As Columbia Records’ website proudly boasts, “Columbia is the oldest surviving brand name in pre-recorded sound.” Of course, this pertains to US Columbia, a label which, for a great many years, we in the UK knew as CBS - or at least, those of us of ‘a certain age’ did! However, Columbia UK were umbilically and indelibly linked to their one-time parent company, and therefore share a common genesis...
The Columbia Phonograph Company was founded in Washington DC in 1887, specifically to sell Edison phonograph machines and wax cylinders. Three years later they began selling pre-recorded cylinders, which were in effect the first records, and shortly after the turn of the century, as cylinders began to decline in popularity, they began issuing flat discs. It was also around this time that the iconic ‘magic notes’ Columbia logo (i.e. a pair of semiquavers) was introduced, a branding style which was retained by UK Columbia after their general manager, Louis Sterling, purchased the UK operation from their American owners in 1922. At this point the UK organisation changed their name to the Columbia Graphophone Company and over the next few years they underwent an expansion programme, purchasing their former parent company as well as the Carl Lindström Company, a German firm who also owned the Odeon and Parlophone labels.
In 1931, the Columbia Graphophone Company merged with Electrola and the Gramophone Company (who owned the HMV label) to form Electrical & Musical Industries Ltd, aka EMI. Shortly afterwards, EMI were obliged to sell US Columbia due to anti-trust action taken by their American competitors; US Columbia would change hands a couple more times in the 30s, as the Wall Street Crash and The Depression ravaged America - indeed, in 1936 they even became briefly defunct. Meanwhile, however, in the UK EMI had successfully retained the Columbia, HMV and Parlophone labels as trading styles, leading to great rivalry and healthy competition.
Columbia UK enjoyed enormous success during the immediate post-War economic boom, albeit with repertoire predominantly sourced from their US counterpart - e.g. Sinatra, Doris Day, Frankie Laine, Guy Mitchell, Johnnie Ray, etc. But after US Columbia moved their UK licensing to Philips, in 1952, Columbia UK found themselves obliged to develop more home-grown artists to go alongside their extant roster of Steve Conway, Ronnie Ronalde, Teddy Johnson, Josef Locke, Dorothy Squires and Victor Silvester. They also had to find other suitable American labels to license from, and they well and truly hit the jackpot in the Summer of 1956 with Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers’ chart-topping ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’, which came from George Goldner’s New York-based Gee label.
This extraordinary slice of good fortune put Columbia in pole position to cash in on Rock & Roll, and they duly registered with the UK’s first home-made R&R chart record, Tony Crombie & The Rockets’ ‘Teach You To Rock’, a few months later. Louis Jordan acolyte Ray Ellington was nowhere near as lucky with his cover of the Cadets/Jayhawks US hit ‘Stranded In The Jungle’, which was issued the very same week. But Columbia nonetheless got stuck into nascent R&R with gusto, gunning out releases by a vast array of unknowns, including Welshman Billy Sproud, South London rockabilly Terry Wayne, Larry “The Teenage Rage” Page (later, of course, a hugely successful manager/producer/songwriter), dusky Oh Boy! favourite Bill Forbes, and “The Sheik Of Shake”, Dickie Pride, a Larry Parnes’ discovery who was sadly destined to become an early R&R casualty. But of course, the most important home-grown Rock & Roller was Cliff Richard, the eternal bachelor boy whose successes - along with those of his mighty backing group, The Shadows (the former Drifters, whose Hank B. Marvin and Bruce Welch had first recorded with The Five Chesternuts) - lifted Columbia’s status significantly in the EMI firmament.
Elsewhere, a number of ‘old school’ acts who tried to hop aboard the R&R bandwagon with covers of contemporary American hits included Billie Anthony, The Mudlarks, Ruby Murray, Michael Holliday (who topped the UK charts twice, with ‘The Story Of My Life’ and ‘Starry Eyed’) and The Avons. Columbia had also been quick to enter the Skiffle race, enjoying spectacular success with Johnny Duncan & Blue Grass Boys, whose ‘Last Train To San Fernando’ spent several weeks at #2 in September/October 1957, stuck behind Paul Anka’s multi-million selling ‘Diana’. Less successful Skifflers were Jimmy Jackson and Jimmy Miller, who nonetheless cut a handful of fine discs between them.
At the turn of the 60s an unexpected Trad boom provided a welcome boost for artists like Chris Barber, Monty Sunshine, Chris Williams and particularly Acker Bilk, whose ‘Stranger On The Shore’ topped both the UK and US charts. This was followed by a mini MOR boom, which proved equally beneficial for singers like Shirley Bassey (her ‘Reach For The Stars’ was another chart-topper), Nina & Frederik, Frank Ifield (his yodelsome revival of ‘I Remember You’ spent 8-weeks at #1), Ricky Stevens and Marion Ryan.
By now, R&R had honed its rough edges, as evidenced by some of the newcomers who were trying to muscle in on what was now very much Cliff’s patch. The best of these were perhaps Dave Sampson & The Hunters, whose ‘Sweet Dreams’ should surely have been a much bigger hit; but at least Dave made the charts, which was something that Nick Bennett, Julian Scott, Kevin Kirk and Brian Howard were never able to do, whilst Neil Christian’s time would come later in the decade. Package tour perennial Jimmy Crawford managed to rack up a couple of minor chart items, the best of which was a cover of The Blackwells’ ‘Love Or Money’, while conversely, Craig Douglas had arrived at Columbia with an already impressive hitmaking portfolio.
Tommy Bruce’s croaky ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ can perhaps best be described as a ‘novelty’ hit, a label which was also (unfairly) affixed to Ricky Valance’s controversial cover of Ray Peterson’s ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’. Despite a radio ban it went all the way to #1, although it proved impossible to follow and poor old Ricky never had another chart record. The Shadows’ twangular successes, meanwhile, had fuelled an impressive outbreak of UK Instromania, which manifested itself in many forms - as these discs from John Barry (whose string-driven productions helped change the sound of UK Pop), Cherry Wainer (her unlikely cover of Barrett Strong’s ‘Money’ was perhaps a prophecy of things to come), Geoff Love, Charles Blackwell and Earl Guest readily confirm.
Finally, the early 60s also saw an upswing in popular Girl singers, largely driven by fourteen-year old Helen Shapiro’s chart-topping exploits (‘Walkin’ Back To Happiness’, penned for her by John Schroeder and Mike Hawker, had been her second consecutive #1, in the Autumn of 1961). On the back of Helen’s arrival, Alma Cogan was even inspired to reinvent herself, for perhaps the third or fourth time, whilst Toni Eden, Beryl Bryden, Patsy Ann Noble and in particular, Jill & The Boulevards, also weighed in with some memorable releases (the latter’s ‘Eugene’ sounds many years ahead of its time).
And so it came to pass that 1962 had turned out to be a truly remarkable year for Columbia, with chart-toppers from Cliff, The Shads and Frank Ifield combining to give them a total of 26-weeks at #1...
Big Thanks to Paul Pelletier, John?Fisher, Bernie Keith and Sam?Szczepanski.