A Personal History of the British Record Industry 64 – Bunny Lewis 2

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We’ll carry on where we left off, and it looks as if I still hadn’t asked a single question! We were getting immersed in an EMI vs Decca one-man monologue!

We (Decca) were much better off than EMI at that time, partly because we were a much livelier company,  and partly because Ted Lewis in the early days had gone for LP’s and EMI had some old idiot there – Ernest Fisk? – I think he thought ‘a lot of nonsense’, but Ted Lewis jumped in and that helped, particularly with the classical side.

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Sir Ernest Fisk, appointed MD of EMI in 1955. (N.B. Bunny’s slur against him was not misplaced. Peter Martland’s authorised (by me!) book on EMI’s centenary says…”Sir Ernest Fisk was highly sceptical of the LP’s commercial potential and had seen the difficulties created in the United States by the introduction of two competing speeds. He decided that EMI could afford to wait before committing itself and see which of the two speeds emerged as the industry standard.’ (He left the company shortly afterwards!)

We were definitely right on top of the market and as far as I was concerned all was well, except that obviously the A&R department liked my songs because they gave them hit material, but (the bosses) didn’t like me doing it. I only used my own name occasionally because, like Norman Newell and Norrie Paramor, who I used to write with a lot. We wanted other people to record our songs. There was terrible jealousy going on, and if someone knew that a hit was a Bunny Lewis song he might say ‘well, I’m not going to go to the opposition camp’ So we all had noms de plume. I had about four, May, Andre and others. Dear Norrie had over 20 – he was the man who was responsible for the PRS restricting the number of noms de plume that you could use. It got really out of hand. But we didn’t care about the fame in those days – we cared about the money because we were all earning relatively so little, because the bloody record companies were so mean! There was I, the highest paid person on the record side at £600 a year. Franklyn Boyd and Dick Rowe and the others were getting less. Are you surprised that they would take a back-hander from a publisher or whoever? If Lewis had paid us a decent amount and if EMI had done the same thing with their people, they might have hung on to George Martin and The Beatles and Decca might have hung on to me. I had to go up and see Ted Lewis. I got on terribly well with him, with were both members of Lords (cricket club) and we were both crazy about rugby football. We used to meet at all these things and we were both part-Welsh. He said ‘Bunny, I’m getting so many complaints about you. You’ve got to give up all this outside stuff. Not the writing, but the management of (David) Whitfield. Don’t tell me your wife’s doing it because I’m not interested in semantics. You’ve got to do that or you’ve got to go.’ So I said ‘Sir Edward’ (I think he was that by then) ‘I like it here – it’s great fun and I work like a bastard and I think I’ve done you proud.’ And he said ‘You’re the best we’ve ever had but I can’t put up with all this complaining and carrying on from other executives.’ It wasn’t particularly the record people around me who were complaining. It was the Dick Rowes or the Frank Lees, so I said ‘well, that’s it; I can’t afford to stay with you.’ I mean I was making much more money out of Whitfield and the few other artists that we had. We didn’t have anything that was great but we had two or three who were doing quite well. We parted the best of friends – he gave me all the things that I had on loan – like a great big television – and he gave me a couple of grand or something like that. The terrible thing ewas that my departure from Decca coincided with the sudden desire of all these American companies to represent themselves in the UK – RCA, Capitol. It was perhaps inevitable. But they were important losses. Then a whole lot of smaller ones like Atlantic said ‘alright, we’ll stay with you but we want our own label.’ Now people like Frank Lee and Dick Rowe, who were closely involved with the making of records, understood that people had pride in their logo (trade mark). They thought ‘this is nicking our business – we’re not going to have this.’ So he refused them all. So he lost the bloody lot. They all set up on their own. What happened was that Ted Lewis refused to give them their own labels. They had to come out on a Decca label. We had Brunswick – that was an old story. Then the artists started. The bigger ones like The Rolling Stones wanted to have their own logo and he wouldn’t give it to them, so he lost them. He started losing all these people, including me, and with me he’d lost (David) Whitfield  – Whitfield had just become nothing. He lost Jimmy Young because Jimmy had two sides left to make for Decca and his manager had been after me for at least a year and a half to record Jimmy. ‘Come on, Bunny.’ But I used to say to him ‘it wouldn’t be fair. I’ve got Whitfield and it wouldn’t be fair to take another male singer. If you had a female..OK.’  But when I parted company with Whitfield it was another kettle of fish. I said I’d record Jimmy if Decca had no objections. They didn’t – they were fed up with Jimmy anyway. Frank Lee couldn’t get a hit with him – and I don’t know why – so I took him on with two records to make before the end of his contract. I got that goddamned song through the post to show to Whitfield – Unchained Melody. I looked at it. No one had recorded it in America and I thought that was a bit unusual, but it was haunting. I said to Jim ‘listen, I’ve got a left-field one here. It’s not what you’d call the usual pop, but there’s something about this song. We’re pretty deep in the shit as it is, because if we don’t come up with a hit record in the next two, you’re out.’ So he said ‘let’s have a go’  and we made it. We held it up for two or three months some reason. Durting that period I said nothing about it to anyone. The Americans thought ‘it doesn’t look as though Bunny Lewis is coming up with Whitfeld’ and they gave it to Al Hibbler. But Al made his record after us and we came out before Al – just.

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That shows how huge David Whitfeld was in America

That’s right. We followed it up with The Man from Laramie which originally was a slow Western song.  I was talking to Frank Lee about it and he said ‘I think it wants bunging up in tempo for this country.’ I said ‘I think you’re right Frank’ We made it and that went to No.1. And then we had another couple that were at 5 and 8 or something and Jimmy Young was back in the race. But he was never as big as Whitfield.

Was he a live band singer?

No. Jimmy, before he cracked it, was a pianist down in the suburbs somewhere. Used to play the piano, sing and entertain. Lovely voice – beautiful voice. But it wasn’t sexy. And he wasn’t sexy on stage. He was rather small whereas Whitfield was nearly six feet and beefy. He had the best publicity in the country – Frederic Mullaly and Suzanne Warner – you couldn’t beat them. They were doing all the Palladium artists, people like Frankie Laine. As a matter of fact we got (David Whitfield’s No.1. hit) Answer Me from Frankie Laine without him knowing it. He was at the Palladium and Suzanne Warner was looking after him, publicity-wise and he was a very boastful fellow. He was married to Nan Grey at the time and he used to say ‘well, I know one thing. Nan will never be unfaithful to me’ We knew perfectly well that she was! He said ‘I don’t worry about the future you know.’ In fact most of them did (worry) when they were at the top. He said ‘I’ve got a song tucked away – it’s a scorcher. I’m not going to use it until I have to. When I feel that this is the moment when I might go out of business, when it might be the end for me, I’m going to come up with this one.’ Suzanne Warner was very good looking and extremely smart in the American sense and she got it out of him that it was Answer Me and told me. I got on to Ted Lewis and said ‘I think this is important enough for you to go into action. Find out for me who the publisher is in the US, almost certain to be on the east coast, of a song called Answer me.’ About a week later he came back to me and said ‘It’s Bourne Music.’ I knew Saul Bourne and I rang him up and said ‘Saul, you’ve got a song called Answer me – send it to me.’ ‘How do you know about that?’ I said ‘don’t worry how I know about it if you want to have more records with Decca in the future.’ I said ‘Ted Lewis knows about this – you’d better send me that song.’ So I bribed the fellow in a sense. He sent it to me and I listened to it and though ‘yes, yes, this is Whitfield all over.’ So we recorded and Frankie Laine didn’t even know we had. He was over here at the time – he’d made his record but he was keeping it under gloves (!). The BBC banned our record because the original lyric was ‘Answer me, Lord above, tell me just what sins I have been guilty of‘..etc.,etc. It was ‘Lord above‘. You know, it’s funny when you think of things today. frankie-laine-answer-me-lord-above-columbia-78.jpg

But dear old Anna Instone was the head of the thing and a great chum of mine. We fought like cats and dogs over records, with me wanting them out and here not wanting them out and all the rest of it. I said ‘come on’ but she wouldn’t budge. So I decided there was only one thing to do. We put the record out as it was. We ran it on Luxembourg and on our own Luxembourg programmes. But I made another vocal track which I bunged on as Answer me oh my love and that was the one used by the BBC. But we sold about ten of the Lord aboves to one of the oh my loves. They were both available in the shops!

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Anna Instone – the power behind the BBC Music library

It went on like that at Decca until, as I told you the day Ted said to me ‘you’ve got to stop.’ So we said goodbye. I went with great reluctance because I enjoyed it up there, and we got on terribly well. Frank Lee, Hugh Mendl, Dick Rowe and I. This was up on the Embankment. We’d scrap amongst ourselves about which of our artists got which song when they all came in from America. We were so keen and yet we were all being paid bugger all. We’d be up there, Hugh, Dick and I (not Frank) on Saturday mornings because very often the records came in from Walt Maguire at London (Records Inc in New York) on Saturday morning, and we’d go through these together. And Dick would say ‘ oh, I’d like that one for Suzy Miller’ who he was looking after. ‘OK, Dick, you can have that one’, and then something else would come in and Hugh had Joan Regan. I had Lorrae Desmond, and we’d share them out.

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Joan Regan, Suzy Miller and Lorrae Desmond

More to come, on life outside Decca, Jack Jackson, Simon Dee,  David Jacobs and other disc jockeys

About dhvinyl

Lifelong obsession with music, 33 years in the music business, 43 years immersed in selling old records, 20 years very happily retired!
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