We left John pondering his future at Oriole, having failed to persuade owner Maurice Levy to part with the funds he felt he needed to break new acts, both British and on the Motown label which he had obtained on a short licence for the UK.
Were you still at Oriole when Maurice Oberstein came in?
No – I didn’t even stay for the length of my contract. I couldn’t stand it any more – there wasn’t the support. It was quite amicable; I think Maurice Levy was relieved actually. Anyway it became part of music history, but I did a lot of work there that went unrecognised and I had a rough time. But I got headhunted by Louis Benjamin in 1963-4. Louis approached me and asked if I would like to join Pye Records as a producer, so we negoiated a deal and Maurice Levy and I parted company. Benjy said ‘I’m going to put you on Piccadilly – it’s the down-and-out label and you’re good at making something out of nothing!’ So I had Piccadilly. I think we had Joe Brown, but I signed Maureen Evans, Carter-Lewis (both formerly on Oriole) and started to build a roster of artists. They were all looking at me as the new boy to see what I was going to do…Tony Hatch and all these people. It was back to label rivalry within the comnpany avgain. I thought – ‘they’ve employed me here and I’ve got to make hit records.’ As it happened I signed Status Quo and became very involved with the Ivy League. In three months I came through with three hits. I signed the Rockin’ Berries – He’s in town. Covers were the thing in those days. One of the biggest successes of my career was with Sounds Orchestral. It was originally the John Schroeder Orchestra but I renamed it Sounds Orchestral. I didn’t think my name had the strength I wanted for the concept – Sound Orchstral had a double barrel meaning. Cast your fate to the wind . I’d been looking for three years to find an artist who could make orchestral music as a commercial entity. No one had achieved a chart orchestra hit. I thought it could be done – I just hadn’t got the vehicle. I needed the material. One of the office boys in the sales room at Pye befriended me. His name was Tony Reeves and and he said ‘I like jazz.’ I said ‘so do I.’ and he said ‘I’ve got a jazz record in my collection by a guy called Vince Guaraldi. It’s piano bass and drums, but all my friends love it. Would you like to hear it?’ It was a very jazz oriented version so I sketched out a commercial concept and told Tony I’d like to record it, be that I’d rearranged it. Tony said ‘I want to play string bass on the session.’ That put me in a bit of a quandary – our session musicians versus this kid on a string bass. I said ‘alright Tony’ even if I had to replace him later. I needed a pianist and as I was driving home one night I heard Johnny Pearson on Radio Luxembourg and thought ‘that’s my guy’ I called him and asked him is he’d like to do a recording. He said he’d love to, but I told him there was one condition – Tony Reeves has to play bass. We did the session at studio 2 at Abbey Road and Tony did play bass on it and the record that was released and became a hit has Tony Reeves playing bass, slightly out of tune, which was part of the success of the record.
When I played the record at Pye, Tony Hatch came in and said ‘what’s that?’ He thought it was fantastic. We had A&R meetings once a week to assess the producers’ product and of course I got totally slated! Benjy said to Les Cocks ‘I thought we hired John Schroeder to make commercial records. What’s this, jazz! Jazz doesn’t sell. Why are we employing people to make jazz records.’ And this is where Johnny Wise came in. Johnny Wise was Pye’s head of promotion. I knew him very well from my earlier publishing days. I played him (Cast your fate to the wind) and he said ‘this is a fantastic record but I don’t know how I’m going to get it played. We’ll have problems with it but I’ll do my best.’ He did. By a stroke of luck he took it to BBC TV and a head of programming thought it was fantastic and put it behind the announcements of their Christmas programmes. It was released in late October/November and they put it behind the programme announcements of what was going to obe on over Christmas. The first day after it was played the phone lines in the office were jammed. Benjamin couldn’t believe it – he’d got orders of over 10,000 on this record from out of nowhere. Do you know, he said ‘good morning’ to me from then on! He said ‘do you want a waste paper basket in your office? – you can have one my boy!
From then on, Sounds Orchestral have made 17 albums, sold all over the world on the strength of that one record. It became very big in America on Cameo-Parkway. Mafioso was very involved and somehow I never got the money. I was with Pye for 7-8 years until about 1972.
It feels as if we were coming to the end of our time – this interview was conducted at John’s home and I seem to recall people wanting their tea! So, one final question…
What was Alaska?
That was my own label. It was a fight – I wish I’d never done it now. I was very late going out on my own – I liked the security of the record company (tell me about it!). Mickie Most, Joe Meek had gone out and been successful while I earned a monthly salary and I should have gone out earlier than I did. When I finally left Pye I did independent production for two or three years, produced people like Selena Jones. It culminated in forming my own label. Alaska Records was a five-year span, a lot of money went into it. I used to make new product, take it to MIDEM, then do deals in Europe for it. One year I came back with £19,000 in cash in my briefcase that had come from Italy or France or somewhere. I made good records, good musicians, good artists. People paid cash because they wanted the product so badly and to get one over on the next guy wanting to do a deal. The temptation to take the cash was too great and I used it to make the next product, hoping in the meantime you’re going to get that big hit. That’s how you go on with a small label. I had various different artists. I’m doing well at the moment with Cymande – a cult band at the monent. The Fugees illegally sampled one of my Cymande tracks and I sued them. Do you know how many records they sold worldwide of which my track was the title (Dove)? 13 million. They could have cleared it with me for £1500 and a royalty, but they did it illegally and I sued them in America and got considerably more than that.
“But their (Cymande) biggest payday was to come when the Fugees sampled Dove for the title track of their multi-platinum breakthrough album The Score. Scipio and Patterson sued for copyright infringement and, despite a royalty payment of $400,000 (which isn’t much of a dent in Wyclef Jean’s huge car collection, it has to be said), are holding out for more. It’s just reward for a group who were a generation ahead of their time, who pushed more envelopes than a Christmas postman, who fused the sounds of a new, racially diverse England when England wasn’t ready to deal with it.”
Guardian January 27, 2007.
There’s quite a lot of interest in the whole catalogue. I do CD compilations, particularly for Castle – I’m not in the music industry properly. I haven’t been in the studio for over four years. I would miss it if I found the right artists
I have another job – driving exotic cars for important people.
And there we ended. John was undoubtedly a hugely important unsung hero of the British music business in the 1960’s and was probably too nice to have achieved his full potential. The frustration can be sensed and hope his latter years were not spent in regret.
Text © David Hughes 2018. Iluustrations from the web just to break up the words!
Next up…going right back in time pre rock’n’roll with Bunny Lewis.