Wednesday, July 09, 2008

I spent most of Wednesday working on an article for the Independent. Normally, such a commission would be cause for jubilation, but not when the article is the obituary of someone I knew personally and liked immensely. I made initial contact with Hugh Mendl when I was working on my first book, Where Have All the Good Times Gone? Ray Horricks, producer of many fine jazz records and former colleague of Hugh's at Decca in the 1950s and 1960s, had given me his address with the instruction to go gently, as he was in his early 80s. As it transpired, Hugh outlived Ray by some margin. Hugh and I arranged to meet in Oxford, where he had studied before the Second World War, as he was up from Devon on a family visit. We talked, with a minidisc recorder running, about his 40 years as a record producer with Decca. Well, I say we talked. We talked, and talked, and talked. The transcript of the chat runs to 29 pages, and it's a fascinating document. In lieu of his professional diaries, discarded without his knowledge or consent when PolyGram took Decca over, it's probably the best front-row account of a remarkable company. When I get a chance, I'll post edited highlights. If he'd done nothing else, the fact that he produced Lonnie Donegan's 'Rock Island Line' would be enough to secure legendary status. However, he did a lot more. He also stepped aside from signing the Rolling Stones, allowing his colleague Dick Rowe to do so and rescue his reputation after carrying the can for Decca turning down the Beatles.

When I interview someone for my work, it's rare that a friendship ensues. This is not because I manage to offend or annoy my interviewees. I'm just grateful for any time that they can spare me, and, in most cases, that's the length of an interview. With Hugh and Ray, however, for some unknown reason, warm associations sprung up. Telephone conversations with Ray tended to be intense and serious, while calls to Hugh were marked by their hilarity. He was not merely a funny man, but also a very witty one, and his memory was pin-sharp to the end. A passing mention of the 1930s comedian Stanley Lupino, who recorded for Decca, caused Hugh to recall an old rhyme:

We know the Lupinos,
We go to their beanos.
We start off on cocktails,
And end up on Eno's.

3 comments:

Apres la Guerre said...

I remember Brian Masters saying to you, "If you get in touch with Hugh, ask him if he still has the Decca scrapbook." Sadly, Brian died before you had the chance. Presumably "the Decca scrapbook" is another of those documents, erm, scrapped by Polygram. Interesting how the UK label which made private pressings for the British Union of Fascists ended up being bought by Herbie the Nazi's favourite label.

I also remember you saying how Mendl had queried whether Edward Lewis would have ever played golf with somebody (Stanley Lupino) who had lived in Brixton.

If only Hugh had left the Decca canteen fried bacon alone, he could have lived to be 100. Could have been worse, I suppose. Had he liked sausages, he might not have made it to 40.

I imagine Ted Lewis liked sausages. Guzzled hundreds of them in a locked cupboard, I'm sure.

LF Barfe said...

From what Hugh told me, I think the scrapbook and the diaries were one and the same.

From what Hugh told me about Lewis being surnames only with his producers, unless on business in the US, such rampant snobbery wouldn't have been beyond him. However, he did make Jack Hylton a director of the company, which provoked an outbreak of the Lady Bracknells among the existing board members. Hylton was not a gentleman. They had a point, of course.

You've spelt sausages wrongly, by the way. It's 'sarssssseges'.

LF Barfe said...

Clarification: For readers who think Apres la Guerre's sausage reference is in poor taste, it is, but it's not as random as it seems. In the excellent Arena documentary about Joe Meek, his brothers are seen to praise Meek's cooking ability. In particular, he is noted to have "liked sausages". This is said in a faintly sinister Forest of Dean accent ("he liked sarsssseges"), and is clearly a very unsubtle reference to Meek's sexual preference for men. I'm not quite sure what Apres is on about with regard to bacon, though. We return you to your normal blog.