The British have a long-standing reputation for loving their eccentrics and few made a better career out of their quirks than musician and actor Ian Dury. Born in Upminster, Essex, on May 12, 1942, Dury contracted polio at the age of seven, damaging both his left hand and his right leg and resulting in a two-year stay in the hospital. After attending a school for the handicapped, Dury developed an interest in art and studied at the Royal College of Art, going on to teach painting at Canterbury Art College. But, in the great tradition of British art students, Dury had acquired a taste for rock music and in 1971 he formed a band called Kilburn and the High Roads. The band mixed up-tempo, no-frills, 1950s-style rock & roll with Dury's broadly witty observational songs about working-class British life, delivered in his unmistakable Cockney growl. While the group developed a loyal cult following, they never achieved mainstream popularity, and they disbanded in 1975.
In 1977, Dury formed a new group, featuring several former Kilburns and keyboardist Chaz Jankel, called Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Mixing pub rock, British music hall themes, and a funky undertow with Dury's idiosyncratic sense of humor, the Blockheads' first album, New Boots and Panties!!, was an unexpected smash, staying on the British charts for over a year and selling over a million copies. A string of hit singles followed, including "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll," "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick," "What a Waste," and "Reasons to Be Cheerful (Part Three)." Dury and the Blockheads never broke through in America and they parted ways in 1981.
While Dury launched a solo career, he also became interested in acting and he developed a solid reputation as a character actor, usually playing scruffy Cockney types. After briefly dabbling in stage work, Dury made his first dramatic appearance onscreen in 1984, with the British television film Number One. Two years later, he appeared in Roman Polanski's Pirates and in the 1980s and early '90s he appeared in such notable films as The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, The Rainbow Thief, and The Raggedy Rawney. In 1989, he merged his fondness for drama and music by writing a musical called Apples with former Blockhead Mickey Gallagher and starring in the original London production.
In 1991, Dury and the Blockheads began to play occasional reunion shows, which stepped up after drummer Charley Charles died and the band mounted a tour to benefit his family. Though music took up more of his time, Dury continued to act occasionally, popping up in two Hollywood movies of the mid-'90s, Judge Dredd and The Crow: City of Angels. In 1995, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, which later spread to his liver; he went public with his illness in 1999, the same year that the Blockheads released their first studio album in 19 years, Mr. Lovepants. Through his struggle with cancer, Dury remained busy with concert dates, television appearances, commercial voiceovers, and film work, appearing in two films in 1998. Cancer finally claimed Dury on March 27, 2000.