True to his catchphrase 'I'm a very funny man', the Cannock-born star had kept pub and club audiences laughing for more than six decades.
He was one of the old-school comedians who kept people laughing through a mix of one-liners and rude mother-in-law tales.
But on Monday night he died at New Cross Hospital, just weeks after being diagnosed with cancer.
He was truly one of a kind.
Ian 'Sludge' Lees was a joke teller par excellence. The curly-haired Cannock comic was proud of his Midlands roots – he derived considerable pleasure from having been named Midlands Comedian Of The Year twice – and helped put the region on the comedy map.
The Wolves season ticket holder, who in later life lived in Tipton for a decade and finally Powys, was from a different age: an era when comedians told jokes with punchlines rather than entered into lengthy observational discourse about dating, divorce and social mores.
On the subject of football, for instance, he would regularly tell his fans that he could have been a professional footballer. They’d look back in surprise before Sludge would hit them with the punchline. “Yes, the teacher told me I was good for F. A.”
There were other killer jokes. “I went on the pitch once, with nothing on, and the referee gave me the red card. I said what did you do that for? And he said that’s the worst tackle I’ve ever seen.”
The son of a miner, Sludge rose to the top during the 1970s, in a non-PC era when it was alright to tell jokes about mothers-in-law, when comedy wasn’t smothered by political correctness and when almost anything went.
His jokes about women, for instance, were genuinely funny – though they’d be unlikely to be told in the new, polite, mind-your-Ps-and-Qs era.
“Why are single women thinner than married women? Because single women come in the house, look what’s in the fridge and go to bed. Married women come in the house, look what’s in the house and go to the fridge.”
Sludge followed a well-trodden path, starting his show business life with two top comedy show groups of the 70's – The Montanas and Light Fantastic – before making the break as a solo artist.
He quickly made a name for himself and came runner up to Tom O'Connor in the Club Mirror Awards.
He had a love of silly jokes. “Two snakes in the jungle, the one says ‘Are we poisonous dad?’ His dad says ‘Why have you asked me that’. His son says: ‘I’ve bit my lip’.”
Soon the small screen beckoned. Sludge became a regular member of the Tiswas cast and followed that with regular appearances on shows such as The Comedians, Summertime Special and Live From Her Majesty's, to name but a few.
The Comedians was a big deal and Sludge found himself working on a programme that featured the likes of Stan Boardman, Jim Bowen, Duggie Brown, Frank Carson, Jimmy Cricket, Stu Francis, Bobby Knutt, Tom O’Connor, Roy Walker and Norman Collier.
He was part of that scene; a ribald group of genuinely funny men who were the biggest comics of their time, but who would be booed off stage if they were to rock up at the Comedy Store in 2018. How times change.
WATCH Sludge in action (adult content warning):
Sludge successfully plied the circuit of working men’s clubs and cabaret clubs.
Near West Bromwich, there was a club called The King’s, where comics would entertain families as they feasted on chicken in a basket or scampi and chips. It was considered high living. For a while, it was the height of sophistication.
Comedy changed, of course, as a new wave of comedians moved in with observational material.
It was political and charged. Jokes about Paddy and Mother-in-Law became unfashionable and Sludge left the centre stage to specialise in after dinner speaking and sporting functions, particularly those involving football and golf.
The name ‘Sludge’ had come from his football days. Sludge had played football at Cannock park with rock legend Glenn Hughes. He used to dive around a lot, wanting to be a goalkeeper, and Hughes gave him the nickname.
He went to St Mary’s Catholic School, where he was taught by nuns, before passing his 11-plus and attending Cannock Grammar School.
He was more interested in Buddy Holly than The Bible and ended up at a lesser school in Hednesford.
Afterwards, like Jim Davidson, he had 20 jobs in two years. “But all I was interested in was getting a mic in my hand and entertaining people,” he said.
He was the lead singer in bands before becoming a comic. He made his first TV appearance at the age of 15, singing Oh Boy. “I was signing autographs round Cannock when I was 15-years-old. I’d take my guitar and sing on the wall, then I’d be round the pubs. My dad would go round with the pint glass. I used to sing for hours in the Black Horse in Cannock, which became Silks, I made £15.”
Sludge finished second on New Faces, a forerunner to Britain’s Got Talent. The winners went to Las Vegas. He went to Walsall Wood working men’s club.
Tiswas was a turning point. “I was on it a lot, every other week,” he once recalled.
His love of performing didn’t leave him and Sludge continued to feature on Black Country Nights Out.
He would have been back on the road this autumn; with shows planned at Wolverhampton Grand, Bridgnorth Theatre on the Steps, Cannock’s Prince of Wales Centre, Sutton Coldfield Town Hall and Stourport-on-Severn’s Civic Centre.
He was a trooper to the end and will be missed.
Ian 'Sludge' Lees died on July 30. He is survived by his four children and his partner Diane Mills.