The history of President Records, one of the first independent labels in the UK, is inextricably linked to that of music publisher Edward Kassner. Born in Austria to Jewish parents in 1920, Edward dreamed of becoming a composer but his orchestral aspirations were cut short when Hitler annexed Austria.
“He was tipped off by his friends that they were rounding up Jewish boys,” says David Kassner, Edward’s eldest son and now MD of President. “He fled through Belgium and got caught trying to cross the border at Aachen twice. On the third occasion a German soldier caught him but let him go saying that he hadn’t signed up to shoot young boys.”
His parents both died in Auschwitz. Edward made it to England but was interned before being shipped to Australia alongside his fellow European refugees. Later allowed to return to the UK, he joined the British Army, serving in France and Germany as an interpreter.
In 1944,Edward married Eileen, and together they founded The Edward Kassner Music Company Ltd. Two years later the company had its first hit with “How Lucky You Are” by Vera Lynn.
In the post-war period the big money was in printing and selling sheet music. Edward continued to acquire a host of copyrights and catalogues before buying a song that would change the face of popular music forever. The track was “Rock Around The Clock”.
“My first memory is of dancing to Bill Haley’s version in our living room,” David says. “I told my mum that I would like to be a music man like my dad.”
Edward moved his young family to New York in the mid-Fifties. The burgeoning independent scene in the Big Apple led Edward and a group of his contemporaries to form a label – President Records Inc – in 1955. By 1961, however, Edward and his partners amalgamated their musical interests into a public corporation and the US President label was swept up, with Edward becoming the majority shareholder.
With the heyday of sheet music fading fast, one of the biggest problems facing a music publisher was how to get your song heard. Edward realised that the big money lay in creating your own label. You could publish the song, record it, release it – and get a bigger chunk of the profits. So, he launched Seville Records in the US, and had a hit in 1962 with “Shout! Shout! (Knock Yourself Out)” performed by Ernie Maresca. He followed the success with “Bobby’s Girl” by Marcie Blane. However, Seville failed to build on this early success.
The assassination of JFK in 1963 provided Edward with the inspiration to relaunch President, partly in tribute to Kennedy. But the music business was changing as the spotlight shifted to Britain. And the UK office struck gold in 1964 when a little- known British band called The Kinks signed a management and publishing deal. Ray Davies and co had a succession of hits, starting with “You Really Got Me” in 1964.
With all eyes on the rise of the Sixties Brit bands, Edward decided to launch President in the UK in 1966. He owned the publishing rights to “See You In September” which had reached Number 3 in the US for The Happenings. Edward got the East London group The Symbols to cover the track for the label.
In 1968, President bagged their first Number 1 with “Baby Come Back” by The Equals, featuring a teenage Eddy Grant on lead vocals.
Moving into the Seventies, Edward scored one of his biggest UK successes with George McRae’s 1974 Number 1 hit “Rock Your Baby”. In the same year, the label hit big again with another US act, when KC And The Sunshine Band’s UK debut “Queen of Clubs” reached Number 7.
“In 1974, we had about 5 per cent of the singles market in the UK, which was about the same as a major such as MCA,”David explains. “But we only had two main artists and our expansion into distribution and other areas meant the company became quite stretched.
“We needed to get back to our core business, so we spent a few years working on reissues and the publishing side.”
In the late Seventies, David met US songwriter/producer Tommy Boyce, the man behind many of The Monkees’ hits. Boyce had moved to the UK and was looking to start a label. President decided to come on board and signed up ex-Yes keyboard player Rick Wakeman in 1984.
His first album on the subsidiary label TBG/President, Silent Nights, had reasonable sales but wasn’t a hit. Boyce returned to the States, but the Kassners stuck to their plan. Wakeman’s next album, Live at Hammersmith in 1985, performed better and helped balance the books.
Today, President continues to release reissues and compilations from their back catalogue. Modern jazz singer Carolyn Leonhart has just released an album of Robert Allen covers. And one current band neatly ties up the publishing and recording divisions of the business.
“We had a call saying that Coca- Cola wanted to use ‘You Really Got Me’. I asked them whether they meant The Kinks’ or Van Halen’s version,” David says. “But they said, ‘No, the Robots In Disguise version’.” Kassner recalls the band contacting them earlier about changing the lyrics from “girl” to “boy”. “We heard them, liked them and offered to sign them to the label.”
The band agreed, and are fast gaining critical plaudits.