Mickie Most

Record producer who scored hit after hit

Michael Peter Hayes (Mickie Most), record producer: born Aldershot, Hampshire 20 June 1938; married (one son, two daughters); died London 30 May 2003.

Mickie Most was one of a handful of record producers who became a household name. Many people remember him for his acerbic comments on the Seventies television talent show New Faces. He knew what he was talking about, as he had discovered numerous acts (including Herman's Hermits, Suzi Quatro and Kim Wilde) and produced such enduring hits as "The House of the Rising Sun" (the Animals, 1964), "Sunshine Superman" (Donovan, 1966), "Hi-Ho Silver Lining" (Jeff Beck, 1967) and "You Sexy Thing" (Hot Chocolate,1975).

Most was born Michael Peter Hayes, the son of a regimental sergeant major, in 1938 in Aldershot, Hampshire. He did poorly at school, often playing truant, and left when he was 15 to become an apprentice in a metal works. There he dropped some heavy machinery on his foot and had a toe amputated. He did not especially regret this, as it exempted him from conscription and joining his father in the military.

Whilst recovering from his accident, Hayes saw the film Blackboard Jungle (1955) and was impressed by the song "Rock Around the Clock" on its soundtrack. It prompted him to buy a guitar and to form a group, the Most Brothers, with his friend Alex Murray. They dyed their hair blond and played the 2 I's coffee bar in Soho, where Tommy Steele and Terry Dene had been discovered. The Most Brothers were signed to Decca Records in 1957, but their records, "Whistle Bait", "Whole Lotta Woman" and "Don't Go Home" made no impression. However, Mickie Most, as he had now become, was realising from Decca's ineptitude how artists should be handled:

They tell you that you're in the studio next week and you're told what to sing. The arranger sorts out the key and you go into a vocal booth and sing along with the band that is playing outside. You never go outside to hear the takes, and then a voice comes over the tannoy and says, "That's a good take, meet you in the pub." If you don't like it, there's nothing you can do about it. The whole ruling was, where the carpet begins, you end.

In 1958 Most met his future wife, Christina, whose family lived in South Africa, and he joined her in Johannesburg. Most was soon having hit records there with cover versions of "Flip, Flop and Fly", "Johnny B. Goode" and "Think It Over". He had several No 1 records in South Africa and he also promoted appearances by the American star Gene Vincent.

Most returned to the UK in 1963. A record he had made in South Africa, "Mister Porter", made the UK Top Fifty and he released three reasonable singles, "The Feminine Look" (with Big Jim Sullivan on guitar), "Sea Cruise" and "Money Honey". That year, he was the opening act on a tour featuring Little Richard, Bo Diddley and the Everly Brothers. I can remember the jeers as he writhed on the floor while playing his guitar during "Johnny B. Goode" and he must have known he was in the wrong place.

The British beat explosion had started and Most, while touring the provinces, looked for acts to produce. He spotted the Animals at a club in Newcastle and his first record with them, "Baby, Let Me Take You Home", was a Top Thirty hit. Their drummer, John Steel, recalled the next single, "The House of the Rising Sun", recorded in May 1964:

We only did one take. We listened to it and Mickie said, "That's it, it's a single." The engineer said it was too long, but instead of chopping out a bit, Mickie had the courage to say, "We're in a microgroove world now, we will release it." A few weeks later, it was No 1 all over the world. When we knocked the Beatles off the top in America, they sent us a telegram which read, "Congratulations from the Beatles (a group)."

Most had similar memories of the recording session:

Everything was in the right place, the planets were in the right place, the stars were in the right place and the wind was blowing in the right direction. It only took 15 minutes to make, so I can't take much credit for the production. It was just a case of capturing the atmosphere in the studio.

The Nashville Teens then came to Most's attention and, although they enjoyed chart success with "Tobacco Road" and "Google Eye", they lacked a charismatic lead singer. Not so with Herman's Hermits - Most was drawn to Peter Noone's looks:

Their manager sent me a photograph of Herman's Hermits at Piccadilly Station in Manchester, and Peter Noone looked like a young Kennedy. I thought, this face is saleable, especially in the United States. All I need to do is find cute songs to go with it.

The first was a little-known song by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, "I'm Into Something Good", which topped the UK charts and was a substantial hit in America. Noone comments,

Mickie Most was the perfect record producer. He was more a record director actually, if I can use a film analogy. He made me believe in what I was doing and he helped me to imagine that every situation I was singing about was real.

Although Most called "Mrs Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter"(1965) "the worst record I ever made", it was Herman's Hermits' biggest record in America, selling 750,000 copies in a single day. He was invited to produce Sam Cooke, but the singer was shot dead on 11 December 1964. By way of a tribute, Most had both Herman's Hermits and the Animals record Cooke songs, "Wonderful World" and "Bring It On Home to Me" respectively. He produced a 1964 hit for Brenda Lee, "Is It True", but turned down offers to produce Elvis Presley ("past his best"), the Rolling Stones ("unsocial working hours") and Barbra Streisand ("too opinionated").

As well as new acts, Most re- established two Scottish performers whose records had stopped selling - Lulu and Donovan. With Most's help, in 1967 Lulu had her first US No 1 with the theme from the film To Sir With Love, and he also produced "The Boat That I Row", "Let's Pretend", "Me the Peaceful Heart", "I'm a Tiger" and the most mocked of all Eurovision winners, "Boom Bang-A-Bang" (1969).

He captured Donovan's mysticism with "Sunshine Superman", "Season of the Witch", "Mellow Yellow", "Hurdy Gurdy Man" and "Jennifer Juniper"; and teamed Donovan with the Jeff Beck Group for some entertaining nonsense inspired by "I am the Walrus", "Goo Goo Barabajagal" (1969). When Paul McCartney tired of producing Mary Hopkin for the Beatles' Apple Records, Most stepped in with "Temma Harbour", "Think About Your Children" and, another Eurovision entry, "Knock, Knock, Who's There" (1970).

An attempt to revive the Yardbirds' flagging career was less successful and, shortly after making the album Little Games (1967) with Most, the group transmogrified into Led Zeppelin. Some think that Most failed to spot their potential but, in fact, he had a share in their management company. Most said,

Whilst he was with the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck begged me to make singles with him and we did "Hi-Ho Silver Lining". Jeff's singing wasn't all that good and I'm singing on most of the chorus.

The Jeff Beck Group acquired an excellent vocalist in Rod Stewart but when Most wanted to sign Stewart for solo records, Beck complained about a conflict of interest. Most tried unusual effects to capture Beck's guitar sound on the albums Truth (1968) and Beck-ola (1969), including putting an amplifier in a cupboard and placing the microphone outside. When Most wanted him to record the Europop "Love Is Blue", a disgruntled Beck played out of tune.

In 1963 Most had established his own company, RAK, with a view to introducing "rack jobbing", whereby retail outlets other than record shops - for instance petrol stations - would sell records, but he did not pursue the idea, although it is commonplace now. He retained the name when, in 1970, he formed his own record label which, against the trends of the time, concentrated on singles. His first release, a cover of Paul Simon's "If I Could" by Julie Felix, made the Top Twenty. Peter Noone, freed from being a Hermit, did well with David Bowie's "Oh You Pretty Thing", but Most's most significant signing was Hot Chocolate.

They gave RAK a long run of hits, many of them ("Brother Louie", "A Child's Prayer", "You Sexy Thing") written by the group's front man, Errol Brown. Most encouraged them to record Russ Ballard's "So You Win Again", a UK No 1 in 1977. When he told Brown that he was going to call their album Every 1's a Winner, Brown came in with a title song (and hit single) the next day.

In 1971 Mickie Most signed the Australian cabaret band New World, who had won the talent show Opportunity Knocks, and around the same time was contacted by the fledgling songwriters Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn. Chinn recalls,

We decided to meet someone who was making hit records, instead of going round to publishers' offices. We played him some songs, all of which he didn't like, until the last one, which was "Tom Tom Turnaround". He gave it to New World and it was a Top Five record.

Most said,

I always think the song is the most important ingredient. You could do a Cecil B. DeMille production on a bad song, but you won't sell it. The art is find the right song and then put your thing on it.

With Chinn and Chapman, he realised that he had struck gold. The songwriting and production team scored hit after hit for RAK. Most had discovered Suzi Quatro in Detroit and created a leather-clad tomboy image for her, but he couldn't find the right songs. Then Chinn and Chapman came up with "Can the Can", "48 Crash" and "Devil Gate Drive".

Chinnichap (as Chinn and Chapman were known) also scored hits for RAK with Mud ("Tiger Feet", "The Cat Crept In", "Lonely This Christmas") and Smokie ("If You Think You Know How to Love Me", "Living Next Door to Alice"). Most himself produced Duncan Browne ("Journey", 1972), Arrows ("A Touch Too Much", 1974) and Racey ("Some Girls", 1979), but their stars soon faded.

Before New Faces, television talent shows had been gentle with their criticism, but the New Faces panel, with Most and the songwriter Tony Hatch, could be ruthless. Most defended his comments by saying that it was ridiculous to build up false hopes, as most of the performers would not make it in show business. Nevertheless, New Faces made stars of Les Dennis, Lenny Henry and Showaddywaddy. Most also hosted a series, Revolver, featuring the punk music of the late Seventies, with Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and the first television appearance by the Jam.

The Fifties rock'n'roll star, Marty Wilde, had known Most for many years, and in the 1970s his children, Ricki and Kim, started to show an interest in the business. Wilde recalled,

Ricki was cutting some tracks at RAK and Kim had gone in to do some backing vocals. Mickie saw Kim and had a feeling that she could be a star. Ricki came from RAK and said that they were going to cut Kim, and I said, "To hell with that, you cut her" and so we wrote "Kids In America" and recorded it in a little studio, which was only £18 an hour. Mickie put it out and it was an international hit.

After "Kids in America", which reached no 2 in the UK in 1981, Kim Wilde had several other hits for RAK including "Chequered Love" and "Cambodia".

In 1983, Most sold the RAK label to EMI, but he retained the studios and presided over 30 companies. He still recorded on occasions, notably with the groups Perfect Strangers (1988) and Tee (1995), and he produced his own son, Calvin, in Johnny Hates Jazz.

Most of the time, though, he enjoyed his mansion in north London, his pied-à-terre in the south of France, designer clothes (he owned 50 leather jackets), fine wines, private flying and riding motorcycles. With an estimated wealth of £50m, he was regularly featured in lists of the richest people in the UK.

Spencer Leigh

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