As published in Now Dig This, June 2008.
In recent months I have been writing a book about the UK tour of Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, which ended with Eddie’s death in April 1960. The book is ‘Things Do Go Wrong’, published by Finbarr International. Most of the research I had undertaken for the stage play, ‘Be Bop A Lula’, which began its life at the Liverpool Playhouse in July 1988, but I have also been conducting new interviews and ferreting out as much information as I could find.
In the Liverpool Records Office, I went through 100 large boxes of reel-to-reel tape interviews by the presenter Bob Azurdia for BBC Radio Merseyside. He had died in 1996 and this vast collection has been given to the Records Office. Bob Azurdia conducted the last interview with Gene Vincent when he was at the Wooky Hollow in Liverpool for a week in October 1971, although he was paid off after one night. I was anxious to find it.
Although Gene only spent a day in Liverpool, it included an interview at the radio station with Bob Azurdia. Before the interview, Bob had to take a telephone call and he asked Gene to sign a few autographs while he was gone. When he got back, he was given six sheets that were covered with the message, “Best wishes, Gene Vincent.”
By then, most of Gene’s interviews were alcoholic ramblings. However, Azurdia was a very experienced interviewer and he knew how to get Vincent’s attention. I wouldn’t say that he sobered up but it was a fine interview. Bob asked him how long he had been on the road and he replied, “All my life.” That reply encapsulates Gene Vincent and it is similar to the world-weary response that Kris Kristofferson gives with a faraway look at the end of ‘A Star Is Born’ (1976); “Where to, boss?” “Back about ten years.”
Unfortunately, I could not find this tape, although it is probably there. Bob threw little away but he was not well organised and the interview could be on an unmarked reel. No matter. During my search, I found a four part series, ‘Mr Parnes, Shillings And Pence’, which was broadcast in August and September 1988. There is 90 minutes of conversation with the British rock’n’roll impresario Larry Parnes, although Bob has repeated a few sections.
As far as the history of British rock’n’roll goes, this is a significant discovery. Parnes at the time was granting a few interviews – Jon Savage for a Channel 4 documentary, Johnny Rogan, myself – and he had come to Liverpool for the opening of ‘Be Bop a Lula’. This interview is excellent because Azurdia is a good listener and the rapport is first rate. There is a lot of joviality.
What puzzles me is that I have never heard these interviews before. At the time I was working in insurance and as they were broadcast at 2pm with 6pm repeats, I would be at work, travelling home or going to the Playhouse. I’d not got much time for anything else. I know, however, that I set up the interview for Bob Azurdia when Larry Parnes came to Liverpool for the first Saturday performance and the opening night on Monday.
In several instances, Parnes’ memory is at fault or he is deliberately rewriting history. I did think of omitting these sections from the transcript, but I have kept them in because they reveal something about the man himself and they are entertaining and engrossing in their own right. To quote the rock writer Pete Frame, “Larry Parnes was an accidental revisionist. He had no sense of chronology and little recollection of the way things actually happened.” He was also a man with immense self-belief, a man who always thought that he was right. Parnes says he is glad that he didn’t sign the Beatles: can you believe that?
Bob Azurdia, who was born in 1935, interviewed businessmen, politicians, lawyers, authors, sportsmen and entertainers and he had a strong love for the music of the 50s and early 60s. He had been a regular contributor to the ‘Mersey Beat’ newspaper and to ‘Melody Maker’. He was the first person to write about the Beatles in a national newspaper. Occasionally though he feeds Parnes wrong information and Parnes responds as though it were fact.
For ease of comprehension and to avoid repetition, I have changed the order of the text in several instances, but this does not alter the sense of what was said. I have annotated the interview, but it is best read first as an interview so that you can appreciate the cut and thrust between the two of them: then you should read the commentary.
Bob Azurdia: Larry Parnes is a man whose name is synonymous with the rock’n’roll era of the late 1950s when for the first time British pop artists challenged American musical heroes for the top popularity slots among young people. Larry Parnes gathered together a stable of young British singers and gave them names like Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Johnny Gentle, Duffy Power and Vince Eager, and he revolutionised the world of popular music. It was Larry Parnes who was labelled Mr Parnes, Shillings And Pence for his keen business acumen. More than 30 years on, Britain’s first pop impresario recalls how for him one of the great sociological explosions started.
Larry Parnes: When I was a teenager, I used to sit at nights with the kind of records you could get then and I used to compile my own chart. I had a fascination for doing this, and it was before charts came into being. I used to like listening to crooners.
Bob Azurdia: Bing Crosby…
Larry Parnes: Yes, and then along came Frank Sinatra without a name on a Tommy Dorsey record where he sang ‘Ol’ Man River’ and things like that. This was the earliest music that affected me but then later I started to mix with some show business people through friends. I used to see Johnnie Ray and Frankie Laine when they came over to England. They were very talented Americans who were filling the London Palladium and I used to think, ‘Why can’t we do this with English performers, young people from the UK?’ I know I had this thought about five years before I did anything about it. (1)
Bob Azurdia: Were no other people trying to do the same thing, to create a British pop sound?
Larry Parnes: I don’t think so. The nearest that I can remember is Ted Heath and his Orchestra with singers like Dickie Valentine, Dennis Lotis and Lita Roza. Dickie Valentine did have a younger following and there was a bit of screaming at the concerts. Possibly Ted Heath had encouraged that. (2)
Bob Azurdia: Can we go back a little earlier? Did you come from a show business background?
Larry Parnes: There was a little bit of show business in my background. My mother’s youngest brother was a comedian and singer called Len Young, The Singing Fool (3) and he played the variety halls before and after the war. He married one of the Kaye Sisters, Carol Kaye, and so she is my aunt. I remember as a little kid listening to him on the Royal Variety Performance on radio. He used to take me to these variety halls and backstage to meet all the big stars of the era like Max Miller and George Formby, so a love of the theatre was inbred in me from five or six years old.
Bob Azurdia: The smell of the greasepaint.
Larry Parnes: Oh, there is a smell when you go backstage that I can’t quite describe, but it is not unpleasant. I got a distinct taste for it, no question.
Bob Azurdia: Were you brought up in London?
Larry Parnes: We were evacuated and so I wasn’t in London all the time. After the war, I spent a lot of time in London.
Bob Azurdia: What was the very first show that you put on?
Larry Parnes: The first show was when I was seven years old and it was at the Queen’s Hotel in Cliftonville. It was a lovely old hotel with a ballroom and incidentally, it was taken over by Butlin’s. I was on holiday with my sister and I got this idea of raising money for the local hospital. I got all the kids together in the hotel and the musical director was the oldest of us and he was 15. That was Cyril Ornadel and he is directing the orchestra at the Victoria Palace for the ‘Winnie’ music now. Cyril and I met up not so long ago and it was a wonderful reunion. (4) We put on this show and I sang and danced a little song called ‘Ten Little Miles From Town’. (Sings) ‘Ten little miles from the nearest station…’ I’d better not sing: I will frighten the listeners away.
Bob Azurdia: Go on. How does it go after that?
Larry Parnes: ‘Ten little miles from the nearest station, Ten little miles from town.’ There is something to do with the population, dada dada dum. (Laughs) (5) I forget the price of the tickets but I know that we raised £2.15s and we were packed. Everybody loved the show and I had a poster made and I put ‘Larry Palmer Presents’. I don’t know why I wanted to change my name and I never did change my name when I came into show business for real.
Bob Azurdia: Did you not want to go on stage yourself?
Larry Parnes: (Laughs) I think that I might have done when I was around 15 or 16 years old. I used to have a bit of fun making cardboard microphones and pretending that I was singing through them but I realised that if it ever happened, I would have frightened away goodness knows how many people out of the theatres but I will tell you an extraordinary story that did happen. I had some photographs taken when I was about 16, like all young people do if they want to get anywhere. The shop that took the photographs thought one of them was so good that they put it in the window and lo and behold, a week later I was contacted by a lady talent scout for Gaumont British Films. I met with her and she thought I had potential as an actor. My mum and dad, God rest their souls, didn’t want me to do that. (Laughs)
Bob Azurdia: They wanted you to have a steady job.
Larry Parnes: My father entered me for Cambridge University when I was a baby. The nearest I got to that was the theatre I used to own in London, the Cambridge. That’s where I graduated!
Bob Azurdia: What line of work were you in?
Larry Parnes: I had started working in my parents’ fashion shops as an errand boy and I was picking up pins with a magnet and putting them in boxes. Then I learnt window displays and the financial side of it. By the time I was 18, I was a junior manager and I got £2 a week. That might be equivalent to £60 today. (6) Then I opened my own shop and after two years, I had three shops and I was in my very early 20s.
Bob Azurdia: Where did you go to relax?
Larry Parnes: Before I went into the business? Well, the Sabrina coffee shop, the Two I’s and Bunji’s. There was no alcohol in those in those days, just cappuccino and that machine used to go sssh-sssh-sssh. It was like the background music that you get in some places today! You could never get tea, and I like tea much better than coffee, but you would get a bun, a cake or a biscuit: maybe a sandwich if you were lucky. The scene was vastly different from what it is today.
Bob Azurdia: The Two I’s coffee bar is such a legendary venue.
Larry Parnes: I first heard of the Two I’s in 1956 and it is about time that somebody opened a Two I’s in London as near as possible to where the original was. It could be a coffee shop and rock bar and give people a chance to be discovered again. Maybe I should do it, who knows? It should acknowledge its history, but there is so much myth about it, you know. A lot of people think that some people were discovered there who weren’t. Joe Brown and Terry Dene were discovered there but not Tommy Steele, so I’m sorry to spoil everybody’s dreams. Tommy was first in the Condor Club which was above a coffee bar called the Sabrina in Wardour Street. From there, we got a booking at the Stork Club which was a night club for a couple of weeks. Tommy used to go in the Two I’s when he was on leave from the merchant navy and he liked to strum a guitar and sing a bit of skiffle. Tommy used to join in with the skifflers but he wasn’t discovered there. Incidentally, I did find my original contract with Tommy Steele the other day, the very first contract and he signed it ‘Tommy Hicks’ and his parents, God rest their souls, both signed it as well. This was September 25, 1956. (7)
Bob Azurdia: Were you involved with the production of ‘Singing The Blues’?
Larry Parnes: I was involved with the production of a lot of records but Tommy had his own record producer, a very wonderful man…er…
Bob Azurdia: Whose name has escaped you!
Larry Parnes: Whose name has escaped me, yes, but if he is listening, he will know that my thoughts are with him. We are talking 32 years ago, mate. (8)
Bob Azurdia: And after Tommy Steele, you discovered many other singers.
Larry Parnes: I used to get bombarded everyday with lots of tapes – reel to reel tapes – and photographs and literature. Strangely enough, if you were to find even one person out of 10,000 from those packages that came in, you would be extremely lucky. (9) I had to go out and do a lot of talent scouting to find the kind of person I was looking for, but obviously, I didn’t want all my artists to be the same. I didn’t want a Larry Parnes clones stable. That would have been ridiculous. It is a very long story as to how it all came about and if you have got about ten hours I could tell you all that.
Bob Azurdia: Well, the edited version, perhaps.
Larry Parnes: Well, that would take five hours. (Laughs) And I am getting older. This is 30 years ago.
Bob Azurdia: What was the first genuinely professional show that you produced?
Larry Parnes: A rock’n’roll show. It was a pop variety bill with Marty Wilde and Tommy Steele’s younger brother, Colin Hicks, and it was quite successful. We played Liverpool and it was very exciting. It was 1958. (10)
Bob Azurdia: So you were very astute.
Larry Parnes: I don’t think I was as astute as I would have liked to have been.
Bob Azurdia: Did you play a guitar yourself?
Larry Parnes: No, I tried and I nearly got electrocuted. Marty Wilde was trying to teach me and I was showing him a special movement and somehow or other the guitars were live and we both got thrown across the stage in different directions. I left the guitar alone after that, but I do play a bit of piano. I can play ‘God Save The Queen’ with one finger!
Bob Azurdia: So you could close the show each night!
Larry Parnes: (Laughs) Yes, I was always there to do it.
Bob Azurdia: Didn’t you discover Billy Fury in Birkenhead when you were here for a Marty Wilde show?
Larry Parnes: Yes, 30 years ago. I discovered Billy Fury and Jimmy Tarbuck at the Essoldo, Birkenhead. It was the second Sunday in July 1958. Billy’s girlfriend Margo had written to me several times, sending me his photograph and a tape and lyrics and poetry that he had written. She was very persistent and the photos kept getting bigger and I finally wrote back and said, ‘Well, if ever you see a show of mine near to a place where you live or where Ronnie Wycherley lives, tell him to come backstage and ask for me, and if I am there, I will see him and audition him on the spot.’ That is exactly what happened. (11)
Bob Azurdia: Did you generally make it your business to go round on the tours?
Larry Parnes: Oh yes. A lot of people seem to think that I didn’t much time on the tours and that isn’t so. I would be there at least half the time, even if I went back to London the same night. I was very, very particular that each performance should be like the very first night and so they should look the same after two or three weeks. (12)
Bob Azurdia: Were you expecting Ronnie and Margo that night?
Larry Parnes: No, no. In fact, Margo never came with Billy. They had no stage door at the Essoldo: it was just a fire door with a tinny sound if you knocked it or rattled it. I happened to be walking through to the dressing room that Marty was in and I heard this door rattling. I said, ‘Who is it?’ and someone said in a Liverpool accent, ‘We have come to see Larry Parnes. We have got Ronnie Wycherley with us.’ I opened the door and this very shy, quiet young man came forward with an open-necked shirt, black trousers and an old guitar and I said, ‘You lot can wait outside and you, Mr Wycherley, can come in.’ I took him into Marty’s dressing room and ‘Come on, give us a song.’
He played us a beautiful song that he had written, which became his first hit, ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ and ‘Margo (Don’t Go)’ and another song that he hadn’t written called ‘Just Because’. We were on the ground floor and when he finished, the hundreds of girls outside of Marty’s dressing room window started to scream and applaud. I said to him, ‘Have you got guts?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘How would you like to do a couple of songs for the opening of the second half of the show tonight?’ Marty said that he could have the Wildcats to back him and they could do a quick rehearsal. I made an announcement just before the second half started about how this young man had come to the stage door, that we had listened to him and thought he was so good that we would like their opinion. As the curtains opened, he got stage fright and went to run off.
Fortunately, I was right there to turn him round and I said, ‘Ronnie, you’re on now’ and there was nothing he could do about it. The audience, all ages incidentally, went potty for him. I came out front while he did these three songs and I could hear people saying, ‘He’s terrific. Apart from Marty Wilde, he is the best thing in the show tonight, he’s wonderful.’ (13) I flew him to London the next day for a recording contract. He had never flown before and he got very sick on the plane, poor Billy, and he failed the record audition at Philips. They were on the phone three months later like another seven companies, all wanting him through ‘Maybe Tomorrow’.(14)
Bob Azurdia: Did you pay him for that show?
Larry Parnes: Yes, and after he had auditioned for the recording studio, I wanted him to get more experience. I agreed that he would get so much a week and a place to live and so on. Billy never wanted to be a singer: he wanted to be a songwriter. (15) He was very sensitive and he loved animals and he was so good to them. He was always treating injured birds and animals.
Bob Azurdia: Fury was not the name to give him then.
Larry Parnes: Yes, you have hit on it. He was so gentle and Ronnie Wycherley suited him beautifully as he was. He needed a name that would make him sound friendly and a surname that would put this something into him that you are talking about. Hence, I thought of the name ‘Fury’, and ‘Billy’ was because Billy Cotton with his ‘Wakey-wakey!’ had the popular band show and I said, ‘There isn’t a friendlier name than Billy.’ He wanted to be Stean Wycherley, don’t understand why but he could have been right. God rest his soul, he was a wonderful person.
Bob Azurdia: Was it mostly male artists that you concentrated on and was that because the girls would jump up and down and scream for the male artists?
Larry Parnes: (Laughs) Well, I was catering for an audience but of course a lot of boys bought records and came to the shows as well. They didn’t scream but they used to jump up and down and applaud and yell. I had one female singer called Sally Kelly. (16) She was wonderful on stage but she never made it on record. But to answer your question, it was a question of saying to myself, ‘Carry on with what you know.’ Having achieved success with Tommy Steele and Marty Wilde, I thought I had better stay on that track as I might get wrong footed if I started to diversity too much. I mentioned Jimmy Tarbuck earlier and that came about by chance because the compère didn’t turn up and Jimmy Tarbuck was Marty’s hairdresser. Lots of people don’t know that Jimmy Tarbuck was a hairdresser. Marty said, ‘I know a lad who just can’t want to get on stage. He wants to be a comic.’ I said, ‘Phone him up and see if you can help us out.’ Marty phoned him up and he came round to the theatre. I auditioned him and he was on. (17)
Bob Azurdia: And I don’t think that you liked your artists getting married.
Larry Parnes: Those young girls – or older girls, for that matter – there were plenty of older girls! – wanted to adore them and love them and mother them. I wasn’t sure how they would react to one of these young idols getting engaged or married. I did keep things as secret as possible but it broke with Tommy first and then with Marty. After a few years, I realised that it didn’t matter at all.
Bob Azurdia: What brought you to Liverpool for those auditions in the Dingle area?