Without wanting to, without maybe even realising it, in order to maximise the return on an American publishing deal he had struck with Ember’s Al Silver, Jeff finds himself having to release the original single of a song called ‘Banjo Boy.’ Because he’s successfully persuaded the majors in the UK and US to record versions, he has no option but to do so himself
So I was in the record business.
So I’m telling Tony (Hall) that I want to release jazz records. He’s saying to me ‘there’s no money in jazz records; that’s a hobby.’ I went out with some girl and I heard the Ray Ellington Quartet – they were huge at the time. Dick Katz was their pianist, lovely guy, and when I watched him play piano my mouth was open because I couldn’t play like it.
Jimmy Phillips, the publisher, came to me with a song called The Madison and he said ‘I’ve got the same problem as you – I’ve got to get a local version. I can’t get anybody to do it. London are releasing the original version and EMI have knocked it off already but with a singer, and that’s not going to work. I need a gutsy record. I want you to copy this record.’ ‘What do I do?’ He said ‘You hire a studio; in fact I’ll pay for the studio.’ I said ‘Well, I saw somebody last night who could probably cut it beautifully – Ray Ellington.’ ‘Great idea.’ At midnight the next day, the first time we could get any studio space, down by the BBC where our engineer was the most famous rock producer today, Glyn Johns.
We cut that and on the other side I put one of my copyrights, happened to be an Angel copyright by the Four Seasons guys, Bob Crewe and Bob Guardio. So we had The Madison Parts 1 & 2, She lied and Too old to cut the mustard. (not according to this single sleeve, but never mind!)
We put it out; Jimmy got it in the charts for us (November-December 1962) and Walter’s (Woyda) calling me ‘We need more records.’ And I get a call from Woolfsons saying they’ve got record distribution for Scotland but they can’t get the majors’ products – they’re doing main scottish and Irish. I went up to look at this operation. It was huge. So they become our Scottish one. Lugtons did London and Leed with Walter, Then I get a call from a man called Solomons – not Phil, not Mervin, but the father (Maurice). I’d like to see you.’ I don’t know who he is. Up he comes, the old man and his wife, dolled in diamonds, beautiful. He said ‘Do you know me?’ I said ‘No, but are you any relation to Phil and Mervin?’ ‘Yes, Mervin runs our distribution in Ireland – we are the exclusive distributors for Decca; Phil’s got his own agency and he’s going to start a pirate radio station…(I’m not sure of the chronological order).’ He said to me – ‘Look, my bona fides are this: When Ted Lewis couldn’t pay his wages in 1927, I’m the one who backed him, I’m the one who got the shares and I’m the controlling shareholder for Decca. I want your line for Ireland and I want you to release some of these LP’s of Irish artists. I can sell tens of thousands.
So suddenly I had a network of distribution. ‘What about jazz?’ I said. He said ‘Anything you release there’s a market for, We’ll help you to sell, or we’ll export it for you.’ ‘What’s export?’ ‘Oh, we’ll ship it to France, to Germany, wherever.’ And that’s how I started in the record business. It became the necessity and in order to teach Al Silver a lesson I had the Ember label, so I used what was there. The artwork was ready.
How did you deal with all the admin?
Admin I was brilliant at. I had people. I brought in an accountant. I brought in a book-keeper and the three of us worked donkey’s hours. I mean, I always believed in paying good money and I was young. I worked sixteen, eighteen hours a day, crawling to the club, picking up my father at midnight and driving home. It got to the stage where I fell asleep one night and we brought in a driver. But I was running them all. Pete King was doing the agency, I was looking after the records and in 1961 I realised I needed albums.
In between I went up to see Len Wood again. Len always comes in to the picture, and I said ‘Len, I need distribution – I’m going to go after albums and things.’ He said ‘well, I can’t give you distribution yet unless Decca do, because I’ll be breaching an agreement that I shouldn’t tell you exists. The majors will go against each other, let’s simply say that. But downstairs is a man you can meet who has an office in Hayes and he’s the best exporter of product in the world. When he’s sober, he’s the best.’ I can’t think of his name, but he was your (EMI’s) head of export sales for donkey’s years – you brought in a young guy to help him and he took over, I sat down with him and he said ‘I can export this stuff but I must have an exclusive.’ I said ‘I don’t want the bother. How do I get paid?’ He said ‘every six months.’ I said ‘I want monthly payments – I need a cashflow.’ ‘OK, EMI’s big enough to handle that, or we’ll feed you on account and twice a year we’ll adjust it and you’ll owe us or we’ll owe you.’ Great.
I went over to the States. I knew and bumped into the man running 20th Century Fox, Norman Weiser, and he said ‘Well, you can have some of our albums. We’ve got Al Martino, Tommy Dorsey, the soundtrack of Summer Valley, Glenn Miller Band, but the best thing we’ve got is the Harry Simeone Chorale Little Drummer Boy.’ I said ‘I’m a jazz label, R&B, what is this stuff?’ He said ‘Well, you’ll have all our soundtracks, a free pass to all our pictures (I still loved the movies) and we’re filming Cleopatra so you’ll finish up with that.’ Little Ember Records signed its first deal, not with a nobody, with 20th Century Fox! Again, we got publicity all over the world. Then I started to pick up albums. On the Billie Holiday tour she said to me ‘I’ve got masters you know.’ I said ‘Well I don’t know if I can get them out but I will try and get them released for you. Who knows? I don’t know what the future will bring. Send them to me.’ When I toured Billy Eckstine, he told me he had a band. He said ‘the girl you’re bringing on tour was my relief pianist and singer, Sarah Vaughan.’ I said ‘ Where are those records?’ He said ‘I’ve got them somewhere – I’ll send you the tapes.’ I started to collect these things, never thinking I’d put them out.
I went to Cincinnati and met Syd Nathan who had a label called King. His office boy was Seymour Stein who went on to do Madonna and so forth. Syd took a liking to me. He was very wide, very fat, eating all the time. Came to work at two in the afternoon and stayed till midnight, that kind of operation. While waiting for him I was listening to these black guys recording. ‘What’s your name’ ‘Woolly John.’ ‘What’s your name?’ ‘I’m Brown, James Brown.’ ‘What’s your name?’ ‘We’re the Five Royales.’ I was hearing all these great sounds while waiting for him. His idea of an Englishman was like the Sherlock Holmes films – you wear striped trousers, bowler hat and an umbrella, and here was I going to baseball with him. Not that I liked baseball, but he did, so I liked baseball! The bottom line was that I came away with a contract that gave me his Bethlehem label, which was Duke Ellington, Chris Connor, a lot of jazz stuff which is what I was after. But he said ‘You’ve got to take my Federal label as well. You’ve got James Brown.’ I said ‘Yes, I heard him last night. I don’t know if that stuff will sell in England.’ He said ‘Tonight he’s cutting a new single – come to the session. Woolly John (I don’t believe he exists!!), The Shondels. I’ve just cut one called Dedicated to the one I love, that’s a hit (by the Five Royales). I want you to put those out. If they don’t sell initially, they’ll sell in five or ten years time – this is the coming music. Like, you fancied Al Silver’s kind of R&B – this is the real black stuff.’ So I was at the session when he did Tell me what you’re gonna do by James Brown. I went home and put that out. Then I put the album out. I put all the King albums out and that’s when I needed distribution.
Your (EMI) people were doing a phenomenal job exporting. Then I had Ariola in Germany become my representatives. They came to see me, wanted all this stuff. I called Syd. ‘You got anybody in Germany?’ ‘Where is effing Germany – I thought we destroyed that in the war’ I said ‘Well, can I have the rights for Germany?’ He said ‘Do what you like in Europe.’ I said ‘If I ever do anything, I’ll let you know.’ These guys were all too busy running their own operation to worry about where LA was, let alone England. The clever people were Decca and to a lesser degree your people when they bought Capitol, getting people to pick up all that independent stuff.
We’ll stop and draw breath here, but not for long. The Ember empire carries on growing; Jeff plays Sir Edward Lewis off against L.G. Wood and is the first to spot Dave Clark….and much more!
Text ©David Hughes 2017. All illustrations are just that, courtesy Google search.