Monday, 9 January 2012

Tin Pan Alley

Denmark Street, aka Tin Pan Alley, was an amazing place to be part of when I worked there for Leeds Music as a packer in 1966. It was my second job since leaving school. I had been working at ATV over at Marble Arch, in Cumberland Place for about a year, but soon after joining ATV as a post boy, I came to realise that the idea of ending up as trainee cameraman at Elstree Studios, which I thought would be a good career, was more or less an impossibility, unless you worked at the studios as a clapper boy or something similar.

Most of the trainee jobs were snapped up by those already working over at the studios. It was near-on impossible to get a job at Elstree as that was what everyone in the post room were all striving for. One of the problems was that all the studio jobs, trainee or otherwise, were always sent around to the other television and film companies, so as a post boy, you didn’t stand much of a chance of even getting an interview. It was pretty much a closed shop. And then when you turned 18, if you were still a post boy, you would have got kicked out.

Most of my friends from school had gone to college after school to train in technical drawing or something of that nature, but I was always smitten about working in either the film, television or music industries, so the best way in was via ATV as a post boy. I landed the job at Leeds Music in Denmark Street through an employment agency. In those days, you could walk into an agency and pick up a job or get an interview for a job inside of a week. There were a lot of jobs up for grabs back then in the entertainment industry for office workers, and for some reason I decided to go for Leeds Music and got the job.

My main duties included packing sheet music and delivering them around the sheet music distributors and stockists, collecting and delivering mail to the internal offices, like the professional department, which Don Agness was head of, and was in charge of all things to do with song publishing. There were a couple of song pluggers in his department. One was Stuart Levington, who was the plugger for pop, and a much older guy named Sammy Marks, who was "old-school" TPA, and looked after the classical side. There was also a copyright department, run by Robert Lamont (who I ended up working with as a copyright assistant), and of course, on the second floor was Cyril Simons, who was the managing director, and appeared to always have the pop stars of the day in his office. Petula Clarke, Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdink (then Gerry Dorsey) were frequent visitors. I remember the day that Tom, who had just released Green, Green Grass of Home, came rushing through the swing doors of one of the offices, where company secretary Madge Young, in charge of contracts, was situated - and knocked my post tray flying, and then helped me pick up the post that he had just sent flying onto the floor! I remember telling my friends back home about it that evening, and no one believed me!

When we moved over to new offices in Piccadilly, next to the Universal building, near Green Park, just around the corner from the Playboy Club and RCA Records, a lot of other music publishers were moving out of Denmark Street as well. I remember Gordon Mills, Tom Jones’s manager, had an office at Piccadilly. He invited me up one lunchtime to take a listen to Tom’s then forthcoming new album. When I finished listening, he took it off the turntable, put into an inner paper sleeve, and then into plain white card sleeve and handed it to me to take home. He was a great guy. It was a white label acetate, and the album was Tom Jones Live At Talk of The Town, and was still some weeks away from being released.

It was while I was at the Piccadilly offices that I joined the copyright department, and also learnt  how to cut acetate discs. They were basically records that were cut for demo or evaluation purposes. I think I had it in my mind to become a disc cutter ever since I was shown how it was done at Regent Sound Studios, which was opposite Leeds Music and already famous as the studio where the Rolling Stones made their first album. I must have ran over there at least half a dozen times a day with tapes that had to be cut onto disc for the professional department. I guess most of them were demos of unpublished songs that were required for an artist to consider for possible recording. I remember too how huge the sheet music sales were in those days, much bigger than records, which I never kind of understood. One of the biggest sheet music sellers for Leeds must have been This Is My Song which Petula Clarke had recorded for album use only but then when Pye Records released it as a single, and it ended up at number one, we were inundated with orders for the sheet music.

Over the years, many people have asked me what it was like to work in Tin Pan Alley, was it exciting, was it cool, and how many pop stars did I meet? Well, it was exciting yes, there was a great buzz about working there because it was unlike working anywhere else. None of us who were there at the time had any idea we were working in what would later become an iconic place and time in the history of popular music. The day normally kicked off about 10am in Julie's Cafe next door to Leeds, with a bacon sandwich and a cup of coffee. After that, the day pretty much consisted of packing orders of sheet music ready for delivery to the distributors and stockist in the area which I delivered on a two-wheel trolley.

Lunch hours were usually spent at the Gioconda Cafe in Denmark Street or at the Wimpy Bar in St. Martin's Lane, and at other times browsing through the record department at Francis, Day & Hunter, opposite the Astoria Cinema in Charing Cross Road. They probably carried the biggest stock of vinyl in London at that time. Not only that, but they also had listening booths where one could ask for record to be played without any intention to purchase until the staff got irritated and chucked you out. It seemed as if the entire shop floor had been taken up by racks of record sleeves on one side of the ground floor, and sheet music on the other. The albums covered every genre of records imaginable from original soundtracks and cast albums of films and musicals to the latest pop, blues and jazz releases. It was the sort of place you could get hooked on the smell of the vinyl and clarifoil laminate of the record sleeves.

Walking through the centre of Soho in the middle of the afternoon was quite an experience. The strip joints were then thriving, and I can still hear the bouncers outside each of the clubs inviting me in to watch the girls get naked! Most of the stockists and distributors I had to deliver the sheet music to were on the other side of Soho, and so the only way to get to them was through the heart of Soho, and in those days every other doorway was a strip joint with these intimidating characters outside shouting all sorts of things to lure us in for half an hour of girls getting their kits off.

1 comment:

  1. Priceless..."getting their kits off."
    I'll bet my trolley would've set idle for a time or two watching their "kits" fall to floor !
    The whole of Tin Pan Alley and Denmark Street sounds like a wonderworld of adventure and intrigue.
    Regent Sound is truly 'Iconic'...
    Thanks for sharing that Nigel, I'll start my morning tomorrow with a bacon sandwich and coffee and think of this reflection !