As mentioned in a recent update to Pt.1, I have to thank my pal of 50 years or more, Tony Byworth for coming up with two photos of Tommy. This one not only features him in animatedly full flow, but has the bonus of legendary, and now late, BBC radio producer Bill Bebb, and the very much still with us Nigel Hunter. For anyone who has ever been a record plugger, known a record plugger or wondered how a record got on the radio, read on. The last section says it all!
So now, on with Part 2. We left Tommy doing battle at BBC with a veritable scrum of fellow pluggers all vying for airplay for their chosen single. How did Tommy deal with it?
There was a lot of competition, a lot of record labels and a lot of publishers. The important thing was about making contact. I used to write to someone I didn’t know and mark the letter “personal’ because if you phoned him cold, the secretary would try and steer you off, but if you sent a letter I could say ‘he knows what it’s about – he’s got my letter’ You couldn’t charge in like a bull in a china shop. But when Harry (Walters) first told me about the job, I thought ‘this is hard – how do you just go in there; you don’t know these people; you’ve got to establish a rapport.’ After a few months and I’d become established, the doors were open to you. If you were lucky enough to have a hit artist, like Colin Burn had with Cliff Richard, nobody said ‘I don’t like that Cliff Richard record’. They say it now of course!
Parlophone was almost like an independent label. They had all sorts of things like the Salvation Army and The Goons – it was a mixture of things. I finished up in the promotion department. They changed their structure and we were working under the late Arthur Muxlow. He was in charge of the promotion department for all labels.
Arthur is standing on the far right with (l-r), Sam Costa, David Jacobs, Ray Orchard and Jimmy Young. Who the two who are signing whatever, I have no idea, though the one on the left looks familiar!
You were with EMI when the company moved to Manchester Square?
Yes. Head of promotion was Mel Thompson, a Canadian who moved back to Canada. There was also Syd Gillingham in press, Brian Mulligan, Edna Bowers, Fred Pearson (who moved to South Africa). In the promotion department was Victor Lebatti (?) – he also did artist liaison and artist promotions, Johnny Francis, Alma Warren who was Lita Roza’s sister and worked for Leeds Music after leaving EMI, Selwyn Turnbull, Gerry Corbett, Harry Norton (both deceased), Fred Faber. He looked after juke box promotion – you wouldn’t think about it today but it was an important part of promotion then.
It was really only EMI and Decca
We were the two majors. The receptions we had in those stars – the number of stars that passed through. They were a big part of the record company’s budget, visiting artists. It was a very exciting time.
And there were the paid Radio Luxembourg programmes
Yes, we had Alan Dell, David Gell, Judith Chalmers, Ray Orchard, Sam Costa, Jimmy Young.
When and why did you leave?
A guy called Dennis Berger who worked at Philips, was transferred to the label management area as assistant to Johnny Franz or Jack Baverstock. Which left a vacancy in the promotion department for the Fontana label. Paddy Fleming was head of promotion at Philips and he phoned me up and said there was a job going. In those days most of the jobs came from someone phoning you up. It was very rarely you replied to an advert in the paper. There were only so many experienced promotion people. It was a natural progression from one company to another. You got a bit more money, but we were in a low wage economy and when pension time came round the money we had in the system was zilch. Anyway, in 1963 I got an offer to go to Philips as Fontana promotion man reporting to Jack Baverstock and Paddy Fleming.
Had you been involved in The Beatles emeregence at Parlophone?
No. I think Fred Faber was involve with The Beatles. I did Adam Faith and that sort of thing.
Were you aware of the Selection Committee, which all new single releases had to go through and pass their judgement?
It rings a vague bell. EMI was virtually the recording company equivalent of the BBC. It was a civil service job; it believed in memos and selection committees. It also believed in a nine-to-five situation. The fact that you were out with Adam Faith until 10.30pm at Wimbledon Theatre was of no concern to EMI. They would complain if you hadn’t gone to see him and yet you were expected to be there from nine to five.
It’s the same, only it’s ten to six!
The other situation you had at EMI then – it was very formal. You didn’t call anyone by their christian names. It was Mr. This and Mr. That. When I got to Philips it was the same. Leslie Gould was Mr. Gould. When I got to RCA the managing director was a man called Bernard Ness and he said to me one day ‘what’s all this Mr. Ness business – you should call me Bernie.’I said I couldn’t do it – I was trained at EMI. The Managing Director was Mr Wood. He said ‘this is a different set up. You’re Tommy, I’m Bernie.’ But it took a long time. Ronnie Bell used to say ‘I am Mr Bell until I say to someone ‘call me Ronnie.” And he was right. We now live in a society where there is no respect at all. It’s only with advancing years that you realise Ronnie was right. He probably foresaw the collapse of discipline in our society. But we were an informal business.
Everybody says the atmosphere at Pye was so different, more warm and friendly. Perhaps they called him Louis?
Benjy, they called him. It was a more informal family atmosphere. I knew Issy Price very well. He was the head of promotion before he passed away.
Brian Mulligan says Philips was a disorganised company as opposed to EMI
Philips was an offshoot of the main organisation and I used to say to Paddy Fleming when Christmas bonus came along.’We’re in trouble Paddy; we haven’t had anything on the Top 10 for three months.’ And Paddy would say ‘we have our ups and downs but Philips looks after its employees.’ We still got the bonus. They were making fortunes from light bulbs, electronics, televisiions, hospital equipment.
So it was the same job, different premises
Yes. The only difference was that I was Promotions Manager at a later date at Philips, because Paddy Fleming had taken over the label management of Mercury. Then at a later date, a Radio Luxembourg disc jockey who I knew very well, Peter Aldersley, was called in as the first marketing manager of RCA records through having known Bernard Ness in a previous life. Peter got on the phone to me and said ‘it’s time we started working together.’ That was in 1969 and I think the job offered about £2,500 a year. The personnel guy was not too pleased about the salary being offered to me and asked me how I justified it. I explained that he was getting quality not quantity. I presumed I was coming into a seven year cycle in my life. I had done about four years as an entertainer, five years at EMI, six at Philips and so thought I was going to be with this outfit for seven years. The seven years stretched to nineteen, and at the end the product was not tops. I was the easy listening man – that was my kind of music. They decided to let me go at the age of 55. I said they had to give me my own area – I wasn’t reporting to the pop music man. Radio 2 had arrived and we did a launch party. I was looking at Elvis Presley and Perry Como making a tremendous comeback.
Peter Aldersley and The King
Ken Glancy was a good MD?
Ken was an outstanding managing director; then he went back to America and became president of the whole operation. In this life everyone had different opinions about artists. Perry Como was a gentleman – he was real – what you saw was what you got. All the time I was with him, when a promotion man normally has to retreat into the background, he never allowed me to do that. No matter whom he met, he always said ‘here’s my man in London, Tommy Loftus, say hello to him.’ Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mercer, various people we met down the years. (American music publisher) Ivan Mogull once said to me about Perry Como ‘in your dealings with artists you will never meet another man like Perry Como’. Only Nat ‘King’ Cole was the same.
RCA had incredible historic repertoire but there must have been a real desperation to break UK talent.
That was the big challenge. The early stages were very difficult. Wonderful catalogue from Caruso to Elvis, built up over many years. How do you match it with home-grown product? The demand came from America. They wanted to establish themselves in the UK with new product.
Was the company recognising the wealth of its catalogue?
I don’t think they had any concept of the value of the catalogue. Lee Simmonds was the MOR label manager. He phoned me up after I’d left and said my product was coming out ‘nobody knows anything about them, so there’s no exposure.’ I said ‘The conpany let me go, what can I do?’ and he said ‘we’ve got to get you back on a freelance basis.’ so I got another three years. CD’s had arrived; now you had all the clarity and you could throw out the vinyl. The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards had an album released for 99p. Here’s where the expertise comes in. I have to put in a monthly order for the product I want and how many copies. I have to think in terms of priorities, so I look at the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards for 99p and think, who do I give this to? There was a producer on late night radio called Ian Fenner. He liked military music and had a military band slot in his late night show, so I thought I’d put Ian down for one of these. I left it for him to listen to and he picked out the Amazing Grace track. Nobody was asking me ‘what’s happening to that 99p album?’ – they were only interesed in the full price albums. Ian phoned me and said ‘Have you listened to Amazing Grace?. I said ‘Ian, do you want an honest answer or a promotion man’s answer? Because the promotion man’s answer is ‘it’s sensational’ and the honest man’s answer is ‘I haven’t heard it.’! I gave him the honest man’s answer. He said ‘listen to it and tell me what you think.’ I put it on the turntable and phoned him back. I said ‘the hairs are standing up on the back of my neck.’ He said ‘it’s incredible.’ Next think I know Jack Dabbs is on the phone. ‘What’s this record you given to Ian Fenner that I haven’t had.’ Then I have to do a complete mail-out of the album to everyone. For six shillings you could buy the single and for less than £1 you could buy the album. The single was released on the response I was getting. They couldn’t argue with the facts – the radio was suddenly coming alive for me.
I was like when I was at Parlophone and Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren did Goodness Gracious me. I only had to give it out. I didn’t have to say anything about it. For a start it was Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren on one record, and it was a very funny record. It had to be a monster hit. So the Amazing Grace thing was created by itself. Ian Fenner has gone to that great studio in the sky now, but he should be remembered as the man who played that record because he was interested in the music. (for completeness, Amazing Grace was in the charts for 24 weeks in 1972, four of them at No.1. It also reached No.11 in the American charts)
The record business for me was a time of a lot of insecurity because you never really felt safe in that job. It’s an element you can’t take out of the job. We had no say in any aspect of the operation except taking the finished product. We were the liaison people between the record conpany and the means of exposure.
What did you do with the records that others in the company thought were fantastic and you thought had no chance?
You really had great difficulty because the job of the promotion man is probably the greatest apprenticeship in the world for the diplomatic service! You can never go to an A&R man and tell him the record isn’t any good. You can never go to a songwriter and say ‘I don’t think much of that song/’ You have to be the supreme diplomat. You’ve got to tell them you’re not getting the response but you’ve got to phrase it in such a way that you don’t cause offence. One of the stock phrases we used was ‘it’s not what they’re looking for at the moment.’ We had a number of stock phrases we used. In later years as a freelance an artist called me up and said ‘I’d love you to work on my latest record.’ I said ‘send me the record and I’ll give you an honest answer.’ He said ‘I’m pretty sure we’ve got a hit record.’ I listened and thought it had 10% chance of getting on the air. It was Radio 2. I went to the head of playlist at Radio 2, Brian Stephens and asked him if he could stick the record into the next selection meeeting and tell me what kind of response it got. ‘I know what it’s going to be, but I can’t lie and I have to go back to the artist and tell him’ It got the thumbs down. I spoke to the artist and said ‘I’m afraid the response is not brilliant. I know you think it’s a great record, and perhaps it is, but we’re looking at a different world and a different time, and you’re looking at me from ten years ago. If you’d given me this record ten years ago I wouldn’t be making this phone call; I’d have started work on it straight away.’ He went back to the record company and said ‘Tommy Loftus can’t take it on – he’s too busy. We’ll have to get another promotion outfit.’So they got someone else to take it on and I found a box of the records in the post room at Radio 2, which had been left there by these other promotion people, just hoping the producers would take the records out. The promotion company had to be paid. They obviously had no faith in the record but they didn’t have the honesty to tell the guy. I couldn’t operate like that.
If there was one aspect of my life that dominated throughout all those years, it was insecurity. You had no say in what you were doing; you were out there with someone else’s product with which you had no connection. You were the last link in the chain – the fall guy. The sales department can say ‘it never got any airplay – no one heard it.’ and the A&R could say ‘we spent a lot of money making that record.’ The end of the line was the promotion man and he couldn’t pass the buck.
Did you get embroiled with the managers who insisted the company pay for independent promotion?
That went on all the time. You had to accept that that was part of the business. I reckon if I’d been the manager I would probably have done the same.
Your insecurity lasted you 30 years!
I had the insecurity of being freelance for ten yearts, but at least I was master of my own destiny then. Then I went to Ritz records, the Irish record label, Daniel O’Donnell and all that. I was there for five years. At the end of four years the whole music scene had changed dramatically at Radio 2, younger producers, different attitude. It had become Radio One-and-a-half. It was a total change of concept and artists were no longer welcome. I went to the MD and said ‘I’m not justifying my existence but I’m up against a stone wall of indifference’, and he reluctantly agreed to say farewell to me two years ago. You can’t stop forward movement in anything.
About 18 months ago “Sir” Walter Ridley phoned up and said he was going to the theatrical nursing home where Peter Brough was living to do a show with him and Archie Andrews. He asked me to compere the show. First person who spoke to me was Doris Hare from On the Buses. I introduced Peter, who came through and did his routine. Wally was on piano.
I know at least two former record promotion men will read this. Was Tommy right? Oh, and Wally Ridley probably should have been knighted as you’ll discover when I get round to the lengthy interview I had with him.
Text ©David Hughes 2019. Photos used from the web for illustration distraction only!