LARRY PARNES (By Steve Walker)
Born Laurence Maurice Parnes, 1930, Willesden, London Died 4 August, 1989, London
Larry Parnes was the prototype rock'n'roll manager and impresario in late 1950's Britain. His story is also the story of the development of early rock'n'roll in the UK. It is no exaggeration to say that Larry Parnes and Jack Good were the two most important non-performing figures in the development of popular music in late 50's and early 60's Britain. Larry left school at sixteen and worked in various shops in the clothing industry. By the age of 18 he was running his own women's clothing shops in Romford, Essex. His family, also in the clothing business, had helped with the finance to purchase three shops but only one proved to be successful and he got into debt.
One evening a friend took him to La Caverne, a bar in Romilly Street in the West End of London. At the end of the evening Larry Parnes intervened in a heated argument between the two owners of the bar and discovered that the two could not work together. He offered to buy one of them out. In fact he had no money but one of the owners was so keen to get out of the business that he sold his share for £500 to be paid in instalments. The bar was frequented by theatrical agents and producers. Larry Parnes had been teetotal but took to drinking whisky. After a whisky-drinking contest he discovered that he had been persuaded to invest in a play entitled 'The House of Shame'. The play toured during 1955 and was making a loss until ace publicist John Kennedy was recruited. The play's name was changed to 'Women of the Streets' and two actresses were persuaded to stand outside the theatre dressed as prostitutes during the interval. They were arrested, and after the national press picked up the story the play took off and eventually broke even.
Larry Parnes bumped into John Kennedy again in The Sabrina, a coffee bar in Soho and was persuaded to go to see the singer Tommy Hicks perform in the Stork Room in Regent Street. After the performance Parnes agreed to become Tommy's joint-manager alongside John Kennedy, and a contract was signed in September 1956. Tommy Hicks adopted the stage name Tommy Steele and became Britain's first rock'n'roll celebrity, a status which included being immortalised in wax at Madame Tussaud's. Lionel Bart co-wrote several of Tommy Steele's hits. Parnes aim was to 'legitimise' his discoveries by turning them into 'all-round entertainers' and, in the case of Tommy Steele, he can be said to have succeeded. Steele moved on to stage musicals like 'Half A Sixpence' and then to Hollywood, where he starred in movies like 'The Happiest Millionaire' and 'Finian's Rainbow'.
Encouraged by the success of Tommy Steele, Larry scoured the coffee bars and dance halls for another star. Lionel Bart informed him of Reg Smith who was performing at the Condor Club above The Sabrina coffee bar. In fact Larry Parnes missed his performance but went round to his house and signed him up on the basis of Lionel Bart's testimonial. He was given the name Marty Wilde and had a string of UK hits. Larry Parnes developed a network of contacts with the larger record companies, including the A&R managers Hugh Mendl and Dick Rowe at Decca, Norrie Paramor at Columbia, and Johnny Franz and Jack Baverstock at Philips. TV producer Jack Good was also keen to benefit from the flow of new teenage talent provided by Larry Parnes and songwriters like Lionel Bart provided original material for Larry's growing stable of artists. However, he didn't always make the right decision - he turned down Cliff Richard after an audition.
In 1958 he took on the management of Roy Taylor and gave him the name Vince Eager, but he failed to have any hits, although he became a household name through a regular starring role on the BBC TV programme 'Drumbeat'. In September 1958 Ron Wycherley walked into Marty Wilde's dressing room at the Essoldo Cinema, Birkenhead, and asked to play a few songs. Larry Parnes was impressed and signed him on. He was given the stage name Billy Fury and he became one of the most important figures in the British rock'n'roll scene. (In February 1962, Parnes was also responsible for signing the Tornados as Billy's backing band prior to their world-wide hit with 'Telstar' later that same year).
Parnes' approach was to choose attractive young people and groom them to make them appealing to other teenagers. Others that he managed with varying degrees of success included Dickie Pride (Richard Knellar), Duffy Power (Ray Howard), Johnny Gentle (John Askew), Sally Kelly, Terry Dene (Terence Williams), Nelson Keene (Malcolm Holland), Peter Wynne, Tommy Bruce and Georgie Fame (Clive Powell), many of whom have already been the subjects of profiles on this list (he wanted to give guitarist Joe Brown the name Elmer Twitch but Joe refused). Parnes also managed the Viscounts who included Gordon Mills, later to manage Tom Jones. The BBC television programme 'Panorama' included a feature on Larry Parnes as a 'beat svengali' and the press gave him the nickname 'Mr. Parnes, Shillings and Pence'. Peter Sellers memorably parodied Parnes' relationship with his 'Stable of Stars' in the Frank Muir and Dennis Norden-scripted 'So Little Time' from the 1959 L.P. 'Songs For Swinging Sellers':
Major Ralph: These rock and roll boys are big business now.
Nancy: But it must be so very different, going from horse-trading to rock and roll singers.
Major: Well of course it is - I mean, horses have got a better ear for music! Ha ha ha ha! Have you ever seen a rock and roll singer, Miss Lisbon? I mean - er - have you ever seen one up close?
Nancy: Well no, I'm mostly on book-reviewing...
Major: Well, er, a good specimen, he's about seventeen or eighteen years old, about five foot ten fully extended, sagging to about five foot four in the singing position. Points to look for are: forehead - well, there shouldn't be more than about half an inch of that. Plenty of mouth, the lower lip permanently slack, and beware of possible fallen arches. They save a lot of trouble in mid-career, you know.
Nancy: 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)
The full transcript is here http://www.epicure.demon.co.uk/twit.html , but the track needs to be heard to appreciate the brilliance of Sellers' spot-on pastiche. Muir and Norden's selection of names for the stable inmates is a delight: Lennie Bronze, Clint Thigh, Matt Lust and such vocal groups as The Fleshpots, The Muckrakers. The co-star of the piece is the immortal Twit Conway (real name Cyril Rumble).
An indication of the fractious relationship that Parnes enjoyed with many of his protégés, is indicated by the following extracts from earlier SAO features:
"The contract Dickie [Pride] signed with Parnes guaranteed him sixty pounds a week by the fourth year, a fortune in those days, but in fact Parnes reneged on almost all the contracts, which were in any case so tightly drawn that Parnes could do almost anything he wanted."
"Vince [Eager] began to wonder why he had never received any record royalties. "You're not entitled to any," Larry Parnes told him. "But it says in my contract that I am," Eager protested. "It also says I have power of attorney over you, and I've decided you're not getting any," Parnes replied."
In addition to managing various aspiring rock'n'rollers, Larry was prominent in the promotion of touring concerts. It was Parnes who organised the ill-fated 'Anglo-American Beat Show' starring Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. On 17 April, 1960, after hurriedly leaving a Bristol show, Eddie was killed in a car accident in Chippenham, Wiltshire.
Here are a couple of typical announcements from 'New Musical Express' related to Parnes-organised tours:
30 September, 1960:
"Will Dixieland kill rock? That's the latest topic circulating through the British music scene. For the first time ever, jazz has become 'pop' music. And, in Britain, locally-produced brash, revivalist, New Orleans-style trad jazz performed by the likes of Acker Bilk, Chris Barber, Kenny Ball, Terry Lightfoot and Ken Colyer, has spread out from the cellar clubs and art college Saturday night raves and into the charts, where it now stands shoulder-to-shoulder with rock'n'roll. Perhaps employing the theory of embrace one's enemy, or maybe staging a calculated take-the-money-and-run operation, impresario Larry Parnes and TV pop producer Jack Good have packaged together 15 British rock singers including Billy Fury, Joe Brown, Tommy Bruce, Dave Sampson, Dickie Pride, Duffy Power and Georgie Fame, and pushed them in front of a thundering 15-piece band led by show-drummer Jimmy Nicol for an extensive trek around the British Isles under a 'Rock And Trad' banner. Jack Good commented about the production he has master-minded: "I want the show to fast-moving, but with a pronounced Dixieland theme ... but don't get the idea that we are scrapping rock altogether." Does this mean that the package couldn't stand up purely as a rock'n'roll show? "I can't really answer that!" was Good's final word on the subject."
6 October, 1961:
"Impresario Larry Parnes's latest value-for-money package show, 'Star Spangled Nights', commenced 26 twice-nightly British theatre dates at the Essoldo, Cannock on October 17. The bill featured such crowd-pullers as Billy Fury, Eden Kane, Joe Brown, Tommy Bruce, The Allisons, The Viscounts, The Karl Denver Trio, Peter Jay & The Jaywalkers, and Terry Hale. The cast also included a most promising newcomer who, in the best Parnes tradition of renaming his discoveries, is transformed from Clive Powell into Georgie Fame."
Parnes missed two opportunities to manage the Beatles. At a time when they were called the Silver Beatles he used them to back his singer Johnny Gentle on a tour of Scotland in 1960. He was also given the opportunity to sign them up as their sole promoter in 1962 but he declined. Larry Parnes' influence in the world of r&r and pop music came to an end in the mid 1960s when a new style of manager - Brian Epstein of the Beatles and Andrew Oldham of the Rolling Stones - followed his trail-blazing path. In 1967 he announced that he had outgrown the world of pop and would be devoting himself to the theatre. In 1968 he put on 'Fortune' and 'Men's Eyes', a play about homosexuality in a Canadian prison, but he lost £5000 on the venture. In 1972 he bought a 12-year lease of the Cambridge Theatre and he put on the musicals 'Charlie Girl' and 'Chicago'. During the 1970s he administered the business affairs of the ice-skater John Currie.
Larry Parnes developed meningitis and retired in 1981. He won a substantial out-of-court settlement from the BBC for an alleged libel by Paul McCartney on the radio programme Desert Island Discs. He died in August 1989. From his Daily Telegraph obituary: "Parnes is said to have renamed some of his stars for their sexual potential, but though he undoubtedly adored the company of young men he was circumspect about mixing business with pleasure. The greatest loves of his life were two Alsatian dogs, Prince and Duke, whose cremated remains were prominently displayed in his South Kensington penthouse."
Websites: Larry Parnes: http://myweb.lsbu.ac.uk/~stafflag/larryparnes.html
For most artists mentioned in the text above, go to Gino's SAO library linked from here: http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/Shakin_All_Over/files/
In March 2016, we were contacted by one of Larry Parnes' Godchildren, Juliet Ellwood (nee Willicombe). With Juliet's permission, I'd like to add her comments as a postscript. I think Juliet's contribution adds an enjoyable insight into another dimension of Larry's life. Juliet writes:
I have just been reading the page on Larry Parnes. Prince and Duke [Larry's dogs - see above] were not strictly the greatest loves of his life. He was godfather to myself and my two brothers, Laurence and Charles. My family lived with him for the first nine years of my life at his home Roughters, in Icklesham, East Sussex.
We relocated to Gloucester and Larry would come to visit us often, staying at the Robinswood golf and country club. I have many fond memories of him and I was aged around 12 or 13 when he died. The Christmas before he died he sent me a musical Christmas card. The card was a beautiful Christmas scene and continued to play music, as I opened it every Christmas, until my first Christmas here in Canada. I still have it somewhere.
My mother loves to tell me how Billy Fury held me as a tiny baby. I did not really know him as music manager. So it was interesting to read. He was a great man and clearly helped shape the music industry.
To me he was the man who always wore a fur coat and smoked Cuban cigars, drank pink champagne and loved animals. Prince was originally my father's dog and when I was born Prince wouldn't let anyone except my mother near me. I have a photo of him. Duke could always be found under the weeping willow tree and we had a third Alsatian dog named King, who came to Gloucester with us.
I want people to know there was another side to him. He was in fact a very generous man and he did have a sense of humour. He helped lots of people and gave a lot to charity. He was also a very private man.
I have such fond memories of him at Christmas time wearing the silly paper hats from the Christmas crackers and telling the awful jokes from them.
My life would have been terrible without him. I do not think he would object to people knowing this side of him and it would give me great pleasure to have this information included.
Thank you so much.
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