Since interviewing him all those years ago, John, who died in January last year, had written and self-published his autobiography, much of the content of which may, or may not be duplicated in the piece that follows. To me he is best remembered as the man who first persuaded the only independent record label in England at the time to do a deal with Berry Gordy and release Motown records in the UK on a licensed basis. My personal collection still retains ‘Fingertips 1 & 2’ which I played to death on my father’s Pye Black Box radiogram, to a point where the next-door-neighbour banged on the door and ordered me to stop!
How did it all start?
I had a very clever brother who was the catalyst for me doing something he couldn’t do, and the only thing he couldn’t do was music. I had piano lessons and won the music cup at school. My father said ‘the music business isn’t for you; I want you to do something with initials after your name – I think a chartered accountant woulds be the ideal career.’ So he articled me to a firm of chartered accountants in the mid 1950’s. Unfortunately for him it was my making and his undoing, because the firm, Archer Nicholls, dealt with a lot of music business accounts – people like Alma Cogan…and I got invited to the recording sessions.
Consequently I failed my intermediate exams and didn’t get to do accountancy, much to my father’s disgust. Then I had to do National Service in the RAF. I took up the clarinet. The guy said,’you can’t play the piano walking down the street. If you think you’re going to get out of normal duties and you want to be in the band, you’ll have to play the clarinet.’ I then decided that music was what I wanted to do and I wrote to everybody I could think of who dealt with music, the BBC, music stations etc. I didn’t get answers from anyone except EMI. They said ‘we do not have a vacancy at the present time but will keep your name on our books. In six months time we will contact you again and see if we have anything available in our sales office.’ I hung on for six months doing things like van driving and selling baked beans in a Joe Lyons tea shop. I just had the funny feeling that I would hear. I told my father what I was doing and he didn’t really want to know, but he said ‘I do know Sir Joseph Lockwood; we do musiness with him. I’ll mention to him that my son wants to go into the music business and that he has written to EMI Records.’ And he did mention it to Sir Joseph who mentioned it to L.G. Wood. I think that probably helped. They wrote and said they had a vacancy in the sales office at £7 a week and that’s how I started – in Eastcastle Street.
I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do – I just arrived in Eastcastle Street in the sales office. It sort of occurred to me that I had to go out of my way to show that this was not just a job for me but a career, so I was always the one who put myself forward to do the menial jobs. I remember the guy in charge of the sales office, George Dawson. There were about seven or eight of us. To all the others this was just a job but because I put myself out I think George Dawson mentioned to L.G. Wood that ‘the lad shows promise.’ I was cataloguing records, answering phone calls and I started to get to know there were people called A&R. I made up my mind that I wanted to go on the A&R side. I had a feel for music and knew that was the way I wanted to go.
Did you know any A&R icons of the time?
I knew of Norrie Paramor and Norman Newell, but not before I went to work there.
How did you get to hear and like music in the first place?
My music started at school, studying classical music and taking piano lessons. I went to Arundel public school and there was a piano in the dining room and I used to go and play on it. I heard this song on the radio, Too Young by Jimmy Young and it was the first piece of sheet music I got hold of and I played it on the school piano.
There were some little girls who used to come and lay the tables in the dining room and they used to sit and listen to me play this song. So I started to get interested in popular music. My real love is jazz – my idol is Oscar Peterson. Other that playing the piano I didn’t know I had any particular flair for music.
How did that opportunity arrive?
Me being very observant within the walls of Eastcastle Street, I noticed one day that Norman Newell got an assistant, John Burgess, so I thought to myself ‘well, if one (A&R man) gets one, maybe another will.’ I went to see L.G. Wood and had told George Dawson I wanted to do this. L.G. Wood asked me why I wanted to do this and I said I had a flair for music and wondered if the others wanted an assistant. L.G. sent me to see Norrie Paramor and in 10 minutes I became his assistant. This would be the Ruby Murray, Jimmy Young, Eddie Calvert era. I owe a great deal of my success to Norrie because he taught me so much. The man was a genius in so many ways, as a producer, as an arranger. He made me understand what PRS was all about – he really did his utmost to help me. I was very short of money. I had one suit which I wore every day and pressed under my mattress every night. He always used to remark on how smart I looked – didn’t know I only had one suit! Norrie said ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do to help you money-wise. You can come round to my house and file all my scores for me.’ So I did that for something like a shilling an hour, but I got to know his family.
Was there any sort of community spirit between the four producers?
It was a competitive community. The competitiveness to be better than the guy next door was very strong. There wasn’t jealousy, but they tried to outdo each other. Every new artist that was signed, we had to sign someone we thought was better. Wally Ridley had Peter Sullivan, Norman got John Burgess, Ron Richards was with George Martin. Norrie had the Columbia label.
What did being his assistant entail?
It was a new job – created for the first time. Norrie told me ‘I don’t know what it entails; we’ll take it from day to day, but I want you to take a lot of errands off me and give me more time to develop the label, write more scores. I want you to take the phone calls from the publishers who swamp me with new songs every day, search out new talent and give auditions at the studios.’ Gradually I got more and more responsibility. In the end, although he had a secretary, people didn’t get to Norrie unless they came through me first. The publishers all came through me. I began the realise their individual strengths and even listen to their songs before they actually got to see Norrie with songs that were suitable for our artists. In most cases the publishers didn’t know what artists you had – it was hit and miss – but there were certain publishers who did. I respected them highly and was impressed with their homework.
So Norrie was impressed with some of your recommendations?
Yes he was. People such as Johnny Wise, who became very important in my life. He and Norrie got on very well. He would always know when he had a song for a particular artist – it wasn’t just a pile of songs. There were certain people Norrie had particular associations with, like Bunny Lewis – he was great. I wrote Helen Shapiro’s You don’t know and the day he heard it he said ‘If I’ve ever heard a number one record, that’s it’ which was a fantastic moment for me. So I developed as being Norrie’s assistant and I did it for four-and-a-half years.
Was there a moment when Norrie said ‘Why don’t you do this session, John?
No. He did it in a very funny way. I’d learned to fly a plane and I didn’t know when I was going to fly that plane on my own until one day we went up and did a circle of the aerodrome. We came down and the instructor got out and said ‘off you go’ and I was faced with it. Norrie did the same thing. We had a Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson session and it was Sing Little Birdie. Dennis Preston, their manager, was in the studio at the time and all the musicians were there and I turned up, and no Norrie. He was at home feeling unwell, deliberately. But he didn’t let me go in the studio for about 18 months. At every session he went through the score with me, the musicians, and the engineers and I thought ‘when am I going to be able to do it?’, until (that day when)everybody said ‘it looks as if Norrie’s not coming. It’s down to you – you’re his assistant.’ The engineer was Peter Bown and I said to him ‘do you think the strings need more echo?’ and he said ‘I don’t know – you’re the producer, you decide!’ And I thought ‘oh God.’ Dennis Preston was breathing down my neck. I was thrown in at the deep end but I had quite a lot of confidence after all those months with Norrie. Of course, recording in those days was slightly different technically. We got through it, and I mixed it and played it to Norrie. He said ‘do you think the guitar should be as forward as it is?’ I said ‘well, yes, that’s how I felt it.’ He said ‘you stay with it then; it’s your mix, your record.’ And it went out and of course it was a hit. It got to about No. 12 (correct!) helped by Eurovision, but never mind – it was a chart record and it was my first session.
He handed more and more to me, though you wouldn’t know though as there were no (producer) names on the records. Later on in our time together he would often be at home writing film scores and earning money while I’d be in the studios doing it. I became quite a strong entity. I recorded a lot of Cliff Richard’s tracks and The Shadows, but you’d never know.
Did he give you things for the younger generation?
Norrie used to get worried about the competitiveness and ‘should we be doing this or that’, but I don’t think he was desperate. Cliff Richard came to us through Franklyn Boyd and some else, his first manager (John Foster?) Franklyn told Norrie about Cliff and this manager was the lead to him. I remember seeing Cliff Richard walking into our office in Manchester Square with the dark hair and all that. We saw the possibility – he was very much like Elvis Presley in the way he looked. The material was the thing again. Cliff didn’t write – in those days people writing for themselves wasn’t really evident. Freddie Bienstock, Franklyn Boyd and this manager came up with the material, though The Shadows wrote some stuff. I think it was Franklyn Boyd who found Schoolboy Crush, and American song that was the A side. Move it was the B-side and of course you know what happened. Then eventually we decided we were going to make us of the group – again material was the problem, but Apache came from Jerry Lordan. It all developed from there. Suddenly we’d got Cliff Richard and the Shadows which was the start of the birth of British rock.
Most of those first key figures seem to have quite quickly moved from rock’n’roll to nice sweet ballads.
What is rock and roll? They had the terminology of ‘rock ballad’ which is a fusion of two things. Then of course, with Cliff came all the other artists, Frank Ifield etc. Prior to that we had 45 artists on our label – The Mudlarks, Eddie Calvert, The Avons, Tony Brent, Michael Holliday. He (Holliday) was very tragic for me because the night before he died I recorded him, putting down some tracks, doing some vocals. He had an inferiority complex because he was so tiny. He was in Abbey Road Studio 2 and the control room there is above the studio so he was down there all by himself. It was only 2-track, maybe 4-track and he was putting his voice on and we were laughing up in the control box. He saw us and said ‘are you taking the mickey out of me up there?’ I said ‘Michael, we’re just having a joke between us.’ ‘No you’re not, you’re laughing at me’. He was really wound up about this. Another thing he was wound up about was the tax man. He said ‘I earn so much money but the tax man takes so much’, and he was really frightened about it. Then the following night he committed suicide.
The size of the roster was presumably your and Norrie’s decision?
I don’t know why it got so big. The problem was we couldn’t find material for them to record. So something had to be done about it. You couldn’t go on collecting artists who might only have one record out in a year. The industry started to trim down and the charts became more important. People had to make records to sell, to make money. It became more intense. You had to become hard about the artists you dropped. Our policy at Columbia was you gave them three shots and that was it. If they didn’t make it after the third attempt that was the end of it. It became a universal sort of thing after the third record. The costs all had to be accounted for, Session musicians were putting up their rates, arrangers the same. It all became more money orientated. The idea of signing artists was to make money out of them – eventually we had to be very careful whom we signed. Consequently the auditions and talent scouting had to be more in depth. If I thought the person warranted an audition I took them to Abbey Road and did an audition. Like Helen Shapiro, whom I found. I heard her. I didn’t say anything to Norrie. I heard her at the Maurice Burman School of Music in Baker Street. He rang me and said could I listen to some of his students and give them some advice. He didn’t tell me about Helen Shapiro until I went down there and he said ‘there is one person who I think has got possibilities.’ I heard about ten of them and Helen came in and sang Birth of the blues I think, and of course I was stonewalled. I couldn’t believe the confidence of this kid. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t let my feelings show. I said to Maurice ‘Helen Shapiro deserves to have an audition – I’d like her to come to the studio. I’ll make sure she gets through that audition because I think a lot of her. I’ll get her to do two songs, one of which I’ll find.’ She came to the studio – one take, boom, perfect. I got an acetate cut, collared Norrie and out came the classic line you msut have heard. He listened to the acetate and said ‘he’s good, isn’t he?’ I said ‘Norrie, it’s a she!’ He said ‘I don’t believe it.’ I said ‘that is a female.’ He said ‘get her in, get her in.’ No one could believe it, and we signed her.
I think this will be a simple two-parter and John will be talking next about songwriting, Tamla Motown, Oriole Records, Maurice Levy, Merseybeat, Pye, Alaska and being a chauffeur!
Text ©David Hughes, 2018. Illustrations courtesy web searches.