Decca Records: A History Of “The Supreme Record Company”
From doorknobs to ‘Nessun Dorma’, Decca Records’ story is one of innovation, revolutionising the way sound has been recorded, sold and enjoyed.
July 4, 2019
By 1928, the directors of Barnett Samuel And Sons had decided that their run as a family business, stretching back to 1832, was over. Since having been established by Henry and Josiah Solomon in Sheffield, in 1832, the company had expanded from its original business of manufacturing tortoiseshell doorknobs, knife handles and combs to making and selling musical instruments. In 1861, Henry’s Polish-born brother-in-law, Barnett Samuel, bought the musical-instrument side of the business, which he quickly expanded, with the help of his son, Nelson, and nephew, Max. Barnett Samuel And Sons Ltd was incorporated in 1900, by which time the firm was well established as one of Britain’s leading musical instrument wholesalers. From here, the seeds of Decca Records were sown.
Listen to the Decca 90: The Supreme Record Label: 1929-2019 playlist on Spotify.
“Manufacturing gramophones but not records was like making razors but not blades”
Around the time that World War I broke out, Barnett Samuel issued its latest innovation – the Decca Dulcephone, a revolutionary portable gramophone player. Before long, Barnett Samuel was the biggest record wholesaler and dealer in London.
Thinking that sales of gramophone records had peaked, the surviving Samuel cousins who now ran the company decided the time was ripe to cash in. They floated the company on the London Stock Exchange and quit the board. The stockbroker who oversaw the flotation was an ambitious 28-year-old named Edward Lewis. The newly public company was incorporated as the Decca Gramophone Company, and made an early splash; Decca’s initial share issue was oversubscribed 20 times over. As yet, though, Lewis remained unmoved – after all, he’d always sworn never to become mixed up in commerce.
“I took little notice at the time,” Lewis famously noted later. “And remember remarking that a company manufacturing gramophones but not records was rather like one making razors but not the consumable blades.”
In August that year, however, Lewis got wind that the Duophone Company, who manufactured the “unbreakable record”, was in dire straits. He suggested that Decca buy out Duophone, who had recently taken over British Brunswick Ltd (Brunswick issued their US counterpart’s records – including those by Al Jolson). But when Decca decided against the plan, Lewis decided to take matters into his own hands, forming Malden Holding Company Ltd to take over the Duophone factory in Kingston, near London. Lewis decided to also take over the Decca Gramophone Company, and, to this end, Malden, with JA Balfour as managing director, incorporated a new company – the Decca Record Company Ltd.
Decca cut into the market, as reported in ‘The Wireless And Gramophone Trader’, 20 August 1932. Photo courtesy of Decca Records
The acquisition, they worked out, would cost something in the region of £660,000. With working capital needed to the tune of around a further quarter of a million pounds, Lewis and Balfour knew they needed to raise a cool £900,000. But, as Lewis recalled, “For safety’s sake and also because it seemed easier to raise a million than nine hundred thousand, we decided to make the [share] issue the larger figure.”
The new company soon acquired an illustrious board, chaired by Sir George Fowler, chief magistrate for Kingston Upon Thames. Sir Sigismund Mendl and Sir Stanley Machin joined as directors (in Mendl’s case, the decision was between Decca and Smith’s Crisps, but he was put off the latter by his wife, who thought there was no market for ready-fried potato chips: “Don’t be so silly, your servants do that sort of thing”).
Launching Decca Records
The Decca Record Company began trading on 28 February 1929. In those early days, the business of making high-fidelity recordings was in its infancy. At Decca’s studios at the Chenil Galleries on London’s King’s Road, performances were captured by a single microphone, concealed from the musicians by a screen showing rural scenes. But just as the fledgling record company was beginning to get off the ground, the Wall Street stock market crash of 1929 hit hard. “Every attempt was made to conserve resources,” said Lewis, “but as the turnover was totally inadequate the end seemed inevitable unless drastic changes took place.”
Lewis joined the board and put forward the proposal to reduce the price of Decca’s records in order to gain market share from competitors HMV and Columbia. When these two merged to form EMI in 1931, Decca took advantage by undercutting their prices.
With a policy of acquiring talent with a mass appeal, Lewis led Decca through stormy waters in the 30s, boasting on adverts that the label had “Leading artists – lower prices”. Though a deal with German company Polyphonwerk gave Decca access to a sizeable classical catalogue, its focus remained on the popular market – the coveted bandleader Jack Hylton was a big signing.
Lewis leapt upon instability within the record business to secure the UK rights to the American Brunswick label – a deal that brought to Decca such big-name US acts as Al Jolson, Cab Calloway, The Mills Brothers, The Boswell Sisters and Bing Crosby. To its US catalogue, Decca added an impressively diverse homegrown roster including George Formby, The Band Of The Grenadier Guards and Charles Hall – “the musical saw minstrel”.
Ever conscious of the need to expand, Lewis set about establishing a business footing in the US. When partnership deals proved difficult to secure, he simply elected to set up an American Decca company by himself. The new company quickly established itself on similar principles to the UK version. But at the same time as the economic instability brought on by the Wall Street crash began to fade, a new danger appeared on the horizon, in the shape of Nazi Germany.
The war effort
With war pending, Lewis opted to sell his shares in American Decca, focusing purely on the UK label. In 1939, the newly independent American Decca accounted for over one third of all records sold in the US and was soon pressing some 135,000 discs per day. With artists including The Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby and Billie Holliday, the American label would exit the war years as a hugely successful and established company. It would go on to become part of one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world, after it acquired Universal-International in 1952, before becoming part of MCA in 1962, and, eventually, part of the Universal Music Group.
Back in Britain, the decade-old label was now running profitably, with not-insignificant assets dotted across London – studios in West Hampstead, a New Malden pressing plant, and offices on Brixton Road, close to The Oval cricket ground. The war years would bring fresh challenges – Lewis lost his house to a parachute bomb, while the offices and factory also took direct hits from the Luftwaffe. Ever the innovator, Decca got around restrictions on shellac supplies (records were made from shellac at this point) by offering customers a discount on new purchases if they returned unwanted old records, which could then be recycled.
A series of Music While You Work 10” releases was deployed in factories and offices to raise morale for the war effort, while links with Britain’s allies opened up new sources of classical music from the USSR, and a fantastic roster of artists under the Brunswick imprint, which included Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Duke Ellington and The Ink Spots.
The company also made an unexpected contribution to the war effort. Harvey Schwartz headed up Decca’s radio and television engineering efforts in London. He and Lewis pioneered the development of a system known as The Navigator, which used radio signals for navigation purposes. The Admiralty eventually deployed the Navigator as a means for locating and clearing mines ahead of the D-Day landings. Decca’s excellent research and development teams contributed a number of other technological weapons, which led to the West Hampstead studios maintaining an armed guard.
Pioneering recording technology
In return, the war-effort’s need to record and cut unusually high frequencies onto records, in order to help train crews to identify enemy U-boats, pushed the boundaries of what could be reproduced on record. This led to advances in high-fidelity record production that would have otherwise taken years to develop. Recording engineer Arthur Haddy recognised how this new technology could benefit the recording and disc-cutting process. Full Frequency Range Recording (FFRR) was put into commercial use for the first time in 1944.
The post-war years would be a boom time for Decca. After the war, Lewis created the Decca Navigator Company Ltd, boasting the world’s most accurate and reliable navigation system; by the 70s, some 30,000 ships and 8,000 aircraft were using the system. The launch, in 1947, of the Decola radiogram continued the initial company’s tradition of innovating with home listening equipment, with its lightweight pick-up and elliptical stylus offering superb sound in people’s homes – albeit only after shelling out a whopping £200-plus. Nonetheless, Decca Records was fast becoming synonymous with high-fidelity sound recording and reproduction.
The late 40s and early 50s saw remarkable developments in the record business, not least the introduction in 1948 of long-playing 33 1/3rpm vinyl discs, which replaced the standard 78rpm shellac records. Coupling such long-playing technology with its innovative FFRR technology, the Decca Sound was established as a byword for quality records.
Advances, too, were being made by Haddy in the field of multi-channel recording, as well as experimenting with more and more microphones, used in unusual formations. A young engineer named Roy Wallace created a system for using a variety of microphones bolted onto a t-shape, resulting in what Haddy described as looking “like a bloody Christmas tree”. This “tree” configuration was then put through a two-channel input mixer, creating what Haddy dubbed “Binaural” sound. By the late 50s, Decca had rolled out Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound (FFSS), and, with John Culshaw now heading up the technical advances, Haddy and his engineers led the way in improvements to the recording process at Decca. Quieter, multi-track tape machines were supported by Dolby Noise Reduction systems. These great-sounding techniques were largely reserved for the classical audience, and Decca Records has remained a market leader in the classical world ever since.
At the forefront of popular music
By the mid-50s, a different kind of revolution was happening in the popular-music market, and, again, Decca was at the forefront. It boasted a catalogue of labels that specialised in pop music, including London, RCA, Brunswick and Coral.
Its Brunswick label scored a smash hit in 1954 with ‘Rock Around The Clock’ by Bill Haley & His Comets. The advent of rock’n’roll changed the record industry forever, seeing sales of records to a teenaged audience rocket over the coming decades. Decca Records quickly snapped up Tommy Steele, Britain’s top rock’n’roller, who went to No.1 with his version of ‘Singing The Blues’, and then Lonnie Donegan, whose ‘Rock Island Line’ was a Top 10 hit in 1956.
Donegan was a jazz musician who spearheaded the skiffle craze that was sweeping Britain. Skiffle combined elements of jazz and blues but could be played on homemade instruments, such as tea-chest bass and washboard. The skiffle craze saw hundreds of new bands spring up around Britain, the long-term effect of which would come to the fore with the explosion of British beat groups in 1963-64, almost all of whom got their first experience of playing in a group thanks to skiffle.
But while many of these youngsters loved to play skiffle, their real passion was rock’n’roll. And though homegrown acts like Tommy Steele and Billy Fury offered a chance to see the stars in the flesh, it was always to America that teenagers looked. Decca’s London American label had the cream of the crop, licenced from America’s finest independent labels like Chess, Sun, Specialty and Tamla. It was Decca Records and its subsidiaries that introduced Britain’s future stars to Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley.
The label that rejected The Beatles…
On New Year’s Day 1962, a former skiffle group from Liverpool famously auditioned for Decca. That Decca turned down The Beatles after that audition has gone down in pop folklore, but they weren’t alone. Pretty much every record company in the UK – including EMI, where they would ultimately find fame – did likewise. At the time, Decca had a choice between The Beatles and Brian Poole And The Tremeloes, choosing the latter at least in part due to them coming from London, and therefore making life easier all round. Besides, the industrial north was still considered essentially a cultural wasteland in England at that time, so A&R man Dick Rowe’s decision not to sign the pre-Ringo Beatles was hardly against the tide.
As the 60s dawned, the pop market was in a state of flux. As a result of a number of problems (many of them behavioural), rock’n’roll was on the wane, and the music market was becoming increasingly hard to predict. And then in late 1962, Decca struck gold. Produced by the maverick Joe Meek in his studio above a luggage shop on London’s Holloway Road, ‘Telstar’ was a blast from the future, an instrumental inspired by the space race, replete with otherworldly sounds created by Meek in his experimental homemade studio. The Tornados took it to the top of the UK charts. But things didn’t end there. So successful was the single that it not only topped the UK chart but also hit No.1 in the US, something previously only ever achieved twice by a UK act (and only then as one-hit wonders). Soon, the British beat boom that was the maturing of Britain’s skiffle craze would smash the US – and global – market wide open.
… eventually signed The Rolling Stones
Alongside EMI, Decca was the biggest record company in the UK. But with the signing of The Beatles, and, in their wake, other Merseybeat acts such as Cilla Black and Gerry And The Pacemakers, EMI looked like it would dominate the pop market. If a Mersey act wasn’t topping the charts, then EMI’s other top seller, Cliff Richard And The Shadows, was scoring the hits. Ironically, it would be thanks to The Beatles that Decca fought back, after George Harrisonrecommended that Decca’s Mike Smith sign a local band called The Rolling Stones. And as if that wasn’t enough, Lennon and McCartney donated a song to the London rhythm’n’blues band, with ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ going to No.12 in the UK charts and kickstarting the Stones’ career.
While the Brit groups were amassing their invasion force, Decca’s London American imprint continued to keep the UK supplied with Stateside smashes, including those from the stable of “the American Joe Meek”, Phil Spector, including ‘Be My Baby’, by The Ronettes and ‘Da Do Ron Ron’ by The Crystals.
Meanwhile, Decca Records continued to vie with EMI for the cream of the homegrown crop, harvesting Rod Stewart, Steve Marriott, Lulu, Tom Jones, Joe Cocker, The Moody Blues and Van Morrison’s Them. This was truly a golden age for both Decca and the pop world at large, with discs flying off the shelves in an endless whirl. As soon as one record’s lifespan started to decrease, an even more brilliant offering took the airwaves – and record stores – by storm.
Of course, the record-buying public wasn’t yet completely dominated by youngsters, and Decca could still notch up considerable success with the likes of The Bachelors, Jim Reeves or Val Doonican, while The Sound Of Musicsoundtrack album topped the UK album charts for an unprecedented 70 weeks in total between 1965 and ’68. It would become the second-best-selling album of the entire decade. And as The Beatles hit new heights with their ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/‘Penny Lane’ single, Decca’s Englebert Humperdink kept them off the top spot with ‘Release Me’.
But for the large part, the story of Decca – and, indeed, the record industry as a whole – in the 60s was of a transatlantic competitiveness that enriched the music (and coffers) of all involved. Brunswick launched The Who and Decca brought out Small Faces. In return, their licensing business scored great success with The Righteous Brothers and The Byrds, before latching onto the American R&B market with acts like Otis Redding and James Brown.
Keeping up with the times
To keep up with the changing times, Decca Records launched its progressive Deram label in 1966 to showcase pop recordings made using “Deramic Sound” (Decca Panoramic Sound), which afforded engineers to create a more dynamic stereo field, placing individual instruments in their own space within the stereo picture. Acts broken by the label include David Bowie (Decca released his debut album), Cat Stevens, The Move and Procol Harum. The Moody Blues, Amen Corner and The Flowerpot Men enjoyed success on the label, but by the mid-70s, Deram was used less and less.
As the sun set on the 60s, the landscape had altered immeasurably from that which had dawned with such innocence. Artists and labels were at loggerheads – Decca and The Rolling Stones had a famous stand-off over the cover of the latter’s 1968 Beggars Banquet album (the Stones had chosen artwork of a graffiti’d public lavatory). The Stones and Decca parted ways with the dawn of the new decade.
Having let both David Bowie and Genesis slip through their fingers, Decca nevertheless still scored huge successes with The Moody Blues, Caravan, Ten Years After and Brotherhood Of Man. Its long-trusted classical and easy-listening sectors, however, were fabulously buoyant, while the label’s budget World Of… series kept Decca Records’ stock on the high street, introducing a new generation to the wonders of its enviable back catalogue.
The 60s and 70s brought with them the rise of a new kind of record label, with new independents such as Richard Branson’s Virgin and Chris Blackwell’s Island able to offer the sort of kinship with experimental young artists that larger organisations couldn’t match. In 1979, a full half-century after creating the company, Edward Lewis sold Decca lock, stock and barrel to Dutch conglomerate PolyGram. Almost immediately after he’d completed the final transfer of the company, Lewis died, on 29 January 1980, at the age of 79.
The Siemens-backed new owner began to offload assets piecemeal – beginning with Navigator, that World War II system that had been deployed ahead of D-Day. Next went the pressing plant in New Malden and the studios in West Hampstead.
Dominating classical music
But while Decca largely ceased to exist as a pop label by the end of the 80s (after enjoying hits with Bananarama, Bronski Beat, The Communards and Fine Young Cannibals), as a classical label it continued to flourish – and break new ground. It was in the unlikely form of the BBC’s theme tune to its coverage of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy that opened up the huge classical crossover audience.
Having chosen for its opening credits Decca’s recording of Luciano Pavarottisinging an aria from Puccini’s Turandot, the tenor’s remarkable performance was matched by England’s football team on the field. ‘Nessun Dorma’ became synonymous with the rebirth of English football after two troubled decades, and, as such, brought opera to the masses. When Decca’s recording of that tournament’s opening concert performance by The Three Tenors (Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras) was released, it went on to become the biggest-selling classical album of all time, paving the way for classical crossover artists from Russell Watson to Andrea Bocelli.
Decca dominated this market – and continues to do so. To their already illustrious roster – including Katherine Jenkins, Nicola Benedetti and Alfie Boe – in 2018 they added the fastest-rising classical star in recent memory, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, securing him a worldwide stage with performances at the high-profile wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and ensuring crossover appeal with covers of Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman, No Cry’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.
It’s now 90 years since Edward Lewis put records and gramophones together to create the Decca Company. The Samuel cousins couldn’t have been more wrong that record sales had peaked. Sometimes it takes a visionary prepared to take a punt on gut instinct to create something remarkable. Edward Lewis did just that.
Discover more about Decca Records’ 90th anniversary atwww.decca90.com.
Decca – The Supreme Record Company: The Story Of Decca Records 1929 – 2019 can be bought here.