The eternally uncool, unloved Embassy Records was one of the most successful and profitable UK record labels of the 50s & 60s, yet you won’t find any of their best sellers listed in the Official Charts book, and you never heard them on the wireless, either. Nor, generally, will you see many Embassy 78s or 45s featuring on your average collector’s “Wants List” – indeed, until relatively recently, you rarely even saw a box of Embassy singles at a Record Fair. Of course, the reason for their non-appearance in the various UK hit parades was simple; Woolworths were never Chart Return shops! But the hard fact remains that most Embassy releases sold in their tens – some, in their hundreds – of thousands, and many outsold the actual UK hit versions. Ironically they’ve now, belatedly, started to highly become ‘collectable’.
Launched in Nov. 1954, after Jacques and Morris Levy, owners of Oriole Records, fought off a rival bid from Planet Records to record and manufacture versions of current songs, to be sold exclusively through Woolworths’ stores. The concept was perfect; two proven contemporary hits, back-to-back, at budget price. At that time there were around 600 branches of Woolworths in the UK (this would rise to more than 1,000 by the late 50s), and the start-up plan was that each store would take a minimum of 200 copies of each release, of which there were usually around half-a-dozen per month. Initially, the discs were 10” 78 rpm singles; the earliest Embassy 45s started appearing in 1958, by which time rst pressing runs had risen to 20,000 units. This was, of course, an excellent business venture for the Levy’s, who earned handsomely from each leg of the process, as in addition to owning a state-of-the-art recording studio, they also had their own pressing plant, manufacturing, distribution and storage facilities (NB: for the history of Oriole Records, check out RHGB36). To make the deal even sweeter, Woolworths were only allowed the UK rights to these recordings; consequently, Oriole licensed many of these sides out internationally – to record companies in Australia, Holland, Belgium, France, West Germany, Scandinavia, USA, Spain, South America, etc – where they enjoyed some surprising successes.
The label was run by Jack Baverstock, who appointed a young, then-unknown violinist, Johnny Gregory, as head of A&R. Initially, Jacques Levy produced sessions, although he soon moved back upstairs, following the appointment of Reg Warburton as producer. Their catalogue numbers were prefixed WB, which stood for Woolworths Brand (Oriole’s own releases were prefixed CB: Company Brand) and their modus operandi was to hold weekly three-hour sessions every Thursday at their New Bond Street studio, when they would expect to record four tracks, which would in turn be in the stores on the following Monday. Because of this they had to use wholly reliable session sing- ers and musicians, working to extremely tight margins – for in order to achieve this, and sell the discs at little more than half the price of a regular chart record (they would go up to around four shillings, within a couple of years), budgets were exceptionally tight.