Howie Richmond: Leading publisher of folk and skiffle songs


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The Independent Online

Howie Richard, who founded The Richmond Organisation (TRO), was a leading music publisher. Although he maintained he was tone deaf, he could spot potential successes, match them to singers and promote them with great skill. Much of the repertoire of the British skiffle groups of the mid-1950s came from his catalogue.

Howard Spencer Richmond was born in the Queens district of New York in 1918. His father, Maurice, was a music publisher who established the Paull Pioneer Music Corporation and had success with "The Sidewalks of New York", which became the city's unofficial anthem.

Richmond followed his father into the entertainment business, and in 1935 he became an apprentice for the press agent George Lottman. A few years later he established his own agency, representing Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore and the Andrews Sisters.

After war service, Richmond helped Buddy Robbins set up an entertainment agency, Robbins Artists Bureau, and then he formed a music publishing company with his friends Al Brackman and Abe Olman. It was initially called Cromwell Music, but he soon changed it to The Richmond Organisation. Their first success was with "Hop Scotch Polka" for Guy Lombardo and his Orchestra.

Richmond grasped that novelty songs were easier to establish than ballads, and as he wanted quick growth, he looked for catchy novelties. His company had huge successes with "Music! Music! Music!" (Teresa Brewer, 1950) and "The Thing" (Phil Harris, also 1950). Rather than follow the traditional route of finding artists to perform the songs in dance halls, Richmond favoured a particular recording and mailed the disc to influential radio disc-jockeys.

When Richmond heard the folk group the Weavers in New York, he realised that their songs could be marketed as novelties. Richmond decided that, where appropriate, they would be accompanied by Gordon Jenkins and his Orchestra: this would lose authenticity but could generate big sales.

Their first major success was with "Goodnight Irene" (1950), a song which had many variants but had chiefly been inspired by the folk singer Huddie Ledbetter (aka Leadbelly). It became an international hit and Richmond sold over 250,000 copies of its sheet music.

Through Pete Seeger of the Weavers, Richmond met Woody Guthrie, who was down on his luck and is now known to have been in the first stages of Huntington's Chorea. He gave Guthrie a tape recorder and, for a retainer of $20 a week, told him to record all the songs he had composed, often to old, existing melodies. The songs included "This Land Is Your Land" and "Pastures of Plenty".

The authorship of many folk songs had been lost in time, but Richmond discovered that composers could claim the copyrights if they had made "substantial alterations" to the works. Many of the revised folk songs, like "Kisses Sweeter than Wine" and "Darling Corey", were attributed to Paul Campbell, a pseudonym for several writers on Richmond's books. The matter came to a head in 1961 when Richmond wanted the Tokens to withdraw "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" as it had been derived from "Wimoweh" by the Weavers. The record was reissued acknowledging Mr Campbell as a writer and it topped the US charts. However, its origins lay in a South African folk song and there were legal disputes to determine who deserved the royalties.

Richmond was keen for his song catalogue to be exploited in the UK, so much so that he allowed Lonnie Donegan to be credited as the co-composer – and in some instances the sole composer – of traditional songs that were already on their books, including "Rock Island Line" and "Gamblin' Man". Listing Donegan as the co-composer of Guthrie's "Grand Coulee Dam" was outrageous, but it was of little interest to Richmond, who had his eyes on his 50 per cent share.

The popularity of folk songs continued throughout the 1960s with "If I Had a Hammer", "We Shall Overcome", "Cottonfields" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" Richmond's first middle-of-the-road standard was "Fly Me to the Moon" and through his British agent, David Platz, he formed deals with Anthony Newley, Leslie Bricusse and Lionel Bart. Richmond published "See Emily Play" (Pink Floyd), "Get It On" (T Rex) and "Space Oddity" (David Bowie"). He also promoted the highly eccentric songs of Playboy cartoonist Shel Silverstein, including "A Boy Named Sue" (Johnny Cash).

In later years, Richmond left the day-to-day running of his organisation to his sons, Larry and Frank.

Spencer Leigh

Howard Spencer Richmond, music publisher: born Queens, New York 18 January 1918; twice married (four sons, one daughter; died Rancho Mirage, California 20 May 2012.