Now here’s a challenge before I even start transcribing this interview from about 20 years ago. I remember Tommy Loftus as a name but, albeit I obviously spent an hour or two with him at the time, I cannot remember his face. He is unlikely to still be with us, as he says he was 68 at the time of the interview but his name remains legendary in the golden days of record promotion men – up there with Tony Hall, Tony Bramwell, The Man in Black, Adrian Rudge….well, feel free to add to the list. Google can find nothing, zilch, on Mr Loftus..no words, never mind a photograph. Hopefully this interview will awaken a few memories and provide some more information. Meanwhile, here’s the first part of what he told me back around the turn of the century.
STOP PRESS! Thanks to friend of 50+ years, Tony Byworth, I now have not one, but two photos of Tommy, both taken on a “jolly” trip aboard a boat owned by Terry King, who is here with Terry and mysterious plastic bag. The other one will open Part 2 of Tommy’s story.
I earned a living in the entertainment business as a compere, comedian in the pubs and clubs, American Forces bases in Europe. I was appearing at Collins Music Hall in Islington – you were paid zilch but it was a famous showcase for agents.
A guy called Johnny Lawson came in one night and said he booked bases in Germany and France. I went out for $100 a week – I was getting £7 at Islington. I did the auditions out there and stayed for three months. On the American bases you had four clubs – the Officers’ Club, the Sergeants’ club (the N.C.O’s club), the Enlisted Men’s club (that was for the GI’s, the toughest club of all) and you had the Special Services club. So you had four layers where you could appear in one week. You’d only do one of the clubs a night, then you might come back two weeks later and do another club. The toughest club was The Enlisted Men’s. If the G.I’s didn’t like you, you might finish up with an imprint of a Budweiser Club in your face if you were unlucky. The best club was Special Services. This was run by ladies from the USA, known affectionately by the GI’s as Stateside rejects, all rather plump homely ladies. Their job was to make the coffee, home made apple pie like Mom used to make them back home. The guys who went to that club wanted to see a show and they weren’t going to make trouble. When the agent said ‘we’ve got you the Special Services Club” you thought, ‘well, that’s going to be a nice evening, no big problem, there
You were the MC holding it all together?
MC’s were always in demand. A lot of these acts were Scandinavian, German, Austrian.
Where had you got that experience?
I started as a youngster on the west coast of Ireland,County Mayo. I always had this thing fr the stage. I used to do the local school concerts and graduated to entertaining the patients in the sanatorium where TB was the big killer. There was a lot of charity work we could do, and that’s where I got some sort of experience. Coming to Britain I had to accept work where I could, the pubs and clubs of northern England, working men’s clubs, theatre like Collins and the Queen’s Theatre, Poplar.
It was the end of the Music Hall era. I remember working with Dave Allen in Northampton. He decided to emigrate to Australia and arrived there when televisiion was in its infancy, so he learned and gained all his experience at the Australians’ expense. When he came back to Britain of course he knew it all. Television was about to take over and live variety was on the way out.
I was recommended for the EMI job (by Pat Campbell, who was at Decca. He was part of a group called The Four Ramblers, which consisted of him, two others and Val Doonican, and they used to tour quite a bit before Val went solo. I had worked with Pat on a number of occasions and he phoned me up one day and asked me what I was doing. I said ‘not a lot’ and he said it was time to decide what my future was going to be. He said ‘do what I’m doing’ (he’d moved to Decca Records on the recommendation of David Jacobs who knew him from broadcasting). He’d settled in as the RCA man at Decca. By a strange freak of fate, many years later I was the first RCA promotions manager when they went independent. So in other words I took Pat’s job…but that was 11 years later.
He knew Harry Walters, the label manager at Mercury Records. I said ‘I don’t know anything about the record business – I’ve got a few records, that’s all.’ Pat said ‘well, you’ve got a good apprenticeship, you should be able to handle it.’ So with some trepidation I followed through on this and phoned Harry Walters and made an appointment to see him. He said ‘we’re taking a chance, but come in on Pat’s recommendation and that’s how a lot of people come into this business. You’ll have to go on a probationary periuod for three months to see how you handle it etc.’
I arrived at EMI, 8-11 Great Castle Street, in October 1958. I worked for Mercury Records. I worked on the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace”, Billy Eckstine’s”Gigi, thos types of records.
In the area, as I remember, was Peter Prince, Ron Richards, Colin Burn – and I was the new boy. Harry said ‘You’ve got to go up to the BBC and make a start. Housewives Choice is the big programme. You have to try and make contact with the producer and the presenter as they come out of the studio into the lobby of Broadcasting House, so you’re lying in wait for them!’
So I said ‘I am the hit man?’ I went up to Broadcasting House one morning and discovered the place was full of music publishers and all sorts of people who had the same concept in mind and I had. There was a place called Yarners Coffee Ltd about five minutes walk down Regent Street. Having changed to various businesses, I passed it recently – it’s now a Starbucks – gone back to its original function. Yarners Coffee was a place upstairs where you had all the old machines grinding the coffee and it was the place where the average promotion man of music publisher took Edmundo Ros or Pat Osborne for coffee and chatted and then it came round to the inevitable discussion about what records they had. There had to be requests sent into Housewives Choice and the only way you could get something played was if some woman from Ormskirk wrote in and said ‘Could you play someething nce for my mum’s birthday on Tuesday?’ I used to have trouble getting The Big Bopper in for that one, but I did succeed with Gigi .
Did the presenters have some say in the content?
They had some say in some cases, but it was the producer who put the programme toegether. The presenter arrived in the studio with the pile of records arranged and a pile of postcards laid out for him. Pat Osborne, Isabel Burdette, Lilian Duff, Michael Bell, Teddy Warwick. They had a rota that came around for presenters. They weren’t professional DJ’s as they are today. I was dealing with people like Jack Train, Sam Costa, Max Bygraves, Dickie Murdoch who were really personalities, not disc jockeys,
Sam Costa and Jack Train.
Was that the same for ‘Two Way Family Favourites’?
That was produced by Jack Dabbs, with Jean Metcalfe here and Bill Crozier in Cologne. We used to go to Cologne once every three months or so to meet up with Bill and make him aware of what we had. You had to be very discreet in those days. In the old days of music publishing they used to pay for plugs. But that was all cleaned up and when the record companies came on the scene it had to be totally open and above board. The only thing you could do was to make the people concerned aware of what you were working on, and hope it would fit into the format they were using.
The amazing thing about Family Favourites was that if you got a record on, you could just go home for two weeks. EMI didn’t need you – they were too busy pressing records! There was nothing in history like it and there never will be again…a programme that had such power. All the pirates and commercial radio came along and that power was diminished. Two-Way Family Favourites was the prime slot on radio.
Bill Crozier, and Jean Metcalfe with Cliff Michelmore
When I moved to Philips we managed to get Julie Rogers’ The Wedding on Family Favourites. Robin Richmond was producing at that time. He wasn’t enamoured with the song but he could see its potential for the audience. If the producer had the ability to detach himself from his own personal taste then you had a chance with something like that. Robin put The Wedding into Family Favourites and it was a runaway success – monster hit. Jack Dabbs on the other has was a jazz man. You had to say to him ‘Jack, keep an open mind on this one. Ypu’re probably going to hate it but at least listen to it.’ In those days you could do that, but in today’s world if a disc jockey doesn’t like the record he’s not going to play it.
Many years later at RCA we picked up an independent label and put out this record by Billy Eckstine. There was a guy working at RCA called Paul Williams. There are three Paul Williams in the business, composer, musician, producer, and this one now works at RCA in New York. He said ‘we’re putting out this album by Billy Eckstine. He’s in South Africa at the moment and he’s going back to the States via Holland so if we bring him into London can we get him some exposure?’ I sai ‘no problem.’ Billy came into London for a week with his accompanist, Bobby Tucker. I’d never met Billy in my life before. I told him I’d worked on Gigi all those years before and he said ‘that’s incredible.’ Then I told him that the label manager at Mercury at that time was Harry Walters, who had moved to the BBC. I said that Harry had insisted Billy’s version of the song was a hit. My life was hanging by a thread on this record but we did get the hit. Then I put him on the phone to Harry at the BBC and he said ‘Hello, Harry – this is Mr B – Billy Eckstine’ and Harry was in a state of collapse. It was one of those strange coincidences that happen in life.
Talking of coincidences, when I got to RCA Records (I was there for 19 years and about 12 Managing Directors!), I came back from holiday and there was a message on my desk. ‘The new managing director would like to see you.’ I made an appointment, walked into his office and he said ‘Hi Tom, I’m Don Burkheimer. I bear greetings from your brother. He’s my parish priest in Los Angeles.’ I knew my life had been saved – that is known in the Catholic church as a minor miracle. My brother had mentioned my name to him and said I worked in London. He was a very nice man, one of the many Managing Directors of RCA. David Betteridge was MD at one time, George Lucan, people like that.
How long was it before Mercury went to Pye, and did Harry go with it?
I can’t remember – might have been after six months or a year. Harry had a few career changes but I remember him more than anything as a radio prducer. He always described himself as a poacher turned gamekeeper. He would say ‘don’t give me that hard sell on records’ and I would say ‘Harry, that’s how you trained me. You wouldn’t accept no for an answer, now I’m doing the job you prepared me for.’ It was a useful connection for me because he was producing The Jimmy Young Show and he couldn’t be really hard on me because we’d been colleagues and he knew what the job involved. A lot of producers hadn’t been in a commercial environment and didn’t have to justify their existence. They were living in a cloistered world of their own. We had to go the BBC in the morning, come back in the afternoon and try and prepare some sort of sheet for the promotion meeting. The A&R men made the records – that was the end of their involvement. We were the foot soldiers and had to carry the can for the whole situation. We had no involvement with the artist nor the selection of the song – we just had to get it played on the air.
Probably one more part to complete this interview, which takes us back to EMI, Philips and RCA..and more legendary names from the 1960’s
Text © David Hughes 2019. Photos for illustration purposes only via Google searches.