COME OUTSIDE GREAT BRITISH RECORD LABELS: PARLOPHONE
Like several of the labels in the old EMI group, Parlophone Records has a long, convoluted history, incorporating various twists, turns and takeovers. Its roots can be traced way back to 1893, to the Carl
Lindström Company, founded in Germany by its Swedish inventor (i.e. Lindström) who was living in Berlin. They initially manufactured phonographs and gramophones, using the brand names Parlograph
and Parlophon, and in 1896 they also commenced recording and manufacturing gramophone records. Shortly afterwards they adopted the celebrated “£” trademark, which was actually the German letter
“L”, for Lindström, rather than the British pound sign as has often, erroneously, been suggested.
In 1904 the company was purchased by the Berlinbased International Talking Machine Company, who already owned the Odeon, Fonotipia and Beka labels, and the European arm of Okeh Records. Carl Lindström A.G. became the holding company for the newly-formed group, who had offices in most European capitals. During World War 1, the Transoceanic Trading Company was set up in The Netherlands to look after Lindström A.G.’s overseas assets (at that time Odeon Records operated a thriving UK operation) and in 1923 the group opened a British Parlophone branch (with the added “e”), which was led by A&R Manager Oscar Preuss. Over the next few years Parlophone successfully established licensing arrangements with the American labels Okeh, Columbia, Brunswick and Decca, during the course of which they evolved into one of the UK’s leading Jazz labels. Meanwhile, in 1926 the Lindström group had been acquired by the Columbia Graphophone Company, which was in turn merged with Electrola and The Gramophone Company in 1931 to form the giant Electrical & Musical Industries Ltd (aka EMI). EMI initially maintained Parlophone as a specialist Jazz label, and they were particularly strong during the 1930s. But during the 1940s they were perhaps the least commercially successful EMI label, despite a roster of home-grown artists which included Geraldo, Hutch, Harry Roy, Oscar Rabin,
Dorothy Squires, Jimmy Shand, etc, all of whom were comprehensively eclipsed by licensed-in US recordings from Harry James, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Gene Krupa, etc.
In 1950, George Martin joined Parlophone as Preuss’s assistant, an appointment which proved to be the defining moment in the label’s history (he would replace Preuss as Label Manager in 1955, upon the latter’s retirement). By the early/mid 50s they were releasing increasingly more spoken word and novelty recordings, and were also building up a roster of new young Jazz musicians (e.g. Humphrey Lyttelton, Johnny Dankworth, Ray Ellington) and former danceband ‘Pop’ singers (e.g. Eve Boswell, Edna Savage, Dick James). But hit records were few and far between; indeed, their strongest releases still tended to be licensed-in US R&B and embryonic R&R material, from artists like Earl Bostic, Jimmy Witherspoon, Boyd Bennett & His Rockets, Hank Penny, Moon Mullican, Little Willie John, The Jayhawks, etc.
Initially, Parlophone made few attempts to hop aboard either the Skiffle or R&R bandwagons - although ironically, one of their Jazz releases, Humphrey Lyttelton’s frantic ‘Bad Penny Blues’, became a huge hit with the Skiffle set, much to Humph’s eternal chagrin. However its very success led to George Martin to Soho’s legendary 2i’s Coffee Bar, where he discovered The Vipers; they cut a handful of hits for the label, although their unlikely/ retitled revival of George Jones’ ‘Why Baby Why’ appeared a couple of years later, whilst they were trying to reposition themselves as a R&R group.
Parlophone’s earliest successes in the R&R/ teenage market were with a couple of 6-5 Special regulars, singing actor Jim Dale and fourteen-year old East London schoolboy Laurie London. They registered with ‘Be My Girl’ and ‘He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands’ respectively, both discs charting in November ’57, the former reaching No.2, the latter No.12. But to everyone’s collective astonishment - not least EMI’s - London’s disc successfully crossed the Atlantic (where it was issued on Capitol) to become a far bigger US hit, topping the US Top 100 for 4-weeks and even climbing to No.3 on the R&B chart, on its way to becoming a worldwide smash, selling upwards of two million copies.
Some rather less successful R&R releases over the next few years included those by Eddie Silver, Neville Taylor (sans Cutters, for once), Vince Eager, Bill & Brett Landis, Jody Gibson & The Muleskinners, Cliff Bennett & The Rebel Rousers and former Vipers frontman Wally Whyton, who also cut one lone 45 as Sharkey Todd & The Monsters. Special mention needs to be made of The Bachelors - no, not the corny Irish trio but a vocal duo, Steve Keen and Rikki Cabin - for their original version of Johnny Kidd’s ‘Please Don’t Touch’; and while we’re talking Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, although they were signed to EMI’s HMV label, their cover of Jerry Lee’s ‘Big Blon’ Baby’ appeared on the specially-recorded Saturday Club LP. But Parlophone’s finest ever 45 just has to be the mighty ‘Brand New Cadillac’, by Vince Taylor & His Playboys. No competition. By the end of the decade R&R had noticeably softened, as strings were added, a style personified by Adam Faith who gave Parlophone their very first UK No.1 in December ’59 with ‘What Do You Want’, a process he repeated three months later with ‘Poor Me’. In Adam’s wake, Parlophone enjoyed chart success with songwriter/singer Jerry Lordan, former John Barry Seven singer Keith Kelly, and Shane Fenton & The Fentones, although fellowteeners like Johnny Gavotte, Danny Davis, Paul Hanford, Johnny Angel, Bobby Shafto, Peter Wynne, Peter Gordeno, Mark Tracey, Tony Rocco, Nicky Hilton, Nicky Henson and even Joe Meek protégés Houston Wells & The Marksmen, all drew blanks, despite some fine releases.
Elsewhere, Gerry Dorsey was destined to reemerge in the 60s as Englebert Humperdink, Perry Ford would become one-third of The Ivy League, The Overlanders would expand from a trio to a quintet (with Pierce Rogers reverting to the role of an ensemble sideman) and top the charts in 1966, whilst Paul Raven would enjoy considerable 70s success as Gary Glitter (concurrent, of course, with Shane Fenton’s reinvention as Alvin Stardust!). Conversely, Darren Young had previously recorded as Johnny Gentle (Silver Beetle ‘Long John’ Lennon is alleged to have co-written his ‘I’ve Just Fallen For Someone’), while Ray Cathode was (clearly!) a spoof name, designed to protect George Martin’s true ID. Instrumentally, Parlophone put out a string of great releases, by artists like The John Barry Seven, Bert Weedon, The Vampires, The Packabeats, The Scorpions, Bob Miller & The Millermen, The Moontrekkers, The Fentones, Judd Proctor, etc, a couple of whom tickled the lower regions of the UK charts. But they were less fortunate with girl singers, despite fine releases from Joan Small, Edna Savage, Lorrae Desmond, Anita Harris and The Vernons Girls, whilst they saw even less chart action with MOR acts, with the noble exception of Matt Munro.
They did rather better with Trad, registering a handful of hits with the chart-topping Temperance Seven, although other artists - even Joe Meek’s Chris & The Students - fared less well. Elsewhere they scored heavily with novelty/comedy material, most notably with Charlie Drake, Bernard Cribbins and Peter Sellers (featured herein with Sophia Loren and The Temperance Seven), although the genre perhaps reached its apogee in the Summer of ’62 with Mike Sarne, who teamed up with Wendy Richards for the chart-topping ‘Come Outside’ (the petite Billy Davis accompanied Mike on its follow-up, ‘Will I What?’). In closing, I guess that no essay about Parlophone would be complete without at least a passing nod to The Beatles (but that’s all they’re getting)...
Big Thanks to Paul Pelletier, John Spencely, Bernie Keith, Trev Faull, Lucky Parker, and Sandy, John & Pete.
The Restless Generation by Pete Frame (2007, Rogan House Publishing)
Hit Parade Heroes - British Beat Before The Beatles by
Dave McAleer (1993, Hamlyn Books)