Hugh Mendl: Producer at Decca Records
Friday 25 July 2008
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.
Hugh Rees Christopher Mendl, record producer: born London 6 August 1919; three times married (two sons, two daughters); died Torbay, Devon 7 July 2008.
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