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
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk