The London American Legend
MOTOWN’S DAWN AT DECCA WITH MIMI, MILNE & HALL
Dave Godin died 14 years ago this past Monday. When I paid tribute to him that day on Twitter, others retweeted the item throughout the week, and it was seen by thousands. (What also helped: an evocative photo of DG in the company of Berry Gordy and Record Mirror’s Norman Jopling.)
The Motown evangelists in Britain were a special breed, especially at the beginning. There’s a book about Godin currently in the works, and it’s bound to be intriguing, as well as a complement to Keith Rylatt’s excellent visual account of those Appreciation Society days, Hitsville! The Birth of Tamla Motown. Jopling was another key figure, writing about all manner of American R&B artists in the pages of widely-read Record Mirror.
But right here, a couple of other Brits are in the spotlight: Tony Hall and Geoff Milne. The former was Decca Records’ head of promotion during the ’60s, the latter managed the company’s revered London American label.
Some of the grey-haired among you will know that Hall was a Hitsville supporter, even though it was Decca’s arch competitor, EMI Records, which in 1963 licensed Motown for the U.K. and other international markets. Perhaps you also saw Tony when he MC’ed the Four Tops’ unforgettable first U.K. concert in 1966, then did the same for the group’s nationwide tour the following year.
For his part, Geoff Milne was running London American when “Come To Me” by Marv Johnson became the first-ever Motown release in Britain. It appeared on the Decca subsidiary label in May 1959 with – for those monitoring the minutiae – catalogue number HLT8865.
London American unveiled more Motown during 1960-61. This included Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” two singles by the Miracles (“Shop Around,” “Ain’t It Baby”) and even a Miracles EP, offering both sides of those two 45s and – joy of joys! – a cover photo of the group.
There were further Marv Johnson releases on London American, of course. These were part of the British label’s pre-existing license agreement with United Artists Records, to which Berry Gordy had signed the singer. “We had a catalogue deal with UA,” Milne explained to me in 2013, “whereas with Tamla, it was just a record-by-record deal. They sent us something, they were doing well at the time – or were about to – and they had no [British] outlet, so they sent the records to the London Records office in New York and they were passed to me.”
That Gotham unit was the domain of Mimi Trepel, whose job was to secure foreign distribution rights to the latest U.S. hits and hot prospects. She helped to transmit a generation’s worth of revolutionary music into Britain, most of it from bold, independent American labels whose output simply defined rock & roll and rhythm & blues: Imperial, Specialty, Sun, Atlantic, Chess, Vee-Jay, Philles – and Motown. “Mimi was the contact person,” said Milne. “She would then send the records on to me, and if we felt it was worthwhile, we’d cable her back and say, ‘Please acquire if possible.’ She would do the deal.”
MIMI WAS A MAGNET
During the ’40s and ’50s, Trepel had worked at New York area radio stations WMCA and WLIB before joining Decca. “She was lovely,” said Milne. “Mimi had spent most of her years in broadcasting, and her husband, Murray Jordan, was a disc jockey. People knew her, and when they found out she was at London, she was a magnet.” (For an interview with Trepel, check music historian John Broven‘s essential book, Record Makers and Breakers.)
As for the first Tamla singles issued on London American – those not covered by the United Artists deal – it’s possible that Trepel learned of them from attorney George Schiffer, who was beginning to handle legal work for Motown from his office on New York’s East 49th Street. A Viennese émigré, Schiffer had joined Warner Bros. during the 1950s, then taken up private practice and represented various entertainment clients.
“If a record was offered to us and it was in the Billboard or Cash Box charts,” said Milne, “we would normally take it, providing there wasn’t any exorbitant financial deal. A lot of the American companies had no outlets here at all.”
Decca rival EMI was also in the business of sourcing U.S. hits, “but we offered a good royalty and a label identification. EMI didn’t do this,” explained Milne. “We had the name of the original label on every London American record.” Indeed, “Recorded by TAMLA, Detroit” appeared on the label copy of the U.K. pressing of “Shop Around” (HL9276) when released in October 1961. To the unknowing or even the converted, these were magic words.
Marv Johnson was the only one of Berry Gordy’s artists who reached the British charts in 1960, when the London American release of “You Got What It Takes” took a trip into the Top 10. Income from its sales would have been channelled (minus various percentages) from Decca to United Artists and, eventually, to Motown. Fortunately, Johnson was also successful elsewhere in the British Commonwealth: specifically, in Australia, where his UA recordings were released on London, and where he visited for concerts and TV appearances.
Back in Britain, the task of promoting Decca and London American releases fell to the likes of Tony Hall – a task made difficult by the limited number of broadcast outlets. He remembered the early Tamla releases on London American in that 1959-61 period, “but it was mainly through the Beatles – and George Harrison, in particular – that I heard the serious stuff.”
In a parallel universe, Hall could have promoted the serious stuff on Decca’s behalf, but the company missed the opportunity to become Motown’s British licensee for a second time. Berry Gordy travelled to London in March 1963 to meet potential partners before his one-year deal with independent Oriole Records expired in the summer. Decca was among the candidates, and Gordy – together with Motown executives Esther Edwards and Barney Ales – visited the firm’s headquarters by the River Thames.
Neither Hall nor Geoff Milne recalled being present at the appointment, but both imagined the scene. According to Milne, the Motown trio met Decca chairman Sir Edward Lewis and his right-hand man, Bill Townsley. “I doubt Sir Edward would have seen them by himself.” Townsley was known as “Dr. No” around Decca and in the industry. “He could be very negative about lots of things,” said Milne. “It was an attitude he had, he was a doubting Thomas, although I never had any difficulty with him.”
Hall was clear that Decca could have secured the Motown license “if they’d been able to take a long-term view, and shared my enthusiasm.” He continued, “I was the guy who would have had to promote it, and I know it would have been a challenge– but I’d like to have done it, because any success would have been extremely satisfying.” The roadblock was Townsley, “whose classic quote was, ‘Take it from me, Sir Edward, Motown will never mean anything here in England.’”
THE MOTOWN CRUSADE
Townsley wouldn’t have been so impolite at the meeting, but given the circumstances, it was no surprise that Motown subsequently chose EMI as its international partner. Nonetheless, Tony Hall said his passion for Hitsville remained strong. “It was a crusade to all of us,” he said, “because we genuinely loved the music, and we wanted to bring it to a wider audience.”
For a record company employee, Hall’s public profile was high. He was on the airwaves, fronting Decca-sponsored programmes on Radio Luxembourg’s evening pop music output, heard across Britain. He also wrote a weekly column for Record Mirror, which debuted in February 1965 – with a piece about Tamla Motown. “I was one of the first to wave the T-M flag,” he declared. “I became converted thanks largely to the Beatles – and my former assistant, Tony King. When “the boys” lived across the street from me, it was The Miracles, Mary Wells and The Marvelettes all night, every night. I repaid part of my debt by introducing them to Marvin Gaye. Strangely enough, they’d never heard him. Ask George or Ringo.”
(That said, most of that particular Record Mirror column was devoted to Hall’s criticism of a number of recent Tamla Motown releases, and the label’s failure to meet commercial expectations in the U.K. “So,” he concluded, “I’ve criticised. But, I hope, constructively.”)
In October 1965, Hall visited Motown for the first time, and was made most welcome, which is apparent from the adjacent photo of him with Esther Edwards, Martha Reeves, Chris Clark, the Lewis Sisters, and Little Lisa, outside the front of Hitsville. “I’d been to Nashville, to Detroit, New York and then L.A. to stay with Phil Spector, which was a frightening experience.
“In Detroit, I remember, Berry Gordy gave me the keys to the city. I did have a picture of that, but it’s long gone. I attended a couple of sessions, and heard the wonderful Motown rhythm section, and met several of the artists.” Hall also recalled Gordy’s interest in Decca star Tom Jones and the idea of recording an album with him, although this never came to fruition.
One year later, Hall stepped up his evangelism on Motown’s behalf, and once again, there was a Beatles connection. Their manager, Brian Epstein, had recently bought the Savile Theatre in London, to present plays and, on Sunday nights, pop shows. On November 13, 1966, Epstein brought the Four Tops to the Savile for their first British concert appearances. Hall was MC for the evening, an occasion so successful that Epstein’s NEMS Enterprises brought the Tops back the following year for their first nationwide U.K. tour. Again, Hall was recruited as Master of Ceremonies.
“They were fantastic concerts. Decca gave me two weeks off, to go on the road in a very, shall we say, smoke-filled car. Talk about getting stoned passively. I also remember – and I really believe this – that at one of those concerts, possibly the first one, I was the first guy to get audiences up on their feet to actually join in. I think that’s the first time any British audience ever got to its feet.” (As a witness, I can vouch for the fact that the crowd at the Savile did exactly what Hall described.)
The former DJ had another recollection of the group’s 1967 tour. “They spent the whole time rehearsing their next single – the whole time,” he said. “Levi was walking around singing his lead, so he really felt the lyric when they got around to recording it.” Hall remembered the song as “Bernadette,” the vocal for which was cut in Detroit at the end of January that year.
Later in ’67, Hall left Decca to launch his own independent promotion firm, Tony Hall Enterprises, and continued to be an influential, accomplished figure in the British music industry. He maintained some Detroit connections, although EMI Records’ policy of not using independents denied his firm the opportunity to plug Tamla Motown releases (“I would have loved to”). Even so, his name appeared on the cover of one LP associated with Hitsville: as executive producer of Love At First Sight by Sounds Nice, licensed from EMI – where else? – and issued in the U.S. on Rare Earth Records. The instrumental album featured 22-year-old organist Tim Mycroft, whom Hall managed. “It was produced for me by Gus Dudgeon, and it was released – I use the word loosely – on Christmas Eve. But I got a lot of airplay.”
Hall also observed that Love At First Sight contained a Motown copyright, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” Berry Gordy was pleased; Dave Godin might even have approved, too.
Music notes: Marv Johnson’s early recordings are digitally ubiquitous, mostly via public domain compilations and playlists. The same applies to much of the music on which London American was built. The Sounds Nice album lives on YouTube, in full. Bless.