Wally Ridley

EMI record producer

Walter John Ridley, record producer: born London 28 February 1913; married (one son, two daughters); died Datchet, Berkshire 23 January 2007.

For the most part, the popular music output at EMI during the 1950s and 1960s depended on four men: Norrie Paramor and Norman Newell (Columbia), George Martin (Parlophone) and Wally Ridley (HMV). The individual output of each of these four producers was prodigious and, taken together, they defined popular music in the UK.

Ridley's many successes included "Dreamboat" (Alma Cogan), "No Other Love" (Ronnie Hilton), "My Special Angel" (Malcolm Vaughan), "Shakin' All Over" (Johnny Kidd and the Pirates) and "Hippy Hippy Shake" (Swinging Blue Jeans). Unlike Martin and Paramor, Ridley had difficulty in appreciating rock'n'roll and, hence, the British beat explosion, but he always denied that he had turned down the Beatles. Essentially a modest man, he was in doubt about the importance of high-quality record producers, telling me in 1984,

When you're making a record, all the elements have to be right and that includes a record producer who understands what you are trying to do and he has to heal the little wounds along the way as well as balancing the sound.

You may think that once a record is made, that's it, but it isn't like that at all - oh no, no, no - you've got to convince the marketing men to promote it. In short, a record producer has to have faith and belief in what he is doing, as otherwise he will not convince anyone else.

Ridley was born in London in 1913. He started piano lessons when he was six and was soon demonstrating the pianos which his father sold in his furniture store. By the time he was nine, he playing at masonic functions and he won a scholarship to the Northern Polytechnic to learn about the manufacture of pianos. Ridley was 15 when he joined the music publishers Feldman's, where he demonstrated songs to stage and radio performers.

His first composition, at the age of 15, written with the 65-year-old veteran Harry Castling, "The One Little Hair on His Head", was recorded by Gracie Fields. In 1935, he worked as the manager at Peter Maurice, and promoted the talents of Michael Carr and Jimmy Kennedy, helping them, without credit, to write "Dinner for One Please, James" and "Did Your Mother Come From Ireland". He coached a talented young singer, Vera Lynn, thereby expanding her range. He accompanied her on broadcasts and theatre shows and discovered her biggest success, "We'll Meet Again".

In 1948, Ridley persuaded the BBC to broadcast a radio series live from a theatre. The series starred Donald Peers and his signature tune, which Ridley found, was "Powder Your Face With Sunshine". Ridley expected the BBC to mock his suggestion of a radio series featuring a ventriloquist, but Educating Archie with Archie Andrews and Peter Brough captured 20 million listeners and made household names of Beryl Reid, Max Bygraves, Harry Secombe and Tony Hancock. "I always think that Eric Sykes was the genius behind that series as he wrote the scripts and created the catchphrases," said Ridley:

Max Bygraves stumbled over long lines and so he gave him short, little lines and it worked perfectly. When I made records with Maxie, I did exactly the same thing. I found him songs with short lines that he could punch in and we had lots of hits.

The same year Ridley joined EMI Records to build up a popular catalogue for the HMV label. The label, decimated by shellac shortages during the Second World War, only had regular releases from Joe Loss and George Melachrino and their orchestras. Very soon, Ridley was having success with Peers, Bygraves, Ronnie Hilton, Malcolm Vaughan, Bert Weedon and Don Lang. There was also Alma Cogan, known as "the girl with the giggle". "Oh, it took two and a half years to find that!," Ridley said:

Her father brought her to me and she wasn't much of a singer. She didn't have a natural God-given talent like Streisand, but she had enormous character. I said, "I want to find something so that as soon as someone hears you, they'll know who you are." When we were clowning around with "Bell Bottom Blues", she giggled and I said, "Hey, that's great." And it was - it was a good, good piece of work.

In 1955, a tearful Jeannie Carson told Ridley that she needed a decent song "something like 'The Trolley Song' " for a film she was making, An Alligator Named Daisy (1955). Ridley came up with "I'm in Love for the Very First Time" and was very satisfied with the result:

The producer told me that I would have to pass over 25 per cent of the song and I said, "This song will be around long after your picture's dead and forgotten." He got nothing; the song is still around and the picture is dead and gone.

Ridley had to determine which records from America's RCA Victor label were right for UK release. In 1956, that included Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel". "RCA told me that he was going to be very big indeed, but I turned it up, I turned it down, nothing - the only words I could make out were Heartbreak Hotel," Ridley said:

I released it and HMV got the worst reviews it had ever had. The chiefs wanted to sack me for releasing it. Radio Luxembourg wouldn't play it and nor would the BBC. The bandleader Jack Payne wrote half a page for the Daily Express saying, "How dare EMI release such rubbish?"

But, instead of being sacked, Ridley had to consider whether to establish his own rock'n'roll stars. "When I heard Presley, I listened to what was behind the voice," Ridley recalled:

I decided that the UK would take three years to find musicians who could even begin to play like that, let alone find a singer up front to do it. Everybody would be copying anyway and we would only be second-best. I left it alone and stuck with what I knew.

Right in the middle of all this nonsense, I had "St Therese of the Roses", which had nothing to do with rock'n'roll but sold quarter of a million in 1956 for Malcolm Vaughan. If a song is well-written, has a clear, clean message and is delivered with sincerity with a good quality performance, good orchestra and good sound, then it will sell and sell.

Ridley's first venture into rock'n'roll was with Johnny Kidd and the Pirates and he turned down Adam Faith because, according to Faith, "HMV told me that they already had one scruff on the label."

One music publisher asked Ridley to cover an American song, "Mad Passionate Love", expecting the song to be taken seriously, but Ridley placed it with the comic actor Bernard Bresslaw, whose lugubrious delivery made it a hit. Ridley worked with many comedians, finding "Bring Me Sunshine" for Morecambe and Wise and producing Benny Hill's "Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)" (1971) and Windsor Davies and Don Estelle's "Whispering Grass" (1975). Ridley also produced big-selling albums by The Black and White Minstrel Show (which was not considered controversial until the mid-Sixties), as well as records by the Deep River Boys, Andy Stewart, Iris Williams and the Mike Sammes Singers.

When I met Ridley in 1984, he had retired but he was still working on occasional projects such as Love is José Carreras. "He is working terribly hard," Ridley said about Carreras, "but his English pronunciation is not all that good. He knows that, so why does he want to record a wordy song like 'My Way'?"

Spencer Leigh

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