Larry Parnes: Well, I have wonderful memories of Liverpool: I love Liverpool, and I wish I could get up here more often. I had a wonderful afternoon walking around looking for all the theatres that we played the shows at and the hotels where I stayed. I couldn’t find this little café that you’re talking about where I came up to audition backing groups for Billy Fury. (18) Billy came up with me on the early morning train. I can visualise it now. The dingy little café had been arranged for all these people to audition for Billy Fury as a backing group. They included the Silver Beetles and there was John Lennon, Paul McCartney, no Ringo Starr…
Bob Azurdia: Pete Best?
Larry Parnes: Pete Best, Stuart Sutcliffe and George Harrison. (19) John Lennon asked me if they could sing a couple of their own songs. He said, ‘We don’t really want to be a backing group but we will do anything to get work. Would you listen to our own songs?’ I said, ‘We are going to be late but we will stay behind for a quarter of an hour and listen.’ They played me three or four of their songs, songs that later became big hits and I remember saying to John Lennon, ‘No disrespect to your drummer but you need another drummer, somebody with a little more drive and bash. He is a good drummer but he is not for your outfit.’ (20)
Bob Azurdia: But you did give them some work.
Larry Parnes: I had a list in front of me and I marked the groups ‘Excellent’, ‘Good’, ‘Bad’, ‘Indifferent’, ‘Possibilities’. John Lennon said, ‘Please give us work, we really need it’ so I said, ‘If something comes along, you will be first that I will phone.’ Something did come along, a tour in Scotland, six weeks with Johnny Gentle (21), and I got in touch with John Lennon and that’s how it happened. Johnny Gentle used to phone me several times a week saying how good they were and I should get up to see them. I didn’t have the chance or the time to do that. Then he asked me if he could give them a spot of their own and I said, ‘That’s very generous of you.’ He would give them about 10 minutes on their own during his act. He would phone me and say, ‘Larry, they ‘re going down better than I am. Really, you should come up and see them.’ Who knows? If I’d gone up and seen them, Johnny Gentle may well have become, if he wanted to, the fifth Beatle. (22)
Bob Azurdia: And what happened to him?
Larry Parnes: He left show business and went into business and became very successful. I haven’t seen him for years.
Bob Azurdia: How did you get on with Brian Epstein later?
Larry Parnes: Very well indeed. We were great friends. We used to have a lovely little joke with the media. It was like a Bing Crosby and Bob Hope thing of being rivals but we weren’t really.
Bob Azurdia: You must have been to some extent, even though you were friends.
Larry Parnes: No, no, no. We would go out to dinner once a fortnight and we would talk about anything and everything, and no rivalry ever came up.
Bob Azurdia: Did you have common interests outside music?
Larry Parnes: (Intake of breath) Not really. Brian wasn’t the greatest animal lover, which I am. I don’t think that we had any common interests outside of music and theatre. (23) You see, Brian did come to see me when he was a young actor, he was studying acting. I had a show at the Liverpool Empire and the manager asked me if I would see this young man who wanted to meet me. I said yes and so I had met Brian perhaps five years earlier at the Liverpool Empire.
Bob Azurdia: Was this an audition?
Larry Parnes: No, no, no. We were talking amiably for half an hour and I gave him some advice.
Bob Azurdia: And you remember that?
Larry Parnes: Yes, yes. (24)
Bob Azurdia: Did that happen very often then as you have given two instances – the Billy Fury episode and now Brian Epstein?
Larry Parnes: (With resignation) Yes, yes, it did. I never liked to refuse anybody and I would talk to as many people as I could while my strength held out.
Bob Azurdia: You must regret not having signed up the Beatles when the opportunity arose. This is a goldmine you missed.
Larry Parnes: No, no, I have no regrets. You never really know what would happened if I had signed up the Beatles or the Silver Beetles as they were. I know that I had a lot of pressure but when I look at the amount that Brian had, I wonder whether I didn’t do the right thing in not signing up the Beatles.
Bob Azurdia: Would you like to find some new talent today?
Larry Parnes: Oh yes, it would still be nice to get together a new young group of pop or rock’n’roll singers and put them out on the road. Let them play as many cinemas or theatres that are left with stages. Let the public see them like they did in my day. I would like to see a young solo singer without a group, without all the electronics, say, 18 to 24. There haven’t been any since the 60s. You have got lots of wonderful singers like Elton John, but the image for Elton is just his glasses and his hat and his football club.
Bob Azurdia: What about Boy George?
Larry Parnes: No, that to me is a gimmick.
Bob Azurdia: And Wham!
Larry Parnes: Another gimmick. I don’t see George Michael as a Presley or a Billy. Michael Jackson is totally out on his own, something very different to anything that has ever been and that is good, but I am talking about an image that people can get to touch. They can rip a bit of his shirt off and they can mob him. I am talking about somebody who is real and touchable. We need it very badly here. What is happening now is that you are getting these auditoriums like Wembley Stadium that are putting on pop concerts and people are paying ridiculous amounts of money to go and see these people. They must look like little pins from where they are sitting. In my days of taking rock’n’roll shows on tour, I felt that it was necessary for the public to be in the room with the artist. There was an intimacy in that business which we lack now. I am not blowing my own trumpet but I got a letter the other day from a gentleman who said that my rock’n’roll shows used to bring such excitement and were so invigorating for him and his friends. They have left them with wonderful memories, and he would love me to put out shows again, so why don’t I do it? If I was to do them again, he mightn’t have such wonderful memories, but I would like to put on a good old rock’n’roll show like the old days. I had more fun and more enjoyment in those days than I ever had in my entire career.
Bob Azurdia: So the time may be ripe for somebody to knock on your door and say, ‘Listen to me’.
Larry Parnes: I would be very flattered if they did. Why not? I would help anybody as much I could in the old days.
Bob Azurdia: Would it be economic to put on a new group of young singers?
Larry Parnes: Of course it would be economic because you are taking young, unknown singers who don’t command many thousands of pounds per performance. In this show, ‘Be Bop A Lula’, they mention that I gave certain artists of mine £25 a week or £40 a week. That’s true but they didn’t mention that I also used to give their mothers’ money which was not in the contract. (25) I used to pay their housekeeping. I bought all their clothes, spent money on their travel and put money in the bank for them.
Bob Azurdia (Incredulous): All of them?
Larry Parnes: Oh yes I did, all of them. I looked after all of them. There’s one nice line in the play which reflects this. I started my artists £25 a week rising every year. You equate that, 30 years later, with then. Surely £40 in 1958 would be £1,200 now. (26)
Bob Azurdia: The implication in the play is that you did rather better out of it than the artists.
Larry Parnes: But I didn’t. I went out of the pop business with less than I went in with. Every penny that I earned in the pop business, in rock’n’roll, I put back into it.
Bob Azurdia (Even more incredulous): Every penny you earned?
Larry Parnes: Every penny I earned. I needed all the capital: I didn’t have backers and I didn’t have other people’s money. I had my own money. There weren’t the backers around that there are now. (27)
Bob Azurdia: You must have had a separate account for yourself.
Larry Parnes: Well, I had to eat and I had to have a roof over my head. I didn’t live in ultimate luxury. I never had luxurious cars, although I had nice cars, I nearly always had a Vauxhall Cresta that I ran around in. I didn’t drive around in Rolls-Royces.
Bob Azurdia: Is this why you got out of the business – there was no money in it for you?
Larry Parnes: No, I started by putting on touring rock’n’roll shows and they did so well. Then I did Sunday concerts and summer seasons in Great Yarmouth and Blackpool, but the ultimate for me was to get to the West End and co-produce and then produce on my own. I realised my dream of owning my own theatre.
Bob Azurdia: Was owning a West End theatre the big kick that you thought it was going to be?
Larry Parnes: Well, it’s a lot of work. It is very exciting owning a theatre anywhere. Whenever I see a little old closed theatre, I wonder who has got it and I wonder if they want to reopen it. People say, ‘Come on, Larry’, as I would be buying up all these little theatres if I could and opening them again.
Bob Azurdia: Despite the Beatles, the biggest thing in show business was the King, Elvis Presley. To this day, people still wonder why he never came to Britain. Did you ever try to bring him here?
Larry Parnes: Yes, I did. I met Elvis Presley with Billy Fury. We went over to present Elvis with a silver disc and also, Billy was doing some television in America. Billy was the first British pop star to meet Elvis Presley and this was arranged through Colonel Parker and through Paramount Studios in Hollywood. When I am involved in something like this, I set my watch half an hour forward and Billy was taking his time. We had a suite in a hotel and Billy came out into the lounge. He was beautifully dressed but he was all in black. He had a lovely, black silky-looking suit. I said, ‘Billy, you can’t go dressed like that? Surely you should put on one of your nice tailor-made suits and one of your lovely shirts with a nicely patterned tie.’ He said, ‘Okay, to please you I will go and change.’ He changed and he looked good in whatever he wore: he held his clothes beautifully. We got to the studio and we were introduced to Elvis Presley. We shook hands and Elvis was dressed in black from top to bottom and he looked virtually identical to the way Billy had dressed. Elvis was a very nice guy and very genuine. He was so much taller than I thought he would be. They were filming ‘Blue Lagoon’ and Billy enjoyed talking with him on the set very much. He wasn’t overawed at all.
Bob Azurdia: ‘Blue Hawaii’, perhaps.
Larry Parnes: Oh yes, you’re right. They were lovely sets. Hawaii reproduced in the Paramount studios. When I was introduced to Presley, he said, ‘I am glad to meet you, sir, I understand you are the Colonel Parker of England.’ I said, ‘No, not quite, I wish I was.’ (Laughs) Colonel Parker was a very nice man. He took the trouble of phoning our hotel the following day to see if we had enjoyed ourselves. He was a real down to earth ordinary guy. (28)
Bob Azurdia: Why wouldn’t he bring Elvis to Britain?
Larry Parnes: Well, like a lot of other people, I made an offer for Elvis to come to Britain, and Colonel Parker promised me that I would be the first person that he would deal with if he ever decided to do that. I am sure he would have kept his word on that. I’ll give you my theory and I could very well be wrong. Elvis was a brilliant recording artist, one of the most brilliant we have ever had, and he was very good in films as an actor, but I do not think that he was a great stage performer. In my opinion, Billy Fury was a better stage performer than Elvis Presley, and I think that Colonel Parker was shrewd enough to realise this. He felt that it was better for Elvis not to be seen live on stage. He would just let the fans buy his records and see his films.
Bob Azurdia: Did you ever see him live?
Larry Parnes: Yes, I did. It was in Las Vegas and then I saw a television version of it and it bore me out. He was good but he wasn’t as great as the name Elvis Presley was. (29)
Bob Azurdia: How much did you offer him?
Larry Parnes: I wanted him to do five shows over a period of ten days and I offered him £100,000 a show. That would be £15m. today. (30)
Bob Azurdia: Did you ever offer anybody else as much as that?
Larry Parnes: No and I never will. (Laughs) I told Colonel Parker on the telephone and he didn’t commit himself as to whether or not it was acceptable but he maintained that it was very nice of me to make the offer and he would convey it to Elvis. At the time I don’t think he wanted Elvis to play live anywhere in the world.
Bob Azurdia: Did you think of making an offer to Frank Sinatra?
Larry Parnes: No, but I did meet him once. I was in Florida, and Billy was there with his girlfriend and we had a nice suite at the Fontainebleau Hotel with a lounge, kitchenette, bar, one bedroom one end and another bedroom at the other. We were next to the suite that Frank Sinatra had taken who was singing at the hotel for a week. The previous night he had given a party. I was going in my door and he was going in his door. He said, ‘Hi there’, and we introduced ourselves. He said, ‘Listen, fella, if we are making too much noise for you, do let me know. Come on and knock on the door and be my guest with as many friends as you want.’ That was the only time that we ever met.
Bob Azurdia: Life has changed because of television and we now get the television artists who are the stars of the stage shows and so on. Would you have liked to have done more television or cinema work?
Larry Parnes: Well, going back quite a few years, I did produce a couple of films, one was particularly successful with Billy Fury, ‘I’ve Gotta Horse’. No, I never really liked being directly involved in the film business or the film industry but television, yes, and I would love to work somewhere or other in television but nobody has asked me.
Bob Azurdia:(Laughs): But did anybody ask you to put on those rock’n’roll shows?
Larry Parnes: No, they didn’t, but I can’t buy my own station, I haven’t got enough money!
Bob Azurdia: You could make your own programmes like Phil Redmond with Mersey Television.
Larry Parnes: Independent production? No, I like the more cosy aspect of somebody asking me to come in and do something and I would know that my money was there every week. I am very cautious. I never spend very much. The clothes I am wearing I bought around 20 years ago –
Bob Azurdia: So you always come back into fashion –
Larry Parnes: Yes, I come back into fashion every few years –
Bob Azurdia: I am winding you up. Larry Parnes is immaculately dressed, ladies and gentlemen.
Larry Parnes: No, I have always been pretty ordinary like that and I don’t believe in wasting or spending money too much.
Bob Azurdia: What has been your biggest turkey?
Larry Parnes: Biggest turkey? Well, I can’t cook. Normally, somebody has invited me somewhere for Christmas and so I have always had somebody else’s turkey.
Bob Azurdia (Laughs): You are being deliberately evasive, Mr Parnes. What has been your biggest show biz failure?
Larry Parnes: I don’t know but I couldn’t tell you what my biggest success was.