Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Home of Music

a cantorial double-sider by Berele Chagy from c.1920 issued by Columbia Records, UK and housed in a Levy's master bag
How can a Jewish cantorial 78rpm disc that was originally sold from an East London record shop be connected to the first studio recordings by The Clash in 1977?  Well, as I attempt to join the dots, I shall make several detours via a Yiddish Rock 'n Roll tune, and the cheapo record racks of Woolworths department stores. Please read on...
This tale begins in Whitechapel, East London back in 1890. The Levy family had begun trading in sewing machines and hiring out bicyles before a very smart move into what was the fledgling gramophone records market.

their slogan was "It's easy to buy your Records from Levy's"
From their shop at 19 & 20 Whitechapel High Street, E1 with "100,000 records in stock", the Levy's branched into selling all kinds of paraphernalia relating to the music industry. The family built their own recording studio, imported the sizzling 'hot jazz' tunes of the era (in fact they were the very first distributors of Django Reinhardt's recordings in the UK), and the Levy's even became pioneers of the nation's independent record label industry with their own imprints which included the aptly-named 'Levaphone', and the rather more famous one, 'Oriole'.  
it's back to Levy's own East European Jewish roots with this 1959 LP release on their Oriole label 
A major coup for the company (by now run by Mr Levy's boys, Morris and Jacques) was their winning bid in 1954 to produce for Woolworths sound-alike pop records of the big hits of the day - and significantly to be sold at half the price of the originals. For about ten years between the mid-1950s and mid-1960's, hundreds of cover songs on 'Embassy Records' were rushed out almost instantaneously with the full-priced versions, and sold exclusively in branches of Woolworths. Ironically, today some Embassy recordings are more sought after by collectors than the best-selling originals, like this version of John Leyton's chart-topping Joe Meek-produced classic:

does Johnny remember this version by Bobby Stevens?

The Levy's operated from offices and studios in New Bond Street, and a record pressing plant in Buckinghamshire - all far removed of course from their Whitechapel roots. Their success may well have been due to operating autonomously from the grasps of the major recording labels. But all that was to change in 1964 when CBS purchased the Levy's empire - meaning that the Levy name thus slipped through the grooves of music history, and then out of sight.

But for me, there's a nice rock 'n roll twist. When CBS bought Levy's, they planned a new state-of-the-art recording studios, which were built a few years later in central London's Whitfield Street. It was there at CBS in February 1977 that The Clash recorded their first album, and my own favourite ever track by them: '1977', the B side of the 'White Riot' single...

So from "The Home of Music", Whitechapel, it's a hop, skip and a jump through the 20th century to those spiky punk lyrics by The Clash that paired: "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977", with "sten guns in Knightsbridge"...

1977 - on that 'major' label

Aldgate pump up the volume at Levy's

No comments:

Post a Comment