SHAKIN’ ALL OVER • GREAT BRITISH RECORD LABELS: HMV
His Masters Voice - more regularly known as plain HMV - is one of the oldest names in recorded sound, while its ‘Nipper’ logo remains, unquestionably, the most iconic image in the history of the record industry. The label is, of course indelibly linked to Electrical & Music Industries Ltd (aka EMI), of which it was a founder member in 1931. However HMV’s own roots go back considerably further, to 1897, and The Gramophone Company. One of the first recording companies to operate in the UK, it was founded by William Barry Owen and Trevor Williams as the UK wing of the United States Gramophone Company, which had itself been inaugurated in Washington in 1892, by German-born US citizen Emile Berliner. In 1898, Berliner also formed Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft in his native Hanover, although DGG would abruptly sever links with both its US and UK counterparts at the outset of WW1.
The name ‘His Master’s Voice’ of course came from the celebrated portrait of Nipper, a mixed-breed/part-Jack Russell Terrier which was painted in 1898, three years after the dog’s death, by his owner, Francis Barraud (he had inherited Nipper - so named because he would ‘nip’ the backs of peoples’ legs - from his brother, Mark, who’d died in 1887). The original painting featured Nipper listening to a recording of his late master’s voice on an Edison-Bell wind-up cylinder phonograph, and Barraud initially offered it to the Edison-Bell company, who declined. W.B. Owen subsequently suggested to the artist that he replace the phonograph with a Berliner disc gramophone, following which The Gramophone Company bought the amended painting for £100 - £50 for the “His Master’s Voice” copyright, £50 for the painting itself. The image was first used on the cover of the company’s UK catalogue in 1899, and the following year it was registered as a trademark in the United States.
In 1901 the U.S. Gramophone Company was taken over by Eldridge Johnson and evolved into the Victor Talking Machine Company, who began to use the Nipper trademark extensively. Victor expanded rapidly to become the world’s largest manufacturer of phonograph machines - notably, the Victrola - and phonograph/gramophone records. In 1926, Johnson sold out to a banking firm, Seligman & Spyer, who in turn sold Victor on to the Radio Corporation Of America in 1929, thus creating the company which would ultimately become known as RCA-Victor.
Meanwhile, in 1900 The Gramophone Company had briefly become The Gramophone & Typewriter Company, following its acquisition of the Lambert Typewriter Company, although by the end of that decade they’d reverted to their original name and trading style. In 1909 they’d belatedly started using the Nipper trademark in the UK, after which the label was generally referred to as either ‘His Masters Voice’ or ‘HMV’. The company grew from strength to strength - they opened the first HMV record shop in London, in 1921 - and their success very much mirrored that of their US parent company.
In 1931, The Gramophone Company was merged with Electrola and the Columbia Graphophone Company to form the giant Electrical & Musical Industries Ltd. In the UK, EMI successfully retained the Columbia, HMV and Parlophone imprints as label names, leading to great rivalry, strong competition and continued success. In 1935 RCA sold its stake in EMI, although it retained Victor and its rights to the ‘His Masters Voice’ trademark in America (by now the trademark was owned by differing companies in different countries).
Like many British record labels, HMV enjoyed considerable success during the post-WW2 economic boom, albeit predominantly with American, RCA-Victor repertoire - e.g. Eddie Fisher, Perry Como, Vaughn Monroe, Glenn Miller, Fats Waller, Mario Lanza, etc. But their roster also boasted a healthy selection of home-based artists, notably Joe Loss, Arthur Askey, Ivy Benson, Max Miller, The Skyrockets, and as the 40s morphed into the 50s, they added Donald Peers, Max Miller, The Tanner Sisters, David Hughes, Malcom Vaughan and, rather more notably, artists like Alma Cogan, Max Bygraves, Frankie Vaughan and Ronnie Hilton, whose careers would all endure.
The UK’s early forays into R&R were dismal, oft-risible affairs, and HMV’s weren’t greatly different. Nonetheless, most aficionados would agree that Jill Day’s unlikely cover of the Gale Storm/Smiley Lewis US hit ‘I Hear You Knocking’ in January 1956 was one of the UK’s first credible stabs at R&R, a performance very nearly mirrored a year hence by Rose Brennan’s reading of the Georgia Gibbs/Lavern Baker US chartrider ‘Tra La La’.
Of course, HMV initially had the biggest ace in the R&R pack in the shape of Elvis Presley, but when RCA-Victor terminated their licensing agreement in 1957, it (a) knocked a huge hole in their release schedules and (b) forced them to concentrate more on home-grown acts. They attempted a few half-hearted stabs at Skiffle with Don Lang and Les Hobeaux, whilst R&R singers like Ricky James and Barry Barnett fared little better. HMV even issued a couple of Adam Faith 45s in 1958, including a creditable cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘High School Confidential’; but it would be another year - and on a different label - before Adam hit his stride.
Elsewhere, the redoubtable Alma Cogan’s dabblings with teen Pop and R&R material enjoyed mixed commercial successes, although the discs she cut were invariably delightful. But at this stage of the game, HMV were still rather more comfortable with established Variety-styled singers like The Three Kayes, Yana, Joan Regan and Ronnie Hilton, or Novelty material like ‘The Army Game’ and its Bernard Bresslaw spinoffs - they were still at it a few years later, with releases from Barbara Windsor and Patricia Phoenix.
Instrumentals were often viewed as Novelty records around this time, although the advent of The Shadows in 1960 would soon put a stop to all that! HMV were well served for Instros, with artists like saxman Ken Mackintosh and trombonist Don Lang, while Ozzie Warlock & The Wizards’ (in reality, writer/arranger Tony Osbourne’s) driving ‘Juke Box Fury’ was the original theme tune to BBC TV’s Juke Box Jury. Once ‘Twang’ had arrived, so did groups like The Planets, The Krew Kats (i.e. Marty Wilde’s former Wild Cats, with Big Jim Sullivan on lead guitar) and even old stager Bert Weedon, whilst guitar virtuoso Richard Harding sprang from The Cresters to cut a one-off killer 45.
When HMV finally got to grips with R&R they did so in spectacular style, with Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, whose riveting ‘Shakin’ All Over’ of course topped the UK charts in the Summer of 1960 and seemed to fuel a mini-boom of bequiffed young teen oriented crooners. Names like Kenny Lynch, Danny Williams, Steve Perry, Danny Hunter, Eddie Mannion, Nelson Keene, Mike Sagar & The Cresters, Dean Shannon, Bobby Angelo, Russ Sainty & The Nu-Notes and Don Spencer sprang up from seemingly nowhere, but only Lynch and Williams enjoyed any real success, although old-timer Jack Parnell weighed in with a surprisingly tough cover of Wilbert Harrison’s ‘Kansas City’.
Following Helen Shapiro’s breakthrough in the Spring of 1961, UK record companies were quick to try and cash in and for the next eighteen months or so, you could hardly move for unknown teenaged girl singers. HMV tried with Carol Deene, Suzy Cope, Patsy Ann Noble and Beverley Jones, but only Carol enjoyed much luck on the charts, debuting with her cover of Sue Thompson’s ‘Sad Movies (Make Me Cry)’.
Finally, cult indie producer Joe Meek saw an enormous number of his revered RGM productions released on HMV, by a plethora of artists including Gerry Temple, The Outlaws, Mike Berry, Geoff Goddard, John Leyton, Screaming Lord Sutch, Michael Cox, The Charles Blackwell Orchestra, Danny Rivers and Andy Cavell. Featured herein are several big sellers and a handful a genuine collectors’ rarities, most notably songwriter Geoff Goddard’s falsetto-laden ‘Girl Bride’.
Big Thanks to Paul Pelletier, John Spencely, John Fisher, Bernie Keith, Tony Gowing, Trev Faull, Mark Willerton, Sam Szczepanski and the late Tony Wilkinson.
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