EMI didn’t have one until 1962, Philips never had one at all, Pye tried hard, but remained in division two for much of its life and the Rank Organisation had one that rang up such huge losses they pretty much gave theirs away. The label none of those companies could match was housed on the Albert Embankment, the home of the Decca Record Company – the label was London American and it, unlike Top Rank, Pye International and Stateside was the label you turned to most often when looking for the best in American pop, R&B and rock’n’roll.
America was the first country in which a London label appeared. It was the flagship of British Decca’s American operations as far back as 1934. In Britain, the London logo made its debut in 1949 releasing material culled from its American namesake, but also from early US independents like Audivox, Jubilee, Derby, Cadence, Imperial, Essex and Jubilee.
In 1954, a new prefix (HL) and numbering system (8001) was introduced and it’s this series that gave the London American label its legendary status. As rock’n’roll took hold in America new labels sprung up by the bucket load and Decca’s reputation for honest, straight forward dealing meant the new label entrepreneurs could trust Decca to pay its advances and deliver regular royalty statements and payments so the stature of the London American label grew rapidly.
EMI’s Columbia, Parlophone and HMV labels had some US hits, others turned up on smaller British labels like Melodisc, Oriole and Starlite, but the cream was always to be found on the silver and black London label. Here you’d find material from Atlantic, Liberty (whose ability to survive and expand was partly made possible by a financial leap of faith by Sir Edward Lewis, the chairman of Decca who, when asked for a hundred thousand dollars advance for the rights to the Liberty catalogue in the mid-50s offered fifty thousand more, such was his belief in Liberty’s founder Si Waronker), Cadence, Dot, Jamie, Sun, Chess, Specialty, Warwick, Imperial and United Artists, most of which became major players whilst others like Greenwich, Sunbeam, Paris, Dore, Arwin, Judd, JDS and countless others turned out to be little more than ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ operations. Still, their recordings all found a home on London American.
And so now Ace Records begins a year-by-year series celebrating the hits, misses and downright rarities that found a British outlet on the London American label, starting with 1960.
Here you’ll find familiar recordings by Chuck Berry, Johnny Tillotson, Duane Eddy, Eddie Cochran, the Ventures, the Coasters and Johnny Burnette, but look more closely and you’ll find lesser-known records from the Delicates, whose members we now know more about than ever we knew in 1960, Teddy Redell with a track that’ll set you back £50 or £60 pounds now and Sonny Burgess, a wild rock‘n’roller who hadn’t noticed America’s chart was full of boy next door love songs in 1960. Here too, you’ll find Vernon Taylor’s sought-after version of Elvis’s ‘Mystery Train’, and even a good-time country sound from Wynn Stewart which London chose to only manufacture in Britain as an export item.
But don’t let me keep you, grab your copy of The London American Label Year By Year and start re-living the sound of 1960. Then keep your eyes peeled for 1961, 1962, 1963.
By Austin Powell