Ivan March: Classical music critic and entrepreneur who helped usher in the long-playing record

He set up the Long Playing Record Library in Blackpool that spawned the ‘Stereo Record Guide’ which came to be picked up by Penguin

Kenneth Shenton
Sunday 23 December 2018 14:23
His advice became the centrepiece of the seminal 1963 volume ‘Gramophone Record Libraries: Their Organisation and Practice’
His advice became the centrepiece of the seminal 1963 volume ‘Gramophone Record Libraries: Their Organisation and Practice’

Ivan March, who has died aged 90, played a pivotal and vital role in the successful development of the British recording industry.

In a career spanning five decades, his credits include being founding editor of a bible of the best in recorded music and the owner of the largest mail-order lending library for classical music in Britain.

He was very much a pioneering populariser of the long-playing record. While revelling in such a role, his encounters with so many key figures in the industry made him widely respected, and a man of many friends.

Born in Portsmouth, the son of a policeman, March was educated during the Second World War at Colfe’s Grammar School in Greenwich, having been evacuated to Tunbridge Wells.

There he had a front-row seat as the Battle of Britain took place in the skies. Aged 13, he was taken to see Walt Disney’s Fantasia.

He went on to see the film 17 times, particularly fascinated by Leopold Stokowski’s treatment of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

While working as a clerk in Woolwich town hall, he had started his first business venture, buying and selling 78s. However, March remained determined to become a performer.

Winning a scholarship to study the French horn at the Guildhall, he later moved to the Royal Manchester College of Music.

March spent most of his national service as a member of the central band of the RAF.

His first professional engagement was as an orchestral musician on tour with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company under the direction of Isidore Godfrey.

He then spent 12 months as a member of the BBC Scottish Orchestra under both Alexander Gibson and Ian Whyte. Two extensive tours followed when he joined Carl Rosa Opera.

With that company in 1953 he met his future wife Kathleen Forsyth. When appearing together in the Staffordshire Potteries, the couple came across the North Staffs Record Library.

They were somewhat surprised to be allowed to borrow a dozen LPs at a modest charge and with no deposit. The records, in remarkably good condition, were provided with only the minimum of protection.

Duly inspired, in the autumn of 1954, from their home in St James Road in Liverpool, the couple launched The Long Playing Record Library. In return for a small fee, music lovers could borrow a number of recordings for weekly or fortnightly hire, with the option to buy.

Moving to the Fylde Coast, the business was soon housed in rather unprepossessing concourse buildings at Squires Gate railway station, bordering Blackpool and St Annes.

Once the arrival point for thousands of holidaymakers travelling to the nearby Pontins, it soon became the departure point for thousands of LPs, and later CDs and cassettes, to destinations across the country and beyond.

The library became a hub for enthusiasts and experts. When rebranded as Squires Gate Music Centre, it had branches in Manchester, London and Bristol. The Long Playing Record Library first produced a selective catalogue in 1958, which cost three shillings.

It was in effect a list of the best currently available LPs, the vast majority of its recommendations still being in mono. Some 321 pages long, the catalogue led to their first record guide, with Kathleen as proofreader and March as editor.

Easy to follow and noted for its high standard of accuracy and critical acumen, the annual became a trusted golden treasury.

In the Seventies, Penguin was publisher. First appearing in 1975, the Penguin Stereo Record Guide was by now was some 1,100 pages, covering 435 composers and some 4,500 recordings.

The 1984 edition of the yearly covered LPs, cassettes and the newfangled CDs. From 1989 onwards the main guide appeared biannually, with DVDs making their debut as an appendix to the 2002 edition.

During the early Sixties, March and his wife played host to a number of ground breaking conferences on the recording industry in Blackpool.

March was much in demand, not only as a guest speaker at recorded music societies throughout the country, but also as a valued adviser operating throughout the local authority library sector.

Such advice became the centrepiece of a seminal volume, published in 1963, Gramophone Record Libraries: Their Organisation and Practice.

March wrote with ease and authority on subjects as diverse as the choral music of Heinrich Schutz or the piano quartets of Strauss, penning reviews and critiques for a number of periodicals.

In 1973 he joined Cassettes and Cartridges magazine. Four years later it shut down and he joined The Gramophone. He compiled the Cassette Commentary column which turned into Collectors’ Corner.

He remained with Gramophone for more than 40 years. In 2000, as Squires Gate Music Centre had to move, March handed over responsibility for the business to long-serving colleagues Kathleen Singleton and Carole Riches.

This allowed him far more time to indulge in interests such as skiing. March also revelled in the time spent chewing over new ideas with musicians he had come to know and respect.

After all, for him, this sharing of experiences was what the job was all about. Particularly sensitive to mood, he was always quick to appreciate difficulties and even quicker to give practical help and support.

Ivan March, writer and record critic, born 5 April 1928, died 1 November 2018

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