A Personal History of the British Record Industry 67 – Bunny Lewis 5 and conclusion

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Bunny had just listed some of the artists that he signed to Columbia during his time at EMI including The Avons, The Mudlarks and, via Top Rank, Craig Douglas. I then asked about the frequency with which singers changed labels in the late 50’s/early 60’s

Decca was the Woolworths of the record companies. You went in there and probably got a  better shake at Decca than anywhere else. Your promotion was probably better. They were not stingy about the amount of money they would spend on sessions but you had to come up with the songs. There was no long-term keeping an artist, saying ‘well, he’s going to have one (a hit) over the next year or two. Bollocks, he’s out. And that’s why they all moved eventually. They only had to have two flops in a row and it didn’t matter who produced them, Dick Rowe or whoever, said. It was an attitude. Decca was a quick turnover company and they wanted it to happen quickly, and they knew damned well that if they got rid of  Lita Roza, Joan Regan, Suzy Miller or Lorrae Desmond, there were four others sitting around just as likely to have hits. And the only trouble was that the people who made those hits for them like Dick Rowe and me, had left, and they weren’t getting hits from America any more either, and suddenly there was a vacuum and Decca went……When Ted Lewis picked up Decca it belonged to a man who did all his business in the bath!  Dreadful! (was this S.C. Newton?) Ted took it up basically because he was a jobber in the stock market, that was his real thing, and always was for the rest of his life. He never took a salary from Decca, but he was very proud to tell you ‘I can’t think why you want more money – I don’t get any! But of course, he didn’t. He used to fiddle the bloody shares. He’d go down to the stock market on Friday or something, fiddle about and he’d have made himself a couple of grand just like that, because he was a jobber. He saw these shares being desperately treated by this fellow, so he bought Decca and he brought it from right down there to right up here. It was Ted Lewis who did it.

 

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Then he managed to get the right people to be executives and they kept it up there until he suddenly got bigger than his boots. He thought that he couldn’t do wrong. He was the big man. One way or another he antagonised two or three people who were top executives there. He antagonised all these people who let us have the labels from America and Decca went down to the depths. The only person who got any money out of Decca at the end was Marcel Stellman who took them to court. When you consider how big they were….

Did you work with Larry Parnes?

I was a friend of Larry’s. I liked Larry. He was one of us, a bit more of a brigand that perhaps I was, that’s why he made a bit more money than I did!

Was Tony Hall there with you?

I got Tony Hall his job. You ask him. And very good he was too. He took over looking after Capitol or something. He became a plugger – he was the top plugger there. Nice fellow.

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Larry Parnes with Billy Fury, Tony Hall.

I had successes. I had David Essex. I became his agent and made his records. He was a very good looking boy from the East End. Very nice fellow. I’ve still got eight tracks of David that are incredibly bad. I got him at the wrong time – I got him too soon. Couldn’t sing properly. I mean, he’s not the greatest singer even now, but I tried and tried. By that time I had my label with Fontana. Apart from anything else I liked him enormously, still do. He nearly cracked it in America. He did get a hit, perhaps he didn’t get a follow-up or something. The next thing I knew RCA Victor, one of their cheaper labels, got on to me and said ‘Have you got any David Essex tracks? Fontana says he belongs to you, not them’ I said ‘well, I’ve got about five or six full tracks and another two or three with enough to fiddle around with and get records out of, so you could make a short album.’ They said ‘how much do you want for them?’ I said ‘they’re not for sale.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘They’re too bad.’ They said ‘well, what do you care.’ I said ‘well I do care because I happen to like David Essex very much and the last thgiung I am about to do,on the brink of him making in the States, is to be party to putting out a ghastly, and it was ghastly, album.’ So they said ‘we’ll guive you $30,000’, which at that time was quite a lot of money and I could have done with it. Those tapes are still up there (on his shelves). I couldn’t have done that too him. He’s a really nice fellow and to have done that would have been wicked, not just unkind.

 

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‘a really nice fellow’

Did it make any difference to you where you went with your productions?

I went where they wanted me. I had a label deal with Columbia until Norrie left, or something. My deals were nearly always based on the relationship with the human being who was there. I got on well with Jack Baverstock; I got on very well with Johnny Franz who was a great friend of mine, one of my few really great friends in the music business. But he was full of artists at the time, so I went with Jack. There must have been others…..you forget.

 

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Johnny Franz

Did Jack Jackson’s radio success prompt you to make that suggestion to Jimmy Young?

By the time Jimmy went to radio he’d left me. I never got on awfully well with Jim. We didn’t quarrel all the time or anything like that. It was strictly a business relationship as far as I was concerned. I found him a bit of a nause. Then he parted from his wife and I liked her, Sally Douglas – she’d been a singer and I thought she was a very nice woman and he just discarded her, the selfish fellow. He’s always wanted to talk; he’d always had faith in himself way back as a talker. I never thought anything of it and he did it all himself. I don’t think he has an agent today. He’s not the easiest or nicest pereson to deal with, but he’s still there. And that he, this miserable little fellow should end up with an OBE and a CBE, talk about other buggers’ efforts!

And can get Prime Ministers etc., into his studio to talk to him.

That’s how he got his OBE of course! Pete Murray got his through getting Lady Wilson on, so did Kenny Lynch. Jim got his through Mrs Thatcher, the first one anyway. I’m certain that we shall see Sir Trevor MacDonald in a matter of months (he was knighted in 1999). It’s all Jim’s own effort. He always believed in himself as a talker. And he’s right – that’s what he’s best at. A good singer too, but he wasn’t really a performer on stage, so he’s much better doing what he’s doing now. (Sir Jimmy Young died in November 2016)

 

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It’s interesting that you made that switch from performers to presenters and presumably didn’t regret it?

It was better really because, without being snobbish about it, dealing with television presenters you’re on a slightly different intellectual level to dealing with pop singers, where there wasn’t too much between the ears. I’m not suggesting there’s much between the ears of some of the television people either, but after all,  television companies were relatively civilised people to talk to, and commercial advertising companies too. When you’re in the pop record field, the record company people were the only civilised people, otherwise it was all ‘oy oy oy.’ I don’t know the record people these days. I only know a few managing directors – I’m too old to deal with them now.

It’s interesting that today people are complaining that the record business is short-term and isn’t sticking with artists, and yet within that 40 years period it was the same for different reasons. Well, maybe it’s the same reason – to make money?

I remember the early Craig Douglas days, when the groups became big, the amount of money that the record companies starting forking out for totally unknown groups was incredible. You could come along with a group and if you were good at hyping you could hype a record company into putting up twenty-five grand for a two-album deal. Of course, it never went near an album – it was spent down the pub! It used to amuse me, but it was happening all the time.

The Beatles were attracting such a deluge of signings that people were signing everything that moved in the hope….

..that they might get another Beatles! And they were all so frightened. If you had one of these groups all you had to say was ‘I’ve got to get an answer out of you because I’ve got something else coming up.’ – you were terrified of losing them. There was that scurrilous story that’s become part of pop history – it’s not true – about Dick Rowe and The Beatles. The fact that it is untrue doesn’t make any difference – you still read it in books and all the rest of it. It wasn’t him – it was a fellow called Smith, one of our junior produicers. First of all, Brian Epstein came along to Decca with a pretty ghastly demo of The Beatles. At that time Decca had The Tornados, who were hot, and these demos sounded very like The Shadows, not very exciting, so Dick Rowe said to Mike Smith ‘you’d better give them a test.’ So he gave them a test and at the same time he tested Brian Poole and the Tremeloes and he preferred Brian Poole. He took them to Dick Rowe and said ‘I prefer Brian Poole’ and Dick said ‘well, you’re the fellow producing it, do what you like.’ The story stuck that it was poor old Dick, but it wasn’t.

It wasn’t just Decca – other labels had done the same. When you listen to those tracks, you understand why.

What happened was, in those days George Martin had Parlophone, which was the poor man’s label. I had Lorrae Desmond with him – he was a hell of a nice fellow to work with, and a good musician but he hadn’t  had any real success except for Peter Sellers and funny things like that. But he had a liaison with Dick James – he’d recorded him or something. He was a competent band singer, but he was never going to be a hit singer, because he was ugly as sin…no chance. Brian Epstein found his way into Dick James’ office and Dick pointed his nose towards George Martin, and you know the rest. And George said to me ‘that bastard Dick James never gave me a penny’ (presumably of the publishing revenue). Because of The Beatles, George has done very well for himself. It’s taken a lot of time, but now he’s Sir George and all this. The rest of The Beatles are still sitting there, except McCartney, with only an MBE. It’s only because George speaks the Queen’s English…we are a  monstrous nation of snobs! (Paul has of course recently been joined by Sir Ringo!)

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I think it was Judy (George’s secretary and later wife) who made great strides to smarten up George’s accent.

I remember them both up there and she was always ‘frightfully, frightfully’, almost aggressively so. Didn’t worry me particularly but it did worry some people. They’d go in there and she’d say ‘la di da’ and they weren’t used to it. I don’t remember George as being quite as smooth as he is these days, though I dont remember him, being very rough – very nice fellow.

The other girl who worked for him, Shirley, she’s done well. I knew all the promotional staff down there…Harry Walters, Chris Peers. Chris picked up a girl duo, The Caravelles. I used to use Harry Robinson as an arranger for most of my people. I used Bob Sharples to begin with until he went off to television, You don’t have to be a baby to cry came in to my company, though they had a slice off the top. They hadn’t written anything else and didn’t look as if they could write anything else. The father of one of them was a bloody nuisance.

At this time when I went over to America I was spending the day with Burt Bacharach in this magnificent flat he had, and I said ‘what have you got on the hob, Burt?’ ‘Well, I’ve got this thing here – I’m going to send it over to Dusty.’ Dusty had done a lot of his stuff. Very hard to argue about Dusty because, let’s face it, she was the best girl singer we’ve ever had. He sat down and played it and I said ‘I want that, Burt.’ I’ve got these two girls, they’re hot as a pistol; they’re hotter than Dusty at the moment. I talked him into it –  Wishin’ & hopin’ . I sent it over to Harry and Chris and I said ‘here’s the latest Burt Bacharach offering – get it done nice and quick before he changes his bloody mind and sends it to someone else.’ I rang them up and said ‘did you get it alright”‘ They said ‘they won’t do it.’ I said ‘what – for Christ’s sake this is Burt Bacharach; he’s the hottest thing’ But they wouldn’t do it and it ended up with Dusty who had a hit with it. It just goes to show our business is all about where you are and who you know. And The Caravelles never had another hit. Harry and Chris could never find anything that could either please them or was good enough for them, so they disappeared into limbo and broke up. One was difficult and one wasn’t. They might have become quite big stars. They must be one of the few who turned down a Bacharach original – those were the days when he was writing with Hal David.

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So you can understand in a way why I’m retired. At least in those days it was fun. It wasn’t always rewarding but it was fun and it was exciting. When you had a new record coming out and you were plugging everyone within sight, it was exciting to see what happened. Then they (the BBC) stopped the disc jockeys picking records. In my hey day you had to go round to all the disc jockeys and get them to play your record. That to me was infinitely preferable to dealing with some bloody nameless BBC producer who would say ‘we haven’t got it on the playlist.’ and so on; having to take some crummy woman out to lunch..what they were supposed to know about whether something would be a hit was nonsense. It was people like Jack Jackson, Sam Costa, lots of them, who had some sort of idea about what the public would like – these old cows had no idea of anything! All they wanted was to be taken out to lunch all the time, and probably given one for all I know. Bloody lucky if they got it, I should think! It was the beginning of the end of the exciting bit of it!

Another one of mine I’d forgotten was Rosko. He’s still mine except that he’s in California. I bring him over about twice a year to do a couple of gigs – he’s still on the radio here. He’s going out on about four stations, none of them in London. I’ve never been able to get him on Capital. It’s no good going to the BBC because he walked out on the UK. He owed the income tax so much money he didn’t feel like hanging around much longer. He went back to California foolishly – I told him not to. I said ‘we’ll solve this’ but he owed the Income Tax quite a lot.  I said ‘you can do a deal with these people.’ I’ve been through it. Stuart Henry was another one, and Pete Brady. But Rosko went in with a fellow who was a millionaire and they bought a house in Notting Hill Gate and were going to turn it into a school for DJ’s, and Mike (Michael Pasternak – the Emperor’s real name) was a lovely fellow but a total idiot ads far as money was concerned, signed all the leases. The millionaire died or went bust, I forget which it was and Mike was left holding the baby and there was a bloody great mortgage, and the end of the story was that he owed Barclays Bank £40,000, probably about £15,000 before all the interest.

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When I did bring him over and we were still doing things for the BBC, I used to have to get him out through the back door and make special arrangements with the BBC to pay me when no one was looking. Barclays had put a restriction of him earning any money in the UK. So it made it very difficult for him to come here. He now comes back under all sorts of pseudonyms. He goes round all his chums at the record companies, because he still does his shows in California but he’s not important enough to the record companies for them to send him stuff anymore. He’s lost out because he is in America they’don’t give a damn what you’ve done in England. He’s just making a living over there.

And so we came to an end and presumably I and my Mini Disc were back on the Embankment. Bunny is no longer around the tell more stories, but I have loved transcribing what may have been his only interview and learning of an era that preceded me by a good decade.

text © David Hughes 2018. Photos via Google to add some faces to the words

 

 

About dhvinyl

Lifelong obsession with music, 33 years in the music business, 40 years immersed in selling old records, 18 years retired!
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