My friend Paul Ryan, who has died aged 69 of cancer, was a writer and author who spent the last decade or so of his life as a jazz crooner, plying his trade in the clubs around Soho in London.
Switching to professional singing from journalistic work, he loved being part of the all-but-hidden world of performers that exists outside the commercial sphere of agents, recording contracts, publicists and high earnings. Immersing himself in that environment, he earned himself a reputation as one of the best storytellers in Soho.
Paul was born in Cardiff, to Maurice Ryan, an electrician at the docks, and Eva (nee Horne), a silver service waitress at the Coal and Shipping Exchange in the city. After finishing his education at St Illtyd’s high school in 1968, he took on a job at Dixons electrical store in Cardiff as a sales adviser in the photographic department, while also working part-time at the New theatre as an assistant lighting technician.
In 1970 he joined a local amateur drama company, singing and dancing in a variety of roles, and two years later landed a job touring with Morecambe and Wise as Ernie Wise’s dresser before returning, after about a year, to the New theatre as a full-time lighting technician.
In 1978 Paul moved to London to earn a living as a freelance arts reviewer for the Guardian, the Observer and the Irish Times, supplementing his income by helping theatres out with their publicity material. He was fluent in French, and his love of film led him to interview more than 150 actors, directors and writers on stage for the Institut Francais (the French cultural institute) over a period of 30 years. He also translated the script of the American TV crime series Columbo for French television and, as he later joked, “despite that” was made an officer of the Ordre des arts et des lettres by the French state in 2008.
From the 90s onwards Paul additionally turned his hand to writing books, including titles such as Marlon Brando: A Portrait (1994) and Sins of our Fathers (2000).
From 2005 he had begun to sing informally with the jazz pianist Kenny Clayton, and by 2016 they were taking on professional bookings at venues in and around Soho, including at Ronnie Scott’s. In 2017 they released an album together, Blame It On My Youth, and from 2020 Paul also hooked up with the jazz pianist Jamie Safir, releasing an album, Love Look Away, with him in 2021
The London Evening Standard jazz critic Jack Massarik was one of Paul’s greatest fans, writing that “all these kiddy-crooners around today think they’ve got the Sinatra touch but, believe me, they’re not fit to shine Paul’s patent-leather shoes”. Never one to take himself too seriously, Paul joked that his obituary should probably note that he was “the finest jazz singer in his price range”.
He is survived by his wife, Sophie (nee Mortimer), an illustrator and picture editor whom he married this year, a son, Kiran, from a previous relationship, and his sister Anne.