I’m guessing you have to be either over 65 or a major UK pop obsessive or historian to immediately know Bunny Lewis. To get you started, here’s how Wikipedia sums him up in a paragraph:-
Bunny Lewis (12 November 1918 – 7 September 2001) also known professionally under various pseudonyms was a London-based record producer and composer and music manager whose songwriting abilities were used in a number of films. Sometimes this coincided with involvement in films of musicians whom he personally managed, most notably the actor and singer, Craig Douglas He also co-composed the song, “Cara Mia” Authorship was accredited to ‘Tulio Trapani and Lee Lange’; Lee Lange was the pseudonym for David Whitfield’s producer, Lewis, and Tulio Trapani was the nom de plume of the song’s other co-writer and arranger, Mantovani.
This interview took place in the office of his apartment at Dolphin Square on the Embankment, just yards from the original basement flat of Gloria Bristow, former Philips press officer and the lady whose help and support, whether she knew it or not, made me realise that I could earn a living from a love of music.
Most of those reading this will know, but for the benefit of others, before the record boom of the 1950’s, pluggers worked for music publishers and their priority was to have the big bands and orchestras of the day play their publishers’ songs. When we get to Wally Ridley (mentioned below) you’ll learn that he used to physically play on piano the songs he was plugging. Sheet music sales were considered more important than records.
Photos of Bunny Lewis are like hens’ teeth but I found this classic of him with three others you may know, on ‘Juke Box Jury’.
It looks as if I didn’t even need to ask Bunny an opening question…off he went!
I had been a BBC writer, scriptwriter and reaearcher and I used to have to provide the characters for the first television magazine programme called Picture Page, run by Joan Gilbert. By BBC standards I made a lot of money out of it. It wasn’t much to be honest, but a lot of jealous eyes looked at me. I got paid by how much I produced and as I worked a bloody sight harder than the other people, I produced a great deal more. It sounds ludicrous today but I was probably making about £40 a week, which for then was a fortune. So eventually Leslie Mitchell, who was one of the presenters, quarrelled with me and I virtually got the heave ho. I walked down the road to Francis Day and Hunter. I’d got friendly with them – they were doing terribly badly and they took me on. I was with them for a year. We did absolutely marvellously. A lot of luck went towards it but I worked like a bastard and we had Be my Love and The loveliest night of the year and all sorts of hits.
Now I think part of was good luck, good fortune, but part of it was bloody hard work because nobody down there worked at all. I plugged Gracie Fields at the Finsbury Park Empire. I plugged Dorothy Squires at some place in the Edgware Road, (Metropolitan?) I mean everywhere. I’d go through lavatory windows to get to them! The old man, Fred Day – long dead – fancied himself as a songwriter. He was terrible but I was always told I ought to do something about his songs and I thought ‘Christ’ but I managed to get Vera Lynn to broadcast one. I taped the broadcast and I presented him with it and he more or less shrugged it away. After a year I was a bit too hot for them there. There was dear old Eddie Day, who was Fred’s son and supposed to be running it, but they were so idle and sitting back in what was one of the two biggest music publishing conpanies in Britain and they just did nothing – except for a general manager call Thackeray who became very friendly with me.
I don’t think that helped – anyway, after a year I got the heave ho. I thought ‘what am I going to do now?’ I walked round the corner to another publisher. I said ‘I haven’t made my mind up what I’m going to do, but would you like to take me on a temporary basis.’ Everybody wanted me at that time because I had a great pal who was possibly the most important plug in the business – that was Jack Jackson.
He just made records (sell) overnight and he was a friend of mine and would let hardly anyone near him. The only people to get near him – I did of course. I went to stay with him and all the rest of it – were Wally Ridley, Bill Phillips ( the nice younger brother – Jimmy Phillips was an unutterable bastard and Bill was the nice one, and in the end Jimmy threw Bill out, behaved terribly. I knew all about Jack’s music because we’d been highly involved when he was the bandleader at the Dorchester just before the war. So everyone was quite ready to give me a job, just to get in with Jackson.
I did that for a very short period because I didn’t really want to stay in music publishing – I wanted to get into the record business. And Jack actually got me in. He went to Edward Lewis at Decca and said ‘you want to have this fellow’. So I went up and had a hell of an argument with Lewis about money. Lewis was very close (mean) – all the record companies were. I’ve since discussed with George Martin how much we were paid and I think he was actually paid less than me! But I had an argument and refused to work for less than £600 a year as Head Of Exploitation. We were very successful. We were the Woolworths of the record business. We were undoubtedly the most successful pop record business and we had some marvellous people, On the pop side we sat at the top of the heap. If you signed up with Decca, which they wanted to, you’d get (to release) about two, maybe three records and if you hadn’t cracked it, it was out the bloody door and down to Philips or someone with your tail between your legs. It was like that. But we were very lively. Of course we had London Records in New York at the time and they used to send us over all the stuff that was coming out there on the independent labels that hadn’t opened (offices) over here, plus the ones we already had – RCA Victor, Atlantic, Capitol, American Decca. We had a pretty good slice of the gravy. I was there really at the high time of Decca. This was the beginning of rock’n’roll. Billy Cotton was with us on records. It was the period when English artists – like Joan Regan, Lita Roza, Dickie Valentine ‘ (were bigger than the Americans).
I had a chap – and this was one of the things that caused trouble. I found a singer called David Whitfield and he was enormous, much bigger than Dickie Valentine. He was a dreadful fellow really. He’d been a merchant seaman and he was uncouth, to say the least. But he’d got this extraordinary voice; quite untrained, but it had the thrill of it, it had the kick and in a kind of rough looking way he was a good-looking fellow too. My wife went down to the audition – she used to do a bit of business with me. She had been an artiste, she’d been the lead at the Folies Bergeres and I said ‘you just can’t go on playing around town because sooner or later you’re going to have a row with the management and I’m going to have a row with the management and I’m going to be the ham in the sandwich and it’s not going to work.’ My wife used to do a lot of business down at a hotel in Curzon Street, managed by the millionaire Max Joseph. He decided to introduce cabaret, so he started to audition and she went down and she heard this fellow David Whitfield, who had done a Hughie Green thing (Opportunity Knocks?) but nothing had happened. Also there was a friend of ours, Harold Landau, a sort of an agent, more of a manager. He heard this fellow too. My wife came back and said ‘I think we should get this chap; you should get him for Decca and I should get him for agency.’ She’d just opened an agency on her own. So I went into action and funnily enough so did Walter Ridley. Walter was friendly with Landau and Landau wanted to put Whitfield with him, and I wanted to put him with Decca of course. I won. I got him on Decca. We made a record – didn’t do an awful lot, and then I made I Believe and had so many hits with this fellow. Unbelievable. Both here and in American, and it was very rare to have British artists artists with hits in America on those days. I wrote some of his hits – Cara Mia for example which was his biggest, and a few others. I chose what he recorded and actually recorded him as well, so I also started acting as record producer.
I did him and one or two other artists. I was always musically involved. As long as you made money for Decca it didn’t matter who made the records, which was fine except…I took on other people while I was there and made hits with them – Frank Chacksfield, Jimmy Young with Unchained Melody, which I had before anyone else because it was sent to me from America for Whitfield! By that time Whitfield and I had parted company, nothing to do with me except that we’d set up a whole business to look after him. My wife agented him and Freddie Milally (can’t trace him) did his publicity along with the Warner girl and they were top publicists for show business in London in those days. But we didn’t know anything about agenting. My wife knew a bit about cabaret and West End things but we didn’t know about the whole picture outside London, so they said they’d take on Lew and Leslie Grade. I said ‘let’s take him to Foster’s’ who were above us in the building, but they said ‘no, go to Grades.’ Eventually Lew and Leslie Grade nicked him off us. They nicked him because he’d had Cara Mia and another one called Santo Natale which were top ten hits in America, No.2 and No.4 I think, and our deal with the Grades covered the UK but not anywhere else. But they were just opening a new office with a fellow called Eddie Elcort (no trace of him either), over in New York and Freddie Milally went over and sold Whitfield to Columbia who were going to put him on a huge tour with Mantovani, and we had film interest, everything. Obviously he was going to break very big over there.
The Grades found out about this and immediately went into action and they got at Whitfield. I’ll have to be very careful what I say here, but actually they bribed him with silly things like gold pens and it became a thing of whether he stayed with us, his management, or whether he went with the Grades as his agent, and they frightened him so much he went with them. He made one more record that was a bit of a hit – I had stopped making his records – and then he went into virtual obscurity, having been the biggest attraction in this country. We packed every Moss Empire theatre – everybody was making fortunes. But in a way that didn’t do me any good internally at Decca. I was making too much money again. I wasn’t on any royalty at all (apart from the publishing!) All we got off the record was the agency’s cut. I wasn’t on a royalty for any of them. They (Decca) were very anti any outside source of income and that’s what busted us in the end. We were doing terribly well and definitely on top of the heap. We were much better than EMI at that time.
Lots more to come including more on Jack Jackson, Jimmy Young and Bunny’s take on Jimmy Savile! If anyone can help with the characters who failed internet searches, do let me, and everyone else know!
Text ©David Hughes 2018. Illustrations via Google search.