, Robbie Williams, The Clash, Neneh Cherry, Madness, and others played a special "Tribute to Ian" gig, June 16, 2000.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

July 25, 2006: Dury's album, Laughter, was re-released with bonus tracks. Source: All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com, July 27, 2006.

Further Reading

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 10 years ago

Check willbirch.com for upcoming biography of Ian Dury, due approx 2008/09