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
News
Howard Marks who has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer aged 69
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
Rowan Atkinson at the wheel of his McLaren F1 GTR sports car
people
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
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

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us