Mike Smith: Record producer who had a string of No 1 hits but turned down the Beatles
Saturday 31 December 2011
Between 1963 and 1970 Mike Smith produced six No 1 records for Brian Poole, the Tremeloes, Georgie Fame, Marmalade, Love Affair and Christie. He produced many other hit records too – but he missed out on the Beatles, turning them down at their audition for Decca Records on New Year's Day, 1962.
Mike Smith was born in Barking in 1935 and attended Barking Abbey Grammar School. He studied music theory, and his father, a brass band enthusiast, encouraged him and his brother to learn trombone, although he had little interest in the instrument. After school he took a clerical job until conscription, when he became an electrician for the RAF. After national service he worked as a costing clerk and then joined the BBC as a recording engineer.
A couple of Smith's workmates moved to the classical division of Decca Records and told him how this entailed trips to Vienna, Paris and Milan. Smith followed them but "to my irritation, I never got further than their studios in West Hampstead." Smith had been hired by Frank Lee and he assisted him on sessions for Mantovani, Edmundo Ros, Vera Lynn and Winfred Atwell. Lee would often fall asleep, allowing Smith to take over. When Smith made a spoof radio tribute about him for an office party, Lee was so impressed by his technical ability that he upgraded him to a producer, raising his salary from £9 to £11 a week. The first artist he produced was the Irish singer Bridie Gallagher. When Dick Rowe rejoined Decca as A&R (Artists and Repertoire) manager, he worked closely with him.
"I really enjoyed being with Billy Fury in the studio," Smith once told me, "and 'Halfway To Paradise' sounded right from the moment it started. Dick Rowe had picked the song; Ivor Raymonde had written the arrangement; and my contribution was keeping everyone sober. Billy was managed by Larry Parnes and I remember Larry telling the bass guitarist to 'tighten his strings'. That became a running joke at Decca."
When Brian Epstein became the Beatles' manager in late 1961, he invited Decca to audition the band. "Somebody had to show some interest in the Beatles," said Smith, "because Brian Epstein's shop, NEMS, was an important account for our sales people. I went to the Cavern and I should have trusted my instincts as I thought they were wonderful on stage. We arranged for them to come to London on New Year's Day, 1962 and in the studio they weren't very good. I think that we got to them too early but it was probably just as well as I couldn't have worked with them the way that George Martin did at EMI. I would have got too involved in their bad parts and not enough in their good."
As it happens, Dick Rowe had asked Smith to choose between the Beatles and another band he had recorded the same day, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. Smith had been told about this band from Barking by his optician, who was managing them. Smith chose Brian Poole and the Tremeloes and, on other day of the week and at any other time, that would have been a fine decision. The group had many hit records, but it meant that Smith had turned down the Beatles: "I did meet them subsequently, and they gave me a two-finger salute, but that's par for the course."
Brian Poole and the Tremeloes had several hits for Decca including "Do You Love Me" (a No 1) and "Twist And Shout" (copied from the Beatles' first album), and Smith also produced hits for the Applejacks and Dave Berry. When Poole split with the Tremeloes, Smith moved with them to CBS and a long succession of mostly happy-go-lucky hit singles followed including "Here Comes My Baby" and "Even The Bad Times Are Good". The Tremeloes topped the charts by covering a Four Seasons' B-side, "Silence Is Golden", in 1967. When the Tremeloes were unenthusiastic about releasing "Yellow River" as a single, he recorded it with the song's writer, Jeff Christie, and, as Christie, the single made No 1 in 1970.
Smith often worked with Georgie Fame, including an album of standards, Georgie Does His Thing With Strings (1969) and an album of duets with Alan Price, Fame And Price Together, which included the hit single "Rosetta" (1971). In 1967 Smith produced Georgie Fame's No 1, "The Ballad Of Bonnie And Clyde". "When I took the tape into the studio to overdub the sound effects, I discovered an electrical fault. We had clicks all through the rhythm track. We had to add a new rhythm track and to this day, Georgie doesn't believe what we did. It was an outstanding record and the sound effects were wonderful."
When Love Affair was signed to CBS they made "Everlasting Love" with the producer Muff Winwood but their playing was not thought strong enough and the lead vocalist, Steve Ellis, was asked to remake the song with Mike Smith. The fact that Love Affair's hit single featured session men was a media scandal in 1968. Smith also recorded Marmalade with a song from the Beatles' White Album, "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da", which went to No 1.
Smith later worked for GTO Records and in a record pressing factory, and he occasionally spoke at Beatle conventions. He was delightful company and self-deprecating about his achievements. He had emphysema in his later years.
Michael Robert Smith, record producer: born Barking, Essex 30 April 1935; died Camberley, Surrey 3 December 2011.
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