The role of somewhat untrustworthy managers of the early rock and rollers and pop stars of the late 1950s and early 60s in the UK has been well documented over the years.
In those more naive times, old school variety practices were still being used. Songwriters gave their tunes away for a small one off payment and performers who were selling huge amounts of vinyl, saw little back in the way of royalties.
In a few cases, some of these managers were as well known as the artists they represented. One thinks of Don Arden for example. Another manager, who became a household name as big as any of his ‘boys’ is the subject of today’s blog, namely Larry Parnes.
Laurence Maurice Parnes was born in 1929 into a Jewish family based in Willesden. Son of Nathan, a Ladies costumier and his wife Stella, Larry’s first job at 15, was in one of his father’s fashion shops, as a general office boy. That wasn’t going to be glamorous enough for him for too long though, and he entered showbiz at the tender age of 18.
He bought a share in the La Caverne Bar in Romily Street, Soho, and he also dabbled in the theatre, investing in 1954, in the scandalous production of ‘The House of Shame’ later to be renamed ‘Women of the Streets.’ Through clever PR manipulation, the show eventually broke even at the box office, and Parnes was on his way.
Larry then struck big, signing up the first wave of names making a splash in the teenage music market of the UK. By getting in early, he controlled the majority of the star performers from the off. Parnes was cute to the burgeoning look and sounds that was exploding in the late 1950s and he tapped directly into that, even basking himself in the adulation, that was actually aimed towards the younger end of the talent, who gained eager younger audiences wherever they performed.
His first signing was merchant seaman Tommy Steele (plain old Tommy Hicks back then). Parnes had been approached by John Kennedy to check Tommy out whilst he was singing in a Soho coffee bar on shore leave. Parnes and Kennedy, with a view of replicating the success of Elvis back in the US, signed Tommy up aged 19.
They teamed him with song writer friend Lionel Bart and Tommy was soon in the charts with tunes like ‘Rock with the Cavemen.’
Next up was Reg Smith, who Parnes ‘discovered’ after a tip off from Bart, who had heard him singing in the Condor Club in Soho. Reg who I hear you cry? Wait a minute, you’ll get nowhere being hasty…
Like with Tommy, Larry was soon rechristening him, trying to encapsulate the gentle side of Reg, despite him being 6ft 4 tall.
And so Marty Wilde was born.
Among the other acts in the ‘stable of stars’ controlled by Larry, were the likes of Tony Sheridan, Vince Eager, Terry Dene, Duffy Power, Johnny Gentle and Dickie Pride, AKA ‘The Sheikh of Shake’ who many considered the best of the lot, certainly the most talented vocally.
As his own fame spread, Parnes was also sent up royally by the likes of Peter Sellers on his 1959 album ‘Songs For Swingin’ Sellers’ which contained a sketch called ‘So Little Time’ written by Denis Norden and Frank Muir.
For Parnes, read Major Rafe Ralph, forever promoting his ‘boys’ in wonderful lines like this….
Nancy (interviewer) I suppose a nice musical singing voice is what you look out for. Is that right?
Major (chuckles) By Jove yes! First sign of that and out he goes, what! (laughs)
Perhaps the best talent discovered overall by Larry, was Billy Fury – known by his mum as Ronald Wycherley. He had some nice tunes and a decent voice to go with his good looks, but who was held back physically by a weak heart.
My personal favourite was spiky haired Joe Brown, who refused to change his name to Elmer Twitch, as Parnes had wanted. Who can blame him?
Joe was a musician first and foremost and worked in the band backing Billy Fury. Spotted by TV producer Jack Good, he had to get his mum to sign his 3-year contract with Parnes, as he was under 21. Within a few days of doing so, Joe was on his mum’s telly, featuring in the hit show ‘Oh Boy!’
Another Larry discovery was 16-year-old Clive Powell who was also a fixture in many backing bands for Larry’s main acts. Clive was turned in to Georgie Fame and us Mods are forever grateful.
Even old Larry got it wrong occasionally, first in turning down Cliff Richard after an audition and then ’The Silver Beatles’ who dropped the ‘Silver ‘ part of that name and did quite well later.
In 1960 Parnes promoted the tour of the UK by Eddie Cochrane and Gene Vincent, on which Cochrane died in a car crash in Wiltshire and in 1962 he signed ‘The Tornadoes’ just in time for their massive hit with ‘Telstar’ written and produced by another interesting character, the one and only Joe Meek.
Listening to a few interviews with his old ‘acts’ Parnes in general Parnes is thought of fondly by those he represented. He could be tricky at times it is said, but he was simply the best at what he did, and they appreciated that. ‘So not as black as they paint’ to quote his old mate Lionel.
It has been said there would be no rock scene in the UK without Larry and the early shows he promoted in those late 50s days.
Sadly it all began to wane for him, when some of his acts moved into the all round entertainment business as their recording careers stalled and Larry himself moved into the theatre world, ending up owning three venues in total including the Cambridge Theatre, where the show ‘Chicago’ did well for him. He also produced in the West End and on Broadway and looked after the business affairs of Olympic and world champion ice skater John Curry.
Larry was gay, but never ‘came out’ officially during his lifetime.
He retired in 1981 after suffering from meningitis and he subsequently died in August 1989 a month before his 60th birthday.
The Mumper of SE5