We left Bob having enjoyed the first fruits of arriving at EMI in the late 1950’s – a limousine trip up north to see a review, “Pieces of Eight” with, according to Bob, Kenneth Williams and Sheila Hancock. He may have got this muddled with One Over the Eight, and the hawk-eyed will have spotted that the Decca LP cover illustrated was with Fenella Fielding…such is history rewritten!
Before we continue, it is worth a paragraph to tell you about the power of the A&R men to which Bob referred. In those golden pre-Beatle days, each label had its own A&R man (and they were always men). At EMI there were three key labels – HMV, which, in addition to its local artists, had access to everything on American RCA; Columbia, and Parlophone. HMV’s output was masterminded by Wally Ridley (and the transcript of two interviews with him will come along in due course), Columbia had Norrie Paramor, who is best remembered for Cliff Richard, The Shadows and Helen Shapiro, and Parlophone was plain George Martin, handling what was unkindly referred to as novelty records! Straddling them, and King Bee, was Norman Newell, mentioned in part 2, who had the ear of the EMI chairman Sir Joseph Lockwood and could choose which label would have the privilege of releasing his recordings.
Back to the interview and I asked Bob whether he was aware of the rivalry between the labels and between Wally, Norrie and George
” They seemed quite matey; they collaborated on songs, and I wrote songs with Norman Newell.The rivalry really only showed itself when George Martin had the runaway success with the Liverpool groups – suddenly! Norrie had all the Columbia acts and it was probably the most successful label at the time with Cliff and the Shadows, Helen Shapiro, Frank Ifield, and suddenly there’s George with a new record scheduled every week and every one was a hit. You’d think ‘what a silly name – Billy J.Kramer and the Dakotas – what chance has a name like that got’, and the next week it would be number one.
“Which is how I got sent to Birmingham – they thought that as it was the second biggest city in England there must be some talent there.”
I reminded Bob that he started at EMI 3-4 years before the Mersey sound, still in the days when different labels within the same company would each put a version of the same song.
“Yes, picking songs was easy in those days. A song was a hit in America and you knew it would be a hit over here. No question about it. A song that had been a hit in America would end up having nine or ten cover versions in England. No one would argue the toss – you’d just choose the version you preferred, like classical music. Most of the backings (all singers were accompanied by ‘orchestra and chorus’) were pretty identical and some of the voices too. That’s where the promotion people, the pluggers, would come in. Inevitably one version would get more airplay than the others. There were six producers on the Light Programme (Radio 2) who did all the gramophone slots and once you’d played them the records there was nothing more you could do. You went round the BBC and chatted to the producers and if they liked your record they’d play it and if they didn’t they wouldn’t! Sometimes there would be several different versions of the same song in the charts. There was an enormous number of reps (salesmen) on the road. The A&R team would say to the sales team: ‘this is the cover version of an American hit song on Philips (Philips had the UK licence to release records from American Columbia, confusingly nothing to do with EMI’s Columbia label at the time) but we’re going to knock spots off them. Go out there and do it’. At that time each producer had an assistant who was a plugger working exclusively for that producer. Needle time (the amount of time the BBC allocated to records as opposed to “live” or studio orchestras) was limited but there was ‘Saturday Club’ (which my memory says played a record at the beginning, one at the end and three in the middle), ‘Easybeat’ (I don’t recall that including records at all), and Jack Jackson. (Jack, a former band leader, was to my knowledge the only person on the BBC whose whole Saturday lunchtime “Record Roundup” was devoted to records of all types – the others were request programmes and the weekly Pick of the Pops chart show. Jack was hugely influential on my record buying and his style of interspersing the discs with comedy extracts set a pattern followed to even greater effect later by Kenny Everett).
On Radio Luxembourg the programmes were controlled by the sponsors, largely record companies – one hour EMI, one hour Decca, one hour Pye, one hour Philips. They only played the first 60 seconds so you never knew how the record ended!. When we were sitting in our meetings in the early 60’s we allocated how many paid for plays a week we would have on Luxembourg.
Tell me about Birmingham
I looked at Birmingham and found it was like the green line through Nicosia in Cyprus at the time, very territorial. There were two with-it agents – Mrs Regan of Ladywood who had a ballroom who had half the Birmingham acts and a fellow named Bob Smith from the east side who had all the others.
(A little research revealed this information, courtesy the Birmingham Music Archive web site.
The Old Hill Plaza was one of four venues run by the legendary Irish husband and wife team Mr and Mrs Regan. Mary ‘Ma’ Regan was an ex-schoolteacher and a shy but formidable woman. She came over with my grandfather Joe from Ireland when they were teenagers. During the Second World War she was a teacher and became head of PE for girls for Warwickshire. After that she opened tea shops in the Birmingham area and started tea dances. This then led to the dance halls. They started on a small scale and they had a lot of success. I remember once that Jerry Lee Lewis was due to play at one of her venues. For some reason there was an issue with his piano and they had to use my grandmother’s. She set up The Plaza in High Street, Old Hill, 45 years ago. It was a dance venue, and hosted almost every top act that was in the Top 30, before later becoming a bingo hall. One of Mrs Regan’s great pleasures was to tell people about The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Animals, who all played at The Plaza in the early 1960s. ©Keith Law.
The ballroom closed following the death of Ma Regan aged 94.)
“I got to know Bob Smith very well and he made all his acts available if I wanted them on EMI. Bob was a young manager with a stable of acts.
(See this link – http://www.brumbeat.net/bobbyash.htm)
I had two weeks in Birmingham and as I had to drive around I had to pass an EMI driving test! In those days before you could hire a car in EMI’s name you had to pass an EMI driving test. We did auditions at the Moat House club and ended up shortlisting ten acts. Some had gone to Decca already, thanks to Mrs Regan. I think Mike Smith or Dick Rowe was my counterpart at Decca. Norrie came up for a day or two and out of ten or twelve acts he chose six that we signed. All the options would have been on the company’s side at the time (but) nobody complained – they were falling over themselves to be heard by someone.
We signed Carl (Barron) and the Cheetahs
Keith Powell and the Valets
Pat Wayne & the Beachcombers
and The Beachcombers alone as an instrumental banmd (a bit like The Piltdown Men),
Mike Sheridan & the Nightriders
Carl Barron as a solo act – he sounded like Gene Pitney, Danny King’s Mayfair Set
We did singles with all of them, they sold 75,00 – 80,000 copies each and never made the charts. Probably the majority of them were bought in Birmingham and therefore local weighting counted against them. We reached 46 in the charts with The Cougars and I did Roll Over Beethoven with Pat Wayne and Please Mr Postman with Mike Sheridan, sold that many and never made the charts. We thought at the time that The Beatles did many popular tracks on their first LP’s and for people who wouldn’t pay the money for an LP, we would do cover versions as singles. We certainly never had any resounding success but a lot of great names emerged from these bands. Pat Wayne was a great singer, Keith Powell had an excellent smokey black voice. Idle Race was born from The Nightriders; Roy Wood was brought into Mike Sheridan & the Nightriders – I first met him in a scout hut on the Shard End Estate in Birmingham and later recorded his first song – a ‘B’ side. Ray Thomas had a band of his own that we turned down, but he ended up with The Moody Blues, and of course there was Carl Wayne & the Vikings
To be concluded!
©David Hughes 2015 (text only)