Friday, 29 April 2011

Enlightenment! - #8

Melodisc is a record label that pops up several times in Enlightenment!- the current edition of YHO which can be downloaded here. I am fascinated by the Melodisc story. I am more fascinated by the fact that it seems really difficult to piece a detailed history together, even though most people who see this will be aware of the label. I get angry when I read about well-connected industry insiders writing books on the history of independent record labels, with an inference that it all started with New Hormones or something. I get just as angry at articles which refer to Immediate or Island being the first independent labels in the UK. But then I really have no idea what the first independent label was because independents have been around ever since there were labels.
Melodisc, however, has a pretty unique place in the history of UK independent labels. Hmm, so unique I can’t even see a Wikipedia listing for it. Details of its origins are vague, but the consensus is that it was started in New York by Emil Shalit in the late ‘40s (there are variations of Emil’s name, nationality and the date the label came into being) as the UK arm of his operations. The plan was to license American jazz and blues recordings in the UK, but things developed as opportunities arose to exploit immigrant markets (Caribbean, African, Irish, for example). Jazz musician Jack Chilkes seems to have been in charge of UK operations initially as the label diversified. There doesn’t seem to any doubt about Shalit’s motives. He was an entrepeneur, and willing to exploit any market. But nevertheless his label put out an extraordinary array of music.
Our hero Denis Preston in the early ‘50s used Melodisc as an outlet for his pioneering calypso recordings, and indeed some of his jazz ones including I believe the first Joe Harriott outing. From catering for the Caribbean market Melodisc moved into the African one. There is a fantastic article online, from an old issue of Musical Traditions, by Ray Templeton, which details the African recordings released in the ‘50s by Melodisc, either made in the UK or imported. Intriguingly there was a strong market in Africa for calypso recordings, and this was something else Melodisc got involved in, particularly around the time Ghana won its independence.
It’s hard not to dwell on this, but Melodisc really did put out a mixture of musics that makes you punch the air with glee: folk, country, blues, early rock ‘n’ roll, latin, cuban, TV themes, etc. I guess the label is most famous for its ventures into Jamaican music, with Laurel Aitken, Prince Buster, and the Blue Beat subsidiary. Blue Beat may even be the only case in musical history where a label name has become a description for a particular type of music. There may be many quibbles about its business ethics and the Melodisc way of working, but when you hunt around and look at some of the attempts at discographies that are posted on the web you could almost forgive anything. The Whirlygig ‘50s forum features an extraordinary list of many Melodisc releases, and one of my favourite places on the internet, Tapir’s Reggae Discographies, has great lists featuring a selection of Melodisc singles and LPs.
Among the LPs Tapir lists is a Marie Bryant collection. Marie was a singer/dancer from New Orleans who’d worked with Duke Ellington, and been in Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night, so it’s easy to see why she was pretty popular with guys like Denis Preston when she came to the UK in the early ‘50s. While in the UK Marie recorded with Humphrey Lyttelton, and made a wonderful record with the Mike McKenzie Quintet of Don’t Touch My Tomato, which features in a passage in Frank Norman’s Stand On Me which I couldn’t resist quoting in Enlightenment! Oddly this record by a New Orleans singer and a group led by a Guyanese pianist which was released on a label (Lyragon), a subsidiary of an independent label started by Petula Clark’s dad (Polygon), came to be considered a classic example of Jamaican mento music. The great Phyllis Dillon later did a great rocksteady version of Don’t Touch My Tomato. Incidentally while in the UK Marie appeared in a West End revue and created a worldwide stir by singing an anti-apartheid song that attacked the South African premier.
It is impossible to mention Marie and not refer to the extraordinary short film, Jammin’ The Blues, directed by Gjon Mili in 1944, capturing the spirit of an after-hours jam session - or as it's described "a midnight symphony". Marie features as a singer and dancer and the film also features Lester Young looking exceptionally cool in his pork pie hat. Well, this whole thing is ridiculously cool and oh so beautiful ...


  1. I believe Melodisc used Decca's pressing plant in Lewisham/Lee (haven't tracked down the address yet), so those early ska records were recorded in Jamaica, pressed in SE London, shipped to Jamaica, and some of them ended up being brought back to SE London by Jamaican migrants.

  2. You're absolutely right. Wonderful. I thought of you when writing about Melodisc as there were early UK calypso collections released on the New Cross label in the late '80s - Port of Spain Shuffle and Caribbean Connection.

  3. hi
    I am Jayne and daughter of Jack Chilkes.
    He was interviewed by Andy Simons for the British Library
    You might want to contact Andy Simons for further info about Melodisc - I believe he is still at the British Library
    Here is info of part of the recording
    Duration: 00:33:43
    Shelf mark: C122/202
    Recording date: 1994-09-29
    Recording locations: unknown
    Interviewees: Chilkes, Jack 1922-2004 (male)
    Interviewers: Simons, Andrew (male)
    Recordists: Simons, Andrew
    Part 2. Spells with bands of Teddy Foster and (later) Carl Barriteau. Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson's band. Bands of Sydney Lipton and Henry Hall. Influence of certain US jazz records. First impressions of bebop. Record exchange arrangements with people in US. Carlo Krahmer's acetate collection and dubbing facility in his West End basement flat. Began experimenting with bebop at the Fullado Club, closed following police raid (1947). Modern jazz scene continued at Club Eleven. Attitudes to bop. Drink and drug use. Tommy Pollard. Ronnie Scott. Difficulty of making a living from jazz. Need to double on more than one woodwind. Ca. 1949/50 was tricked into forming record company with Emile Shalit, who told Chilkes he owned the rights to material owned by other companies, resulting in legal action. Involvement of Moses Asch and Norman Granz. Chilkes' labels Oriole (initially) then Melodisc. Left business in 1953.

  4. Thanks for the tip Jayne. I read about the recording but couldn't get access not being connected to further education, so the contact for Andy is helpful.

  5. In the summer of 1976, I was working in the West end, in a reggae shop I co-founded called Daddy Kool. Through being a jazz fan I also knew John Jack, who at that time was running his Cadillac Distribution from the basement of Ray's Jazz shop in Shaftesbury Avenue. John supplied me with some old Blue Beat Lps that he had from Emil Shalit., and mentioned that Mr Shalit was looking to buy 1 million records for a deal he had with a company in Nigeria. I knew where there were loads of records, a lot of Embassy [Woolworth's] label, all in company bags. which is what Mt Shalit needed. They were in a de-consecrated church at Deptford Broadway, a place which the reggae writer Penny Reel had shown me earlier that year. The upshot was, one morning I met Mr Shalit in Hanway Street, and we drove to Deptford Broadway in his chauffeur-driven Bentley. About halfway, we stopped and his chauffeur jumped in the back to give Mr Shalit an insulin injection - he was diabetic. When we arrived at the church, it turned out that Mt Shalit already knew the guy whose stock was in this church, and they did some business....
    Another unrelated bit happened years later, and concerns the BBC 'archive'. One day in the late 1990s I got a phone call from a guy who worked in the BBC archive, who told me that the BBC were chucking out a load of 5 inch spools of tape, containing transfers of various Melodisc titles, one or two sides per spool, and did I want them ? I said yes, and the guy soon turned up at my home in Forest Gate with his young son, and a large stash of these BBC spools. He said that he only found out about this when they had already got up to the letter 'M' - everything before that had already gone to landfill....
    I still have those tapes and have transferred them to digital with help from Dave Ross of the Happy Couple duo. /from Steve Barrow

    1. Steve, those are fantastic stories. Thanks so much. Curious to know what would have been on the Melodisc tapes.