Ronnie Bell, before and after his toupe, is one of the music industry’s top unsung, forgotten even, heroes. Despite the fact that he wrote, and published two versions of his memoirs, try and search for him online and you’ll find nothing! I interviewed him some 20 years ago at his house in Burwell, Cambridgeshire. I have canvassed all my old music business friends via Facebook; they all remember him with great fondness but no one knows what happened to him. I tried the old home phone number – no reply. Were he still alive he would be 103! If anyone knows, do let me know.
Here are his two books, and following that is what he had to tell me that day, before a Branston Pickle sandwich prepared by his devoted wife Peggy.
I was born in Cambridge but my parents left when I was about three and they moved to Brixton. When I came out of the Navy (see above) my parents were living in Hayes, and I walked all round the local factories. I eventually got a job in the Goods Inward department of EMI, helping to load and unload and check the manifests. (in those days EMI was making radios and televisions, not just records, and it was the beginning of the television era.) There was a lot of activity there.
I did that for some months. then an incredible piece of good fortune occurred. The foreman, a big ex-guardsman, charming chap but not literate, was involved in an accident with a car which smashed up his cycle and he asked me to help write the letters to the insurance company. He got compensation – a brand new bicycle. He said to me ‘you ought to be doing something better’, but I had no qualifications as I had been a signalman in the Navy. He spoke to a man called Jack Jarvis, and when I delivered a package to him, he asked if I would like to do something different. The pay on the Goods Inward job was not good and I had a young wife and a little baby. He asked me to join the Correspondence Department, which communicated with all the dealers, their complaints on orders. I was there for some time. In a way, it was a hole in the corner job, but better than what I was doing. My wife worked at EMI in the Wages Department. She used to pay a lot of people every week and built up quite a lot of contacts, There was a man in the Export Department called Mackenzie Smith (Aubrey Mackenzie Smith, died August 17, 1971 aged 54 by which time he was International Sales Manager) and he told my wife he was looking for someone to make the tea and learn the business. She said ‘I know the very one – my husband’. She got me an interview with Max Smith, which effectively got me into the business. You see, I was a choirboy for seven years in a famous London choir, men and boys, one of the best in the country. That gave me a broad knowledge, so when I went to see Mackenzie Smith I knew something about Brahms, Beethoven and Schuman. He was impressed and he gave me a job – that’s how I started.
Then I worked with Stanley Stern, he was in charge of the Export Records and Matrix Department. The structure in those days was slightly complicated. The people who actually did the work didn’t get the direct credit – the managerial people above did. The man in charge of me was called Robert Dockerill, a veteran Columbia man from the earliest days, a little Cockney man, no nonsense, a disciplinarian, but a very nice kind man. He was my boss along with Stanley Stern. I worked in Stern’s office. We used to audition records from all the licensees all over the world…from Germany, Italy, Africa, France. In those days the quality of French pop, for instance, was wonderful – you got a stream of lovely songs, intelligent lyrics.
Ronnie then showed me some of the old (1950’s) release monthly supplements around the time the 45rpm singles were starting to appear.
Dockerill used to plan the supplements, three, six months ahead. He progressed it all through the plant and the supplements appeared monthly. He was the brain behind that. I worked with a chap called David Evans, who left EMI and became a Roman Catholic priest – he ended up as chaplain at Wormwood Scrubs. This was the 50’s. You may remember that the microgroove record burst like a bomb on the 78 traditional business. EMI came into existence because when radio came in the late 20’s, record companies were frightened. They thought ‘this is going to be end of us – who’s going to buy records when you can switch on the radio?’ How wrong they were! Nothing sells records like a play in the on the air. That’s why promotion men came into the picture.
EMI was formed as a sort of defensive body against this new invasion of entertainment – radio. When radio became generally available – the end of the 20’s, beginning of the 30’s – the big record companies were HMV, Columbia, Parlophone, Regal Zonophone – they were all separate companies and came together as EMI to ensure their survival. That’s how EMI was born. American Columbia was associated with the British Columbia label for 50 years or more, the same way that RCA was connected with HMV. When the microgroove record emerged, C.H. Thomas (the MD at the time) was absolutely amazed at the prospect of someone listening to Perry Como -twelve songs one after the other. There was an editorial in The Gramophone . Tony Pollard will tell you about that.
But didn’t Decca lead the way?
Decca were the first – EMI were reluctant followers. They didn’t believe in it (microgroove records) and it would cost them dearly. RCA broke away from HMV after many years, American Columbia broke away from UK Coloumbia. EMI, from the record point of view, was facing extinction. The English product at the time – all the old dance bands of Roy Fox, Ambrose, Jack Hylton, Henry Hall – they were the main basis of the British business, but that wasn’t enough for long term survival. Decca was ahead of the field – that was the clever Mr (Ted) Lewis – so they decided to license Capitol Records of America. But then The Almighty was shining on EMI, because they bought Capitol when there was a torrent of wonderful musicals, fast selling LP’s. They got Oklahoma, The King & I, South Pacific. These brought LP sales to a wonderful volume for EMI. They saved themselves by that purchase and swiftly moved from near disappearance from the scene into a leading role once more.
This is the truth I’m telling you, but not many people would be aware of it except those who were there at the time. David Evans and myself, under Mr. Dockerill’s tutelage, used to sit and analyse the 78rpm sales figures and we would decide what is durable and what is transient. The things that had a durable life we put onto microgroove. David Evans did all the classical – I was a bit jealous of him because I would have liked to do the classical. I had to do the middle of the road – people like George Melachrino, Norrie Paramor – all the EMI labels.
(To add a personal note here. In the early 80’s, sadly, not long before he died, I was Bob Dockerill’s final manager. I was aware that in the late 50’s/early 60’s he was the arbiter, not only determining which titles were worthy of continuing with on 45 and 33rpm discs, but he also headed the committee that decided which new recordings submitted to him by A&R were worthy of release at all. Bob’s last job was the other side of that coin, submitting to me lists of titles that should be deleted from the catalogue. I don’t think I ever disagreed with him! I also mention this in Post no.10 – Colin Burn Part 2, February 2015)
After about four years C.H. Thomas made me MGM manager. I used to go to that wonderful EMI record library at Hayes which has RCA America samples. It was an incredible choice of repertoire because EMI had so many licensees around the world. France in particular was a source of wonderful repertoire and a lot of it is there. The ‘Cabaret in Paris’ LP’s did very and went to about Volume 7 before we exhausted it. EMI bought David and me a stop watch each and we were allowed to visit the library and choose titles, time them and prepare them ready for manufacture at the plant. We handed them all to Mr Dockerill and he progressed it all through. It was a most fascinating and enjoyable time but nobody would know about it.
I fell on my feet at MGM. There were people like Connie Francis who had a giant seller with ‘Who’s Sorry Now’ and there was a mann called Marvin Rainwater who had one very big hit in Britain, ‘Whole Lotta Woman’ I promoted these as well.
There is a piece in Record Retailer 32 years ago, which says about you ‘Some people look on me as a little too old for the game’ (that would have been in 1968!)
That’s right! I did have a spell with CBS, the American company. Of course they had Andy Williams, Barbra Streisand, lot of major artists. They were very greedy unpleasant people. I didn’t like them at all, but I was promotion manager there for about five years…
Shall we start with MGM?
I initially chose the repertoire for release and subsequently promoted it through the BBC, the disc jockeys and the provincial radio stations, Radio Luxembourg and the pirates. There were great musicals on MGM like Annie Get Your Gun.
Who were the key promotion people when you started at MGM?
For Philips, Paddy Fleming. RCA had an incorrigible Irishman called Tommy Loftus (see parts 72 & 72 of these interviews). Pye had Johnny Wise, Decca had Tony Hall – they were the principal ones. In those days the key DJ’s were David Jacobs, Pete Murray, Jimmy Savile, Jimmy Young, Tony Blackburn. We were the perpetual mendicants. We had to be very diplomatic. I once made a bad mistake and rang a disc jockey about an important single when he was at dinner. He was furious and dropped me like a hot potato. I met him about three months later in the corridors of the BBC and said ‘I’m sorry – mea culpa’ and he patted me on the shoulder and put the record (I think it was Shirley Bassey) in his programme three times!
The peak plugs were Juke Box Jury on television. That was a marvellous thing; the chances of getting in there with 60-70 releases a week, were very slim. But you had to try and and on occasion I got one or two. That was David Jacobs of course and Johnny Stewart was the producer. We had to cultivate relations with these people on a professional basis. There was a hoo-ha one time about payola, giving them money. I suppose I could say I was one of the principal promotion men and the last thing I would have done is offer them anything. If it went on, it was at a higher level than mine. It never went on with us – once you do that you destroy a relationship. Lower down the DJ scale there was some of it, but not at the level I’m talking about. David Jacobs was a supreme professional. Jimmy Savile was an eccentric but we must never forget he’s raised thousands of pounds for Leeds hospital (n.b. this interview long preceded the JS revelations).
The other (peak) plug was Two Way Family Favourites which was a happy occasion once a week (Sunday) when a huge family of some 50 million listeners tuned in. Bill Crozier in Cologne where the British Forces Network had their transmittor, and here with Jean Metcalfe. The rapport between thes two was very enjoyable. It was designed for soldiers in Germany to choose a record for their families back home, and the reverse as well. It was the ace plug, because if you got on there with the right record, it would be rolling by Tuesday.
Another powerful source in those days was Radio Luxembourg. We promotion men would fly over occasonally, and we’d see the late, very charming Barry Aldiss and before him Keith Fordyce. But we learned quickly it was no use going over there with anything; you had to have something very strong, otherwise you were wasting your time. It was contemporary with the record companies having their (sponsored) programmes. Luxembourg used to be partly record company sponsored, but they also had a lot of needletime left over which depended on Barry, Keith and later Geoffrey Everitt.
Another favourite target for the promo man was Housewives’ Choice – every day if you could get in there. That was run by some very nice BBC ladies , including Doreen Davies.
George Elrick recent died (December 15, 1999) – he was one of the best-known presenters of Houswewives’ Choice
Oh yes, and he was also the manager of a Welsh singer called Maureen Evans. I knew George very well. Maureen Evans could have been a major star but she was madly in love with a solicitor in Cardiff and we could never get her to London to do promotion. That’s when I was at Oriole. She was relatively easy to promote on the air, but wouldn’t come to London for television – spoilt her career, In the end she married someone else! I took her to Cologne for German television – she did a rehearsal, then we had the afternoon free. We went to the pictures and saw such a funny film, a detective story. The heroine was a large German blonde, very well built in a diaphanous dress. The detective was a chap who reminded me of Jimmy Durante. It was so over the top it was hilarious., Sitting in front of us were two men with shiny bald heads. The light from the screen was shining on them and it made them look like two huge…. Maureen started giggling and she set me off, The attendant came and said ‘you must go’ and we got chucked out!
You haven’t mentioned Jack Jackson
He was a great jazz man. I used to deal with him with people like Fats Waller and all the big jazz names on EMI. He was very erudite – there was probably no one else in Britain who knew more about American jazz artists than he did, and of course he wrote books about it. I used to send him samples but he was a perfectionist and we had some tussles. To the jazz purist, a session by a great solo artist is sacred. If there were four titles in the session, you could make an EP of them, but we had a commercial approach and chose the four strongest titles, but probably from different sessions. Jack couldn’t stand that – he thought it was sacrilege. He wrote to C.H. Thomas about it and Mr Thomas called me in and said ‘look at that’ and showed me the letter. I told him the approach was to sell records and not to justify the purist aspirations of jazz fans. The number of true jazz fans is quite small, but people will buy a jazz record with a well-known title. Fortunately Mr Thomas agreed with me.
You went from MGM to Top Rank?
After about four years. It was money. I had a mortgage and two little children. EMI were never good payers. I found it hard going so when Rop Rank offered me a repertoire job, it was twice as much as I was getting at EMI.
Was Colin Burn there?
Yes, I think he was. The managing director, Scottish chap, Mr MacLeod I think he was, hada no knowledge at all of the record business. He was appointed by the great ones to
Rank to a job for which he didn’t have the background. I dealt with a marvellous company in the United States called Vanguard. They had superb classical reperetoire. We did a deal with them and I released a lot of Vanguard recordings. It was a brief and interesting time.
Then I went to Oriole in Oxford Street. That brings in Mr (Morris) Levy. He was an extraordinary mixture of perspicacity, shrewdness and folly. He could not delegate. He was one of the nicest people I ever met and he always treated Peggy and me with great kindness, but he had no musical knowledge. I showed him a record of quartets and he said ‘how many are in the orchestra’? But he was terribly clever. He built a pressing plant at Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire, and that was a jewel indeed. And of course he did this deal with Woolworths for Embassy Records. He had an A&R man called Reg Warburton and he used to get early copies of emerging hits and he’d copy them. He had a roster of unknown talented singers – Ray Pilgrim was one, very good voice, Mike Redway was another, and Clinton Ford. He would copy the original and when it was played in Woolworths people would think it was the same one they were hearing on Housewives’ Choicve and they bought it. When CBS bought Oriole they were amazed at the solvency of the company – they were doing very well because of Embassy. They had one LP that never stopped selling – Salad Days.
That must have been a strange experience being at Oriole when CBS were using the facilities and then bought it?
Of all the companies I’ve been with, the one I liked least is CBS. I was about 40 by then I think, The Americans weren’t interested if we had success with people like Rosemary Clooney or Andy Williams, their big selling artists. They thought they were automatic hits and you didn’t have to work on them. We got no credit for a hit like I left my heart in San Francisco by Tony Bennett, for example. They said anybody could plug that – perhaps they were right. We were entering the era when ghastly groups were emerging, sweaty youths strumming guitars and bellowing into a microphone making ghastly noises…..but millionaires for God’s sake!
Before CBS took over Oriole you had a period there with Motown and with John Schroeder’s trips to Liverpool
Motown was a hot label and its first attempt to break into the British market was with Oriole, so I had all those wonderful people to work on, which I did, but only for a little while, because EMI bought the licence. The man who ran Motown didn’t have any loyalty to Mr Levy for bringing him into the British market. It was unfair in a way because he didn’t give Oriole the time to promote the artists to big sales. It was like The Seekers. The first person The Seekers saw when they came to England was me – Mr Levy sent them to me. They belonged to an Australian company called Festival Records. Mr Levy made an error. The management of The Seekers presented certain conditions and terms that he couldn’t accept and they went to EMI.
What about the Motown music?
I’ve got to be truthful here. From the point of view of my own sensibilities I found a lot of it horrible. But I was very wrong about that – it was extremely commercial and there was a great demand for it. They left us and I was very sad about it. They went to the (promotion) hands of a friend of mine, Peter Prince, and he did a good job.
l-r Marvin Gaye, Peter Prince, James Fisher, Smokey Robinson
I think Ronnie must have been getting tired by this point and the conversation meanders a bit, but stick with it…it’s worth it!
What I found fascinating in promotion was that some records got exposure on Housewives Choice and started selling straightaway. With others there was no movement for weeks. One like that was American Pie by Don McLean. The lyrics were unintelligible to most British people so I wrote to the American company and asked them to explain the significance of the lyric. The record obviously had potential, an infectious hit. None of the DJ’s were interested, despite all my efforts…we nearly lost it altogether. Week after week went by and there are two people to whom the credit of that record belongs – Alan Freeman and his producer Dennis Jones. They saw its potential from the beginning and each week they would ask ‘Is it moving?” and I had to say, “trickling, nothing much.” I distributed the lyrics to everyone so that when they were doing their scripts they had something to work on. After about ten weeks Dennis Jones said to me “we’re going to have to drop it – we can’t hold it much longer.” On the eleventh week it began. It went very quickly then and everybody else took it up. The follow-up Vincent was a big hit too. Don insisted on me having a silver disc.
Shirley Bassey’s quite a character. She could have been a comedienne. She’s a very funny lady. What used to amuse her was that at the London concerts for some inexplicable reason (!!) there were usually several homosexuals in the front seats and they all wanted to reach and touch her hand – they love her you know. This used to amuse her. There was a lovely DJ called Roger Moffatt on Radio 1
He was young and charming – one of the elite DJ’s in the early days. He blotted his copybook by using a rude word on air – today he would have got promotion! – but in those days he was taken off and sent into exile to Radio Hallam in Sheffield. He rang me one day and asked for an interview with Shirley Bassey. I asked her and she said ‘tell him to come to my dressing room at the interval’ Roger came along and I knocked on her door. Miss Bassey is like any other human being; she has days when she is not feeling all that well and this was one of her off days. When she’s on stage of course she’s always a million dollars. I knocked on the door and said ‘Roger’s here’ and she said ‘tell him to naff off’ and he was right behind me. I said to Roger ‘I suppose you won’t play the record now” but he did. Later on I said ‘Miss Bassey, you didn’t treat him very well. You agreed to an interview and you didn’t give it to him.’ ‘I know’ she said ‘ and I feel bad about it. Tell him to send me an open tape with questions on it and I’ll answer it.’ And she did.
Miss Bassey with (hooray!) a Disc & Music Echo silver disc. Ronnie, and toupe, is on the far right, but who are all the others? Update April 10, 2019 – Alan Warner has provided a left to right: Alan Warner (unrecognisable with beard!), Stephanie (UA UK press officer), Dennis Knowles, Dame Shirley, Martin Davis, Noel Rogers and Ronnie Bell.
I first met Shirley Bassey in Denmark Street in 1958. There were some wonderful music publishers along there, wonderful little street. Jimmy Phillips gave a party to which, as the MGM man, I was invited and that was the first time I saw Miss Bassey. I didn’t realise the part she would play in my life in later years. She’d just come up from Cardiff and was making her first record with Norman Newell.
How important were the music publishers to you in those days?
There was notably Cyril Symonds at Leeds Music, very shrewd, intelligent, a Jewish gentleman, very nice. When Ken Glancy (see next paragraph) cast me out into the wilderness, Cyril and another publisher Dave Toff, a lovely chap, said ‘we’ve got a telephone, a desk and a chair and you can have it until you’re settled.’
I meant to tell you about CBS. Ken Glancy came over. CBS wanted to achieve success with English artists. The A&R man – and you’ll never meet an A&R man who will admit to making a duff record; it’s always the promotion man who’s let the side down – Reg Warburton was the man. He was good at copying but he wasn’t good at creating. I used to be the eloquent advocate of records I believed in, and they weren’t always the same ones the company wanted. Ken Glancy’s reputation depended on English success, but the records were nothing special. Rumours started circulating…’Ron’s a nice chap but he’s too old and he doesn’t understand the product.’ I got a message from Ken Glancy’s secretary to go and see him. I went in there. He was engrossed in Billboard and had a cigar like a chair leg in his mouth puffing smoke everywhere. He kept me there for about ten minutes before he put his paper down and said ‘we’ve decided to dispense with your services – we’ll give you a month’s money.’ I said ‘when do I leave, now?’ ‘When you like’ he said, ‘within the week?’ I left straightaway. I was out of work for 36 hours. My friend Johnny Wise at Pye told Louis Benjamin. Louis Benjamin was a managing director who really understood the complexities of record promotion – all the regional and pirate stations. You could show Louis Benjamin a plug sheet and you’d think he’d be pleased, but he’d say ‘where’s so-and-so, couldn’t you get on so-and-so’s show’? He really understood it and he gave me a job for 12 months.
Louis Benjamin with Petula Clark and Tony Hatch
Everyone seems to have had a great respect for Louis Benjamin.
He was a fine man. I knew Pye were carrying me as a passenger. Johnny Wise was one of the best in the business. They really didn’t need me – it was an act of kindness by Louis Benjamin and was able to contribute something. Then I read in Music Week that Liberty Records was going independent and break away frm EMI, so I wrote to Al Bennett in America (he was the Alvin in The Chipmunks). I got a reply referring me to Bob Reisdorf, who gave me a job on the spot. So I thanked Pye and left to go to Liberty. We looked at various offices and chose one in Albemarle Street. He told me they were prepared to wait two or three years for profit, but they achieved it in less than two.
I worked for lovely people at Liberty. Canned Heat – I accompanied them on their European tour which included an open-air concert outside Amsterdam. Also Fifth Dimension – I looked after them when they came over, took them to television shows. Another very nice man I dealt with was Bing Crosby. I worked with him for three days when he came over to do an LP for United Artists, who by that time had bought Liberty, with Ken Barnes. It’s Bing at the end of his career, and it shows. It was rather sad.
For my last seven years I was the European man for United Artists..went three times to Moscow, to Poland, Bulgaria, all those countries except Albania and Romania. I even got a telegram from the head of the Russian State Concert Agency on my retirement!
I retired in 1980 when I was 65.
I was desolate at the time. but my family and grandsons have filled the gap.
And there we ended. Extraordinarily we didn’t touch on Ike & Tina Turner…maybe he talked about them during our Branston Pickle sandwich! Ike Turner became firm friends with Ronnie during their UA years and they were still regularly in touch at time of our interview. So, for that reason alone, here’s a final photo
text © David Hughes, 2019. Photos both from web search and copied from Ronnie’s two books