The usual delay but here we go with the next instalment of one of the British music business’s key 1960’s entrepreneurs. Jeff has formed Ember Records initially as a British offshoot of the American company and used EMI to licence some now rare R&B tracks. Now we come to the Harry Simeone Chorale, whose version of ‘Little Drummer Boy’ was a Top 20 hit in February 1959, and the seven following years.
It first came out on Top Rank; then their rights were up and I signed and had the hits. Bill Metcalfe was Jean’s husband (Jean Metcalfe was one of the presenters of ‘Two Way Family Favourites’, a record request programme for the armed forces in Germany and their families in England, and then the biggest record show on radio.) Bill was the show’s producer in Germany and I was one of the few publishers to go over there and give them my releases. I’d heard that Radio Luxembourg charged fees – that was where Keith Fordyce reigned. On the British Forces network Bill Metcalfe reigned but I didn’t know until I got there that Bill was married to Jean. The bottom line was that I would give new records for Bill to play. He became a hero. AFN (American Forces Network) was getting them off Bill, so socially he was on free meals or whatever, and Jean would play Onward Christian Soldiers, Little drummer boy and my other things, not just because I was over there plugging but because genuine requests were coming in. As long as she could find one card and she could finally play it (Drummer Boy) she’d play it.
(I think Jeff’s memory is playing tricks on him here. I cannot trace a Bill Metcalfe with BFN – Bill Crozier, yes – and Jean was married (for the first and only time I believe) to Cliff Michelmore and for a while all three were with Two-Way Family Favourites, whuch may explain the muddle!)
So I wrote to Sir Edward Lewis in April 19th 1962. It was my birthday and his birthday. I said to him ‘Happy Birthday from one person in the record business to the giant’ (I worded it very carefully).’May I take your mind back to 1927 when you were in my position? Why would you deny me the right to get (record) distribution? How can I hurt you? You can’t stop the independents – we’re coming. If you don’t let me release legitimately, where you’ll earn money through your distributor, Selector, you’re going to force me to sell my records in railway stations, bookshops, anywhere I can. You’re not going to stop me. You may not like me but give me credit for doing no different to what you did.’ I get a call ten minutes after the post has arrived. ‘I’m on my way to Lords. England are playing – nothing stops for England. Join me.’ I go to (well, he says The Oval, which would have been a bit silly!). He’s sitting there in his box and he says ‘I don’t know what to make of you but you intrigue me.’ I said ‘If my product sells, you earn and I earn. If it doesn’t, I’ve misjudged. I’ve got specialist albums that are not going to hurt you – give me distribution with Selecta. Give me the freedom to deal with them the same as any other company.’ He said ‘I’ve got to make a call.’ Who’s the call to? I presume L.G. (Wood). In any event I get distribution. The minute I got Selecta L.G. calls and says ‘well, if you’ve got Selecta, you’ve got to have EMI.’ So now I’ve got the chance of full-blown distribution, all the money I’m earning from the club and from commissions and publishing. It’s a different story pressing albums. I had to have a designer. I had to have a copyright person, so I take on Margaret Brace who becomes owner of the biggest copyright bureau in Europe. Then I had to move to bigger premises. There was no pressing when I started – I found pressing.
Did you carry on with Orlake?
I was loyal to them right up to the time when I needed more. Then I went to Maurice Levy who had the pressing plant in Aylesbury that CBS eventually bought.
Oriole Records (owned by Levy) had the same sort of issues?
No, because he sensibly had a brother and they opened their own pressing plant. Originally his label was not meant to be commercial as it was the Woolworths thing (Oriole was pressing the Woolworth Embassy label, almost exclusively cover versions of hit singles) that kept him going, but in order to sell the Woolworths thing he had to put out a commercial line. He had very few hits. I did produce some things for him, all under my publishing company! What comes to mind? June, July & August comes to mind, and something with a group.
I produced for him; I didn’t care who, so really he was the first budget line rather than a true independent. There was Melodisc dealing with very ethnic Jamaican things, mainly on 10″. Siggy Jackson worked for a guy called Emil Shalit. All of us used to talk because we were the pioneers, but I was the one who started the first full-blown label – singles, EP’s, LP’s. First one to put single in (picture) sleeves; the first one to come out with different lines – a jazz line (CJS – Collectors Jazz Series); a country line (CW series), and when London got fed up releasing Starday I took Starday, CEL for Celebrity Series; the first one to do gatefold sleeves. That really is the background to how Ember started.
I had hits in spite of myself. Little Drummer Boy – 300,000 sales for an independent was phenomenal. I had no promotion budget. Onward Christian Soldiers nearly 700,000. I found the first Dave Clark record and put it out.
Joe Meek had a label called Triumph, went into liquidation. We were all friends, the independents, they all came down to the club. It was like a little circle and Joe said to me ‘I’ve got this new recording of Angela Jones. I’ve just signed Michael Cox with a song called Angela Jones and I really don’t want to know. The liquidator doesn’t know I’ve got this – will you put it out on Ember and pay me the royalties?’ I look at it – one of the songs is my publishing, by pure fluke. So my third Ember record was in fact a Triumph record. We pressed a few copies (Ember S103) but we used all Joe’s remaining stock he’d pressed to beat the liquidator. That’s really what we did if you want to know the truth.
The fourth record we put out……my wife said to me in 1959 or 1960:’You’re going on holiday whether you like it or not.’ I don’t know why we chose Jamaica but we decided to go to The Playboy Club there. We get there and Ocho Rios is ten minutes away over the Blue Mountain. We got an inter-island flight on Jamaican Airlines and saw this nice little jet there but when we get to it, it’s a three-seater and she hates flying at the best of times. I bundled her in and up we go, the wheels don’t go down, we nearly touch the top of the mountains and we’re in Ocho Rios and she is that colour! She says ‘I don’t care how long it takes on the way back – we’re going by road.’ We have a breakdown and I bump into Desmond Dekker and I listen to a little thing he’s cut called ‘The Israelites’ which I didn’t understand, and while we’re waiting I met the Kong brothers who’d produced it. I stayed extra time, went to their house and signed up Beverley’s Records – well some of their stuff, only to find they’d also sold it to some of my friends in London, the original Trojan. I put it out on Ember. I let them keep it on their label but they had to pay me royalties. Leslie Kong had sold it to MCA and EMI, both of whom came out of the woodwork to get me and I saw them off. I had Desmond’s signature; I had the Kong brothers’ signatures and I made them swear it in front of the Jamaican government. Their lawyers Myers Fletcher and Gordon knew that I knew those royalties were being paid out of the country and that’s a jailable offence in Jamaica. They were also dealing in that stuff, ganja, which you would have known by another name – cannabis, not that I would have said anything, but they knew they’d better not mess. My reputation was getting to be ‘if you deal with him and he shakes your hand you’ll get everything – he’s very fair – but if you cross him, God help you’ and in those days I had a temper and a long memory.
Anyway, I do the deal with Uni in the States after proving to MCA they had no rights, but they said they had this Uni label and I fell in love with Russ Regan who was one of the best. Russ loved the record so I saved MCA’s face by giving them a deal, a 1% over ride, and it went to No.1 as you know, it sold nearly a million. When I got paid it was on 400,000. We also put it out on Ember and it may also have been on Trojan.
At thgat time I brought in Hal Shaper and Hal got the publishing on it for our company. He had to fight Chris Blackwell at Island who thought he had it and in turn had passed it on to A&M’s publishing. So there was a battle royal but we finished up owning the song – it may have been less that 100%.
That’s how our label grew until 1966 when…..
And there, I’ll leave you to ponder the next tantalising episode, which again involved EMI’s legendary MD L.G. Wood.
Text © David Hughes, 2017, all ilustrations courtesy Google search and are for that purpose only.