Sunday, 6 January 2013

Brian Epstein Negotiates Beatles Deal With Parlophone

Brian Epstein
It is commonly believed that The Beatles were hired by George Martin at EMI's Parlophone label following their 6th June 1962 audition at Abbey Road. The series of events that led The Beatles to be partnered with this extraordinary producer are less well known.

On Monday 1 January, The Beatles attended a formal audition for Decca. There, in less than an hour, they recorded a 15 track set list, devised by manager Brian Epstein to show off their versatility, consisting of three original Lennon-McCartney compositions, two old standards, seven cover versions of 50's rock and roll, R&B and country hits, two ballads and a contemporary chart hit. The session was produced by Tony Meehan, ex-drummer with The Shadows, now working as a producer and A&R man for Decca.

Decca later released The Beatles audition
on the back of their massive success
Decca let Epstein know at the start of February that they would not be adding The Beatles to their roster, telling him that "guitar groups are on the way out". Furious, Epstein travelled to London. On Tuesday 6th February 1962, he met with Decca's head of singles, Dick Rowe and sales manager Sidney Arthur Beecher-Stevens, at Decca's offices on the Embankment, to plead The Beatles' case. The executives were adamant that a Liverpool act would not appeal to a national audience. Despite this, they were happy to allow Epstein to take away a copy of the group's audition on two reel-to-reel tapes. Epstein took the tapes to both Pye and Oriole, who both offered similar rejections. He also had a meeting arranged with Meehan the following day, but Meehan arrived late for the meeting and told Epstein to stop wasting his time.

HMV's Oxford Street store as it was in the
late 1950's and early 1960's.
On Thursday 8 February 1962, a disenchanted Epstein took time out to catch up with his friend Bob Boast, whom he had first met on a record retail management course run by Deutsche Grammophon in, of all places, Hamburg, the previous year. Like Epstein, Boast was a record store manager, and was now in charge of HMV's prestigious flagship store at 363 Oxford Street, London. Having taken time to chat, Epstein played the tapes to Boast. As a record store manager, Boast was in no position to help, but he advised Epstein that he should get the tapes converted to discs, as these would be less cumbersome and would appear more professional. As luck would have it, there was a small studio in the store where customers could make 78rpm records.

Jim Foy, the HMV engineer who cut the discs for Epstein, was impressed that three of the songs on Epstein's tapes were original compositions. He fetched Sid Coleman, manager of publishing company Ardmore and Beechwood, whose office was on the top floor of the HMV building. Coleman liked what heard, and, as soon as the discs were cut, invited Epstein to his office to discuss acquiring The Beatles' music publishing rights. Epstein was pleased with the offer, but made it clear to Coleman that has primary goal was to acquire a recording contract for The Beatles. Coleman understood, and made a call to his friend George Martin, head of A&R at Parlophone, which, like HMV, was a subsidiary of EMI. A meeting between Epstein and Martin at EMI's Manchester Square headquarters was arranged for the following Tuesday, 13 February 1962.

Returning to Liverpool, Epstein felt that progress had been made. That weekend he formally severed The Beatles' ties with Decca in a letter to Dick Rowe, in which he wrote:
I am writing to thank you for your kind offer of co-operation in assisting me to put the Beatles on records. I am most grateful for your own and that of your colleagues consideration of this Group and whilst I appreciate the offer of Mr.Meehan's services I have now decided not to accept.

The principle reason for this change of mind is that since I saw you last the Group have received an offer of a recording contract from another company.
(Source: The Complete Beatles ChronicleMark Lewisohn, Octopus 1992 (page 55) )
Epstein went back to London the following week for his meeting with George Martin. He played the discs of the Decca audition to Martin, who was not particularly impressed, but was nevertheless interested. He liked McCartney's voice and Harrison's guitar playing, and enjoyed "Till There Was You" and Lennon's original, "Hello Little Girl". He identified McCartney as the band's front-man. Martin decided that he would like to meet The Beatles.

There was a problem, however. The Beatles were still under contract with Polydor in Germany (See "The Hamburg Tapes"), and Martin was not prepared to sign them until that contract expired. Consequently, on Tuesday 20 February 1962, Epstein wrote to Bert Kaempfert, the A&R man at Polydor in Germany, asking him to sever their contract, which was not due to expire until the end of June. Kaempfert wrote back on Saturday 3 March 1962:
I should like to inform you that it was agreed upon with "THE BEATLES" that they would return to Germany around February 1962 and that recording should be made with them at that time. My understanding is that "THE BEATLES" are to come to Hamburg again in April of this year. I'm in principle willing to release this group from their agreement before the official exploration of their contract. However, I would appreciate if a way could be found that they are still recording for the Polydor label during their stay in Hamburg in April or May. I do not want to spoil the chances of the group to get recording contracts elsewhere, but I do think that we should have the chance to make recordings with the group for the Polydor label whilst they are in Hamburg.
(Source: The Complete Beatles ChronicleMark Lewisohn, Octopus 1992 (page 55) )
In his book, Summer of Love: The Making of Sgt. Pepper, George Martin recalls a recording audition with The Beatles in EMI Abbey Road Studio 3, probably on 27 March 1962 - their only day without a concert that month (qv Ask Me Why: When Was The Beatles First Audition At Abbey Road). The Beatles ran through their set - according to Martin it was much the same as he had heard on the Decca Audition tape that Epstein had played him.

The date is corroborated because that same day, Epstein wrote back to Kaempfert:
As it happens the particular recording Company with whom we have negotiated are unable to record the group until they return from Germany and in any event prefer to wait until their existing contract with yourself has expired.

In the circumstances therefore I would like to give you formal notice of our wish to terminate the contract at the end of this contractual period (30th June 1962).

With regard to their recording when in Germany I would myself be very pleased to discuss this with you as I shall be arriving in Hamburg on April 9th - a few days in advance of the group. I will, therefore contact you then and possibly we can settle details of their actual recording sessions.
(Source: The Complete Beatles ChronicleMark Lewisohn, Octopus 1992 (page 54) )
As Epstein said, The Beatles were gearing up for their third trip to Germany. They were to play at The Star Club, 39 Grosse Freiheit, Hamburg from Friday 13th April until Thursday 31 May 1962. The Star Club had its own backline, so they would not need to bring any of their own amplifiers with them, only their guitars and drums. Thus it was that Lennon, McCartney and Best flew into Hamburg airport on Wednesday 11th April 1962. Amongst their luggage was a tape of eight songs from their Decca audition - a present for their ex-bass player, Stuart Sutcliffe, now living in Hamburg with his fiancé, Astrid Kirchherr. They were met by Kirchherr, who delivered devastating news. Sutcliffe had died of a brain haemorrhage the previous day. He was 21 years old.

As it was, Epstein did not arrive in Hamburg until Thursday 12th April 1962, accompanied by George Harrison, who had been suffering from German measles. Sutcliffe's mother was also on the flight, on her way to identify her son's body and to return him home. Epstein set about making final arrangements for their Star Club stint, and to hammer out recording dates with Kaempfert. A final recording session for Polydor was arranged for Thursday 24th May 1962, after which their contract would be terminated. Epstein flew back to Liverpool, and lost no time in arranging a meeting with George Martin.

Epstein's Telegram to Bill Harry
On Wednesday, 9th May 1962, Epstein met with Martin at EMI's studios in Abbey Road. Martin had liked what he had heard at that initial recording audition in March, and at that meeting, he immediately offered Epstein a recording contract for The Beatles. A date was set to record their debut single: Wednesday 6th June 1962.

Martin, unknown to Epstein, was a desperate man. Parlophone was seen within EMI as a joke label. Their main output was comedy, and they were very much a poor relation to EMI's internationally famous labels, EMI and Columbia. Martin wanted a pop group on the label - a band he could use to raise Parlophone's image and to compete with his opposite number at Columbia, Norrie Paramor, producer of Cliff Richard and The Shadows.

An hour later, Epstein left EMI Studios and went straight to the Post Office on Wellington Road, where he telephoned his parents, and sent two telegrams. The first telegram was to The Beatles in Hamburg:
Congratulations boys: EMI request recording session. Please rehearse new material.
(Source: The Complete Beatles ChronicleMark Lewisohn, Octopus 1992 (page 56) )
"We were all still in bed", Pete Best told Hunter Davies for his 1968 biography, The Beatles. "Whoever was first up always went for the post. George was first up this day and got the telegram. We felt terrific. John and Paul started composing straight away. Brian came out to see us and negotiated a new contract - £85 a week each I think we got then. He thought 'Love Me Do' would be a good one for the recording session."

According to Ray Coleman in  Lennon - The Definitive BiographyThe Beatles sent their delighted replies back to Epstein on postcards: McCartney jokingly asking for £10,000 advance royalties, Harrison suggesting that they order four new guitars, and Lennon wanting to know when they would be millionaires.

The second telegram was to Bill Harry, editor of Liverpool music paper, Mersey Beat:
Have secured contract for Beatles to recorded [sic] for EMI on Parlaphone [sic] label. 1st recording date set for June 6th.
(Source: The Complete Beatles ChronicleMark Lewisohn, Octopus 1992 (page 56))  
Martin set about organizing The Beatles' contract. On Friday, 18th May 1962, he sent an "Application for Artiste Contract" to EMI's administration department. A contract - post-dated 4th June - was duly returned to Martin on Thursday 24th May, which was sent off, with no official binding EMI signature, to Epstein in Liverpool for The Beatles to sign. The Beatles returned from Hamburg on Saturday 2nd June, 1962, and Epstein returned the contract on Tuesday 5th June, 1962, signed by him and witnessed by Cavern Club DJ Bob Wooler.

Also on June 5th, The Beatles travelled to London following two days of intensive rehearsals at The Cavern Club in Liverpool. The following day they arrived at EMI's studios in Abbey Road for the very first time. Once there, they performed a number of songs. However, McCartney's amplifier kept cutting out, and EMI engineers had to improvise a bass amp for him. Martin was unimpressed by their performance, and departed to the canteen, leaving his assistant Ron Richards, and engineers Norman Smith and Chris Neal to tape The Beatles first session.

In all, The Beatles' recorded four songs at that first session:
  • Besame Mucho
  • Love Me Do
  • PS I Love You
  • Ask Me Why

Richards, Smith and Neal were also not impressed with The Beatles' first number, but the second song changed their minds. Love Me Do prompted Richards to send Smith to fetch Martin back from the canteen, and he listened, intrigued, to the remaining songs - all of them Lennon-McCartney originals. After the session was ended, Martin invited The Beatles up to the control room, where they impressed him with their humour, and he impressed them by revealing that he had produced records by Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers of The Goons. Martin concluded that he had nothing to lose, and sanctioned the addition of a binding EMI signature to their contract.