PYE RECORDS were latecomers to the UK?record market, their inaugural releases appearing in September 1955. They were formed as the result of the amalgamation of Polygon Records and Nixa Records, both of whom had been taken over by Pye Limited, a radio/television/telecommunications company whose own roots dated back to 1896, when William George Pye founded W.G. Pye & Co. Limited., a part-time business making scientific instruments in Cambridge. In the decades leading up to WW2, Pye Limited progressed from manufacturing wireless receivers to early television receivers, and ultimately to cutting-edge radio, radar and telecommunications equipment which would be utilised by the British Army during wartime, and by commerce, industry, police and government departments thereafter.
Pye had also been manufacturing gramophones, radiograms and record players, which presumably led to their acquiring the Nixa Record Company in 1953. Nixa had been formed in 1950 by F.H.B. Nixon, and were only the second company?to release LP?records in the UK (Decca being the first). They largely specialised in Classical, Jazz and continental Cabaret music, and had been set up primarily to market the catalogue of the Paris-based Compagnie Générale Du Disque, outside of France. In 1955 Pye also purchased the Polygon company, whom they duly merged with Nixa to form the Pye-Nixa label, which immediately became a major player in the UK?market.
Polygon had been incorporated in 1949 by record producer Alan A. Freeman and Petula Clark’s father, Leslie Clark, essentially as a vehicle for his daughter’s records (NB: by all accounts, everyone involved with the company referred to it as “Dead Parrot Records”). Ironically, although they’d enjoyed some success with Pet’s releases (‘The Little Shoemaker’ made the Top 10 in 1954), the label’s biggest hit had been Jimmy Young’s cover of Nat ‘King’ Cole’s ‘Too Young’, which topped the UK charts in 1951. Polygon had also charted with Joe ‘Mr Piano’ Henderson, Dorothy Squires, Johnny Brandon and The Radio Revellers, and they had recently launched the Polygon Jazz Today series, which had been critically well-received; more to the point, it served to bring Chris Barber, Lonnie Donegan and Ottilie Patterson on board, each having recently recorded an EP?for Jazz Today.
Perhaps taking Decca as a role model, Pye-Nixa’s modus operandi was for strictly home-grown, in-house productions (at this time, virtually every other UK?label was also issuing licensed-in repertoire - mainly from the United States, occasionally from Europe - which often provided the majority of that label’s hits). And initially, Pye’s artist roster was also very much like Decca’s, concentrating on what passed for the ‘Popular Music’ of the day, i.e. a combination of crooners and ex-danceband singers warbling show tunes, American hits, oldies, and/or film/TV theme tunes, juxtaposed alongside a random selection of light instrumentals and novelty items. They also began issuing EPs - a lot of the old Polygon favourites were reissued thus - and in January ’56, they implemented the Pye-Nixa Jazz series, with releases in all formats.
They started to register hits more or less immediately, with early chart entries from Gary Miller (whose best discs were still to come - e.g. ‘Garden Of Eden’), the aforementioned Pet Clark, and housewives’ favourite Edmund Hockridge. But musically, things began to pick up significantly following Lonnie Donegan’s arrival, and in the Spring of ’57 he registered his first #1 with ‘Cumberland Gap’ (the million-selling ‘My Old Man’s A?Dustman’ would be an even bigger hit for him three years hence).
By the late 50s they were mounting an all-out assault on the teenage market, via artists like singing actor John?Fraser, Tommy?Steele’s younger brother, Colin Hicks, Phil Fernando, Ken Cavalier, David MacBeth and Larry Parnes discoveries Lance Fortune and Julian (who was also known as Julian X and Julian Scott). Even Petula Clark updated her act, with hits like ‘Alone’ and ‘Baby Lover’, whilst seasoned MOR?favourites like Ray Ellington, Dickie Valentine and Lita Roza also tried to muscle in on the action.
Talking of MOR, Marion Ryan had cut a genuinely superb cover of Julie London’s ‘Cry Me A?River’ back in ’56 (it’s the oldest side on this set), whilst Kathy Kirby and Diana Dors weigh in with a couple of equally classy sides, as well. Lonnie Donegan discoveries Miki &?Griff probably also fit into this category - the lilting, Country-ish ‘Hold Back Tomorrow’ was their first hit, in the Autumn of ’59 - although a side that simply cannot be pigeonholed is Ottilie Patterson and Chris Barber’s rampantly Bluesy ‘Georgia Grind’. Elsewhere, occupying a category almost entirely of his own, Benny Hill continued to bring his vaguely salacious schoolboy humour to the Pye catalogue - the typically-ludicrous ‘Pepys’ Diary’ being a classic example.
During the 50s, Pye-Nixa were about the only major UK label to try and cater for the West Indian market, issuing Calypsos by artists like Ben Bowers, Bertie King’s Jamaicans, The Mighty Terror and Lord Invader, whilst another UK-domiciled West Indian, Emile Ford, cut one of the label’s biggest-ever hits, ‘What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?’ in late ’59 (it was that year’s Christmas #1). Emile followed through with some further great sides - check out ‘Counting Teardrops’ - while his backing band, The Checkmates, also cut a series of instros, billing themselves as The Original?Checkmates on ‘Checkmate Stomp’, after they’d split with Emile.
Pye dropped the ‘Nixa’ from their label billing in January 1960, although it was business as usual as they continued either trying to break new acts - e.g. Bobby Deacon, Eden Kane (who later tasted chart action with Decca), Chick (a Joe Meek hopeful), Dean?Sterling, Joe Peters, Valerie Mountain, The Roulettes - or persevered with artists like Davy Jones, Josh MacRae, Danny Davis, The Kestrels (who cut a surprisingly strong cover of Jack Scott’s ‘There Comes A?Time’), Johnny Duncan (ditto Johnny Horton’s ‘Sleepy Eyed John’), Iain Gregory (another Joe Meek protégé), Jeff Rowena and Johnny Bev, who’d all been around for a while. The latter was, in fact, John Beveridge, aka Joe Brown’s rhythm guitarist; Joe, of course, had transferred to Pye’s Piccadilly subsidiary, although ‘What’s The Name Of The Game’ appeared on a Pye Various Artists EP.
Instro-wise, Pye were exceptionally well-served, in a vast range of musical styles which took in Trad (Acker Bilk, Kenny?Ball), Latin (Oh Boy! babe Cherry Wainer), Parp (Bill?Shepherd, The Flee-Rekkers), Plink (Joe ‘Mr Piano’ Henderson), Twang (Pete Chester, The Packabeats, The Eagles - a sublime reading of ‘Exodus’), and even Orchestral theme tunes (Peter Knight, Tony Hatch, Ron Grainer).
But ultimately, Pye earned a reputation for their excellent cover versions of US?hits - usually, of Brill Building songs - as perhaps best evidenced by The Brook Brothers (their ‘Warpaint’ and ‘Ain’t Gonna Wash For A?Week’ were real killers), Jimmy Justice (his ‘When My Little Girl Is Smiling’ and ‘Dawning’ were even better), Mark Wynter (whose first two Pye 45s, ‘Venus In Blue Jeans’ and ‘Go?Away Little Girl’, were huge hits), The Breakaways (with a truly preposterous cover of ‘He’s A?Rebel’), The Viscounts (their ‘That Stranger Used To?Be My Girl’ deserved to have been a hit) and Julie Grant, whose lively cover of ‘Up On The Roof’ marked her chart debut.
Big Thanks to Paul Pelletier, John?Fisher, Bob Stanley and Sam?Szczepanski.