Hugh Mendl: Producer at Decca Records

In the history of British popular music, the record producer Hugh Mendl's name deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as George Martin's. Although more of an old-fashioned artists and repertoire man than a studio wizard, Mendl was, among many achievements, responsible for Lonnie Donegan's Decca recording of "Rock Island Line", without which the Beatles-to-be and many other future legends might never have picked up a guitar.

Mendl was born in 1919 in London, and educated at Radley and University College, Oxford, where he read History. He was expected to join the Diplomatic Corps, which he "wasn't looking forward to very much". However, he spent more time listening to jazz than studying, and a chance hearing of a McKenzie & Condon's Chicagoans record from a study window made him realise that music was his future. In 1939, with war looming, he regarded "plodding away in the hope of getting a good degree [as] bloody silly". His loss of interest in his studies resulted in rustication, and he went to work as a 10-shilling-a-week post boy at the Decca Record Company, of which his grandfather was chairman.

In 1929, Sir Sigismund Mendl, a professional City gent, had chosen a seat on Decca's board ahead of a directorship of Smith's Crisps because Lady Mendl regarded the frying of potatoes as a matter for the servants. His grandson's request for a job was not received well. In 2002, Mendl explained that it was as though "the owner of a large chain of brothels in Port Said had a grandson who could, if he had wished, have married Princess Anne. Instead, he said 'Actually I don't want to, grandpa, I want to marry one of the girls that you showed me the other day.' That was how my grandfather greeted the suggestion."

After wartime service in Jerusalem, Mendl returned to Decca, initially in promotion. The bandleader-turned-disc jockey Jack Jackson introduced the young plugger to the black pianist Winifred Atwell, with whom Mendl began his producing career in earnest, later adding Dickie Valentine and Joan Regan to his roster. "Rock Island Line" came about as a filler at the end of a album session for the trad jazz bandleader Chris Barber; Donegan was his banjo player. Mendl was also the first record executive to see the potential of Tommy Steele, then purely a rock'n'roller.

His other productions included Frankie Howerd at the Establishment (1963); Ivor Cutler's first album, Who Tore Your Trousers? (1961); a series of recordings with Paddy Roberts, best-known for "The Ballad of Bethnal Green"; countless cast albums, including Oh! What a Lovely War; and an LP record of the 1966 Le Mans 24-hour race, inspired by Mendl's life-long passion for motor-racing.

In addition, he was a driving force behind Decca's progressive Deram label, most notably as the executive producer of the Moody Blues' 1967 LP Days of Future Passed. He overcame Decca's infamous parsimony to ensure that the Moody Blues had the time and resources to become more than just a Birmingham beat group, and he also used Decca's pop profits to cross-subsidise avant-garde jazz musicians like John Surman.

From a shaky start in the 1930s, Sir Edward Lewis had steered Decca to become the only serious rival to the monolithic EMI, which Mendl held in "massive contempt", regarding it as having "all of the arrogance of the BBC without any of the education". Unfortunately, Lewis tended to play his staff off against each other, resulting in poisonous office politics. Mendl, who had overcome the early accusations of nepotism with his charm, wit and professionalism, rose above it all and stood up for harassed colleagues. His fellow producer Raymond Horricks described him as "far too clever [and] genuinely disdainful" to get involved in the backbiting.

Lewis also refused to adapt or delegate, and, by the 1970s, other labels were eroding Decca's market share. When Mendl suffered a serious heart attack in 1979 at the British Phonographic Industry Christmas party, he attributed it to "the stress of working for a dying company, which had been [my] life for 40-odd years". By the time he was fit to return to work, Lewis had died and Decca's record arm had become part of PolyGram.

While Mendl had been convalescing, the new owners cleared his office, throwing away his diaries, which would have been a valuable de facto history of Decca. He turned his back on the record industry, retiring to Devon, where he became an antique dealer.

Louis Barfe

Hugh Rees Christopher Mendl, record producer: born London 6 August 1919; three times married (two sons, two daughters); died Torbay, Devon 7 July 2008.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
Sport
Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas
footballChelsea vs West Ham live kicks off coverage of all 10 of Boxing Day matches
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all