A Personal History of the British Records Business 89 – Dick Leahy, Pt.2

We left Dick as he had just been appointed to run Bell Records as a full label in the UK, rather than licensed, as it had been, to EMI

Was this appointment with a view to adding UK repertoire to the label?

Yes, which he (Larry Uttal) had already started doing. To be fair to him, he’d signed loads of producers. Through Laurence Myers he’d made a production deal with Tony Macaulay, a production deal with Mike Leander, Shel Talmy, Norman Newell…there were loads of them. You’d never seen so many deals and so few records! First thing I did was to undo most of those deals, basically because they were earning all this money and all they were doing was going into the studio with anybody they could think of – in a very lazy way, most of them.

My task was to get the label better known, to break a few hits, to make it possible. Larry was adamant we could never do anything in this country under a licence arrangement, which I believe to be true because there was only so much in those days. As you said earlier, there is only so much a major company like EMI will do for a little label, but if you have a No.1 in America…..

EMI was amassing a whole string of licences

Exactly, and Bell were having some big hits in America, so all I did was to find a plugger, re-release the Delfonics’ single that I always thought should have been a hit and hadn’t been..and we made that a hit.

Also a record that was failing when I got there, Sweet Inspiration by Johnny Johnson. EMI used to buy time on Luxembourg and they would spread it on so many records, and I said ‘I want it all on one’ I had to go to Len Wood to get that. I used to do that all the time – everything on one (if I had one!). If I genuinely hadn’t got one I’d say, ‘give it to something else’. That’s how we started.

Luxembourg was still influential even after the time when the record companies owned the programmes had stopped

You got to know Luxembourg then and when it worked…they weren’t they sure wanted it (the fee) all on one record. You’re actually programming the station to a degree, but when it worked they’d then get behind a record because they loved it. Then the UK acts started. I signed the (Bay City)Rollers.

Tony Calder says Ronnie Simpson introduced him to the band. He filmed them, you saw the film and signed them from that.

He swears that I know I went to Edinburgh with Chas Peate because he told me about this scene going on there and persuaded me to fly up. It’s possible that both things happened; he may have shown me the film, but I don’t remember. But I do remember that having seen this gig I went to, I signed the audience! David Apse had signed a production deal with them. I don’t remember anyone persuading me to do anything, because I thought I was going up there to sign them direct. He may be right – I can’t remember. Chas Peate wanted my weight; he thought Bell was the right label for them and that if I signed them he’d make a publishing deal.

Were they playing anything that was subsequently recorded ?

I couldn’t really hear anything that they were doing. Couldn’t tell if they could play – just loads of girls going mad! The Jonathan King connection was that, having signed them Tony Calder phoned me and said he was liquidating his production company, so, instead of them making the records, I had to step in. I needed a producer, was chatting to Jonathan, he said it sounded like fun and he made the first record for m , then first hit (Keep on Dancing, 1971), with the line-up I saw that day. By the time they really got successful (three years later) some of the line up had changed.

I’d been involved with The Osmonds

Let’s not forget that I, through Bell in America, had David Cassidy. So I had that, signed The Rollers but not really broken them but had one hit with Jonathan, almost ended the Mike Leander production deal because the stuff he was doing really wasn’t very good and I hadn’t released anything he had recorded. I had brought a guy into the company who had some field promotion work for Island Records, something that Philips had never done – he would dress windows and things like that. He had an idea which coincided with a few thoughts I was having. Basically, record stores are like mini radio stations. In those days there weren’t big giant stores like now (!!) – they were pretty specialist. Everyone who went in was looking for a record. So we built this network and gave them special treatment, picking the records we thought were hits and arguing our way through with the store managers. That’s how we built the Bell Records thing. One of those records Mike (this is not Mike Leander, and his surname is never revealed!) reckoned he could get some action with around the clubs he would visit when he was out and about in record shops, he phoned me one day, three months after we’d put the record out – we used to work records for months in this days -and he said ‘We’re getting a lot of action on this Gary Glitter B-side – will you stick with it?’ So we were gradually breaking down doors and barriers – hence a Gary Glitter B-side, and he wasn’t even on it, except going ‘Hey’! (I’m guessing this is Rock’n’Roll Pt. 2)

B-Side story again, like ‘Keep on Running’. Clff Richard was the first one

The fact was that in those days you didn’t go in the studio to make a single – you’d record three. When I was at Fontana you had to fight for studio time, so when you got it you were expected to come out of a three-hour session with three sides, recoded and mixed. I used to hang around and watch Dusty work. I loved watching her in the studio – here I’m watching a professional, someone who knows how to make records, the sheer frustration of trying to get what she was looking for, from the musicians and from herself. That’s when, for Philips, the long sessions started. Even The Beatles (initially) came into EMI on that ‘knock ‘e out…. couple of days to do your album’ sort of thing. Then some interesting people started to use the Philips studio. There were one-song sessions. I was hovering around when Johnny Franz did The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore – that was a good session to be around, and it didn’t take three hours. The Walker Brothers was Gary’s idea in the first place. I got to know him later when I had my own label (GTO), because I did No Regrets with them. We had a nice hit, a record I was very pleased with. I got to know Scott – well, you never get to know Scott – but I got to see and understand him. He felt so damaged by The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore even though it’s such a beautiful record

That was in the era of the teenage pop package tour scene

Which was not him. In many ways it destroyed him

It sounds as if you were almost at the end of your time with Mike Leander.

I’d actually spoken to Laurence Myers. Unfortunately Mike died a short time ago (April 1996), but he was very aware of it. I wasn’t doing anything for him because I didn’t believe his stuff was good enough. I loved the guy, smashing guy and then this thing (Gary Glitter) happened. After that we worked very closely together.

That snowballed into The Glitter Band, and then Showaddywaddy came along.

One’s learning all the time. Mike would talk about the records he was making. It was one of this things that if they trust your judgement, people will talk to you; they’ll come and say ‘do you think it’s alright?’ not ‘this is right.’ That was the first time I started to work a bit with artists rather than records. I came into the business on records – I wasn’t part of the sixties revolution at all. I wasn’t in the London club scene or anything – I was living outside. I was with the Ford Motor Company for God’s sake when it was all going on! And when I came in, it was probably with an old fashioned company still doing things the old way.

But you listened to the song and the sound rather than being swept away by whatever the artist wanted to do

I didn’t know any other way of doing it. The first time I started with Olav, that freshness he brought, that ‘go and look’, I did start going out. I did see one band that I brought to the company – I didn’t break them – Chas Chandler did. He turned them into Slade. But they were a bloody good live band. It was Jack (Baverstock) who renamed them Ambrose Slade – they were The Inbetweens but Jack didn’t like the name. There was some cock-up; Chas Chandler met them. There was some falling out – I think Olav was in by then – and with my blessing they were moved to Polydor. The guy obviously knew what he was doing and he insisted they were moved to Polydor (Polydor and Philips Records were both part of Polygram). If someone knows what they’re doing, let them do it. He was a committed man.

By the time I’d got to know Walter Yetnikov and Dick Asher at CBS, I’d really gone full pendulum swing. It still had to be the right record – I was still touch on that – but I’d grown more to understand that an artists has one life, and you’ve got to remember that. I started to move heavily towards the artist’s side as long as they were fair.

The business ought to be able to play the balance between its business needs and the fact that it is dealing with the people’s lives and creativity

Absolutely – that’s the major change that I’ve gone through since coming into the business in the sixties.

Did you get Bell merged into Arista?

No. As you know, Bell became very successful. I was there from 1970-1974. I was approached at a NARM convention by Marty Machat to have a meeting with Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler with the idea of starting a label under Atlantic’s auspices. I sat up talking with Jerry Wexler one night -a fascinating evening. At the same time Polygram, through Steve Gottlieb, had tried to persuade me not to leave the Polygram group as it was called in those days when I was working with Olav, to do the Bell thing, basically because he thought it would fail. He came back. I wasn’t sure of the Warner Brothers thing because it was American based. I been to America with Uttal, but I didn’t really know it that well and it didn’t feel right. Then Polygram offered me the chance to set up my own label. I resigned (from Bell) and that coincided with Alan Hirschfield of Columbia Pictures calling – he asked me to come to a meeting. I said ‘I will, but you’ve got to know I’m doing business with myself. I’m resigning and you’ve got to pay for the trip.’ He said ‘no, I want you to meet Clive Davis’ He said ‘we’re starting this Arista thing’ and he was lovely, saying ‘you’re the only guy who’s been doing anything. I’m sure we could work together. If I don’t get you, who am I going to get? I hear so many good things about you.’

Bob Johnston, Marty Machat, Leonard Cohen

But I had to do my own thing – my mind was made up. They offered me a fantastic change in salary, a piece of the profits, everything. It was probably the most stupid decision I ever made economically, and if they’d gone wrong it would have been insane. Clive is very opinionated and so am I, so it probably wouldn’t have worked. I was smiling to myself six months later when I’d started my own label and had three records in the Top 20 – and I could breathe a sigh of relief. Clive invited me to a Barry Manilow concert, and well done to him for what he did with Barry, but I couldn’t have worked with it; I just didn’t like (the idea),. That’s when I knew I had to work for myself. I’d fallen out with Larry Uttal when he started to tell me what to do in England, even though it was in England that it was all happening. You do have certain rights as a President, as a boss, but I don’t believe that gives you carte blanche to say ‘I believe you should put this record out’ and that’s why we began to fall out, because I just said ‘no, it ain’t going out; it’s as simple as that.’ And that would have happened with Clive, no question. He is a presidential president; his rule is law, so we wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. Fortunately it worked out.

Nancy Sinatra, Larry Uttal during Nancy Sinatra Recording Session at Mediasound Studios in New York City – May 25 1977 at Mediasound Studios in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage)
Barry Manilow and Clive Davis

The first record (on GTO) wasn’t a hit, I had to re-release it. It was Only you can by Fox. I had to get Kenny Young to change it – it was too slow. Because it didn’t happen he did change it. I think I made No regrets With the Walker Brothers. I can’t remember the order – Billy Ocean was among the first. Then I met Rod Temperton and Heatwave

Was it traumatic setting it up?

I didn’t have to find staff because Mike Peyton came with me. When I resigned, he resigned. My General Manager at Bell said the same thing ‘I’m not staying here if you’re not going to be here.’ I said ‘but I haven’t got any money to pay you.’ They said ‘it’ll be OK, it’ll work.’ They were very confident., Laurence did negotiate this deal with Polygram, so I wasn’t walking into the desperate unknown. I thought I’d probably have three years which would need finance, but I also knew personally that if there was any pressure, I created it. When you leave a label with nine records in the Top 50 you cannot not be successful. I thought I only had a year. I did feel the pressure. I had to have hits in that first year, absolutely, and I knew it would get harder at radio. I knew it would get harder at retail, I knew everything would get harder. If you’ve got goodwill, you’ve got the chance to make a great record. We got a bit fortunate. I started (at Bell) talking to Deke (Arlon) about Fox, but we hadn’t made a deal. When I left he said ‘I ain’t making a deal with Bell Records’. An agent in the north whom I knew, sent Heatwave to see me when they were over from Germany. When they went round to Bell Records they were told where I was. They said ‘can we see you (at Bell)?’and were told they had to make an appointment, so they came round to see me instead! They were the first act signed to the CBS/Columbia group to have a platinum album in America that wasn’t made in America. The UK company had never achieved it – that’s how important Heatwave were to CBS. Boogie Nightsthat was a record we made three times to get it right. In America Ronnie Alexenberg was running Epic and he just had a thing about the record. He released it three times – can you imagine anyone doing that now? He just knew that if he could only get it on the radio, that band was going to sell, not just the single, but the album – he loved the album. I remember him phoning me and saying ‘one last desperate attempt!’ I know Rod (Temperton) says ‘it’s the record’ and he was good that way – he wouldn’t butcher stuff like people do now. ‘ (Ronnie) said ‘can we just try it without the intro?’ I said, ‘I’m not even talking to Rod; take the intro off. I’ll explain it to him later.’ Radio picked up on it and through that Rod met Quincy (Jones). The first Heatwave single went platinum in America, the only platinum single not to make No.1 – it went to No.2. You’ve got to remember that in those days singles made money. You didn’t have the huge video budgets – singles sold in vast quantities then

We’ll leave it there, but we’ll come back to the changing face of the industry in the third and final part. Rod Temperton, top right with Heatwave is probably best remembered as the producer of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, died on September 25, 2016.

Text ©2020, David Hughes. As always all illustrations are just that and hopefully add to your reading experience

About dhvinyl

Lifelong obsession with music, 33 years in the music business, 43 years immersed in selling old records, 20 years very happily retired!
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