We left Wayne having just been taken on in Decca Records A&R department by the legendary, though somewhat maligned Dick Rowe, who had admitted he had warmed to Wayne simply because he came from Liverpool!
Who was in the A&R team?
There were so many people from all sorts of different deals. Shel Talmy had moved out and Mike Smith had also gone, but there was Noel Walker, Ivor Raymonde, Michael Aldred, Neil Slaven. The A&R department was a combination of Hugh Mendl and Dick Rowe. They had recently started Deram because they felt the need to have a contemporary label. We had a great roster, Moody Blues, Procol Harum, Cat Stevens.
How did you get to do your first production and can you remember your first acts?
The stories are famous about Decca. Bill Townsley wouldn’t press more than 500 singles at a time because that was his background. He was a factory manager and thought he was acting in the best interests of Decca Records. Deram suffered more than any other label for a time in having records stuck at 51 in the chart because the stock wasn’t there as he wouldn’t press the records – he didn’t want to be caught out with excessive stock.
I obviously had an involvement with with people like Cat Stevens but one of the first acts who kicked off my songwriting career seriously was a black group called The Flirtations. I think we were the first (English) people to have a black hit in the American charts.
It was 12 months before I was introduced to Sir Edward Lewis. (Chairman of Decca and, alongside EMI’s Sir Joseph Lockwood, the bastion of the British music business at the time – royalty!) Bill Townsley introduced me as “this is young Wayne Bickerton, the chap who had a hit in America with Nothing But a Heartache. John Nice (head of Decca’s Burlington Music publishing company) who was there, had a fit, but the old man was very nice and afterwards I used to see a lot more of him. I had had that success and it was a big hit. Eventually I was made label manager of Deram. Noel Walker was the label manager at Decca, but terminal decline was already self-evident. Instinctively as a young man in the industry I could sense that the leadership at the top, and the company, was very old-fashioned. On a couple of occasions I was headhunted to go elsewhere. I remember going up to see him and he talked me out of going to work with Ian Ralfini (Warner Brothers) who was offering me all sorts of things including a big car. I didn’t have anything like that in those days, you didn’t get paid very much. I had a chat with Sir Edward and he said to me ‘what is the real problem?’ and I just said ‘I feel like I’m standing on the deck of the Titanic…it’s going much slower than the original one but it’s going nevertheless.’
Pre-Beatles, Decca was King over EMI, but Deram was a good move and had a lot of success. Tell me about The Flirtations
We had about three or four hits – they were on Deram in the States. There was a bit of flack because not only did I put The Flirtations on Deram, but also Clyde McPhatter. We had a hit with him, a song written by Jackie Lomax called Only a Fool. I thought the girls were so wrong for Decca – they did very well across Europe and America.
Tony Hall had a lot to do with the Deram image. I suspect that the frustrations that led to him leaving were similar to mine. I was talked out of leaving on that occasion and who knows what would have happened if I’d gone with Ian Ralfini. I was then the youngest executive of all time at Decca Records, thanks to Sir Edward. I had said ‘I’m going’ and he said ‘No you’re not, you’re staying. You’re now an executive that means you can use the club’ (a private dining room for people of a certain status). I took The Flirtations to the club and there were a lot of mutterings about whether I could or couldn’t, but we sat down at a table. No one’s really got the balls to say you shouldn’t be here. The old man walks in and up to me and says ‘How are you doing Bickerton?’ I said ‘I’m fine Sir Edward, I’d like you to meet The Flirtations.’ He said ‘nice to meet you ladies’, winked at me and walked on. He knew exactly what was going on. When I was invited to use the club, even though I was wearing a suit I was told I’d have to have my hair cut and I’d always kept very long hair from being a musician. I said to Bill Townsley ‘That’s not what Sir Edward told me!’
Sir Edward Lewis
Cat Stevens was one of the reasons I eventually left. He was given a pass out (dropped by the company) when I was on holiday. In those days you made an album in a week or a fortnight. I sat down and had a conversation with him and asked him what he really wanted to do. He said ‘Listen, I’ve done some big records with Arthur Greenslade, wonderful arranger, great records, Matthew & Son, but I want to move on. I want to do an acoustic album.’ ‘Fine, what does that involve?’ ‘Musicians, a week or two’. ‘OK, take your time, I’ll book the studio.’ I toddled off with Carol for two – three weeks, the first time I’d ever taken more than a week’s holiday at Decca, came back, saw Dick Rowe early on the Monday morning to catch up and he said ‘Oh by the way, we’ve let Cat Stevens go.”You’ve let Cat Stevens go?!’ ‘Well, you know, that acoustic album..it’s not going to do anything. His contract’s coming up for renewal, he wants a lot of money so we’ve done a deal.’
That wonderful album ends up on Island and I thought ‘This is not for me – serious errors of misjudgement.’ It was time to move on. The company was obviously in severe decline, there was nothing going to stop it, the old man was getting older, there were so many young people on the horizon to take over, so it seemed to me that if I wanted to be in the happening scene in the records, then it had to involve going to somewhere like Polydor.
Which is where we will go in Part 3.
Text ©David Hughes 2016, photographs sourced by Google for illustration purposes only.