I first met Cliff Busby in 1980. He had risen through EMI’s sales division before leaving to to become MD of United Artists, initially independent but by this time having reverted to EMI as Liberty-United, two American labels who at that time were enjoying enormous success, thanks primarily to Nashville acts Kenny Rogers, Billie Jo Spears and Crystal Gayle, boosted by UK acts like The Stranglers, Buzzcocks and Vapors.
EMI Licensed Repertoire Division, of which Motown was the key, was starting to lose labels like Island and MCA as they started their own offices, using EMI for pressing and distribution of their records, and Motown and RAK were moved to Liberty as the remaining key licensed labels. On moving day there was Cliff, not only greeting us, but helping to move the furniture and ensure the offices were in good shape for us. Motown rewarded him by coming out of severe post “Three Times a Lady” doldrums with Diana Ross’s Chic-produced album and a renewal of hits.
With a further retraction in the market, within a year, Liberty-United had been folded into EMI again and for the first time I found myself in Manchester Square. As the photo shows – Google fails to find any other – Cliff was not a publicity seeker (unlike many sales directors whose walls seemed to be covered with photos of themselves with the stars!). Nor indeed was he really suited to the heady responsibilities of heading EMI in the UK – in my view it was a promotion too far; he was really out of his depth and memories of him during this time were happy/sad in equal proportion.
This interview is not mine – it was conducted by EMI’s video division for the company’s centenary in 1997, though to my memory, was never used. The transcript is full of stops and starts to correct stumbles and mistakes, so this version has been carefully edited! Cliff was not a great interviewee, and whoever conducted the interview was pretty grim as well!!
When did you first join EMI and in what capacity?
(Sir Ernest Fisk)
I joined EMI in 1950 as a mail boy – one of the most exciting jobs I ever had. I tried to get into a bank but unfortunately there were so many people coming from Oxford and Cambridge and all those sorts of places that as I hadn’t passed any exams they didn’t think I was suitable. I could have showed them how to make a profit but they didn’t want to know. I started in the old EMI head office in Hayes. Sir Ernest Fisk (Managing Director/Chief Executive, 1944-1952) was located there and used to come to work on his bike. EMI was totally different to today. I worked for sales and service, an area made up of people who had worked there before the war and one or two who came after. It was exciting in a strange way – very strange because it seemed to have no composite identity. I worked for a woman who was without doubt the most exciting I have ever come across. She must have been about 75 at the time and she could only remember two names – Jonathan and Moses – so whoever you were, you were called one of those!
When I walked in I said I wanted £3 a week and she said ‘no, you get £2.50 and like it’. And I thought ‘this company can’t be a world leader, no chance!’
(The original EMI head office in Blythe Road, Hayes)
How did you progress through the company?
What we did in the mail room -I was with Jimmy Parminter – (another long standing EMI sales staffer, still alive and very much kicking!) we used to deliver the mail. When a vacancy became available we were offered up for it. I was fortunate that I turned down sales and they offered me up for records and I spent nine years in international under a man called Max Smith who was without any shadow of a doubt one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever come across.
Did you sit in International in Hayes or did they send you abroad?
Good God, they never thought of sending you travelling. My goodness me that cost money. No, you just sat there and people came to you.We had two major suppliers, Unilever and Overseas Suppliers. Overseas Suppliers did West Africa and Unilever did the rest – we weren’t allowed to travel. That would have been wonderful but Max Smith wouldn’t even spend a pound unless he could make fifteen back!
I moved from there to sales in 1959 and it was wonderful, the start of new era. We had depots everywhere and were in competition with everyone else for our own product., In the 1950’s Columbia could do no wrong, Frankie Laine, Johnny Ray, Guy Mitchell – you name it, they had it. It was very exciting.
What region did you have?
I had Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire. And mid-Wales was wonderful – no brains up there at all!
How did you get around? You had a car with an EMI number plate I believe?
Well, I had a car, but no EMI number plate. No fear!
So you just drove around calling on how many stores in those days?
I had about 150 I suppose. but bear in mind that 45 were in Bristol where I lived, six in Cheltenham, five in Gloucester and about 15 in mid-Wales. It was wonderful. In that period we had the beginning of The Beatles. At the beginning there were two companies, EMI and Decca and we had 80% of the business. Philips were trying to start and Pye had a little bit going for them because they they did van sales, whereas we had to visit our depots to get the records.
The Beatles must have been an extraordinary experience, selling records for the band who was to become the greatest in the world?
It’s very difficult to explain. I’d come from an era of Frankie Laine, Johnny Ray, Guy Mitchell and others and you knew their records would be hits. Then came Elvis and suddenly you had something different. And then The Beatles opened the door and everything changes. I can’t tell you just how exciting it was. In the first year – 1962-3 – I’d been on the road for three years, getting close to being promoted in another three years. But with The Beatles, you told the dealer about a new LP and they said ‘I’ll have a thousand!’ A thousand albums in those days was an enormous investment and it was so exciting. We used to lie through our teeth and tell them about a new Beatles’ album that didn’t exist. We knew it would one day, so let’s get the money in our pocket and it would boost our commission.
We (each salesman) had an area and we had last year’s sales figures. Then Head Office produced the budget for the next year and L.G. Wood (EMI Managing Director) added 10% to it. I revere him immensely but he was a tight bugger. For every £1 of sales we concluded we got one quarter of one per cent as commission – that’s 25p in £100 of sales, and Jesus, we’d be working our asses off, I can tell you. At Christmas we’d drive the cars out of the depots loaded up with product for the dealer.
So in that golden period, the 1960’s, did you get artists out on the road with you, doing P.A.’s in stores?
No. Good God, there wasn’t time for that. People didn’t come out because it wasn’t known. We weren’t hyping for business – it was falling in our laps.
After a period as EMI’s General Manager, Sales & Distribution (“not a Director – EMI didn’t like to give directorate titles”) Cliff left EMI in April 1975 to become General Manager of United Artists Records – we’ll continue this rather fragmented interview next time.