Bob Azurdia: Surely you remember a show that nobody wanted to know about.
Larry Parnes: No. The years go by and I don’t remember these things. I have had my hit shows and I have had a few failures but I cannot recall any show that I produced or co-produced that has been 100% perfect. There has always been something wrong. I have never really liked any of my shows. Some were to my taste but I was catering for the public and I have always done that: I had to do shows that the public wanted to see. There again I could see that there was lack of perfection and little things missing that should have been in there. Perhaps there could have been a little bit of editing in the first half, and so on.
Bob Azurdia: All right, but what has given you your greatest pride?
Larry Parnes: Well, I did produce the only Royal Command pop performance that ever was with HRH Princess Anne and Capt Mark Phillips and that raised money for Save The Children. Really, I am just proud to have been a part of show business history, both with rock’n’roll and owning a couple of theatres. (31)
Bob Azurdia: Was going into theatre ownership very different from the life you had been leading or was it a natural extension?
Larry Parnes: A bit of both. There was a natural extension as I would go into my own theatre an hour before the show started and check that the ashtrays were clean and the numbers were on the seats. I didn’t do it every night of course and I had a very good team of people who worked with me. When I used to walk in the empty auditorium before the show started, I got the same feeling as walking into an empty auditorium when I used to put the tours out, no matter where it was.
Bob Azurdia: The London theatre caters largely for tourists from overseas rather than for British audiences to the possible detriment of future productions.
Larry Parnes: Yes, about 12 years ago, I predicted this in ‘The Times’ and it has very nearly happened. The world has got so much closer and it all to do with air travel. There is a relationship between planes and theatres – how did the Japanese tourists get here, for example. We can’t do anything about it but it was a mistake to build all those theatres in the West End. I would like to see them scattered over London and I love the idea of split theatres like split cinemas with perhaps four productions in same building.
Bob Azurdia: What about now?
Larry Parnes: I have got an empty head. I am not planning anything but I am getting bored. A lot of it has been to do with my ill health. Now that I am feeling very much better I would like to work in theatre again. I am looking around for new ideas and new shows and who knows? We may have seen one.
Bob Azurdia: I hope you’re talking about ‘Be Bop A Lula’ at the Playhouse. What was the truth of that tour?
Larry Parnes: In those days, there were a lot of variety bills going out, playing one-nighters or a week at one theatre, and they were very mixed. You would get the occasional rock’n’roller like Bill Haley who would appear with the Tanner Sisters, not that there is anything wrong the Tanner Sisters, who were very good. (32) It wasn’t all rock’n’roll and I thought of putting out a tour that was totally rock’n’roll. Nobody had come over since Bill Haley and I thought it would be a good idea to get two American pop/rock singers and it would also be a showcase for my up-and-coming people to work with them, hence, Billy Fury. It was very difficult to get them as there were monopolies in show business. Certain organisations, two or three, brought over American acts to England and they didn’t want anybody else to bring them. I really had to fight to get Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran to England and get that show on. I really did. I did fight verbally with letters and with telephone calls. (33)
Bob Azurdia: What tipped the scales in your direction?
Larry Parnes: Nobody else had made an offer to Gene Vincent or Eddie Cochran at the time but the offers started once I had made my approaches. Their agent and manager Norman Riley and a man called Hymie Zahl from Fosters Agency in England got together and I linked up with them. It is a wonderful story and it is now being relived and told on stage.
Bob Azurdia: Did you know them well?
Larry Parnes: Yes, but Gene was difficult to get along with. He was temperamental and he did drink, but I had a friendship with Gene and Eddie. They used to call me ‘Mr Parnes’ or ‘Sir’ and I would say ‘Call me Larry. Everybody calls me Larry’. I took them out to dinner, but the show divorces my character from the tour itself. That doesn’t worry me at all because I didn’t go to see myself on the stage, I went to see a show and I think the show is absolutely brilliant. The young company is absolutely marvellous. David Edge, the guy who plays me, is a very good actor and I was very pleased. Seeing yourself being portrayed on stage is rather like talking to yourself in a mirror. You know, I’ve realised that a lot of my life has been acting. When I did television shows or interviews, I was really divorcing myself from the person I really was. I am really a great animal lover, someone who is really in love with the country and nature, just like Billy Fury, God rest his soul. The person up there on the screen or whatever is another person: I am acting a performance. (34)
Bob Azurdia: Is the sort of production that you would put on yourself in the West End?
Larry Parnes: It has got a lot of potential. There is more than a blueprint for a West End stage show here. It could definitely tour and it could go to Australia and Scandinavia, definitely to America, off-Broadway. I am sure it would be a cult show.
Bob Azurdia: Have you been struggling for many years against ill health?
Larry Parnes: I have had my fair share of ill health over the last 11 years, but I say to myself, ‘There are a lot of people out there much worse off than I am.’ (35) I am feeling pretty good now. Thank you very much indeed.
Bob Azurdia: Do you spend much time in Britain now?
Larry Parnes: No, I left as a resident about five years ago so I spend as much time as I am allowed in the UK but I miss it and maybe in the next year or so I might come back full time. England is my home, no doubt about it, but it is the English countryside I love. And I love animals. I had beautiful dogs but Prince and Duke passed away in 1983. They were German shepherds and they were fabulous. I know everybody says that their dogs were fabulous but Prince and Duke were fabulous. I help a lot of animal charities but I don’t really like to talk about it. (36)
Bob Azurdia: I can see you’re a sensitive man.
Larry Parnes: I used to say in the beginning that I had lost my two dogs, but I don’t anymore. They went to their new world and I shall meet them again one day, I know that. I like to go round helping animals whenever and wherever I can. If I see a dog being ill-treated, I immediately get in touch with the RSPCA or whoever it may be. I did this two or three years ago with a lovely German shepherd dog in Barbados, and she was found a new home and is very happy and I went to visit her the following year. Ernie and Paula Clark at the Hopefield Animal Sanctuary in Essex are wonderful people and what they do for poor ponies and dogs and cats is wonderful. I have never really talked about this before but perhaps I should because I might get more people to help us. People should only have animals when they can afford them and when they have a place to keep them and look after them.
Bob Azurdia: You have a thousand memories.
Larry Parnes: Oh yes and very happy ones.
Bob Azurdia: Your experience has spanned 30 years but you haven’t written your story. I wonder why.
Larry Parnes: I have decided after a lot of gentle persuasion from quite a few people in the last few months to write my autobiography. I am caving in to do this but I don’t think it will be ready for another year yet. I am not putting pen to paper and I am talking into a tape machine so I can’t claim that it is hard work. I have started on it but there has been more emerging on this programme than has emerged in the book in the last three weeks!
Bob Azurdia: Have you got a title for it yet, Larry?
Larry Parnes: Everybody wants me to call it with the strange name that has stuck with me, ‘Mr Parnes, Shillings And Pence’ but I don’t really want to call it that. I would have liked to have called it ‘The Popfather’ and I was going to use that before ‘The Godfather’ was ever written but I can’t use that now. I am stuck for a name but one will come to me. A name will be there: after all, what’s in a name? (37)
Bob Azurdia: I look forward to the book. Here’s to the next interview, thank you very much.
Larry Parnes: Thank you, Bob, it has been great talking to you, it really has.
(1) This seems reasonable enough. Laurence Maurice Parnes was born in 1930. Frank Sinatra recorded ‘Ol’ Man River’ in 1944 as a solo artist after he had left Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra. The first UK singles chart was in November 1952 but there were sheet music charts from July 1946.
(2) The recent double-CD from Dickie Valentine, ‘Daydreams’ (Rex REXX 311) includes a bonus CD of Valentine in concert in 1955. The screaming took me by surprise. Young girls were desperate to scream at somebody and well, there was nobody else but Valentine around.
(3) Carol Kaye has confirmed this.
(4) The Beatles’ biographer, Mark Lewisohn, has asked Cyril Ornadel if this were true. He replied that it was pure fantasy, adding ‘My family and the Parnes family were friends and we used to go to Margate every year for about 7 years when we were children. Being older, I don’t remember much about Larry Parnes and I never met him in later years.’
(5) ‘Ten Little Miles From Town’ is a US vaudeville song from 1928. It was recorded by George Olsen.
(6) Probably £30. As we shall see, Parnes’ knowledge of inflation rates is woeful.
(7) Sort of. Tommy Steele was discovered by John Kennedy, a theatre publicist, who recommended him to Parnes. They went to see him at the Stork Room and Parnes, who knew little of rock’n’roll, was converted and they became management partners.
(8) I love this bit. ‘Singing The Blues’ was produced by Hugh Mendl, who also produced Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Rock Island Line’ and Winifred Atwell’s ‘The Poor People Of Paris’.
(9) C’mon, Larry, most of your artists weren’t that special.
(10) In October 1957, Marty Wilde and his Wildcats was touring with Colin Hicks and his Cabinboys. In June 1958, Arthur Fox and Larry Parnes presented Marty Wilde and his Wildcats at the Liverpool Empire: no idea who Arthur Fox is. By then, Parnes and Kennedy had given up on Hicks but he continued to perform (managed by his mother!), moving to Italy in 1960 with a band that included drummer Jimmy Nicol. In 1964, Nicol briefly replaced a sick Ringo in the Beatles for concert dates.
(11) Ronnie Wycherley had made one demo disc and recorded some songs on a reel-to-reel tape as well as having some photos taken professionally. He had been dating a married girl, Margo King, who worked with him at the Joshua Harris department store. Ronnie’s mother, Jean, has said that she wrote to Parnes on her son’s behalf. Parnes’ claim does seem unlikely and why should he remember it if, as he says, he was getting thousands of letters from wannabes.
(12) No, the performers saw little of Parnes once they were on tour, but the road manager, Hal Carter called him every day with details of the previous night’s show. Parnes loved moving his artists up and down the bill according to how they were received and how their records were doing in the charts.
Having said that, there is no doubt that Parnes had a fondness for Liverpool and some significant events happened on his visits to the city: on the Marty Wilde tour in June 1958, he met Hal Carter, who became his key road manager: in October 1958, he discovered Billy Fury at the Essoldo, Birkenhead: in March 1960 on the Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran tour, he met the owner of the Jacaranda coffee bar, Allan Williams, which led to the highly significant Liverpool Stadium beat show on May 3 with Gene Vincent and Liverpool groups as well as the auditions at the Wyvern Social Club (Note 18): and, at some stage, possibly 1962, he met Brian Epstein for the first time at the Liverpool Empire (Note 24).
(13) This is borne out by other accounts. Possibly Ronnie was unaccompanied, but it’s not far from what happened.
(14) The tour played Stretford the next night and they stayed at the Midland Hotel, Manchester. Larry Parnes phoned Dick Rowe, the recording manager at Decca, before taking a plane with Ronnie from Manchester to London. He stayed at Larry’s flat that night and the next day the deal with Decca was signed. Quite possibly, Parnes set up an audition with the grumpy Johnny Franz at Philips as well, but Franz had little time for rock’n’roll and already had Marty Wilde on his books.
(15) Here’s an alternative scenario: forget the standard stories about why Ronnie Wycherley went to the Essoldo, Birkenhead that night. It is plausible that he went there on a whim and simply wanted to get Marty Wilde to record one of his songs.
(16) Sally Kelly recorded two singles for Decca, ‘Little Cutie’ (October 1959) and ‘He’ll Have To Stay’ (June 1960), but her records made no headway. In June 1958, John Kennedy announced that he was about to launch a new singer, a beautiful Anglo-Indian girl named Shari. She recorded ‘Coming Home For Christmas’ for Decca in October 1958.
(17) Could be. Tarbuck has said that he was discovered the same night as Billy Fury. An odd anecdote though: maybe Marty had had a haircut in Liverpool earlier in the day. Rather like the Beatles, Parnes did not recognise Tarby’s potential and he found stardom elsewhere, but not immediately.
(18) It’s a pity that Parnes hadn’t told me what he was going to do as I could have pointed him at the premises at 108 Seel Street. The audition was held at the Wyvern Social Club, which later became the Blue Angel night club. It is still there today but has not been open in years.
(19) Azurdia had fed Parnes the name ‘Pete Best’ and he picked up on it, but Pete Best was not there. At the time, the Silver Beetles (sic) had Tommy Moore as a temporary drummer, but he arrived late at the audition and the group used Johnny Hutchinson from Cass and the Cassanovas.
(20) Johnny Hutch was a powerhouse drummer and so Parnes would never have said this. Parnes did offer Cass and the Cassanovas some work backing Duffy Power in Blackpool. Although Lennon and McCartney were writing songs by then, they were not performing. If they had performed their own songs, they had already written early versions of ‘Hello Little Girl’ (Fourmost), ‘Like Dreamers Do’ (Applejacks) and ‘Love Of The Loved’ (Cilla Black).
(21) Six weeks?! Eight days – 20 to 28 May 1960. Paul promised his father that he would be revising for his A-levels while he was away. When Paul McCartney was on ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 1982, he said that the group was never paid for the tour. Parnes was furious and sued him for slander. The matter was settled out of court with the BBC broadcasting an apology to Parnes.
(22) If the group had been as sensational as Parnes suggests, of course, he would have followed it up. He was no fool. The likelihood is that they were competent if fairly nondescript at the time. The tour must, however, have gone satisfactorily as on 2 July 1960, Gentle also sang with the Beatles at the Grosvenor Ballroom, Liscard on Merseyside.
The Beatles’ transformation came when they went to Hamburg in August 1960. There was never any suggestion that the light balladeer, Johnny Gentle, should join the band, but while they were in Scotland, John Lennon did write the middle eight for his song, ‘I’ve Just Fallen For Someone’, which was recorded as an album track by Adam Faith and then as a single by Darren Young, both for Parlophone. Young happened to be John Askew (Johnny Gentle) under a new name.
(23) A very knowing question. Parnes never admitted to being gay, although he certainly was. What, though, did Azurdia expect Parnes to say? “Yes, men’s bottoms.”
(24) Azurdia is suspicious about this story. However, Epstein did meet Parnes at the Liverpool Empire, possibly in March 1962. The headline act, Billy Fury was ill and Marty Wilde stepped in at short notice. Epstein would have told him that he ran the NEMS record store and perhaps suggested some personal appearances by his artists. He would have sought advice about managing beat groups and possibly discussed acting at the same time. The two certainly became friends.
(25) ‘What a load of bollocks!’ says Vince Eager. There is no evidence that Parnes was giving out payments to his protégés’ mothers and indeed, would they have accepted it? Sounds very dodgy.
(26) £500, if that.
(27) In July 1960 a Scottish businessman Huw McCowan paid £100,000 for a half-share in Parnes’ business.
(28) Frankie Vaughan had met Presley in Hollywood when he was making ‘Let’s Make Love’ in 1960 but Fury was the first British rock’n’roll star to meet him. Jimmy Savile had been planning to visit Hollywood to present Elvis Presley with his UK silver discs for ‘It’s Now Or Never’ and ‘Rock-A-Hula Baby’. Somehow Larry Parnes convinced Savile that it would be better for Fury to go instead. Elvis was making his eleventh film, ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ and they visited the set in April 1962, while he was shooting ‘Return To Sender’ in the Pirates Den.
Billy presented Elvis with the silver discs but their conversation was even shorter and more stilted than that between Elvis and the Beatles in 1965. Billy said, “We didn’t really say much at all. I was on the set all day watching him. All we really got to say to each other was ‘Hi’. He was one of the nicest people I ever met – he called everyone ‘Sir’.” Elvis told Billy that he had seen ‘The Hellions’, a British western set in South Africa with Richard Todd, Lionel Jeffries and Marty Wilde, five times. Fury may well have heard another song from the film, ‘Because Of Love’, because he released it as a single.
(29) This is astonishing, if true. First of all, Parnes is saying that Presley wasn’t much of a stage performer and that Colonel Parker knew it, so just kept him making films and records. This ridiculous statement could be disproved by Presley’s triumphant return to the stage at Las Vegas in 1969, but Parnes is ready for that: everyone else was entranced but he was thinking, ‘No, he’s not as good as Billy Fury’.
(30) About £1m today would be more like it. Sadly, there are no more details but it would be intriguing to know where and when Parnes planned to stage these events: I would guess Wembley Stadium in 1964.
(31) As a theatrical producer, in 1968, Parnes bravely staged the controversial ‘Fortune And Men’s Eyes’, a play about homosexuality in a Canadian prison. He said he lost £5,000 on the venture, but it did run for some time in the West End. He staged the first UK production of ‘Chicago’ at the Cambridge and he also managed the ice-skater John Currie.
(32) Larry Parnes is confused. Bill Haley and his Comets toured with Desmond Lane, Malcolm Vaughan and Vic Lewis and his Orchestra in 1957 and Buddy Holly and the Crickets had Gary Miller and the Tanner Sisters a year later.
(33) The Grades had brought Haley, Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis to the UK. A fellow impresario, Jeff Kruger, told me, “It wasn’t that the Grades disliked Larry bringing in American stars, but rather that the Grades disliked Larry as someone who might, in some small way, threaten their position. That says a lot for the frailty of Lew Grade’s ego, who was impossible to deal with. In the end, I broke through because of my friendship with Leslie Grade and the respect that Bernard Delfont showed me, but Lew was impossible to deal with.”
(34) Quite neat observations, and bearing out the thought that the item he liked best on his posters was ‘Larry Parnes Presents’.
(35) ‘…and I’ve made them that way.’ Parnes had been suffering from meningitis.
(36) When I met Parnes, he showed me the urns containing ashes of his dogs, which were on his mantelpiece. Undoubtedly a sentimentalist, he spoke of his dogs with tears in his eyes.
(37) As ‘Scouting For Boys’ has been taken, the perfect title for a Parnes biography would be ‘What’s In A Name?’ The book was never completed as Larry Parnes died on 4 August 1989. It is apparent that Parnes merits a biography and somebody should write one. The problem would be in finding a publisher as its sales would be unfortunately limited.