Norman Newell

Record producer and songwriter who shaped middle-of-the-road music

Tuesday 07 December 2004 01:00

Norman Newell, record producer and songwriter: born London 25 January 1919; OBE 2003; died Angmering-on-Sea, East Sussex 1 December 2004.

Norman Newell was one of the British music industry's top record producers. He did much to shape the nature of middle-of-the-road music, making hit records with Shirley Bassey, Russ Conway and Manuel and his Music of the Mountains, producing Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland, and wrote the lyrics for several standards including "Portrait of My Love" and "More". "Norman always wanted to be a Stephen Sondheim," says George Martin, "but his main strength came from his ability to handle big showbiz entertainers."

He was born into a poor family in London in 1919 and had dreams of being an actor but expected to work for London Transport for his living. During the Second World War, he befriended the comedian Bill Waddington, writing some lyrics to his music, and, once the war was over, Waddington found him employment selling sheet music at a music shop in Charing Cross Road.

Newell's employer encouraged his songwriting and published the results, the first being "My Lovely World and You". The best known of his early songs is "Nice to Know You Care" (1949), which was written with the London pianist Leslie Baguley and recorded by Tommy Dorsey, the Dallas Boys and Tony Brent.

In 1949 Newell became a staff producer for EMI's Columbia label. His first production was "Put Your Shoes On, Lucy" for Petula Clark and his first hit record was with "Les Trois Cloches" by the French male voice choir Les Compagnons de la Chanson, in 1950. Newell also did well with Josef Locke (the famed "Goodbye"), Ronnie Ronalde, the Beverley Sisters, Dorothy Squires and the dance-band leader Victor Silvester.

He discovered the balladeer Steve Conway, whose hits included Newell's own song "My Thanks to You" (1950), but most of the time Newell was recording local versions of American hits. An internal memo that he wrote in 1951 illustrates his frustration:

Most publishers seem to be of the opinion that the only worthwhile British songs are the type commonly known as the "corny" variety. Were they to use a little imagination

in their choice of British material, we could bring about a great change in the business.

We have the artists, the arrangers, people with ideas and the promise of support from the BBC. A little more support from the publishers and less dollars would leave the country and British artists and material would undoubtedly be on top.

In 1953 Columbia, which was the UK arm of an American label, switched its allegiance from EMI to Philips, and Newell went with them. For their first release by a UK artist, Newell asked Geoff Love to arrange a song for Johnny Brandon, which marked the start of their working relationship. "He was so reliable and he could record so many different types of things," said Newell. "He could do 'Cowboy Jimmy Joe' for Alma Cogan one minute and conduct beautiful music for Manuel and his Music of the Mountains the next." Produced by Newell, Love made numerous albums as Manuel and had chart success with the singles "The Honeymoon Song" (1959), "Never on Sunday" (1960) and "Rodrigo's Guitar Concerto de Aranjuez" (1976).

After a brief but uneventful six months working for MGM in America, Newell returned to EMI in 1954. EMI had retained the UK rights to the name Columbia, and Newell immediately had success with a straight song for the comedian Norman Wisdom. "I was also recording Joyce Grenfell," Newell said in 1997,

and she told me that her mother used to sing a song called "Narcissus". She started to sing it and it was so funny that I almost fell to the floor. I told her that we should do it as a duet with Norman, and it was so spontaneous and wonderful that Norman couldn't stop laughing.

Following the advent of rock'n'roll in the mid-1950s, Newell produced albums of the television shows 6.5 Special and Drumbeat. Newell himself claimed that he "did not understand" the new music, but found an assistant, John Burgess, to help him. He said:

I put Adam Faith with the arranger John Barry and, with John Burgess, they made that sensational record "What Do You Want". John Burgess would take care of that so I could concentrate on the serious side - Shirley Bassey, Manuel and Russ Conway. I recognised John Barry's talent and allowed him to work with a big orchestra, but that's not very clever of me, as anyone could see he was a great talent.

In 1957 Newell recorded the 13-year-old Laurie London with a spiritual, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands", arranged by Geoff Love. It became a world hit. "Laurie could have been another Al Jolson," said Newell, "but things went wrong for him."

Newell used Trevor Stanford as a rehearsal pianist and started recording him with "Roll Up the Carpet" in 1957, under the name Russ Conway (as a tribute to Steve Conway, who had died in 1952). "Russ could play anything," Newell said, "but I thought his image should be as the boy next door. I thought the album My Concerto for You was a mistake, but it had tremendous sales, so I was proved wrong." Newell often wrote with Russ Conway, their biggest success coming with "Jeannie", a hit for Danny Williams in 1962.

In 1960 Newell was recording an instrumental single with Cyril Ornadel and his Orchestra. "I told him that he could put whatever he liked on the other side," said Newell:

He started playing this tune he had called "Portrait of My Love" and, by the time he had played it three times, I had written the lyric. I never thought it would be a hit. The

lyric refers to Michelangelo and you wouldn't get people singing that in pubs. Still, Matt Monro did a wonderful job.

Newell often wrote English lyrics for continental hits. On one occasion he was asked to write the lyric for a song which was a hit in Germany and told the publisher he would do it over the weekend. He completely forgot about it and was astonished when the messenger boy arrived on the Monday morning. "I sent him to the canteen and wrote the lyric 'Sailor' in 10 minutes," Newell said. "I wondered it if was good enough, but it was a tremendous hit for both Petula Clark and Anne Shelton and was also recorded by the Andrews Sisters."

He wrote "Portrait of My Love" and "Sailor" under the pseudonym of David West, and in the course of his career used 35 different names. "I would have liked to have had my own name on my song successes," he said,

but I felt that a record producer might not want to record another producer's songs. He might think, "If this is so good, why doesn't Norman record it himself?"

Not all songs came as easily as "Portrait of My Love" or "Sailor". When EMI asked him to write the lyric for "More", the main theme of the film Mondo Cane (1962), he remembered, "It was a beautiful tune but the 'laughing, weeping' section took me three weeks to get right." "More" was nominated for an Oscar in 1963.

Newell had a long run of success with Shirley Bassey. "When you record an artist," Newell said,

you listen to many, many songs and there is usually one that is absolutely right that is among the pile on your desk. Some are absolutely obvious. As soon as I heard "As Long As He Needs Me", I knew that Shirley Bassey would have a No 1 with it.

One of my own songs is "Never Never Never" and that was so obviously Shirley. We were so close that I wasn't ashamed to say, "I've just written this, it's absolutely you."

Bassey said of Newell's song "This is My Life", "Norman knows more about me than I do." He had considerable success with the volatile Bassey and also made two albums with another temperamental star, Judy Garland. "She was so nervous that she didn't know what to do," he said. "I said, 'Let's laugh it off and have a cup of tea.' "

Starting in 1963, George Martin was having immense success with the Beatles for another EMI label, Parlophone, but Newell was reluctant to record beat groups himself. He followed Martin's lead in going freelance, in 1965, and was then contracted to make records for EMI, quite unexpectedly producing the top-selling record of the year - "Tears" by Ken Dodd. "The emotion he put into 'Tears' is tremendous," said Newell, "and it is hard to believe it was recorded by a clown." Newell restored the fortunes of another Liverpool performer, Frankie Vaughan, by having him record the oldie "There Must Be a Way" (1967) and also produced several hit records by Des O'Connor.

Newell made records with one of the UK's most eccentric talents, Jake Thackray. "I thought he was a genius, and I still do." But Thackray hated the commercial side of the business and he couldn't understand why people should have to pay good money to see him. "We made an excellent live album at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1971, but it was difficult to get him on stage," Newell said.

He often recorded the Sadler's Wells Opera Company and he specialised in recordings of West End shows, including The King and I, South Pacific and Camelot, claiming that the recording of original cast albums was his favourite work as a record producer:

It made me feel like a director. I was directing those singers in the way I thought the shows should be presented on record.

Newell retired in 1990 but he continued to write lyrics, his final songs being with Les Reed. "Songwriting is the most important aspect of my career," he said. "I would like people to say I was a good songwriter."

Spencer Leigh

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