The Amazing Radio London Adventure
Pall Mall Music launches, Ben meets a special lady, Dave Clark is 'discovered'... and Her Majesty is not amused!
After a few months on the air, Radio London had become the most powerful of all the pirate stations and was giving the BBC a close race for the London audience. There was no doubt that Radio London at that time was the most sought-after station for record plays. It was at this time that I started putting some pressure on Tony Barrow to get me the new Beatles releases first. He told me that it would be difficult for him to do that because the Beatles recorded on Parlophone, an EMI subsidiary. Of course EMI was foremost in the battle against the pirates. Tony said that he would be in a lot of trouble with EMI and possibly Brian Epstein, if he let me have the releases first. However, about two weeks prior to the next Beatles release, someone put an acetate of the record through Dave Cash's letterbox at home. We had the release ahead of any other station worldwide. The next time the Beatles released a single, someone handed Kenny Everett an acetate of it on the street. Again, we were the first to get a copy. EMI was going mad. They couldn't imagine how we were getting these copies of the Beatles' records. Frankly, neither could I. I asked Tony Barrow about the situation and he confessed that he had no idea where the records were coming from. I never pressed the issue. Who questions a gift from heaven?
The American owners and Philip Birch cooked up a little scheme that would have been totally unheard of in America. They had been approached by Harold Shampan, owner of Film Music Ltd. to set up a company which would publish the 'B' sides of records for airplays of the 'A' sides. I thought this was the most corrupt, inane scheme I had ever heard of. It openly set a "payola" standard for the station that immediately gave us a "black eye" in the music business. Philip called me in and told me that he had passed the idea across the owners and they thought it would be a good way to increase our income; besides, Radio Luxembourg was doing it, so why shouldn't we? I finally agreed to set up the company which we called Pall Mall Music. It was also agreed that nothing would go on the air without my approval. This meant that only two or three of these records would be sent to the ship weekly. If the record made it into the national charts within the first week, I would keep it in for another week. However, I can think of very few records that did make it for a second week.
It was on the formation of Pall Mall Music that Brian Epstein became interested in doing business with us. I met Brian several times to discuss the artists he wanted to promote through Pall Mall. We made several deals for artists in his stable, including Billy J. Kramer; Paddy, Klaus, and Gibson and The Silkie.
Right, from Ben's archive: Brian Epstein writes to Ben plugging the new Paddy, Klaus, and Gibson release, 'No Good Without You Baby'. Click on letter to read enlarged version.
Sometime after Dave Cash had done his 'loo' interview with Ringo, I went to the Pickwick Club for dinner. This was one of the few occasions that I ever ate alone in London. I finished my meal and went down to the basement bar to have a nightcap. As I walked in, I noticed a long table surrounded by the Beatles, along with Cynthia Lennon and Jane Asher, Paul McCartney's girlfriend. Ringo yelled at me and said, "Hey, Ben, come on over and have a nosh with us". I told him that I had just eaten upstairs. John jokingly remarked, "They won't allow us to eat up there. They make us come down here to the basement." I told the group that I had come down to the bar for a drink, so I was invited to rink with them. As a matter of fact, I had several, as we chatted about various subjects not related to the music business. The Beatles had been to Texas several times, but had only gone from the airport to town and back when they performed in the cities of Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. I think in their mind's eye, Texas remained as they had seen it portrayed in the movies. They sort of visualised everyone with a gun strapped to his leg, chasing Indians around a wagon train. They were surprised to find out that most of the people in Texas lived in the cities and were engaged in industry and commerce, and that the Indians were no longer attacking wagon trains, but were living quiet, peaceful lives on the reservations. They were also surprised at the fact that I was part-Indian (probably no more than one eighth). The Beatles told me a lot about their hometown of Liverpool. Much of this conversation I can't remember because it was so general and it took place so long ago, but the Beatles and I both enjoyed this break from our usually stressful work.
One afternoon Mike Stone suggested that I become a member of the Ad Lib Club – a very exclusive club which was open only to people in the music and acting professions. One could only become a member through invitation. Mike had been a member since he was a record producer and he said it would be no problem getting me in if I would pay their annual fee of ten pounds. I asked Mike why he thought; I would want to pay £10 to get into a club with artists that I saw every day anyway. In about a week, Mike brought me a membership card. The owners had decided it would be OK for me to forego the membership fee.
The Beatles, being very wealthy, owned Rolls-Royces, but they also owned Mini Coopers. The Ad Lib was just off Leicester Square down a little-travelled street, so when the Fab Four visited the Ad Lib, they came in their Minis and parked in an alley behind the building. They went via a freight elevator to the second floor (English), third floor (American) where they rang a doorbell and walked into a fabulously-decorated club. Their activities at that time were all shrouded in secrecy.
I went to the Ad Lib several times. It was a great place to mingle with artists. Within the spec of a week, you could probably meet any pop star in the business within its walls. However, the club was not well located for me. Mike Stone and I lived in the same apartment complex in South Kensington, just off Cromwell Road. We were within walking distance of the Cromwellian Club, another popular hangout of the 'in Crowd'. Many evenings Mike and I could be found at the Cromwellian. Sometime in mid-July of 1965, Bobby Vinton and his manager, Alan Klein, came to London. They met me at the office one afternoon and suggested that we go out in the evening. I told them about the Cromwellian and they agreed that it would be a good place for us to meet. Mike Stone was in the office when I was talking to Bobby and Alan, so they invited him too. As we all arrived at the Cromwellian, Alan spotted a sign reading 'casino' with its arrow pointing upstairs. We never saw Alan again until we left the club.
Bobby, Mike, and I went into the bar and ordered drinks and seated ourselves at a table. As we sat there, we spotted a gorgeous brunette sitting across the room. She was with Freda Hilton whom both Mike and I knew. I believe she was connected with the Rick Gunnell Agency. Mike, being the "bloodhound" that he was, got right on the trail and was soon seated with Freda and her friend. Mike struck out with Freda's friend and soon came back to report to us that her name was Ronagh Clarke and that she worked for the Don Black Agency located almost directly across the street from our Curzon Street office.
After having a few drinks, we decided to call it a night, so, having introduced Bobby to a few people we knew... Brian Epstein, Tom Jones, and the boxer Billy Walker... we took our leave and went upstairs to the casino to fetch Alan Klein. Alan said he was having a wonderful time and told Bobby to go on back to the hotel and he would see him in the morning.
A week or so before meeting Bobby Vinton, the secretary who worked for Mike and me had resigned. On the July 25th 1965 I flew to Spain for a week's vacation, leaving Mike with instructions to hire us a replacement. When I returned, I found Ronagh Clarke sitting at the secretary's desk. Mike had apparently offered her a few more quid and had stolen her away from Don Black.
Left, from Ben's archive: Ronagh Clarke, pictured on Hampstead Heath
Over the next two months so, Ronagh and I became close, and on October 11th 1965 we were married at the Hampstead Registry Office. It was a popular time for weddings. On the same day, my friend Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers married his fiancee at London's Caxton Hall and during the same week, Johnny Franz, producer of Dusty Springfield and The Walker Brothers, wed his secretary.
Ronagh and I flew to Italy for our honeymoon and spent a night or two in Rome and went to see the sights of St Peter's Basilica. As were standing and taking in this totally impressive building, we noticed a crowd closing in on us and pushing us forward toward the Pope's throne. As we stood there, Pope Paul VI appeared and conducted a mass, the first he had celebrated following his trip to America.
Neither Ronagh nor I understood even rudimentary Italian, so on the following day, we caught the "milk" train to Naples. With our lack of knowledge, it took us almost the whole day to make a trip that we could have made in less than two hours on the "Rapid". Needless today, we got to see far more of the tiny villages along the way than we needed to see. We finally arrived at Naples and took a boat to the Isle of Capri where we spent the rest of our honeymoon.
Ronagh no longer wanted to be my secretary once we were married, so Mike and I were in search of a replacement. As luck would have it, we came upon a young woman called Mary who suited our needs perfectly. I had engaged three secretaries prior to Mary, including Ronagh, and none of them could keep the unwanted song pluggers away from me. A plugger would give them a "sob" story, and the next thing I knew, I had a body sitting next to me touting an artist I had never heard of. Mary was great. She could tell little white lies about my whereabouts, and she knew just the right people to let in to see me.
One of the many people who had arrived on the scene around the opening of Radio London was an Australian by the name of Robert Stigwood. Robert; had previously managed a group that had enjoyed one big hit, and after that they had a long, dry spell. When I met Robert, he was flogging another group that to my knowledge never had a hit. Robert took me out to lunch several times, but he never had any luck getting me to play his records. Then after I married Ronagh in October 1965, Robert took my new wife and me out for an excellent dinner at the Terrazzo Trattoria. We had moved into a new flat in the Marylebone Road and mentioned this during our conversation at dinner. Robert said that he lived directly across the street from us and suggested that we come over to his place some Sunday for brunch. I was not too interested in getting very close to song pluggers so, we never took him up on his invitation
All the gigantic things that happened to Robert Stigwood were things that came to pass after I left Radio London. He finally got himself a fantastic group called the Bee Gees. The Bee Gees made Robert a fortune, and it was not long before he moved to a luxury flat in Grosvenor Square, near the American Embassy. Later, after Brian Epstein died, Robert took over as managing director of NEMS, the Beatles' management company. I would imagine at that time, he became "filthy" rich. He later became connected with Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice and produced a stage production called 'Jesus Christ Superstar'. After having had a great amount of success in the music business, Robert, using the Bee Gees' music, produced the classic movie "Saturday Night Fever" which starred John Travolta.
Shortly after my marriage to Ronagh, I was contacted by Harold Davidson. Harold had twin stepsons, Paul and Barry Ryan, whom he wanted to promote through Pall Mall Music. They were pretty good artists, so I made a deal with Harold for the 'B' side of their record "Don't Bring Me Your Heartaches". The boys' mother was Marian Ryan who had been a very famous singer in England in the late Forties and early Fifties.
Right, courtesy of Brian Long: Ben (centre) and MD Philip Birch (far right) escort the Ryan twins aboard the Galaxy
Harold Davidson had early on gotten himself associated with Lew and Leslie Grade and was a director of the Grade Organisation, reputed to have been the top artist agency in England. Lord Lew Grade was more involved in motion picture production while Leslie and Harold took care of the talent. One of their main performers was Julie Andrews. They also had an agency which handled all the talent of the William Morris Agency from America, which included Frank Sinatra. When Frank was in Europe, Harold handled his bookings.
Since a number: of Harold's artists were involved in motion pictures, he made occasional trips to Pinewood Studios. On one such trip, he happened upon a young stunt man named Dave Clark. Dave used to crash cars into trees at thirty miles per hour, then the studio would speed up the film and make it appear that the crash happened at sixty miles per hour. Harold noticed that Dave was a good looking young fellow, so he asked him if he would like to be a pop star! Dave said that he would, but he didn't have any talent. Harold asked him if he thought he could keep time with music while beating a drum. Dave believed he could. So, Harold formed a group around Dave and that was the beginning of the Dave Clark Five. Although the group made a fortune in America, they were never quite as successful on home territory.
Harold, Marian, Ronagh and I want out together on several evenings. On one occasion we went to the Talk of the Town, and on another, it was Tiberious. Then, one afternoon when Harold and I were having lunch, he told me that he had tickets for me and Ronagh to attend the Royal Variety Performance (It is referred to in America as the Royal Command Performance, but there was only one occasion when it was given this title in England, in the year 1912.) Of course, I accepted the tickets with great anticipation.
Lew and Leslie Grade, whose surname was originally Winogradsky, were Ukrainian Jews. Their family left the Ukraine in 1912 because of the pogroms, officially sponsored riots that lead to the destruction of Jewish shops and to physical assaults on Jews, and in some cases to their deaths. Lew and Leslie anglicised their name to "Grade", while their younger brother took the pseudonym Bernard Delfont.
As they grew up, the Grades and Bernard became good dancers and in time they were dancing on the stage of the Palladium. As previously mentioned, Lew and Leslie were engaged in artist agency and motion picture endeavours; however, Bernard became the impresario at the Palladium and the President of the Variety Artists' Benevolent Fund. It was likely through Bernard that Harold obtained our tickets for the Royal Variety Performance. These tickets were not all that available to the general public and were mostly pre-sold from year to year to celebrities and the aristocracy. One of these tickets could have been "scalped" for hundreds of pounds.
I rented a tuxedo and Ronagh borrowed a very fancy evening dress from a friend. We leased a chauffeur-driven Bentley (I couldn't find a Rolls), and we were off to the show. When we arrived at the Palladium, there were hundreds of people gathered around the entrance to get a glimpse of the activities. As we stepped out of the car, many of the onlookers waved. I'm sure they were waving at Ronagh. She was lovely and looked just like a movie star.
We went in and took our seats and prepared ourselves for one of the greatest evenings of entertainment that one could ask for. There were fourteen or fifteen different acts on the programme. First and foremost in importance was America's own Jack Benny. Another talented American, Tony Bennett, was on the programme, as well as the sensational Peter, Paul and Mary.
Among the UK performers who appeared were Dusty Springfield, Harold's proteges The Dave Clark Five, Max Bygraves, Arthur Hayes, Neville King, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Hope and Keen, The Kaye Sisters, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, Ken Dodd and Shirley Bassey.
Left, BBC archive: The Goons, pictured in 1955. (l to r) Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and the naughty Peter Sellers
Australia's contribution to this massive gathering was Frank Ifield. The French did their part by sending over the very popular husband and wife team of Johnny Halliday and Silvie Vartan.
Not only were the entertainers world-renowned but also many members of the audience. The Queen and Prince Philip were sitting in their box just above us to the right and film star Ava Gardner was in her box to the left. It was indeed a night to remember! We were thoroughly entertained, but the best was yet to come.
After we all stood up at the end and sang "God, Save the Queen", Harold moved over to Ronagh and me and suggested that we all go to the cast party. While at the party, all the performers queued to receive the Queen and Prince Philip. Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan had done the most outlandish things on their hugely-popular BBC radio programme, 'The Goon Show', which ran between 1951 and 1960. The zany pair didn't disappoint anyone at this show of shows. They kept making disparaging remarks about the Queen. The Queen, to say the least, was not amused; however, Prince Philip, who was sitting just behind the Queen, was getting his jollies off. When the Queen moved along the reception line to Peter, she said, "Peter, you are a very naughty boy!" Peter cast his eyes down to the floor like a chastised schoolboy and replied, "I know, Ma'am, I know."
Editor's note: Prince Charles is known to be a huge fan of the Goon Show. He was also reputed to be a Big L listener and a a member of the Radio London Club – no doubt something else of which his mother disapproved! John Lennon was another well-known Goon fan, as were Kenny and Cash, who regularly spoke in Goonish voices and called each other 'Neddie', referring to the character Neddie Seagoon, played by Harry Secombe.
The Variety Artists' Benevolent Fund website has photos of the 1965 show programme )