As Britain stumbled from the grey torpor of the 1950s into the brash glare of the soon-to-be swinging 60s, Guy Stevens' red and yellow Sue label became a talisman for the hippest kids on the block, a marker for the growing divide between the pop mainstream and the burgeoning R&B/Soul underground. This is the first of an important trilogy celebrating the triumphs and heroic failures of Britain's first cult label. Check out the titles in the panel on the left. Here are the echoes of authenticity that rang true for so many music fans seeking a counterpoint to the first noisy flush of British beatdom.
Before Stevens there was Chris Blackwell. He was Stevens' mentor and sponsor, the man who gave Stevens the opportunity to express himself. Blackwell was the first of the young mavericks who helped revolutionise the English record industry in the mid-1960s and though it's rarely acknowledged, he was also a good two years ahead of a distinguished pack which included Andrew Oldham, Mickie Most and Shel Talmy, not to mention Brian Epstein. As the beat boom, stoked by Beatlemania took hold, Blackwell began to cast an envious eye over the rapidly expanding pop market. While visiting Jamaica in July 1963, Blackwell caught the strains of Mockingbird a catchy American hit by Inez and Charlie Foxx, in a distributor's office. He rushed to New York to negotiate for the British release rights with the producer, Juggy Murray, on whose Symbol label Mockingbird was rapidly scaling the US charts.
He believed so strongly in Mockingbird's potential as a pop 'crossover' hit, that he offered to launch the Sue label in the UK with Mockingbird as its inaugural release. This appealed to Murray's vanity because even iconic American labels such as Atlantic and Motown had yet to establish their own logos in the UK. Blackwell now had his deal. Whether he was equipped to fulfil his obligations to Murray with the resources at his disposal was another matter. With a few modest alterations, Island's distinctive red and white logo - designed by a thrusting young advertising agency named Saatchi & Saatchi - was transmogrified into a striking red and yellow logo for its new companion imprint, Sue.
Guy Stevens first came to the fore when he got a gig as a DJ at The Scene, a small basement club in Ham Yard, a cobble-stoned cul-de-sac off Great Windmill Street directly opposite the famed Windmill Theatre. His Monday evening hops soon began to attract interest and by early 1964, The Scene was a prime Mod hangout. The Animals and Georgie Fame were superstars there long before the rest of the country got to hear of them, as were the High Numbers, a Shepherd's Bush band with Mod pretensions. By late 1963, R&B was fast becoming a code for a subterranean network of wonderful sounds there to be discovered if one knew where to look. Before long, clubs in the image of The Scene were springing up throughout the South East and there were pockets further north too.
By the time Blackwell hired Stevens to run Sue in April 1964, around twelve singles - all sourced from Sue or Symbol - had already been issued. Mockingbird which had reached #7 in the States, had not become the hoped for hit in Britain primarily because Blackwell had found airplay hard to come by at a time when the charts were dominated by the Beatles, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Roy Orbison and the Searchers.
With Blackwell and colleague David Betteridge taking care of the workaday practicalities, an unfettered Stevens was left to indulge his all-consuming vinyl mania. Guy never operated as an office guy, he was a blazing flame," Betteridge explained. "He had Chris Blackwell on one side and me on the other and between us we managed to get him focused on the business. We made money on maybe one in five singles like James Brown's Night Train. The pay-off was the four volumes of "The Sue Story"-.-those sold over a long period of time."
Stevens felt that Island's exclusive arrangement with American Sue was impeding his vision of British Sue as a conduit for his eclectic personal tastes and he was able to persuade Chris Blackwell to broaden the available repertoire base by sourcing from other American labels, a policy switch that was not immediately conveyed to Juggy Murray.
Pretty soon, oddities such as Macks By The Tracks by Tim Whitsett, Dream Baby by Anita Wood and New Dance In France by Bobby Lee Trammell began appearing, alongside more orthodox fare by Ike & Tina Turner and Jimmy McGriff. The blues output suddenly increased with releases by the iconic Elmore James, Louisiana Red, Willie Mabon and Bobby Parker and there were even the occasional rock'n'roll throwbacks (La Bamba, Itchy Twitchy Feeling) just to remind everyone where Stevens was coming from.
The closest Sue ever came to a hit was Inez & Charlie Foxx Hurt By Love which reached #40 following an appearance by the brother-sister duo on the influential TV show Ready Steady Go and plugs on pirate radio. Inez and Charlie went down a storm as a support act on a Stones tour but Juggy Murray, who had come over with them, took exception to the number of outside productions appearing on British Sue, and terminated his deal with Island, picking up where he had left off with Decca's London label. Sue was now so well established that this scarcely mattered anyway.
By early 1966, Stevens was beginning to tire of the clerical aspects of running a record label. Sue's lack of hits - the very thing that sustained its credibility - meant that he wasn't getting the attention he felt he deserved. He craved a more creative firmament for his ambitions. The competition was becoming more intense as the majors, notably EMI and Pye International, began to encroach on Sue's territory. By 1967 the R&B cult had faded amid a welter of psychedelia though soul had found a degree of mainstream acceptance as Stax and especially Motown began to make their presence felt on the British charts.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Blackwell, Betteridge and Stevens began to steer Island gently towards white boy rock. Stevens, who had long relinquished his deejay slot at The Scene which closed down in 1966, began to immerse himself in the trappings of the rock'n'roll lifestyle.
Sue would soldier on until June 1968 - some of its finest releases coming out in that final year - but Stevens would no longer be involved. He'd gone psychedelic. As Stevens began to spend more time pursuing his producing ambitions, John Abbey, editor of the specialist magazine 'Blues And Soul', was brought in to help Sue stay on track. In 1968 Guy was busted and jailed for eight months. During his incarceration, his cherished record collection was stolen from his mother's flat. Guy is rumoured to have broken down. But by 1969, as enthusiastic as ever, he was back at Island busily involved with Mott The Hoople (a band he created from scratch) and Free. A re-issue of Harlem Shuffle on Island had just made the top 10 and a re-issue of Mockingbird - the record that had kicked off the whole Sue saga - was nestling in the Top 40.
It's been a while now but the Sue thing has turned full circle with this, the first of three volumes. Though the sounds are American the selection will conjure up a lot of fond memories of an important period in British pop culture. I hope we've done Guy proud.
By Rob Finnis"