Oriole Records’ somewhat convoluted history began in the mid 1920s, which actually makes them one of the UK’s earliest record labels, although they had periods of inactivity during the 30s and 40s. They were entirely unrelated to the American Oriole label.
Oriole’s roots can be traced back to Levy’s Record Shop, which was founded by Morris’s father in Whitechapel in the early 1920s. In addition to gramophones and gramophone records, the store sold sewing machines (and hired out bicycles), whilst also doubling as an importer and distributor, bringing highly-prized Jazz 78s in from the United States and Europe. In 1925, the increasing demand for Jazz 78s led to the launch of the shortlived Levaphone record label, which issued a handful of US “Race Records” licensed from Vocalion and Pathe. The label was discontinued in 1927 and immediately replaced by Oriole, which continued to release Vocalion repertoire. Following a brief period of inactivity Oriole returned in the early 30s with a series of their own UK Hot Jazz recordings, which were in turn followed by
a handful of French Jazz releases a couple of years later.
By now, Levys had their own recording studio - Levys Sound Studios - in Regent Street which moved to bigger premises in New Bond Street later in the decade. At this stage they were operating primarly as custom recording and manufacturing operation. The studio side of the family business was managed by Jacques Levy, whilst his aforementioned brother, Morris, handled admin, promo, marketing and label management.
The Oriole imprint was resurrected again in 1950, initially with a series of UK and European Jazz 78s, which were soon augmented by licensed-in recordings from the American Mercury label. The same year they opened their own state-of-the-art pressing plant and warehouse in Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire, and they soon began to get ‘overspill’ pressing work from the bigger, established British record companies. Meanwhile, their deal with Mercury provided success with releases by artists like Frankie Laine, Patti Page, Georgia Gibbs, Vic Damone and Billy Daniels, and by the mid 50s Oriole were actively recording home-grown artists in search of their own hits.
Another record label which is indelibly linked to Oriole is, of course, their budget line, Embassy, which was sold exclusively through the Woolworths chain of stores. Embassy debuted towards the end of 1954, and their modus operandi remained the same for the next ten years, viz: double A-sided cover versions of the hits of the day, which sold at around half-a-crown cheaper than regular 78s/45s. It’s
likely that Embassy was more profitable than Oriole, as many of their releases - notably in the R&R era - sold in their tens of thousands.
The arrival of R&R and Skiffle in the UK during 1956 changed everything, of course, and alongside their staple diet of danceband and musical hall fare, Oriole began to sneak out a few releases aimed squarely at the new, young teenage market. Certainly, Thunderclap Jones’ pounding ‘Sound Barrier Boogie’ possessed all the energy and drive of R&R, and although Lonnie Donegan’s gentle ‘The Passing Stranger’ was hardly representative of his Skiffle repertoire (it was, in fact, an older recording, from the 1954 film of the same title), its very release served as an indicator that they had their finger on the pulse.
Indeed, when Oriole hit the jackpot with an UK recording it was with a bonà-fidé Skiffle classic, ‘Freight Train’, by The Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group featuring Nancy Whiskey. It promptly made the UK Top 5 and in a wholly unlikely scenario also made the US Top 40, leading to their touring the US (where they appeared on the prestigious Ed Sullivan Show) and ultimately taking worldwide sales of the disc to well over a million. But ironically, Nancy didn’t much like Skiffle and quit the group after their second hit, ‘Greenback Dollar’; sadly, neither she nor Chas were destined to taste chart glory again.
Meanwhile, Oriole had scored an even bigger success with scouser Russ Hamilton, the Butlins’ redcoat who reached No.2 in the UK with his selfpenned ‘We Will Make Love’. This, in itself would have been impressive; but the disc was issued in the US, where an enterprising DJ flipped it and began playing the B-side, ‘Rainbow’, which subsequently climbed to No.4. Although his follow-up, ‘Wedding Ring’, also made the UK Top 20, he was never quite able to sustain a career.....