A Personal History of the British Music Business 9 – Colin Burn (1)

Colin Burn (1933 – 2009) was one of those enigmatic figures in the British music business – everyone knew him but no one knew him. Internet searches reveal little other than the tragic story of his attempts to turn his son Darren into a star, an experience that ended with Darren’s suicide. There are no photographs, other than in the EMI vaults, and this obituary from one of his colleagues Paul Watts comes from Music Week in 2009.

Former EMI manager dies

October 29, 2009

Trapeze Music & Entertainment’s Paul Watts, who worked alongside Burn in the 1970s, has written an obituary of “one of the ‘old school’ record men”.

“Sadly, I have to report the death on Oct 19 of Colin Burn at the age of 76. Colin, who spent about 25 years with EMI Records through their most successful post-war years, was one of that generation of record company professionals that shepherded the business from the days of the Fifties era crooners, through the birth of rock ‘n’ roll to the successive revolutions provided by the Beatles, Motown, psychedelia, bubblegum, glam rock and punk. They all came alike to a hardened veteran like Colin, at heart a natural promotion man, who took on the mantle of general management, without ever being entirely comfortable with the corporate manoeuvring that went with it.

Colin was an easy guy to like, handsome in a classically post-war Hollywood way, with a showbiz urbanity that made him a brilliant promotion man, at ease with the radio and TV producers and DJs who were the key to getting the hits that opened the door for wider success. Whether it was Doreen Davies at BBC Radio, Ken Evans at Radio Luxembourg or Johnny Stewart at Top of the Pops – they would all pick up the phone to Colin.

He worked with just about every big name that emerged from the giant EMI machine, based initially in Great Castle St. and then Manchester Square, and could reel off the hits that passed across his desk, from Dennis Lotis, Lita Roza and Tony Brent through to Cliff Richard and Adam Faith, then of course the Beatles and their beat era cohorts and great American acts like the Supremes, Gene Pitney and the Beach Boys.

Come the Seventies, he found himself promoted to general manager of EMI’s Pop Division (probably a senior VP in modern parlance), later taking over the Licensed Repertoire Division, and turned his hand to managing people and budgets in an era when MDs like Leslie Hill and Ramon Lopez were bringing a quiet professionalism to the old firm. As ever, Colin was unorthodox but hugely popular, and contributed hugely to breaking acts like the Eagles, Steely Dan, Helen Reddy and others.

Aimed out of EMI with senior colleagues after 25 years service in some ugly political shenanigans in the early 80s, Colin found himself working for the Rolling Stones, who were signed to EMI, and he quietly gained a vicarious pleasure from giving his erstwhile employers a hard time on behalf of his new masters for seven years until he left the business and took up landscape gardening, a long-time hobby of his.

Colin’s friends remember both his kindness towards junior colleagues learning the ropes, which belied his hard-bitten exterior, as well as his sharp wit and evil sense of humour, which did not always endear him to the more self-regarding characters on the upper floors of EMI House.”

My first and only time with Colin was when I joined EMI in the summer of 1978 as General Manager of (Tamla) Motown, the largest label in a relatively new Licensed Repertoire Division of the company, it had its own first floor offices above shops in Thayer Street, Marylebone, London. For months I barely spoke to him, but a mutual love of gardening eventually gave us a common conversation topic, and then, in his own way, he looked out for me. LRD was managed by Alan Kaupe who, as with so many others, Colin trusted not at all, to the point when, knowing Alan always kept aides memoir on his desk, used the duplicate key to get into his office after he’d gone home and read them all! One he took great delight in revealing to me was “see MH (my line manager Mike Harvey) about DH (me) problem!” I never discovered what that was, and not long afterwards, LRD was closed and the prime labels (and Colin) were moved to Liberty-United offices in Mortimer Street under their MD Cliff Busby (who will be next in the interview list, as it happens!)

So, this may or not be the only extended interview Colin Burn ever gave….let’s get on with it! Advance apologies for lack of illustrations, and indeed for not being able to verify the names of some of the characters mentioned – this is very much backstage stuff!

“In 1958 there were Pye, Decca, Philips and EMI, and all the American companies were with British companies under licence. RCA nicked our logo when they left. They took the dog and trumpet because we didn’t have it patented in America – big hoo-ha about that. They didn’t have a plant and distribution (here) so it made sense for them to go through a British company. Everybody knew everybody – I knew everyone in every company.

I was at Rank (J.Arthur Rank, then a major film production company in England) in the publicity department. They had just had big expansion plans and they were going to do 20 major movies at Pinewood and had a big launch party. Within six months they’d shut down. At that time they had contract artists as all major film studios did, who could only work for Rank. Television was biting in and people weren’t going to the cinema any more. They closed it all down and shut the publicity department. There was a guy called Harold Shampan who was Sound and Vision – his job was to get all the film clips and trailers on television. He said ‘what are you going to do – why don’t you try records?’ I thought ‘I don’t know anything about records’ I was a jazz man. He said ‘I’ll give you some addresses and you write off. I think you’ll do well in records.’ Harold had a lot to do with the record companies because they would release (soundtracks) on record, so he put me in touch with Decca. I went down to see a chap on the Embankment. He said to me ‘can you tell me why American records sell better than British records?’, which they did and I said ‘quite honestly I can’t because I haven’t made a study of it, but I can only assume they’re better and people like them better.’ He said ‘If you could have told me the answer to that I would have given you the job.’ I thought ‘is this a company I want to work for?’

I then wrote to John Phillips who was the promotion manager (at EMI). He had an assistant called Harry Walters – Harry went on to (Cliff Richard’s manager) Peter Gormley and eventually to be a BBC producer. EMI was divided into the British side and the American side with John Phillips looking after American repertoire which was MGM, Verve and all the little licensed labels. Not Capitol – that had only just been bought and operated separately because it was such a prestigious thing. We were in Great Castle Street and they had a place in Eastcastle Street which was being run by a guy called Arthur Muxlow.

Arthur Muxlow

The press officer was Edna Bowers and a couple of other guys. I went to see John Phillips and told him what I’d been doing, looking after artists, going to PA’s etc., and he said ‘What we’re really looking for is a guy to come in and do that sort of thing for us. We do have someone at the moment, a guy called Harry Whitehead but we’re seeking to replace him’ Next door to Castle Street was a little restaurant called The Rendezvous and that was his office – he was in there all day and every day. I heard nothing for two weeks, then they asked me to come back and have an interview with Norrie Paramor. They hadn’t the heart to get rid of Harry Whitehead even though in those days they only had to give a week’s notice. I came back and went to see Norrie Paramor – I knew of him – and he said ‘I’m looking for a plugger.’ I thought ‘what’s a plugger?’ No one knew what a plugger was – there were so few of them around, only about ten in the whole of the record  business. I thought I would give it a try and he said ‘start on Monday’. There was a little office and in it were Peter Sullivan – he was a plugger for Wally (Ridley), Ron Richards was the plugger for George Martin and Chris Peers was the plugger for the American guys. ‘Confidential” Peers – he would always whisper in your ear ‘I say old chap’

Were you replacing anyone?

No. Norman Newell was there but he was a floater, he didn’t have anybody (plugging his records) Norrie essentially was Columbia, Wally was HMV, George Martin didn’t make anything apart from a few comedy records; he was just an ex-schoolmaster. Norman did the shows. He was the gay extrovert and I used to handle his stuff on Columbia. I went into this office and it was a bit frosty because they thought ‘here’s this new guy’ Peter and Ron knew each other – they were in the RAF together and were good muso’s. It took me a bit of time to get through the crust! You had to clock in in those days; nobody ever did but because it was a factory there was a clock in the entrance hall and a commissioner on security. We were supposed to get in at 9, usually it was 9.30 and at 10 o’clock they’d all disappear to the ‘club, the Quality Inn round the corner.There’d be a few guys from other record companies, a few producers from the BBC and we’d have coffee and toasted buns and we’d only be charged for one coffee and we’d be there for about an hour and a half! It was a good meeting place.

Peter and Ron were pluggers? (I knew them as record producers, Sullivan at Decca and Richard as George Martin’s No.2)

They were pluggers – it was only later they became A&R assistants. Norrie was a lovely man but he was impossible to talk to, he had so many things going through his head. He used to sleep about three hours a night, working until 4-5am, get a couple of hours’ sleep and be up again. You’d meet him in the morning…’Hello, Norrie’ ‘mmmmmmmmmm’ – he was like that the whole time. He had Columbia to run and he had to write all the B-sides; he had the Big Ben Banjo Band; he had the Norrie Paramor Orchestra; he had so much going on. In those days an A&R man really was an A&R man. He had to find the artist, find the song, get the arranger, go to the studio, tell the engineer what he wanted and eventually take over the desk and do what he did. Nobody ever wrote their own songs and recorded them. Norrie was the biggest – he was so successful. He had Ruby Murray when she had three singles in the charts at the same time. All the time I was with Norrie he was never out of the charts. There was Michael Holliday, Tony Brent, Ruby..later on Cliff, The Mudlarks, The Avons. Wally (Ridley) was quite successful – Don Lang. In those days if you had a hit the next single was a hit too. One or two people didn’t – Dickie Pride, Ricky Valance. He was a pig to everyone – tried to tell everyone (what to do) and everyone dropped him.

NPG x18548; Norrie Paramor by Derek Allen

To be continued….. apologies for the absence of photographs – these guys are hard to track down! But here is Norrie Paramor. And, thanks to Mark Lewisohn, who is honouring me by reading these interviews, I now have not only the correct surname for Harold Shampan, but also a photo of Arthur Muxlow, with Roland Rennie as a Brucie bonus!!

©David Hughes 2015

About dhvinyl

Lifelong obsession with music, 33 years in the music business, 43 years immersed in selling old records, 20 years very happily retired!
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5 Responses to A Personal History of the British Music Business 9 – Colin Burn (1)

  1. It’s nice to read about people that one knew and Colin was one of them – I have mentioned this before (on Facebook I think) but, making my living as a freelanced writer, I was briefly retained by EMI to write ‘Handouts’ to go out with EMI’s ‘new releases’ – this involved frequent meetings with Colin to discuss the artistes (none of the people I was given were ‘big’) and many of the conversations went like this ‘Now Colin, what about “The Clots” – “Who?” – “The Clots – they have a single on Columbia being released in two week’s time” – “Never heard of them, must be political or contractual – just make it up as you go along John – OK?” – end of conversation. I have to say I had great fun ‘Making it up’ and there was never any come-back – bet nobody realised that Frinton was such a hotbed of musical talent (…formed in a youth club in Frinton the Clots quickly achieved a following of more than 10….&c) – when CB got my literary masterpieces he would read them, snigger, smile and say “that ‘s fine John- thankyou”.Talking of EMI in those days to you know what the connection is between Norrie Paramor and Andrew Sachs?


  2. David Hughes says:

    I’m guessing this is a question to which you know the answer John-I certainly don’t, and sadly Norrie had died before I joined the company.


  3. DAVID ROSE - retired. says:

    I was Label Manager for some time at EMI LRD, and remember Colin Burn only too well. Mainly as one of the funniest people in the record business. He famously kept a box full of envelopes with misspellings of his name – the most common of which was of course Colin Bum! He was a legend at EMI Sales conferences which were infamous for over the top multiplex audio visual presentations featuring huge batteries of projectors and 35mm slides. He’d walk on stage laconically and introduce his section by holding up two slides, saying “I’ve only got two slides – this one and this one” to the rapturous applause of the audience. I think he hated Alan Kaupe, and for pretty good reason. Colin had more knowledge in his little finger etc etc etc. When the LRD division was closed down after some frightful internal EMI politics it was Colin, not Alan Kaupe who made the announcements to the sacked staff, and finally to himself. I was one of a very few survivors of LRD thanks to the fact that the Island label had a year or so left to run on it’s license deal and I went back to Manchester Square for a couple more years there. Working with Knocker Knowles and the Island crowd were the best years I had in the record industry. Ex Islander Erskine Thompson RIP (by then working at WEA) invited me to join the company working under Tarquin Gotch – my worst decision ever – and I left the impenetrably cliquey WEA ‘family’, and the music industry, a year later, crossing the line from Label/Marketing Manager into the world of the marketing agency, and eventually running my own interdisciplinary design and marketing company for 20 odd years.

    Colin Burn, the fondest of memories.


    • dhvinyl says:

      David – good to hear from you and of course I remember you well from those LRD days. Colin Burn was an enigma. Initially when I joined in 1978 he somewhat distanced himself from Motown. The fact that Ken East was it’s International head would have had a lot to do with it. Alan Kaupe, who was u affectionately known as Can’t, apparently kept an array of notes to himself on his office desk. Colin would wait until he’d gone home, get a key from somewhere and copy the contentious ones ! He only revealed this to me when he and I were moved to Mortimer Street and formed a brief bond. Seems Kaupe had a problem with me which he happily failed to resolve!!


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