Picking up the story from where we left off. Jeff has proved his ability to run a hugely successful jazz club in Central London, has begun to record his artists for Decca’s Tempo label and has agreed a license deal with Al Silver of Ember Records for American repertoire. Now he wants his own label in the UK, but after a bad experience at Decca he has agreed a licensing deal with the Parlophone and Columbia labels at EMI. We are in 1956.
Well, about that time, rock and roll had reared its ugly head and I took Tony Crombie from being a jazz band to being a rock and roll band, and naturally I put him with EMI. I couldn’t work with Tony (Hall) because I couldn’t work with Ted Lewis. I mean “I don’t want you in the business” (see Pt.2). My Ember releases were on EMI and I became very friendly with Len Wood. If I wanted to know something he’s tell me. I expanded and we did pretty well. We never had hits but very healthy sales. George (Martin) recognised the music even more than Norrie (Paramor) who was a little more staid. Norrie was more interested in taking the better songs and knocking them off with his own artists, but I didn’t care because I wasn’t interested in the record business – it was the publishing. I picked up a song called Banjo Boy, sung in German by two Danish boys, but something in the song hit my ear. I had a good ear and my deal with the German publisher was that I had the rights outside Germany. I had to get a major (English) lyric, so I got Buddy Kaye, who was one of the top American writers at the time and I had to get the original German version released in America and England to retain the copyright for life. I did too good a job. I went over to America – everybody, from Kapp Records with Dorothy Collins, to MGM with Art Mooney and Capitol with Kay Starr.They were then released in England and we had about 13 cover versions out. I also got some British versions – George Formby on Pye. I had 23 covers. I was a hero.
My dad was reading the contracts – he wasn’t in the business; he was a gentleman’s hairdresser but was also looking after the Flamingo for me. He gradually left that and looked after the club full time, host and so forth. He said to me ‘I don’t understand this contract – explain publishing to me. Have you seen this typewritten thing on the end?’ I said ‘what is it, dad?’ He said ‘you’ve got to put the original German version out!’. ‘Oh, shit! There’s no labels left.’ So I went to see Len and told him the problem and he said ‘I’ve got no label to release it on. I’ve got five versions out.’ Top Rank had started at the time and I’d got the Dorothy Collins version out there.
Frank Chalmers, who was Len’s right hand man, had left EMI and gone to Top Rank, and he said to me ‘well, bloody well press it yourself!’ So I thought ‘interesting’. In between I had got very close to Al Silver (Ember USA, see Pt.2) and his wife Sylvia – we were bosom friends. Suddenly I couldn’t get hold of Al, which meant one of two things. He was running away sorting money or he had money troubles…or I don’t know what else! Frank calls me and says ‘Jeff, don’t you control the Ember label?’ ‘Yes’. ‘Do you till license it to us (EMI was his home, even when he went to Top Rank)’ I said ‘no, they’re at EMI.’ ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I meant EMI, I’ve got to remember I’m now at Top Rank! Al Silver’s offered us the Ember line. We’re thinking of launching an Ember label. Thought I’d better tell you.’ ‘Let me tell you, you can’t. I had a funny feeling about Al Silver and I trademarked the name. I own the name Ember. Not only do I own it in England, I own it for the world and if he’s playing games with me I’m going to teach him a lesson.’ ‘Well, he needs the money – he’s got IRS problems.’ I said ‘But we’re earning a fortune on the publishing. I’ve got about eleven grand here – how much does he owe?.’ I called Al and couldn’t get him, so I flew over to the States and said ‘Frank, you do your deal, but don’t consider releasing it on Top Rank – give me two weeks to go over there.’ He said ‘we’re going to schedule and the first one will be Lee Allen.’
Right away I said: ‘I can tell you now that I’ve got a contract with EMI and he’s (Al Silver) got a contract with me , and mine pre-dates yours. I know that much about the law. Anyway, I go over and I can’t get hold of Al Silver, so I go straight up to his office and I sit there until I know he’s got to come in. He couldn’t face me, so I said to him ‘Listen, I’ve been your friend; you were at my wedding; you’ve been to my house and you’ve stabbed me in the back. You haven’t even got the guts to call me. If you’d have called me we’d have done something. I’ve got this deal with EMI.’ He said ‘well, it’s a cockamamie deal with EMI. I want a label deal.’ So I said ‘Have I got news for you’ and I told him in no uncertain terms to stop using Ember there and then. As far as I’m concerned he can shut the label down. ‘I ownEmber. You want to go to Rank, go to Rank, but it will be released on Top Rank and we’re through. But I’m holding on to all the masters that I’ve got and all the publishing.’ I had a big row with him. Top Rank took my advice. I produced my paperwork and they released it on Top Rank.
Meanwhile I went to Ted Lewis again and I said ‘Look, how do I press records?’ ‘I’m not helping you.’ I went to Len Wood and said ‘How do I press records?’ He said ‘You know, there’s a factory called Orlake that makes buttons. It’s owned by Ted Lewis but he probably doesn’t know it’s a Decca holding. All they’ve got to do is, instead of making the button, they can widen the template and make a record.’ So I went up to Orlake, which was in Edgware somewhere and they said ‘Yes, we can press records.’ ‘How much’ I worked it all out – a nice little profit on records. ‘I only need to press ten, I’ve just got to…’ ‘No you can’t – the minimum run is 100. Design a label.’ Now I’ve got to prove that I’ve distributed the record. (Just as an aide memoir (!!) we’re still talking about releasing Jan & Kjeld in the UK to satisfy the contract) . I don’t know who, but someone suggested I go and see Walter Woyda. (I interviewed Walter so that will follow one day!) He said ‘Keith Prowse has 34 shops and is always looking for product because the majors don’t really help him – they serve HMV and the like.’
I went to see Walter and he couldn’t have been more charming. He said ‘of course I’ll distribute your records. What are you going to do after this German one – that’s not going to do much’ I said ‘well, I’m going to get it on the air. I’ve got to prove to this publisher.’ I press the 100. I deliver about 90 on my bike to Walter and he tells me about Legations (?) in Tottenham Court Road and I give them some and I go to the BBC because I’m told I’ve got to put it in their library. The BBC said ‘You can’t put it in the library – you’ve got to have a contract with PPL’ I can’t get a contract with PPL because it’s owned by the majors. I won’t tell you who at EMI, but our mutual friend, who shall be nameless as I made a promise, said ‘Sue the buggers! The BBC is a public corporation – they can’t be dictators.’ Off I go to the BBC and tell them either they give me a direct licence and put my record on the air, or I’m going to sue.’ I’m in the record business!
Because you weren’t part of PPL, they wouldn’t play your record?
That was the rule, or something like that. Only the majors could get their stuff on the air. That’s when I really knew what a monopoly was. Anyway I was the first one to get a direct agreement with the BBC. You’ll find EMB S101 – The Banjo Boys – the first thing in the library that they had there. I got the record out; it’s being played and it hits the bottom of the charts. I don’t know what’s happening but I’m pressing and pressing and pressing. The DJ’s, especially David Jacobs, who is (was) a law unto himself, and Jean Metrcalfe on ‘Family Favourites’ played the record. All I can tell you is we sold thousands – I couldn’t keep up with it. (It was in the charts for four weeks from July 21, 1960, reaching No. 36).
Now I’m not going down the club. I brought Pete King in from Ronnie Scott’s to run the agency and I’m sitting there. I don’t know what to do with myself – I’m in the record business with one record! Then I get a call from Australia.’Can we license it?’ ‘What’s licensing?’
So I was in the licensing business!
Don’t know about you, but I’m getting breathless just transcribing this! Part 4 will follow.
Text © David Hughes 2017. Photos for illustration purposes only, courtesy Google search.