Ernie Duff was born on April 17, 1936, in a gritty London district nearby the Surrey docks; he was the youngest of seven. Chronic illness had left his father William an invalid. His mother, the pretty, one-eyed daughter of an East End barrow-boy, was so tiny that all called her Doll; she worked as a domestic. With the London Blitz, his siblings left to live with strangers; Ernie, too young for such treatment, fled with his parents to an estate north of Brighton. There he slept in the stables and learned to snare rabbit, scrounge for apples and otherwise hunt for meals. The drone of lumbering doodlebugs—Nazi missiles launched from France—was constant; Ernie knew to run when the engines stopped. When an addled German fighter one day dove into the manor, villagers scrambled to collect scraps valuable as gold dust.
Peace brought the Duffs to Brighton and, after five years, the return of Ernie’s siblings. Ernie was suddenly sharing his parents with children he did not know, circumstances that likely contributed to his development as a ham. A small, slightly bucktoothed but good-looking youth, he started factory work at 15 and dressed snappily. Devoted to Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone and Matt Monro, he had a golden voice, and began performing with big bands in dance halls along the coast. In Worthing, where he performed as Alan Venner, he met Diana Jupp, a pretty, retiring blond. He did not tell her his real name until the night before they married. Diana, delighted with the prospect of a glamorous surname, was disappointed; she always called him Alan. Their daughter, Lorraine Chaloner, recalls Ernie waking early and commuting to London, where he’d become a successful tailor’s cutter on Bond Street—for years he worked for the designer Jean Muir—then returning home to don his stage clothes, along with a sparkly heart-shaped ring and a red rose in his lapel, for nightly engagements.
For a time, he ran a busy guest house on Ireland’s south coast. Ernie hunted, fished and grew the vegetables that Diana, a gifted cook, prepared for guests at table. Off season, he returned alone to England to cut and to sing. The arrangement prompted his separation from Diana and led him to Brenda, the gregarious wife of a south England publican. In 1981, they emigrated with Brenda’s two girls to Canada, opening a bar in Kitchener, Ont., then a fish and chip joint in Chesley, and finally Duffy’s Famous Fish & Chips in touristy Southampton. An incorrigible performer, Ernie installed a karaoke machine, belting out signature tunes like New York, New York, Mack the Knife and All of Me for bemused diners. Small children asked for his autograph. When he sang Tom Jones’s Delilah, his waitresses pelted him with panties stashed in their aprons.
Joining the Stardust Big Band, Ernie, in a white, rose-enhanced dinner jacket, crooned relentlessly. “Oh Ernie, you’re a Londoner, do you sing A Foggy Day?” a fellow Londoner, Doreen Fawcett, once asked. “Bit old to be a groupie,” said he. She was not the only one: Ernie was a renowned kisser of women, a connoisseur of brandy and cigars, and—when not on stage—jitterbugged with Brenda with such skill they’d clear the floor. Friends compared him to a real-life Austin Powers. A talented raconteur and great passer of gas, his vast store of limericks included an account of a magnificent farter from Sparta. He relished arriving at airports in a luxurious overcoat, his dead friend Ted Shakespeare’s ashes under his arm; he flew this way, bumped up to first class on compassionate grounds, for years. Shattered by Brenda’s death in 2006, he focused on happier things, recording a CD of songs entitled If I Never Sing Another Song, after a beloved Matt Monro ballad.
It proved a prophetic choice. In June, doctors told him he had brain cancer and weeks to live. “It’s curtains for me,” an uncharacteristically low Ernie said. But band leader Charlie Bell had a thought. Would he perform one last show? Ernie agreed. Ten days later, a greatly deteriorated Ernie—the tumor now caused him to tilt badly to one side and diminished his recall—arrived for a sound check. Flubbing the words to New York, New York, he broke down. The music continued uncertainly; the band too was weeping. His family considered pulling him off stage. But soon, 600 people had crammed the hall. The band played. Ernie, propped up on each side by two female vocalists, struggled to his feet and sang, the lyrics flowing. “He was the same old pro,” says trumpet player Wayne McGrath. “Where did he dig deep enough to come up with what he came up with?” He performed for two hours (as seen in the photograph here). This time, when he came to the lyric in New York, New York about the “vagabond shoes,” he gestured to his feet. “He attended his own requiem,” says a friend. He died in hospital on Aug. 27. Later, a band closed his funeral with a voiceless New York, New York.