Although perceived as a significant player in the UK record industry, albeit as a subsidiary of the fourth-largest of the majors (i.e. the Dutch-owned Philips group), Fontana was very much a latecomer to the scene. Its first UK titles did not appear until 1958 (for the first few months of its existence, releases were on 78 rpm only), and the label had effectively ground to a halt by the mid-70s. Yet it enjoys an iconic, neo-legendary reputation, largely for the handful of records it licensed from Tamla/Motown during 1961/62, long before anybody in the UK was interested, not to mention its obscure early British R&R and Instro 45s. Fontana would later go on to issue some of the more esoteric discs of the 60s, and its releases remains hugely popular among specialist collectors to this day. This compilation looks at the first five years of the label’s history, concentrating - as ever - on British and European productions.
Fontana - which means “Fountain” in Italian - began life in France in 1957, essentially as a vehicle for Jazz material, and was launched in the UK in January 1958 with a schedule which comprised mainly US recordings. At that time Philips had the UK rights to American Columbia and its Epic and OKeh subsidiaries, which had hitherto been swamping its own release schedules. Consequently, Fontana’s early output featured an array of artists from Screaming Jay Hawkins and Roy Hamilton at one end of the spectrum, via Marty Robbins and Sal Mineo, to Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra at the other (indeed, the fledgling label’s first UK hits were with Johnny Mathis releases).
One of the earliest UK productions featured Matt Monro, the erstwhile “Singing Bus Conductor” who’d been discovered by Winifred Atwell. He’d recorded a couple of earlier Decca singles without success and would cut further sides for Fontana after ‘I’ll Never Have A Sweetheart’; but it would take a couple more years’ struggle (and a change of label) before he finally hit the big time. Other early MOR-styled Fontana singers included Rikki Price and Al Saxon, each of whom covered various US hits in their quest for UK chart glory (e.g. ‘Tom Dooley’, ‘Only Sixteen’, ‘Linda Lu’), although ironically, it was the latter’s dubious ‘Novelty’ styled revival of ‘You’re The Top-Cha’ which provided the label with its very first home-grown chart entry toward the end of its first year.
Talking of Novelty items, while the mighty Barry Cryer’s cover of Sheb Wooley’s US chart-topper ‘Purple People Eater’ may have fallen on deaf ears in the UK, by all accounts it became a massive hit in Finland. However, rather stronger home-made fare during 1958 included saxophonist Johnny ‘The Gash’ Gray’s rasping ‘Apache’ (no relation to The Shads’ later breakthrough hit) and The Lana Sisters’ truly splendid cover of Brenda Lee’s ‘Ring-a-My Phone’. The Lanas (whose personnel included a teenage Dusty Springfield) went on to record a charming body of work for Fontana.
But after a ‘difficult’ first year, Fontana began to get it all together in 1959. Artists like Larry Parnes’ discovery Duffy Power (‘Dream Lover’, ‘Starry Eyed’), Oh Boy!/Boy Meets Girls/Drumbeat singer/pianist Roy Young (‘Just Keep It Up’, ‘Hey Little Girl’/‘Just Ask Your Heart’) and sweet-voiced Irish songstress Donna Douglas (‘Six Boys And Seven Girls’) all cut great singles that year - indeed, how these three fine singers remained hitless almost defies belief! Another excellent 1959 release came from the Everly Bros-styled Lee & Jay Elvin, with ‘So The Story Goes’, although by all accounts ‘the Elvins’ were actually songwriter Jerry Lordan and a friend.
During 1960 Fontana enjoyed chart action with oddities like Valerie Masters’ cover of ‘Banjo Boy’ and Chaquito’s jaunty ‘Never On Sunday’, originally Euro-hits for Jan & Kjeld and Manos Hadjidakis respectively (NB: ‘Chaquito’ was actually bandleader/arranger/conductor Johnny Gregory). Cut from much the same cloth was Max Harris’s quirky ‘Gurney Slade’, from Anthony Newley’s even more quirky (and shortlived) TV series The Strange World Of Gurney Slade.
The same year they issued one of the UK’s all-time classic Instros, The Hunters’ twangularly atmospheric ‘Teen Scene’, a disc sufficiently rare that this marks its first ever appearance on CD (thanks, Tony!!!); their ‘The Storm’, released the following Summer, was very nearly its equal. Whilst we’re talking Instros, Drumbeat regulars Bob Miller & The Millermen, session guitarist George Hess’s alter-ego Jim Gunner & His Sidekicks and package tour perennials The Echoes also chipped in with some real killers, the latter’s ‘Cloak And Dagger’ in particular generating plenty of Radio Luxembourg airplay.
By now Fontana were actively courting the Teen market, trying to seduce them with blow-waved wannabees like Johnnie Lee, Johnny Carson, Danny Hunter, Pete Gordeno (who would enjoy considerable fame ten years hence, once he’d restored the “r” to his Christian name), Chris Dors and Gary Lane, all of whom cut excellent 45s without quite achieving the required breakthrough. Elsewhere, it remains one of life’s genuine mysteries that Lee Diamond & The Cherokees failed to register with the splendid ‘I’ll Step Down’/‘Josephine’, which was as strong a double-sider as anyone released in 1961. Elsewhere, another Euro-hit which failed to make headway in the UK was Achilles & His Heels’ homage to ‘Brigitte Bardot’, from the celebrated Pop-Art movie Pop Goes The Easel.
The label’s biggest successes during 1961 were with Jazz chanteuse Cleo Laine, who finally made the Top 10 with the bewitching ‘You’ll Answer To Me’ (she’d tickled the Top 50 the previous year with the bluesy ‘Let’s Slip Away’), and Eurovision runners-up The Allisons, whose self-penned ‘Are You Sure’ sold comfortably over a million copies and topped every published UK Hit Parade except the wretched Record Retailer’s, with the result that the dreaded “official” chart book scandalously lists it as only a No.2 record! On the face of it, The Allisons (John Alford and Bernard ‘Bob’ Day - they weren’t real brothers) looked set up for a successful career; but they found it difficult to get follow-ups away, despite strong releases like ‘Words’ and ‘I’ll Cross My Fingers’, and they ultimately failed to fulfil their potential.
New names on Fontana during 1962 included Brad Newman, Dave Sampson (who’d previously recorded for Columbia), Howie Casey & The Seniors (the first Scouse beat group to get a recording contract), nineteen-year old Terry Hale (his ‘Those Magic Eyes’/‘Don’t Fly Away’ was a cracking pairing), Cal Danger, Bobby Allen, Frank Kelly & The Hunters (who very nearly charted with their cover of Dickey Lee’s ‘I Saw Linda Yesterday’) and Big Pete Deuchar, while a host of girlie newcomers included Patti Lynn, Bobbi Carol, Mary May and Susan Hayward (whose squeaky ‘You Bet I Would’ was a cover of a pre-Phil Spector Ronettes’ 45). Rather better-known were Welsh cabaret singer Lorne Lesley (whose ‘Ma, Let’s Twist’ was something of a hit in Scandinavia), Swedish singer/actress Anita Lindblom (who cut ‘Uptown’/‘Mr Big Wheel’ in London - the topside made the Swedish Top 10) and, of course, bespectacled Greek lovely Nana Mouskouri, who came to London to record this English language version of her million-selling signature song, ‘White Rose Of Athens’.
Finally, a man whose time would most emphatically come later in the decade, Rog(er) Whittaker. Although you won’t find it in that shoddy aforementioned “official” chart book, his fine cover of Jimmy Dean’s ‘Steel Men’ actually made the NME Top 30 in June 1962, whilst his wholly unlikely revival of Charlie Gracie’s ‘Butterfly’, a few months later, found him operating in decidedly unfamiliar - yet surprisingly comfortable - territory!
Big Thanks to Paul Pelletier, John Spencely, John Fisher, Bernie Keith, Tony Gowing, Trev Faull, Sam Szczepanski and the late Tony Wilkinson.
The Restless Generation by Pete Frame (2007, Rogan House Publishing)
Hit Parade Heroes - British Beat Before The Beatles by Dave McAleer (1993, Hamlyn Books)