With the notable exception of the mighty Jack Good, Larry Parnes was very probably the most important non-performing figure in the history of UK Rock’n’Roll. Indeed, without Parnes (and certainly, without Good!) UK R’n’R would have been an entirely different proposition… one which hardly bears contemplating!!!
Generally speaking, success owes everything to good luck and good timing, and Laurence Maurice Parnes (3rd September, 1929 – 4th August 1989) was perhaps the classic case of a man being in precisely the right place at the right time. Rock’n’Roll was very much in its infancy in the UK and he had no real competition, therefore there were no ‘rules’ either for him to follow, or to break. From a standing start, with no experience whatsoever, he became the most powerful man in UK Pop (a contemporaneous BBC Panorama documentary described him as a ‘Beat Svengali’), active as a manager, agent, impresario and music publisher; just about the only area he didn’t get involved with was records, presumably because artists’ royalties in that era were so poor (and his 50% of next-to-nothing would have been negligible!) Due to his spectacular successes, some wag christened him “Parnes, Shillings And Pence” (most sources attribute this to Marty Wilde), a nickname which subsequently stuck throughout his life.
A well-heeled young man, with ambitions to get into the entertainment industry (his passions were musicals and the theatre), Parnes had made his money in the rag trade and was persuaded to invest in a touring play, Women Of The Streets (originally titled The House Of Shame), which earned some notoriety (not to mention national press coverage) when the show’s publicist, John Kennedy, hired a couple of actresses to stand outside the theatre, dressed as prostitutes. It subsequently ran for many months and Parnes would later comment: “I got my money back and made fifteen shillings profit.”
Several months later Parnes’ and Kennedy’s paths crossed again, in unlikely circumstances – as Larry later recalled: “He (Kennedy) met me one night in the street and asked me what I thought about Rock’n’Roll. I said that I didn’t know what Rock’n’Roll was – which I didn’t, in those days – and he said ‘Well, it’s something that’s going to be very big… I’ve seen this boy I think has got talent… I need a businessman behind me… would you come and see him?’ I went into this little coffee club to see him work, that night, and I thought there was something tremendously exciting about him. Afterwards, when he was introduced to me, he said ‘I understand, guv, that you’re going to be my new manager?!’ It all happened very quickly!”
It transpired that a small-time management team had hired Kennedy to drum up publicity for a young merchant seaman, Tommy Hicks, a singer/guitarist who was playing the various Soho coffee bars and clubs, where he’d already built a bit of a reputation. Kennedy had instinctively realised that Hicks possessed genuine star quality, and he wanted to muscle in on the action. Hicks had been underage when he’d signed his original contract – he was still just nineteen – at which point Parnes and Kennedy approached his parents with a new, legal management contract, and took over.
Within just a couple of weeks, Tommy Steele was well on his way. His first record, ‘Rock With The Caveman’, was climbing the charts (it would peak at No.13, in November ’56), he’d made his TV debut on Off The Record, he’d recorded a cameo appearance in a movie, Kill Me Tomorrow, he was out on tour with his new backing group, The Steelmen, and Larry Parnes was on a self-induced crash course on how to manage a teenage idol. Tommy later recalled: “I was taken to Decca a couple of days later, to meet a feller called Hugh Mendl, a very soft-spoken English Gentleman – who really did have that accent, that had ‘Etonian’ or ‘Oxford’ or whatever, written all over it. He was like a headmaster… he was ‘rather pleased’ that I had decided to come along to see him that afternoon, and ‘How wonderful’ it would be if we could ‘trip along to the recording studio and have a little listen to ‘the vocé’.’ I didn’t know what he was on about… I thought ‘It’s in code, it’s all in code, all this!…”
“Lionel Bart, Michael Pratt and I had formed a group called The Cavemen and we played Country songs and Comedy sketches… it was called ‘Country & Comedy’… that was in the Summer of ’56 when I was on leave from the navy – and our theme song was ‘Rock With The Caveman’. It was done as a joke, it was a spoof song – if you listen to the lyrics today, it’s a satire song…”
In the context of his full, 50-odd year career (which is still thriving, although he’s now in his mid-seventies), Tommy’s days as a Pop star were relatively brief. But he was nonetheless the UK’s first proper Rock’n’Roller (you really can’t count the various MOR and Jazz singers/musicians who’d been trying to cash in on the genre’s sudden success) and for some eighteen months or so he was a full-on Pop star, with riots, hordes of screaming girls and all the rest of it, wherever and whenever he appeared in public. He sold truckloads of records (including a couple of No.1 LPs) and appeared in a trio of phenomenally successful low-budget movies (notably the autobiographical Tommy Steele Story); but Larry very quickly steered his career towards that of an all-round entertainer, which was in essence where Tommy’s ambitions lay. Nonetheless, between 1956 and 1961 he chalked up some twenty hit singles, including his memorable reading of Guy Mitchell’s ‘Singing The Blues’ (No.1, January ’57), ‘Handful Of Songs’ (No.5, September ’57) and a great cover of Ritchie Valens’ ‘Come On Let’s Go’ (No.10, December ’58), whilst his version of Charlie Gracie’s ‘Butterfly’ had appeared on the All Star Hit Parade No.2 EP, which also made the singles’ charts (No.15, August ’57).
On the back of Tommy’s extraordinary, virtually overnight success, Kennedy persuaded Parnes that they could repeat the process with his younger brother, and so they also tried to turn Colin Hicks into a R’n’R star. But although he was big on ‘attitude’ and certainly talked the talk, young Colin possessed precious little of his brother’s talent and after cutting just a couple of unsuccessful 45s, the better of which was his debut, ‘Wild Eyes And Tender Lips’/‘Empty Arms Blues’, his contract was cancelled (ironically, he went on to become a big star in Italy for a couple of years). At this point, Kennedy – who was already bored by Rock’n’Roll (he’d hoped to break Colin Hicks into movies) – split with Parnes and concentrated instead on non-showbiz interests, mainly pursuing the life of a professional gambler.
Larry Parnes rarely (if ever) acknowledged any failings, and so Colin Hicks’ name was never mentioned again (in all probability, he viewed Hicks as Kennedy’s project/failure rather than his own). Consequently, he always referred to Marty Wilde as his second discovery: “Because everything had happened with Tommy, I felt that maybe I should try one more person – but someone totally different to Tommy – to see whether or not I’ve got any talent for helping to produce and promote these people. Then came Marty Wilde. Totally different to Tommy, in every way… six foot four… different personality, entirely. But then after Marty, I said to myself, ‘Well, I’m still not sure… I think I’d better try again’.”
Larry had indeed been actively trying to ‘discover’ a new act, to the extent that he was actively out and about, checking out the coffee bars, small clubs and dancehalls. He’d all but given up hope when songwriter Lionel Bart tipped him off about a tall, strapping, handsome, eighteen year-old, ‘Reg somebody-or-other’, who sang just like Elvis and was performing at The Condor Club. By the time Larry got along to the club the singer had gone, but he was able to get Reg’s address and turned up at his house, the next day, with a management contract already made out in the name of Reginald Leonard Smith.
Marty later recalled: “My father said ‘Who is he?’ and I said ‘Well, he’s about the best Rock manager on the scene, today… he’s got Tommy Steele, and that’s good enough for me… providing we get the right deal.’ I think originally he wanted a 50:50 split, which we changed to 60:40 in our favour… and that’s how our contract remained, right through until the end. Which is a much better deal than lots of the other artists got. Some of ’em were on about £20 per week plus all the food they could eat!”
Rightly surmising that you couldn’t have a Pop star named Reg, Larry re-christened him, and so the grooming process began – Marty recalls: “I always loved fighting… heavyweight fighting has always been one of my great passions, so I called myself Reg Patterson, my real name being Reg, but I lopped off the Smith and put in the Patterson, because Floyd Patterson was the then world champion, and I thought he was marvellous! Larry thought the name was awful, and he said ‘I think your first name should be Marty’, and I said ‘Come off it, that sounds like some crew-catted American blip!’ But he insisted… he’d seen this film with Ernest Borgnine in, and he said that I had a lot of the qualities of ‘Marty’… I said ‘I’ve not even seen the film!’ and he said ‘Well, the name would really suit you.’ We were always gamblers – he taught me that. I was a shocking gambler, I’d gamble on two flies crawling up a wall! – and he said ‘All right, I’ll flip a coin and heads I win, tails you lose!’ And he won, and then it came to the surname! I wanted Patterson, again, but he’s said, ‘I think it should be Wilde’ and I’ve gone ‘Oh no! No, no no… I can’t be ‘Wilde’!… that’s terrible!!!’ And he won again, so there I was, saddled with this Marty Wilde name… but after about a week, it really dawned on me what a great name it was!…”
Although he was an incredibly popular live performer from the outset, this time it took a while longer to get a hit record away. After Decca Records, in their infinite wisdom, turned him down, Larry found it relatively easy to secure him a recording contract with Philips (indeed, he became their first Rock’n’Roll singer) once he’d told them that Marty was about to become a regular on 6-5 Special. However, Marty’s first few records did him little real justice, as he found himself lumbered with session musicians with no feel for Rock’n’Roll. He eventually charted with an atmospheric cover of Jody Reynolds’ doomy ‘Endless Sleep’ in the summer of 1958 (it peaked at No.4), following which he was off and running: “My great regret was that I wasn’t strong enough as a person… I couldn’t fight everybody… I was too young, too green. I couldn’t really fight my A&R man and I couldn’t fight Larry, and everybody else… it was a shame, because we had a group whom I’d been working with on the road, and we could have really used some of those musicians on the sessions. I always wanted to use my own musicians… if you listen to my early records, you can hear a lot of the solos, they were normally played by a lot of the Jazzers, and it really shows… there was no Rock’n’Roll feel whatsoever. They didn’t know anything about the music… they knew about Jazz, but that’s all. There was always this wimpy guitar, and wimpy drums… there just wasn’t the sound there. I wanted some kid who was really up for the music… where the music was part of him… but they wouldn’t let me. They insisted that I use people like Phil Seamen, who was on drums… although I must say that if you listen to ‘Endless Sleep’, it’s really quite weird because he’s playing brushes. He and I had a great row about that in the studio… but it worked!… the brushes actually worked. I would have got him to use sticks, and do the real Rock’n’Roll thing – but it had a different feel by using those Jazz musicians. But I never enjoyed those early records, apart from ‘Endless Sleep’.”
Marty’s regular backing group, The Wildcats – who featured the late Big Jim Sullivan on guitar – eventually got to record with him the following year, and the difference was palpable. During 1959 he released four massive hits, simply magnificent covers of Ritchie Valens’ ‘Donna’ (No.3, May ’59), Dion & The Belmonts’ ‘Teenager In Love’ (No.2, July ’59) and Phil Phillips’ ‘Sea Of Love’ (No.3, November ’59), as well as the self-penned ‘Bad Boy’ (which peaked at No.7 in January ’60). The latter disc even made the US charts, climbing to No.45, at a time when British Rock’n’Roll records were barely even being released in America. However, Wilde’s days as a Teen Idol were numbered once he’d announced his engagement (which Parnes – rightly – thought was tantamount to career suicide). This in turn served to hasten the further announcement of an unwise change in musical direction, in which Marty (presumably, at Parnes’ behest) was relaunched as a ‘serious’ singer, something along the lines of South-East London’s answer to Bobby Darin. The comment famously ascribed to Marty at this time was: “I’m approaching twenty-one now, and I think it’s about time to branch out. I want to drop most of the Rock stuff and do the real class stuff like Sinatra.” Predictably, perhaps, the experiment was summarily unsuccessful (his big band-backed LP, The Versatile Mr Wilde, was a spectacular failure) and before too long, Marty was back to cutting quality Pop records again – the self-penned ‘Tomorrow’s Clown’ (No.28, November ’61) being a case in point.
By the late 50s, Parnes was cautiously building his ‘Stable Of Stars’, commensurate with the ongoing R’n’R explosion, which saw new, home-grown R’n’R heroes being unveiled, virtually every week. And whilst Larry wasn’t signing new acts quite that frequently, he was gradually starting to add to his roster. Next up, he launched Vince Eager (the former Roy Taylor) – although to be brutally frank, he’d actually stolen him from 2I’s coffee bar proprietor Paul Lincoln, who’d been managing The Vagabonds, having installed them as his house band (Taylor was merely their singer at that stage). However, Lincoln hadn’t got around to organising a formal contract with the boys, so the ever-astute Parnes simply stepped in, tidied up the paperwork, and signed them up.
Whilst he wasn’t anywhere near as big a star as he’d nowadays have you believe, Vince was nonetheless a competent and popular live act, and became extremely well-known as a result of regular TV appearances on Oh Boy!, Boy Meets Girls and Drumbeat! Although ultimately destined to never quite “make it”, it does seem somewhat incongruous that he was unable to get at least one record away, as he cut nine singles – for Decca, Parlophone and Top Rank – between 1958-61. Like most of the UK’s early Rock’n’Rollers his records were virtually all covers, the pick of which were probably The Kendall Sisters’ ‘Yea Yea’ (which was cut as a single but withdrawn, eventually appearing on his 1958 EP Vince Eager & The Vagabonds), Gene Vincent’s ‘Five Days, Five Days’ (1958), Rod Bernard’s ‘This Should Go On Forever’ (1959), and Conway Twitty’s ‘Lonely Blue Boy’ (1960 – a song previously recorded by both Elvis Presley and Marty Wilde, as ‘Danny’).
However, as we all know, Larry’s next major discovery was Ron Wycherley – who later recalled: “Larry Parnes’ Rock & Roll show came to Birkenhead – that was the other side of the Mersey – which was headed by Marty Wilde. I thought that Marty Wilde was a pretty good Rock’n’Roll singer, and I decided to go across and try to sell some of these songs I’d been writing, to him. Anyway, I went round to the stage door, and there wasn’t even a stage doorman, and so I walked in, guitar in hand, and I saw a very important-looking man coming along the corridor – I think he was wearing evening dress, with very black hair – anyway, he asked me what was I doing there, and I said I was looking for Marty Wilde… he asked my reason, and I said I had some songs that he might be interested in recording. He turned out to be Larry Parnes and I was taken to Marty Wilde’s dressing room…”
Marty Wilde takes up the story: “Larry said ‘There’s this kid outside,’ introduced me to him and said, ‘He’s got these songs, and wants you to hear them… tell me what you think.’ So there was this guy, with his acoustic guitar, and I said ‘Start your songs’ and he sang about three or four, and I said ‘They’re great!…they sound great!!!’”
Wycherley continues: “I played these songs to Marty, who looked at Larry and said ‘I think that he should do these songs himself.’ The very same night, a new comedian was starting, and he was compering the show – his name was Jimmy Tarbuck… still is! – so it was all arranged that Jimmy would go on and say ‘We have a local lad here, who is going to sing a couple of his own songs for you – let’s give him a big hand!’ So when it came to this point, I really was suffering from stage fright, very bad nerves, and I decided at the very last moment not to go through the curtains. Eventually, I was pushed through the curtains by Larry Parnes, and suddenly I was in this great big light, with the microphone stand in front of me. I was really, really, really nervous and as I started to sing I was so nervous that my knees were shaking and everyone thought ‘Wow! Who’s this guy with the shaking knees?’ Anyway, it went down very well. Meanwhile, Larry was sitting in the audience with a big fat cigar, and later on asked me if I’d liked to join the show, rehearse with one of the bands, and carry on with the tour.”
Like Marty ‘Reg Patterson’ Wilde, Ronnie already had a stage name that he occasionally used, and was keen to retain. Parnes confirms: “He was doing the odd night here and there when he got a night off the ferryboats – he used to work the ferryboats, as you probably know – and he was calling himself, ‘Stean Wade’.”
Ronnie continues: “Stean Wade! That came from the days when I liked Country & Western music. Anyway, I had a call from London, I spoke to Larry’s office, and they said that when I got back to London I had an interview with the Daily Mirror. So, before going to see them, Larry was going to give me a little chat on what to expect, what kinds of questions they’d ask, etc – which really did help. Then he said ‘What do you think about having a stage name?’ and I said ‘Well, I’d feel fine about it – I’d like to change it, anyway.’ And he said ‘What do you think about Billy Fury?’”
Larry: “He was a very shy, modest person, Billy – always was, right through his career. He loved animals… would do anything for animals… loved the country life… didn’t like nightclubbing or anything like that. He was very modest… a lovely person. And I said to him ‘You’ve got to have an ordinary, friendly name – look at Billy Cotton, and his ‘Wakey Wakey’ show… what a friendly man! ‘Billy’, that’s it, ‘Billy’!!! And now, you’re going to be a symbol, one day, you’re going to be really Tops, in this country, no question about it. We want a name that drives everything home, to everybody, before they even get to see you.’ And I suddenly said, ‘Fury!’”
Billy: “Well, I liked ‘Billy’, because I have an Uncle Billy, but I wasn’t too keen on the ‘Fury’, so we tossed a coin on it. I actually won the toss and so I thought that the next day there was going to be a picture of me in the Daily Mirror and it was going to say ‘Stean Wade’! So, the next day, there was a bang-bang-bang on my flat door, and I opened it, and one of my friends was there (probably Hal Carter), with a copy of the Daily Mirror, and there they had ‘Billy Fury’!!!”
Although a relative latecomer to the scene, Billy was arguably the UK’s finest Rock’n’Roller – certainly, his reputation has not only remained intact, it has continued to sustain, grow and expand over the ensuing decades.
Larry immediately set to grooming him for success – a trip to the tailor’s was followed by a visit to the barber’s – and within just weeks, Bill had a brief role in a television play, Strictly For The Sparrows, in which he sat around in a coffee bar, strumming his guitar and looking moody. But it wasn’t all plain sailing; looking for a record deal, Parnes initially approached Philips (Marty’s label), confident that they would bite his hand off for his latest protégé – but to his eternal astonishment, the buffoons turned him down. Larry next tried Tommy Steele’s label, Decca, whose head of A&R, Frank Lee, saw in Billy precisely the same qualities that Parnes had so instinctively recognised.
Billy debuted in January ’59 with the exquisite ‘Maybe Tomorrow’, introducing it on a couple of low-key TV Pop progs, Cool For Cats and The Jack Jackson Show; but it wasn’t until he sang it on Oh Boy! that the disc began to move. A couple of weeks later it was in the Top 20 (it would peak at No.18 in April), by which time Bill had already established himself as an Oh Boy! regular, where he was starting to outgun all the established heavies, even Marty Wilde.
He registered his first top tenner a year later with ‘Colette’ (No.9, April ’60), which was followed almost immediately with the celebrated 10” LP The Sound Of Fury, which stands unchallenged as the finest R’n’R album ever recorded by a British artist (it even made the UK album charts, at No.18 in June ’60). ‘That’s Love’ was spun off as a single (it peaked at No.19 the same month) although by common consent, the standout track was ‘Turn My Back On You’. ‘Wondrous Place’ – which would become something of a signature tune – made No.25 in October ’60, and Billy registered his first real mega-hit across the summer of ’61 with the career-defining ‘Halfway To Paradise’ (ironically, a song he had little time for), which spent three months in the Top 10, peaking at No.3 in August, setting him up for a five-year run of success.
By the summer of ’59, Larry had seven singers under contract, viz: Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Billy Fury, Dickie Pride (aka Richard Knellar), Johnny Gentle (the former John Askew) and Duffy Power (Ray Howard), and he was about to expand his empire via the further addition of ‘old-timer’ Terry Dene (albeit on a trial basis), a token girlie rocker, Sally Kelly, and the irrepressible Joe Brown.
By common consensus, “the one that got away” was Dickie Pride, whom everyone insists was the most talented member of the entire Parnes circus. Hal Carter (Billy Fury’s lifelong friend and Parnes’ road manager) later recalled: “Dickie, God rest his soul, was possibly the best vocalist and musician of the lot. He was very, very talented, but his head was gone… it was just one of those things. He was a genius in my opinion, but with a couple of flakes missing… the trouble was, you never knew when you went into the room whether you were going to get the genius or a madman. He eventually died from a brain haemorrhage… he was on drugs, and things, but he died from a brain tumour. But Dickie was very, very talented… he played piano, guitar, bass, drums, saxophone, and he had this incredible voice…he could sing R’n’R, ballads, everything. He certainly had the talent, built-in talent, but he destroyed it… he was into bad habits. Dickie, was… well, nobody told Dickie what to do – and in fact if you told him something to do, he’d do the opposite. Not that he wanted to, but he’d do it just for the hell of it. He was just one of those people. Uncontrollable – he was like a wild stallion… there was no way you could do anything with him. If you tried to put a saddle on, he’d bite you!”
Richard Knellar was discovered singing in The Castle, in Tooting, by pianist Russ Conway, and – according to his press biog – he attended The Royal College Of Church Music and had sung in the choir at Canterbury Cathederal. Whatever the case, he was a memorable live performer, dubbed “The Sheik Of Shake” due to his (ahem) unusual ‘gimmick’ of vibrating like a pneumatic road drill whilst singing. Larry had no problem in getting him a contract with EMI’s Columbia label – but it was then that his troubles began. On disc he was hampered by hamfisted session players and non-R’n’R arrangements, and consequently his records did him little real justice. He debuted in 1959 with covers of Little Richard’s ‘Slippin’n’Slidin’ and Frankie Sal’s ‘Fabulous Cure’, which were enthusiastic enough rockers (their inappropriate backing notwithstanding), but his third release, a cover of Jerry Wallace’s ‘Primrose Lane’, found him deep in Michael Holliday territory. Ironically it would be his only chart entry (No.28, October ’59) leading to a similarly-styled follow-up, ‘Betty Betty (Go Steady With Me)’ (a dodgy Brill Building rockaballad, cowritten by Jeff Barry). A rather better illustration of Dickie’s talents can be gleaned from the ‘duet’ he sings with Marty Wilde and Cliff Richard on Oh Boy! in May ’59, viz: ‘Three Cool Cats’. In 1961 Larry coerced Dickie to cut an album of standards, Pride And Prejudice, backed by the Ted Heath Orchestra. It was as bad as it sounds, and it effectively finished his career. Not long afterwards Parnes discovered that Dickie was taking drugs, and tore up his contract. One of R’n’R’s earliest casualties, he died in 1969, at the age of 27, allegedly from an accidental overdose.
After winning a talent competition at the Locarno Ballroom in Streatham, apprentice carpenter Johnny Askew/Gentle’s ‘audition’ had consisted of going to Parnes’ office for a visual once-over, and singing along to one of Marty Wilde’s old records. He was subsequently sent to Philips Records for a recording test, which he duly passed, at which point he was offered a three-year management contract. He later recalled: “I read through it briefly, but it was all legal jargon to me and I couldn’t make sense of it. I seem to remember backing out of it a bit, because I wasn’t happy with the salary… I think it was £15 a week, and I’d been earning £16 a week, and I hesitated to show a little bit of resistance, hoping that he might push up the £15. But he said ‘If you don’t sign it, you won’t get the record contract… Philips won’t sign you unless you’re managed by me!’ – so I ended up having to sign it, anyway…”
Gentle’s first single, the self-penned ‘Wendy’, was very nearly a hit, but that was as close as he got. Its follow-up ‘I Like The Way’ failed to make any impact and after three further releases, the game was up. His live version of ‘Mack The Knife’, from Saturday Club, probably gives an indication of the direction in which he would like to have taken his career. He later commented: “It just wasn’t an exciting name… it didn’t conjure up anything for the kids who went to watch the shows… I mean, Parnes had Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Tommy Steele – Johnny Gentle?!” In 1962 he changed his stage name to Darren Young, but with no greater success, and by the mid-60s he’d joined The Viscounts. But Gentle had enjoyed an extraordinary stroke of luck when he was sent off on a tour of Scotland in May 1960, accompanied by a backing group whom Parnes had auditioned in Liverpool a few weeks earlier, The Silver Beetles. He has been able to dine out on the experience regularly over the ensuing decades, appearing at Beatles’ fan conventions and/or as a talking head in just about any Beatles documentary he could encroach upon. Indeed, in 1998 he even wrote a book about it, Johnny Gentle & The Beatles: First-Ever Tour!
Another hugely-talented singer who underachieved, fairly substantially, was Duffy Power, né Raymond Howard. Larry spotted him at a talent show in Shepherds Bush, and swiftly arranged an audition with Fontana Records, which he duly passed. Ray – who was already known as ‘Duffy’ by his friends – subsequently found himself saddled with the recently-deceased Tyrone Power’s surname, although he’s borne it comfortably enough over the years! He was actually a superb singer, although you would hardly have guessed this from his records – because Fontana had about as much empathy with Rock’n’Roll as the (then) Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. He debuted in 1959 with a cover of Bobby Darin’s ‘Dream Lover’, which missed out comprehensively to the (far better) original version (which topped the UK charts) – the flip, Ritchie Valens’ ‘That’s My Little Suzie’, would have been the better bet. His cover of Bobby Rydell’s derivative ‘Kissin’ Time’ did little better, whilst a big band-driven revival of Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, the following year, really has to be heard to be believed! The Bluesy ‘What Now’, a 1961 release, gave the first recorded inkling of what he was capable of, and it signalled the way ahead for Duffy, who would go on to carve out a considerable reputation as a Blues singer and harp-player.
Meanwhile, the one artist whom Larry was famously unable to persuade to accede to his (by now, obligatory) change-of-name process, was of course Joe Brown.
Parnes had stumbled across Joe in August ’59 when he needed a guitarist in a hurry to deputise for Kenny Packwood in his ‘house band’, The Beat Boys, at an audition-cum-gig at the Southend Odeon. The gig was on the Sunday evening, and Jack Good had arranged to attend the afternoon soundcheck/rehearsal, as a de facto audition for his forthcoming TV series, Boy Meets Girls. Joe had been recommended to Larry by 2I’s manager Tom Littlewood, and he’d paid him a princely 10/- for the gig (in his autobiography, Joe commented that he probably ended up a couple of quid out of pocket on the night!). Larry hadn’t given him a second thought until the audition ended, whereupon Good – who wasn’t much interested in any of the singers – asked who the spikey-headed guitarist was; as Joe recalls: “I think if Jack hadn’t have liked me, and wanted to use me on the show, then I’d never have seen him (Parnes) again. But it was like a ready made deal… ‘Who’s this boy’s manager?’… and up spake The Parnes in his best Damon Runyon, ‘Why, it is nobody but me.’ All of a sudden, I had a manager!”
Larry takes up the story: “Jack Good said ‘I want to ask you a question… who’s the guitarist?’ and I said ‘Oh, that’s Joe Brown,’ then Jack asked ‘Hmmm… can he sing?’ Now, I’ll be quite honest with you, I hadn’t got the slightest idea, but I said ‘Oh yes… Joe?… A very good voice… he can sing everything… Country & Western, Blues, Rock’n’Roll…’ And Jack said ‘I’d like to arrange for Joe to do twenty-six ‘Boy Meets Girls’… he’ll be playing with the studio band… I might sometimes put him out on his own… I’ll hear him sing, and see if he’s as good as you say…’ We left it at that, then he added ‘I want him at rehearsals in four/five days,’ and so I did a deal with Jack to pay for the rehearsals and everything. After Jack left, I called Joe over and said ‘Can you come to the office tomorrow morning?’ He asked ‘Why?’, and I said ‘I’m going to sign you up.’ He came up to the office the following day, we had the contract all typed out, he signed, and because he was under twenty-one we had to get his dear, dear, dear mother to sign also, and then I said to him ‘Well, you’ve got twenty-six television shows.’ He said ‘What?! You work quick, don’t you, mate?!’
It’s probably fair to say that Larry found Joe something of a handful – as Joe confirms: “We had a great relationship, Larry and I… we sort of hated each other! Well, it wasn’t hate… I used to take the mickey out of him something rotten… and of course Larry never had a sense of humour at all, and he couldn’t work me out. We didn’t see eye to eye – which was hardly surprising, as he had eyes in the back of his head! I laugh about it now and admire him for his good business sense… in fact, I do have a lot of respect for him. But there was a time when… I suppose, when someone owns you – or, you think they do – the only way to keep your self-respect is to rebel, and that’s just what I did. We had some amazing ding-dongs and they were mostly my fault, because I could never resist winding him up… Every time he tried to build an image, I wasn’t gonna have it! I mean, he wanted to change my name – to Elmer Twitch! And I just wasn’t having any of it… I just couldn’t see myself walking around with that on me American Express card! The funny thing was, he failed totally with me – to create an image with me – because I’ve always been the same, you see, and I thought that was a good enough ‘image’. He said ‘You can’t walk around with a name like Joe Brown… you want something that rolls off the tongue.’ I thought he was gonna call me Dribble… I thought, ‘He’s bloody nutty, this bloke!!!’ It was a battle of wits from the start to the finish, but Larry had a lot of good points. It was a good apprenticeship – and alright, so you don’t earn much on an apprenticeship…”
Probably because of his Cockney persona, record companies were vaguely unsettled by Joe and didn’t quite know what to do with him. He cut three singles for Decca, the first of which paired up a couple of Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman rockaballads, ‘People Gotta Talk’ and ‘Comes The Day’. When that failed to register he revived an old Music Hall favourite, ‘Darktown Strutters’ Ball’, which made the charts (No.24, March ’60). A change of label, to Pye, saw him return to the lower reaches of the charts with ‘Shine’ (No.33, February ’61), following which he was switched to Pye’s new Piccadilly subsidiary. ‘Stick Around’ – a song also recorded by Billy Fury – made for an interesting B-side, and although it would be another eighteen months before he finally cracked it big with ‘Picture Of You’, he very nearly did it with ‘I’m Henery The Eighth I Am’, which gained extensive radio play during the Summer and Autumn of 1961, and is widely regarded as having been a hit for Joe (it remains one of his most enduring numbers).
The more successful he became, the more Larry came in for criticism from the media and other external sources. His business practices were often called to question – particularly the fact that (with the notable exception of Marty Wilde) he paid his ‘boys’ a weekly wage, rather than a percentage of their earnings. Hal Carter recalls: “The system that he worked – and a lot of people knocked him for it – was that the stars paid for the up-and-coming ones. Billy and Vince and the others were all on wages – Marty was never on wages, because his father wouldn’t allow it – but the other guys were all on wages. Today, it would be scandalous. It was a sliding scale… Billy was on £20 a week, going up to £40 a week, to £80 a week, to £160 a week. It doubled, each year. But remember, that was pocket money. All his clothes were bought, his flat was paid for, his food was paid for, any expenses – his car was paid for – everything was paid for. That money was just in his pocket. And his record royalties were 50:50 with Larry. So, in those times, when you think that in 1959, a working man down the mines was earning between £13-15 a week, and he had a whole family to support… so when you put it against that, that was £20, or £40 he had in his pocket, in cash, and then everything else was paid for.”
Another area where Larry came in for some stick were repeated accusations that he overworked his artists, particularly Billy Fury, who had a heart defect due to childhood illnesses. Certainly, Marty Wilde felt the pinch: “Yeah, Larry worked his acts extremely hard. The first year I was away from my parents – which on reflection, was terrific – I was away for about 48 weeks out of 52… and that was the toughest, most traumatic experience of my life, because I was an only child, and I’d been quite mollycoddled and then suddenly to be thrust out into the world, with a band I didn’t really know – they were just young guys like me – and I literally had to fend for myself. It was really quite strange and it was quite tiring… I lost a hell of a lot of weight, I remember that much, I must have lost a stone in that year… I got very thin… but I was young, fit… I enjoyed it…”
Conversely, Joe Brown harbors considerably less fond memories: “Two years, he worked me, without one single night off! Two years!!! And I just went to pieces… I was a gibbering wreck! And I was sitting on the bed, in my flat in Chiswick, sort of sobbing, and laughing, and crying – I was gone, you know – and me mum rang Larry up and said ‘He can’t do any more work, he’s got to have a rest.’ I’ve called the doctor, the doctor came, he took one look at me and crossed himself, and went out!!! So me mum phoned Larry back and said that the doctor had been, and I couldn’t work, and within twenty-five minutes there were two Harley Street blokes around… Larry sent them straight ’round – to make sure I wasn’t swinging the lead!”
Meanwhile, although he’d never previously given to working with ‘established’ artists, preferring to discover and develop his own new talent, Larry decided to take a chance on the notoriously troubled Terry Dene, who in 1959 was in a sorry state, having not had a sniff of a hit for a year, been booted out of the army, fired by his management, and crucified by the press. He was also about the be dropped by his record company, Decca, who released one last single, pairing up covers of Frankie Avalon’s ‘A Boy Without A Girl’ and Brook Benton’s ‘Thank You Pretty Baby’, around about the time Parnes signed him. By now Terry was in extremely poor emotional and mental shape, and drinking heavily, although he promised Larry that he would change his ways and get back on the straight and narrow. Parnes duly sent him out on a couple of tours and managed to get him a recording contract with the independent Oriole label, for whom he debuted with ‘Geraldine’. But eventually Dene proved unreliable, which was an anathema to Larry, and his contract was terminated.
Another artist who was only briefly involved with Parnes, yet caused him a certain amount of grief was Lance Fortune, the former Chris Morris, from Birkenhead, a classically-trained young singer whom Larry had spotted at the 2I’s coffee bar. Larry duly came up with the prescribed stage name and record company contract, landing him a deal with Pye, for whom Lance recorded his first 45, the pizzicato string-driven ‘Be Mine’ – based heavily on Buddy Holly’s ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’, care of arranger/bandleader John Barry. But there were problems. It was an Italian song, with an English translation which Southern Music were unable to get approved by the Italian publisher, and it was held up for several months. In the interim he recorded another disc, ‘This Love I Have For You’/‘All On My Own’, but this was also put on ice. However, by the time of ‘Be Mine’s eventual release Fortune had decided not to sign with Larry, but the rival George Cooper Organisation. To rub salt further in the wounds, the disc became a huge hit, reaching No.4 in March ’60, and he also charted briefly with the follow-up (No.26, May ’60). But despite the impressive start his fame proved shortlived, and without Parnes handling his career his popularity soon began to fade (Cooper was an Agent rather than a Manager, and as such was unable to generate his artists comparable levels of TV and/or radio exposure).
Larry’s ‘token’ girl in the camp was twenty year-old Sally Kelly, from Dublin, a tiny colleen who wore skin-tight, knee-length strides and was billed as ‘Miss Rock’n’Roll’. She seems to have been introduced to Larry by Nancy Spain and was, by all accounts, a dynamite live performer – certainly, she was a regular on Larry’s package tours for a couple of years. She cut just two 45s for Decca, debuting in 1959 with Lionel Bart’s ‘Little Cutie’ and following up early the following year with a cover of Jeanne Black’s US hit ‘He’ll Have To Stay’ (itself the ‘answer disc’ to Jim Reeves’ ‘He’ll Have To Go’) b/w ‘Honey, That’s All Right’.
Whilst Parnes rarely worked with groups (apart from backing musicians, whom he largely treated as serfs!) he looked after The Viscounts, a vocal trio who’d formed as a breakaway from the Morton Fraser Harmonica Gang, in late 1959. They wrote to him requesting an audition and within a week they’d been added to a Marty Wilde/Billy Fury tour, and Larry had got them a recording contract with Pye. Their first disc, ‘Rockin’ Little Angel’/‘That’s Alright’ covered both sides of a breaking US hit for Ray Smith (the flip had earlier been a regional hit for Ral Donner) and it sold very well – it even made the Top 5 in Australia, although their wily manager talked them out of going out there to promote it, insisting that they concentrate on establishing themselves in the UK. Their next release, a revival of ‘Shortnin’ Bread’ actually made the lower reaches of the charts, but they’re perhaps best remembered for their cover of Barry Mann’s ‘Who Put The Bomp’, which took them into the Top 20 (peaking at No.18) in October ’61. After Gordon Mills left, to manage Tom Jones, he was briefly replaced by Darren Young (the former Johnny Gentle); but by the mid-60s they’d run out of steam, and they eventually ground to a halt.
Although Larry was genuinely convinced he had the Midas touch (or the ‘Madras’ touch, as Hal Carter put it!), the failure of artists like Vince Eager, Johnny Gentle, and Duffy Power to get a hit record, and of Dickie Pride to consolidate with a follow-up – let alone Joe Brown’s slow start, in terms of record sales – must have been a concern. In hindsight, Parnes’ major Achilles heel was that he had no real feel for Rock’n’Roll, and was therefore no judge of a hit record. He ought to have been encouraging his artists to write more of their own material – Steele, Wilde, Fury and Gentle had all written songs, most of which were the equal (at the very least) of the material their record companies were trying to lumber them with. Certainly, he could have earned a hell of a lot more money by publishing their songs. And he really should have backed his artists when they clashed with their various record companies, as regards the repertoire, producers, arrangers, backing musicians, etc. But he appears to have trusted the judgement of those record companies implicitly, presumably due to misplaced ‘mutual professional respect’. As Hal Carter commented: “Larry was very good at picking acts. He had an eye for an act, he knew what a good act was – but as far as records were concerned… Well, I don’t think he was that good at picking records!”
Meanwhile, Parnes was continuing to expand the ‘stable’. His next signing, Julian X – often billed as plain Julian – found himself saddled with perhaps Larry’s lamest stage name (frankly, there was nothing wrong with his real name, Julian Lee). A nineteen year-old merchant seaman, who’d made a bit of a reputation for himself following appearances at the 2I’s coffee bar, Larry spotted him on a TV talent show, Find The Singer, and decided to launch him as the UK’s answer to Fabian. By all accounts he was originally down to cover The Fleetwoods’ ‘Mr Blue’, but missed the session due to illness (instead, David MacBeth recorded Pye’s version and was rewarded with a minor hit). He eventually debuted with Ian Samwell’s ‘Sue Saturday’ in December ’59, which actually got some airplay but ultimately missed out on chart action. Within a year he’d finally realised that his stage name was something of a liability, and he subsequently relaunched himself as Julian Scott.
Ironically, Larry’s next artist, the awesomely-photogenic Nelson Keene, did enjoy a brief spell in the spotlight, charting with his first 45, a cover of The Safaris’ ‘Image Of A Girl’ (b/w ‘Ocean Of Love’) on the HMV label, which made No.37 in September ’60. Seventeen year-old, baby-faced Malcolm Holland had sent a demo of his group, The Raiders, to Parnes, along with a photo; Larry took one look at the pic and immediately signed him up as a solo act, launching him via the Idols On Parade summer show at Blackpool in 1960, on a bill which included Joe Brown, Lance Fortune and Tommy Bruce. But despite his promising start, Keene’s follow-up singles ‘Teenage Troubles’ and ‘Miracles Are Happening To Me’ sold rather less well, and his fifteen minutes of fame were soon up.
Funnily enough (and not a lot of people know this!), Joe Brown wasn’t quite the only Parnes-managed artist to retain his real name; former police cadet and Grenadier Guardsman Peter Wynne was also accorded that same privilege. Pretty much Parnes’ last throw of the dice, in terms of launching new acts, the classically-trained tenor sang in a style which was totally different to Larry’s usual R’n’R-oriented lads, and was pushed as an old-fashioned, big-voiced MOR crooner (ironically, in a style similar to that which Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck would successfully revive, a couple of years hence). However, after four unsuccessful singles for Parlophone – ‘Chapel Of Dreams’ was the first, ‘I Need You Close Again’ was the flipside of the second – he cut one further 45 for Polydor before taking the decision to change his stage name to Simon Smith (which is wildly ironic, given the circumstances).
Although not all his charges were destined to enjoy success, Parnes remained fiercely and passionately loyal to all his acts, defending them in the face of all criticism. To his dying day he insisted that Tommy Steele was a far bigger talent than Elvis (certainly, it could be argued that all Tommy’s pantomimes, end-of-pier shows and dodgy musicals were no worse than those godawful movies which Elvis made!) and in the 60s, he dedicated himself to managing Billy Fury more or less full-time, once he’d wound down his other contractual commitments.
Parnes later described how he viewed his role: “You have to have – kind of – a little ‘gift’… you have to be born with a certain talent for choosing talent. They had to be looked after, and yes, you had to be strict with them because a lot of them had left home, they were eighteen, nineteen years old, and they could have run wild… and if they were going to have a sensible career ahead of them, they had to be looked after. Yes, I was strict with them… they had to be in by a certain time, and dress properly… and I sort of presided as a Mother Superior kind of thing!”
But for all his faults, Larry was by far the best operator in the biz, as Marty Wilde confirms: “It’s very difficult to be a manager… it takes a very special kind of person… you’ve got to be very single-minded, and you’ve virtually got to have tunnel vision. You can’t be distracted by left and right… you get people right and left of you saying ‘This artist hasn’t got it.’ You’ve got to look straight ahead and say ‘This artist has got it!’ And once he’d made up his mind, Larry was like a Yorkshire Terrier, you know, he’d hang on in there, no matter what anyone said. That was one of his great strengths as a manager. And if he believed in someone, then he believed in them and that was it. He was the best, the very best. It was fate, pure fate, that he managed me, and I was very fortunate… he taught me a lot. He was a good man!”
Johnny Gentle adds: “He could literally take anyone off the street, give them the opportunity to prove themselves, and it would go further than that. If they had an ounce of talent, he could make something of them.”
And to give Billy Fury the last word on Parnes: “The reason why I think he made it was because he had an eye, then, on the present, but also an eye into the future… he could see that youngsters could make it, and that youngsters wanted to listen to youngsters.”
During the late 50s, Larry had been the first UK impresario to promote dedicated R’n’R one-nighter package tours, frequently booking headlining and supporting acts whom he did not directly manage. The most (in)famous of these was of course the Eddie Cochran/Gene Vincent tour, which ended in tragedy in April 1960 when Cochran died following a car smash on his way to the airport after the final gig of the tour. Cochran, in particular, had gelled well with the English Rock’n’Rollers they’d toured and appeared on TV and radio with, as evidenced in the clip of Eddie, Gene, Billy Fury and Joe Brown singing ‘My Babe’, on Boy Meets Girls, shortly before that fateful tour.
Finally, whilst Parnes never actually managed Jess Conrad, he certainly ‘courted’ him and also presented him on several package tours and, in an unlikely twist to the tale, in 2008 Jess played the role of Larry in the Joe Meek biopic, Telstar. Jess’s own biggest hit came with ‘Mystery Girl’ (No.18, March ’61), although he remains perhaps better known for ‘This Pullover’, which gained instant notoriety when it topped the list of Kenny Everett’s World’s Worst Records in the mid-70s, and was included on the subsequent yuk-green K-Tel LP!
In closing, Joe Brown mentioned earlier that Larry did not possess a sense of humour. This was perhaps confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt in 1982 when Paul McCartney, appearing on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, told host Roy Plomley that The Silver Beetles had never been paid for the Scottish tour they did with Johnny Gentle back in May 1960. Parnes subsequently sued both McCartney and the BBC for defamation. Both parties eventually settled with him out of court, and the matter was finally brought to a close two years later when Plomley read out a formal apology, adding that McCartney’s remark had been intended as a joke.
Big Thanks to Pete Frame, Kevin Howlett, Johnny Rogan, Tony Wilkinson, Dave Penny and Lucky Parker.
The majority of the quotes in the above notes were taken from the BBC Radio 2 programme “Starmakers And Svengalis – Mr Parnes, Shillings And Pence”, broadcast circa 1990, presented by Alan Freeman, produced by Kevin Howlett & Pete Frame. My profound thanks to Kev and Pete for allowing us to reproduce them here.
Essential further reading:-
The Restless Generation by Pete Frame (Rogan House Publishing, 2007)
Starmakers And Svengalis by Johnny Rogan (Queen Anne Press, 1988)
Brown Sauce by Joe Brown (Willow Books/Collins, 1986)