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.