JOHNNY REMEMBER ME GREAT BRITISH RECORD LABELS: TOP RANK
In hindsight, the shortlived TOP RANK label would appear to have been a magnificent folly, perpetrated by the mighty Rank Organisation, seemingly for the sole delight of later generations of record collectors. Launched in 1959, the labe llasted little more than three years, during the course of which it was owned by two entirely separate companies. Yet at their peak they were pumping out a vast amount of material, clocking up hits with both licensed-in US repertoire and UK artists, most notably our title track, legendary indie producer Joe Meek’s eerily-atmospheric‘JohnnyRemember Me’.
The man whose initials prefixed the label’s catalogue numbers was one Joseph Arthur Rank,a wealthy, Yorkshire-born industrialist whose family’s lucrative flour-milling empire funded his subsequent business ventures. In the 1930s ,as the driving force behind British National Films, Pinewood Film Studios and General Film Distributors, JAR led the nascent British film industry, and in 1937 he founded The Rank Organisationin order to consolidate his film-making interests. The company grew rapidly, largely via acquisitions, and by the late 40s was the largest British entertainment conglomerate,owning five major film studios, six-hundred-and-fifty UK cinemas, and a string of dance venues.The TRO group further expanded its areas of operation with the acquisition of Bush Radio, the founding of Rank Xerox, and their involvement in the media consortium which would become Southern Television.
During 1958 Rank announced their intention to start a record label, to sell cut-price records in their chain of cinemas, ballrooms and dancehalls.But in those days, the UK record industry was an extremely formal, regulated affair, and cut-price product was frowned upon; more over, Rank’s initial pressing arrangement with Philips mean tthat they would have to comply with the UK’s existing resale price maintenance framework and distribution protocols. They subsequently took over an established record wholesalers,Thompson, Diamond & Butcher, converted them into a slick sales and distribution operation, and proceeded to take liberties with many of the industry’s unwritten “rules” (the first UK record company to issue mainstream Pop LPs at budget price, they would be rewarded with a No.1 album in February 1960, The Explosive Freddy Cannon).
The experienced Dick Rowehad been poached from Decca to run the company, as head of A&R, assisted by a youthful Tony Hatch (then merely nineteen years of age) as trainee arranger/musical director/producer. Between them, Rowe and Hatch were responsible for virtually all the label’s early UK output, which was recorded mainly at either IBC or Lansdowne.
Top Rank was finally unveiled in January 1959, clearly a little later than expected as their first release was a Christmas offering, ‘Little Drummer Boy’ by The Harry Simeone Chorale, a US licence from 20th Century Fox. Late or not it made the UK Top 20, which got them off to a great start - although they found themselves faced with an unexpected logistical setback when the disc’s very success created the demand for a 78rpm version. Rank had initially planned to press 45rpm singles only, but at that stage the UK record-buying public was still only gradually coming toterms with the new 7” format, and they found themselves obliged to comply - indeed, they endedup having to press 78rpm copies of their biggest sellers throughout 1959.
The pick of their early releases were US imports, licensed from Time, Swan, Fire/Fury, Vista, Laurie, Cameo/Parkway, Coed, Ace, Dolton, Laurie, Vee-Jay ,Ember, End, etc. But they gradually assembled a parallel roster of British artists, initially MOR (e.g. Lorie Mann, with ‘Dream Lover’), light entertainment (Tony Hatch’s ‘Chick’) and movie soundtracks (The Pinewood Studio Orchestra, featuring Johnny Dankworth, with ‘Sapphire’), before the UK’s unlikely prototype guitar hero, the avuncular Bert Weedon, registered Top Rank’s first significant UK-recorded hit with his nifty cover of ‘Guitar Boogie Shuffle’, which breached the Top 10 in June. Bert would go on to enjoy many more twangular hits, including‘ Nashville Boogie’ and ‘Big Beat Boogie’.
However, the most successful home-grown artiston the label was, by a long shot, Craig Douglas. The former Terry Perkins - aka ‘the singing milkman’ - had won a talent competition on theIsle Of Wight to appear on 6-5 Special, which led to a record contract with Decca. After a couple of unsuccessful releases he moved to Top Rank, following which he unleashed a run of hits, notably ‘Only Sixteen’ (which topped the UK charts) and ‘Pretty Blue Eyes’(which reached No.4).
Nonetheless, despite Craig and Bert’s successes ,in the short term Top Rank appeared to pin their hopes largely on the ‘mums & dads’ market, via artists like Jo Shelton (famously, Anne Shelton’s younger sister), The Knightsbridge Strings, dance band singers Betty Miller and Rose Brennan, Anne Heywood, Mike Desmond, trumpeter Bob Wallis, drummer Tony Crombie, Big Baron, and novelty items from Josh MacRae (whose ‘Talking Army Blues’was a Top 20 hit) ,The Harry Robinson “String Sound”, former 6-5 Special teenage sensation Jackie Dennis, comic actor Kenneth Connor, and penny whistler Des Lane. They even tried some of their regular MOR artists out on covers of US Pop/R&R hits, e.g. Janet Richmond’s brave reading of ‘You Got What It Takes’, Sheila Buxton’s breathy ‘Sixteen Reasons’, former Oh Boy !organist CherryWainer’s ‘I’ll Walk The Line’, and Kenny Day’s lachrymose ‘Teenage Sonata.
However, they eventually wised up and started recording other Pop/Teen artists, notably Gary (sometimes spelled Garry) Mills (whose Tony Hatch-penned ‘Look For A Star’, from the film Circus Of Horrors, was even a US hit), Adam Faith (although unsuccessful, ‘Ah, Poor Little Baby’/ ‘Runk Bunk’ was a real killer), Vince Eager (in hindsight, it seems inconceivable that Vince never made the charts), Russ Sainty, Tommy Hawke (maybe a pseudonym for visiting American song-writer Jack Hammer), Danny Rivers, The Brook Brothers (they made the Top 20 with ‘Please Help Me I’m Falling’), and three RGM artists, John Leyton, The Fabulous Flee-Rakkers and RickyWayne (the latter two being reissues of earlier Triumph 45s).
But by the summer of 1960, the bean counters at Head Office were becoming increasingly twitchy. Top Rank were, it seemed, indiscriminately shovelling out a bewildering volume of releases per month - countless EPs and LPs, as well as a couple of dozen singles - across all musical genres. The problem was, they weren’t makingany money. Consequently, in August, The Rank Organisation bailed out and the label was taken over by EMI, who trimmed the release schedules drastically, particularly their UK acts. Nonetheless,under EMI’s tenure Craig Douglas and Bert Weedon continued to flourish - e.g. ‘A HundredPounds Of Clay’, ‘Time’, ‘When My Little Girl Is Smiling’, ‘Sorry Robbie’, ‘Ginchy’- while Gary Mills and Vince Eager kept plugging away. Yet there would be a glorious sting in the tail when John Leyton found himself back on Top Rank, a year after missing out to Ricky Valance with ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’. His magnificent, Joe Meek-produced/ Charles Blackwell-arranged ‘JohnnyRemember Me’ topped the UK charts in the summer of ’61 (for anywhere between four and seven weeks, depending on which weekly Pop mag you preferred), a feat very nearly emulatedby its follow-up,‘Wild Wind’, which spent severalweeks at No.2. The final Top Rank releases appeared in April 1962, after which their US licences were transferred to a new label, Stateside, and the few remaining British artists moved to UK Columbia. The label’s last hit was ‘Nut Rocker’, which ironically went on to top the UK charts the following month.