Once Upon a Record takes the reader behind the usually sacrosanct doors of the music industry.
Geoffrey Weule has worked with some of the greatest names in music and entertainment. His career, spanning more than half a century, covered record retail, record companies, artist management, music, video publishing and live shows.
His open and frank style of writing reveals a personal story of an entertainment industry that has changed dramatically. His stories, always deliciously told, will amaze and enteratin. Very few of us managed to go shopping with Michael Jackson, have a beer with Slim Dusty, champagne with Dame Joan Sutherland or nearly get murdered in Hollywood.
Forsaking a promising singing career, Geoffrey chose to adopt a lower profile behind-the-scenes of the entertainment business, and in doing so has been able to document a tantalising account of a truly remarkable life, and a glimpse of times past.
Mixing with the rich and famous.
Rimington Van Wyck Ltd, located at 42 Cranbourn Street, Leicester Square, was one of London’s most famous record stores. It was purchased late in 1964 by EMI to commence what was to become known as the ‘HMV SHOP’ chain of retail stores.
When Mr Boast offered me the position to manage Rimington’s, little did I realize at the time just what a famous, iconic record store it had become since it first commenced operations back in the 20’s. Some even considered the retailer to be a little too highbrow, as they promoted themselves as ‘Gramophone Music for the Connoisseur’ and ‘Specialists in unique recordings’.
The British artists’ impresario, Wilfrid Van Wyck, together with his business partner, William Rimington, opened the store in the early 1920’s and quickly established the business as a ‘celebrity gramophone shop’. Wilfrid Van Wyck was the concert agent for cellists André Navarra, Aldo Parisot and Janos Starker; pianists Arthur Rubinstein, Witold Malcuzynski, Janina Fialkowska, Robert Casadesus and Ken Sasaki; soprano Victoria de los Angeles; soprano Kirsten Flagstad; the Beaux Arts Trio, Guarneri String Quartet, Fine Arts Quartet, the Utah Symphony Orchestra (then conducted by Maurice Abravanel) plus many other artists and ensembles.
Rimington Van Wyck Ltd was not your ordinary gramophone record outlet. They also commissioned and released recordings between 1938 and 1961 on their own label as well as commissioning other labels to produce and release recordings, many of which became quite famous and highly sought after. For example, in 1938 the great Russian soprano, Oda Slobodskaya, recorded eight sides of Russian songs by Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) for a limited edition set of four 78’s. Fred Smith, who had acquired the business, was so overwhelmed by her voice that he apparently paid for the records to be made by the Decca Record Company and they were issued in May 1942 in a limited edition of 2000 pressings in an attractive brown and gold album. Slobodskya performed these Medtner songs with the composer at the piano. How amazing that must have been.
Then in 1941, the celebrated pianist Phyllis Sellick’s performance of the Piano Sonata No 1 by Michael Kemp Tippett marked the very first recording of any of his works and was again released in a limited edition.
These are just two examples of many important recordings that were produced and sold exclusively from this famous Cranbourn Street store.
As mentioned, the retail outlet was sold during the 1930’s to Frederick T Smith, who was also the editor of the Rimington’s Review. EMI purchased the business from Fred Smith in 1964.
Before leaving Australia I had completed a Council for Adult Education (CAE) course in Retail Management and Methods Engineering (Time and Motion study) that included store design and office layout. When the EMI store designer, John Mew, became aware of my background he took great delight in discussing some of the radical new self-service display ideas that he had been working on. Many of these designs were introduced into the new Rimington’s for the first time.
42-43 Cranbourn Street was also the address for the Spotlight Theatrical Agency, which occupied the upper floors of the building. A constant flow of well-known actors and actresses proceeded past our front door on a daily basis.
We were also located directly opposite the famous ‘Talk of the Town’. The original building dates from 1900 (London Hippodrome) and was reopened as the Talk of the Town in 1958. It closed in 1982 and was re-launched in 1983 as a nightclub called The London Hippodrome. It was re-launched again in 2011, this time as The Hippodrome Casino. We were just a hop-step-and-a-jump from Leicester Square itself, home of some of London’s most famous cinemas.
We opened for business in the first weeks of 1965, trading under the old name, Rimington Van Wyck Ltd., so, to all intents and purposes; we were the old business with a brand-new look, and under new management. EMI management was not keen for it to be known that they were the new owners. The reasons for this, although very short lived, posed several problems. Regular customers, who quickly returned, expected their usual discounts and other services like free tea and coffee. Goodness, what were we running? A record shop or a café?
Here I was, fresh from the colonies, about to turn 25 years of age, being expected to be a world authority on every classical recording that had ever been made, up until 1965. I found myself breaking out in a cold sweat on more than one occasion in those early days. I needed help and help came in the form of Mr Classical Music himself: enter Christopher Smith; known as ‘Kit Smith’. He was without doubt a walking encyclopedia. He not only knew every recording but he could tell you which musicians played in what orchestra, on what day, in what studio and what they recorded, in whatever time; possibly what they had for lunch! He was simply amazing, a truly remarkable person! He was the son of a wealthy Welsh Coal mine owner and had an excellent public school education and knew his music backwards. A gift out of heaven! My saviour! The customers loved him, as you could imagine.
It was amazing to think that in my early days at Rimingtons, only one person asked me if I owned the store, assuming that I was the son of some rich Australian grazier. I simply said, “No, I just manage the store for the new owners” and politely left it at that.
Now comes confession time. I have always been a bit of a mimic and working in such salubrious surroundings, and dealing with the rich and famous, I thought the Aussie accent had to go and so I bought the biggest ‘plum’ I could find and went to town. “Good morning Sir, welcome to Rimingtons. How may I help you?” Straight out of Oxford; well not quite, but I sure did fool most of my customers, most of whom had no idea I was only little Geoffrey Weule, ex-Mid States Radio, Albury, Australia, now big-time retailer in the Old Dart!
Rimingtons had previously built up a huge clientele and it was all go from day one. Having the power and might, not to mention the finances of EMI behind me, I was expected to stock and sell every release that was current in the English Gramophone. Amazing! It was just like what old Mr David Jones used to tell his staff back in Australia, “If we haven’t got it, get it and if we have got it, get rid of it”
It was sell, sell, sell and those wonderful sales commissions!
It was quite obvious that, as the business was quickly growing, we needed more staff. Mr Boast told me that he was working on it. About a week later, after he had mentioned this to me, a very excited Geoff Harris came home and said, “You are not going to believe what happened today! I have been transferred to Rimingtons and placed in charge of the ‘pop’ floor.” We both burst out laughing and could not believe the news. A celebration was called for! Geoff had originally applied for a vacancy at the HMV Oxford Street store in the ‘pop’ department and quickly became a very popular and successful member of staff. His appointment followed an unsuccessful stint working as a junior law clerk in a family law firm, which he didn’t enjoy.
As a carry over from the past, Rimingtons had the crème-de-le-crème of some of the most sought after accounts, not to mention the rich and famous who would only shop and be seen purchasing from Rimingtons. We had the accounts for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, The Royal Ballet, The Royal Academy, The Royal School of Church Music; and The Arts Council of Great Britain; and so it went on and on.
Every day brought yet another famous personality; it was never-ending!
Obviously it was not possible to know every person that came through our doors, except if the person was immediately recognizable from having seen them on TV or at the movies, of which there were many.
Being located in the middle of ‘theatreland’ meant that we were ideally located to cater to the many folk working in the theatres that surrounded us. My first encounter was with American-born actress Irene Worth. Ms Worth was one of the most accomplished, elegant and serious-minded actresses of her generation. She was tall and quite an imposing person with large round eyes and very striking features. She had a commanding contralto speaking voice and later on when we got to know each other very well, would address me as, “My perfect angel”, in those deep contralto tones that would send shivers down my spine. Irene would hear something she liked on BBC radio and would then come in and want to listen to it over again just to make sure that she really did like it before she committed to purchasing it.
Irene was appearing regularly in the West End and Rimingtons became a regular stop-off point for her. When she descended the stairs, as only she knew how, she would say to me, “My perfect angel, I would kill for a coffee” which meant that I had to go next door to the-‘Silvers Café and buy her a coffee, (out of my own pocket) and take it back to her, after which she would say to me again, “You really are my perfect angel”. She once asked me where I lived and I told her I lived at Kensington Park Gardens, Holland Park. “My darling, we are almost neighbours”. This revelation meant that from there on in, I had to deliver her future purchases to her home. In 1966 Irene began rehearsing for Noël Coward’s play, Suite in Three Keys, which sadly was to be his swan song.
Irene insisted that I should attend the opening night and procured two tickets for me. Little did I know what was ahead.
I took a call from Australia telling me that my Mother was gravely ill and that I should return to Australia immediately. I went to see Mr Boast and told him my terrible news. He picked up the phone and said, “Mrs. Watts, I do not wish to be disturbed under any circumstances”. He then rang EMI Head Office at Manchester Square and asked to speak to the person in-charge of staff travel. He instructed them to purchase a ticket on the first available flight to Sydney, Australia and to charge it to EMI Retail Division and for it to be left at Heathrow Airport for collection in my name. He then arranged for his car to be brought around to take me to my flat to collect my things and then to take me to Heathrow Airport.
I could not believe this was all happening. My ticket was waiting at the Airport and I boarded the plane for Sydney. I don’t remember much about the flight; which in fact was the first time I had flown, my mind was elsewhere. The flight landed and I had to wait for a connecting flight to Albury. It was during this waiting period that my dear darling Mother passed away, 4th June 1966.
After the funeral I rang Mr Boast and told him what had happened and he said that I was to remain in Australia for one month and then to return to London.
The day of my return just happened to coincide with the opening night of, -‘Suite in Three Keys’. Having just flown from Sydney on what was then a very long Boeing 707 flight, I was not really 100% with it, but I managed to stay awake for the performance and to see the legendary Noël Coward up there on stage with Irene Worth. I did not go backstage as Mr Coward was not seeing anyone, as he had not been feeling too well. In fact the show did not have a very long run. I sadly never saw Irene ever again. Irene Worth died in 2002, age 85.