A Personal History of the British Music Business 28, Ken East Pt.5




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Barney Ales, John McCready (Phonogram New Zealand), to be hired by Ken when he moves to Decca) and Ken East’s profile!

We have followed Ken back and forth from London to Australia..all the time with EMI. Now we find him him moving into pastures new.

I came back each year to London. I loved London. Dolly came back with me a couple of times. And this is where the action is. I was never really interested in making and selling TV sets and rockets and all that sort of stuff, and I did miss the record business. On the second occasion I came back, which was two years later (1973), I said to John Read ” I’d like to come back to the UK if you could ever find me a job.” “Good, old chap. Right. Good idea.” He visited Australia after that and I said “have you had any more thoughts?” “Thinking about it.”


Sir John Read (born March 29 1918, died April 4 2015)


Sir Edward Lewis (19 April 1900 – 29 January 1980)

Then in the third year, beginning of 1974, a man arrived in my office. He was the boyfriend of Sir Edward Lewis’s secretary, and a headhunter. He said ‘would you consider running Decca in the UK?’ I said ‘I’m certainly interested because my first interest is the record business. I’m coming to London in March or April and I’ll come and see Sir Edward.’ I’d known him for many years on a commercial basis and he offered me the job, £20,000 a year – not much more than I was earning in Australia, and it was a great challenge because the company was in the….the only way to go was up. I said ‘I don’t want to leave EMI, but if they can’t find me something in the record business, we’ll work something out.’ I then went to John Read and I certainly didn’t tell him I was considering another job, but I did put pressure on him for another job in the UK, preferably in the record business, and he said ‘what do you think Gerry Oord (then MD of EMI Records)would say if he came in and heard us talking like this?’ I said ‘that’s really not the point – I’m just asking you if you can find me another job.’ He had another clown in there with him, one of his Texas Instruments men, and I got fed up with it. We were then having dinner with John at his flat in Portman Square and it didn’t end up badly but I said ‘look, I’ll have to start looking for myself.’ I’ll never forget this. We went over to dinner and you could have cut the atmosphere with the knife! The next day I went to Albert Embankment and said ‘I’ll have to give EMI notice; you’ll have to leave me to work that out, but yes, if you agree the salary and just rough terms, (because I trusted him) we’ll work out a timetable.’ So I went back to Australia and saw John Burnett who was still Chairman of the company. I told him what I was going to do. He said ‘you can’t do that’. I said ‘Yes I can – you don’t have to do anything for me; I’m not happy with the job I’m doing.’ I then rang John Read and he said ‘you can’t do that’. I said ‘yes I can. For a year-and-a-half I’ve been asking you for something and you can’t come up with anything.’ ‘OK, there’s no point in arguing – we’ll find a successor.’ They had John Kuipers to replace me and worked out that I’d leave at the end of August 1974 and I went to Decca on October 1.


So what do I do? (at Decca). I’m surrounded by public servants and that b*gg*r (Bill) Townsley who’s the biggest impediment of progress ever.Classical wonderful, no pop records and they still had the same old blokes who’d been there for years – Hugh Mendl, Dick Rowe – but Townsley was the fly in the ointment. I asked around, I needed a marketing man, and someone said ‘there’s a bloke who’s just been fired from Phonogram for punching Phil Solomons (manager of The Dubliners, boss of Major Minor Records and much more!) – his name’s John McCready.’ I said ‘he sounds a good sort of bloke to me’ but he’d been offered a job by John Fruin who was still running Polydor in the same group. I rang John up and said ‘look, you and I both want to employ the same bloke I believe – John McCready. How much are you going to pay him?’ He told me and I said “well, I’m going to do better than that – I need him desperately.’ He said ‘Alright, you can have him.’

John came and we shook things up a bit. You’ve got to remember that Sir Edward Lewis was by that time 74 and too old (!!!). He didn’t believe in record clubs or television advertising. Decca was a public company but he ran it as his own and I had the opportunity to get a lot of money for the repertoire for a record club, but he wouldn’t….so my hands were tied. You can hopefully get out and try and spread the word that you’re trying to revitalise the company and bring new artists in. We had a few little hits but they didn’t amount to much and the only way to start making money and getting the company seen was to do some television advertising. We put together a Tom Jones album without his knowledge, just did it. It was a great success…Townsley’s running to him ‘they’re advertising on television Sir Edward’. So I never talked to Townsley. He ran the manufacturing and I’d go out to the Lewisham depot and, elementary things, they were not wrong because the people were bad but because nobody cared. It was my overall responsibility but I was more interested in getting some sales and profits.


Allan Klein

Allan Klein came in one day to see me because he owned all the tape rights to those early Decca Rolling Stones records. We sat down and McCready’s idea was that we put together a Rolling Stones album called ‘Rolled Gold’. Again, with a reluctant chairman, Klein thought it was a good idea because he could then snaffle it up and put it out in America (I think he could only do a compilation if Decca had either agreed or done it). Anyway it was a huge wonderful success and the company was starting to get good.

To cut a long story short, towards the end of the first year, September 1975, Hugh Mendl says that Townsley’s saying certain things about me, because he hated me. I was someone who had taken the ear of the Chairman away from him. So I went to Sir Edward after I came back from holiday and said ‘What have you been hearing about me from Townsley?’ ‘Nothing, nothing.’ ‘Well, if it’s nothing, that’s fine, but I can’t work with him, so you have to make a decision – either he goes or I do.’ Sir Edward said ‘Townsley can’t go’. Have you read Lewis’s book, wonderful book. Townsley’s been with him from the beginning, so I could understand the emotion of it all. Townsley was in his 70’s; I was 50-something. He said ‘take a holiday and think about it.’ I said ‘I’ve just got back from holiday.’ ‘Well, take a week off.’ I said, ‘look, I’m quite serious. If you won’t agree that Townsley goes, then I’m going.’

Dolly was in America staying with Barney  and Mitzi (Ales). Barney was at that time trying to fight off moving to Los Angeles – he was still based in Detroit, Berry (Gordy) was out on the coast and the three of them were at the Beverley Hills Hotel, so I rang up Dolly and said ‘look, I’ve got to talk to someone; I think I’m going to leave Decca.’ ‘What are you going to do?’ ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m not going to put up with being unhappy.’ She said ‘that’s OK, do whatever you want.’ because she’s terrific. I put the phone down and within ten minutes Barney had rung back and said ‘I’ve just heard the fantastic news.’ I said ‘what’s that.’ He said ‘you’re leaving Decca.’ I said ‘well, I’m not leaving Decca yet.’ He said ‘come and run international; come and work for Motown.’ I said ‘well, if you buy me a ticket to Los Angeles I’ll talk to you.’ So, the next day I’m on a plane to Los Angeles. I saw him and Berry and it was a Wednesday night when I came back. I did a deal with Barney subject to if Townsley  would go then I wouldn’t go to Motown. I rang Ted Lewis up on the Wednesday night. ‘I’m back Sir Edward, have you thought about our problem.’ He said ‘have you thought about it?’. I said ‘yes, I’ve thought about it deeply and I’ve not changed my mind.’ He said ‘neither have I.’ I said ‘fine, I’ll come in tomorrow morning and see you and work out my departure.’ He was always early in the office and I said ‘what time do you want me in?’ and he said 9-o-clock, then he rang me back and said ‘no, can you come at 7.30 or 8.’ He didn’t want anyone to see me. I then rang Barney and said ‘we’ve got a deal – he’s not going to change his mind.’

So I went in (to Decca) next morning about 7.45 and in his office he’s got the company secretary, a man named Spalding, a little Scotsman and they’re sitting one side of the table. Spalding never came to work before 10.00 in his life – what’s he doing here at this time?  (Sir Edward) says ‘you tell him Spalding, you tell him/’ And Spalding says ‘well Mr East, Sir Edward agrees that Townsley should go’ and I could have cried. I said ‘look, I’m terribly sorry – after you told me last night that you’d not changed your mind, I rang and accepted another offer and I can’t go back on it.’ He was sorry, I think. He gave me a cheque for £5,000 which was the most you could give anyone in those days without tax and it was an emotional farewell. I’ve often pondered if he’d have said ‘yes’ and I hadn’t committed to Barney, whether he would have done it. I’ll never know but I’m not sure he would. He’d have procrastinated. Decca just went downhill and got swallowed up by Polygram. That was a funny year.

So I went to Motown. I wouldn’t move to California because of the politics of the place. It was run from California but they had a London office. The vice president of Motown was a guy called Ralph Seltzer, who’s a lawyer and Barney had set up a London office with a fellow named John Marshall.


Gerry Oord presents Barney Ales with a (non-HMV) gramophone in 1970

The offices they had were hopelessly elaborate for the little operation they had so we moved into Oxford Street and then into Curzon Street. It was like a three-year holiday – it was marvellous. We used to screw people for advances, so I saw both sides. I had the advantage of knowing a lot about the licensees. Providing I got reasonable advances I saw no reason to move it from EMI. I got on socially with Alan Kaupe; I didn’t get on too well with him commercially and I certainly didn’t get on with that other fellow who wore all the gold round his neck, Mark Abbott (GM sales)

The company (Motown) itself was very political. The family fought and the family would get together to fight it out – it was just a mess, terrible. Berry lost interest; he got into the movie business more, and he and Barney fought.

The product was no good at that time (see how infrequently I had to ask a question!!)

No – Stevie Wonder saved it with his album. I was with Leslie Hill in the recording booth drinking champagne when he finished it – Songs in the Key of Life. A funny story connected with that. Johanan Vigoda (1928-2011) was a lawyer with Paul Marshall (died May 10, 2012) – a typical Bronx collar and tie man who went to Woodstock and his life was never the same again! Stopped wearing ties, grew his hair…a brilliant mind and a great knowledge of the record business. He became Stevie’s manager and was given a cheque for $1,000,000 one day, I think when Songs in the Key of Life was delivered. He put it in the pocket of his jeans and lost it. Never seen again. He had to come back and get a second cheque from Barney – that was very funny.

(Footnote – in 2015 Stevie took legal action against Johanan Vigoda’s estate in connection with a clause in the management contract guaranteeing Vigoda, and his wife, income for life!)

There seemed an inevitability that you would again return to EMI

When John Read and I parted I think they were a bit pissed off that I went to Decca, but I had retained a relationship with the people in EMI because I’d been there for so many years. Through the Motown years that continued I think Japan is one of the only places that it wasn’t with EMI. I’d been to a Billboard Convention in Venice and when I came back there was a note in my diary that my secretary said was an appointment with John Read at 4.00 on whatever day. I thought ‘Christ, what does he want to see me about?’ I go up to Manchester Square and say ‘hello, how are you? He said ‘I know you’re not the sort of bloke who beats around the bush so would you consider coming back to EMI?’

We have one more episode left, which seems to end with Duran Duran – I think you will agree with John Read…Ken was not the sort of bloke who beats around the bush!

Please note that John McCready, centre in the picture at the top, worked for Phonogram in New Zealand.

text ©David Hughes, 2016. Photos borrowed via Google searches.

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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