WALTER J. RIDLEY (producer)
To fans of classic English rock 'n roll, Walter J. Ridley is best known as the man who brought Johnny Kidd & The Pirates to EMI Records. In his broader career, however, Ridley transformed EMI's HMV label into a major outlet for popular music, which it previously had not been, and played a key role in moving EMI into the 1960's in a profitable condition.
Walter J. Ridley, born in London in 1913, and was a talented pianist and at the age of just 13, he won a scholarship from Northern Polytechnic to study the manufacturing of pianos. Two years later in 1928 Ridley took his first steps into the world of music publishing when first Feldman took him on as a song plugger, later becoming a professional manager during a spell working for Peter Maurice's publishing company.
World War II was to intervene in almost everybody's lives and Ridley was engaged in overseeing live and broadcast performances by Vera Lynn, the "Forces' Sweetheart", also programmes like "Educating Archie", famous as the place where listeners "heard" a ventriloquist at work! These and many other moments of light relief were invaluable to a war-ravaged Britain where the hardships endured from six years of conflict didn't end with the war's conclusion. The British entertainment industry had to bide its time, partly due to the lack of 'disposable' cash after the war although from now on, its music business entered a slow evolutionary phase. America, on the other hand, hit the ground running and it's record industry carried on full steam ahead as the country experienced the beginnings of what proved to be a long-term post-war boom. What the Major players like RCA-Victor, MGM and Columbia lacked was an overseas outlet.
took up the gauntlet
providing these and other labels the European outlet they wanted and consequently
their roster of artists sold well to the British public, who needed some cheer
amongst the post-war austerity. However they recognised the importance of
finding home-grown artists to keep the balance. It was at this time that Walter
J. Ridley moved into the British recording business when EMI engaged him as a
producer to build a popular music catalogue for the 'classical' HMV label. He
had success with early signings Max Bygraves ("Try Another Cherry Tree") and Donald Peers, and later
he produced records by Ronnie Hilton ("I Still Believe"), Eartha Kitt, and band leader Joe
Loss. "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" by Perez Prado and His Orchestra
became a huge hit in 1955. Ridley's biggest home grown success was Alma Cogan
"Dreamboat" whom he signed to HMV early in the 1950's and had more
chart hits than any other UK female artist during the decade.
Needless to say, the 1950's was the decade that rock 'n' roll broke through to the masses of American teenagers who latched on to the raw, exciting sounds of Elvis Presley coming out of Sam Phillip's Sun studios. His contract was bought by RCA and his debut "Heartbreak Hotel" became a huge hit in the states. Naturally RCA expected similar things in Britain when EMI released it (as they did Presley's next five) but having previously had very little exposure to this new music the British youth had to tune in to Radio Luxembourg as the UK's only radio broadcaster, the BBC, carried on in it's cosy "Housewife's Choice" way. The record received harsh reviews and criticism and popular D.J. of the time Sam Costa gave it airtime so he could mock both it and the new-fangled rock 'n' roll on air. This 'joke' backfired to such an extent that the BBC were inundated with calls and s a result the record quickly became a huge UK hit. Rock 'n' roll had gained a foothold in Britain and was to stay.
Lonnie Donegan had broken through at the start of 1956 with another rare, energetic music style also from America, skiffle. His "Rock Island Line" (actually recorded in 1954) and subsequent hits started a budget music-making craze amongst the UK youth with washboards and tea-chest bass as instruments. Later that year, Decca's Tommy Steele featured a backing band (the Steelmen) composed of top jazz players who managed a polished, passable resemblance to rock 'n' roll on the original "Rock With The Caveman". Walter Ridley appreciated the effect that the new, brash rock 'n' roll might have on Britain's music scene despite doubting that anyone in England could naturally play instruments as on Presley's singles. EMI's caution meant their initial entry into the teenage music market was very furtive, and they missed out on the birth of the skiffle boom (Donegan was on Pye). Compensation hits came via the Vipers Skiffle Group and Johnny Duncan. Then Marty Wilde (on Philips) and his associates in the rapidly growing Larry Parnes stable started getting regular exposure and in some cases, hits. In late 1958 EMI's Columbia label struck big with the Cliff Richard & The Shadows classic "Move It", but managed to keep momentum and home-grown hits coming. and in the wake of that Ridley signed Johnny Kidd & The Pirates to HMV.
had already seen the Mike West Group with Heath at Wandsworth Town Hall but the
evening "was a disaster", however Ridley was asked to see the group perform in
Kidd had written a batch of songs, one of which, the classic "Please Don't Touch" became their first single and first hit. Kidd & his various line ups developed one of the hottest live acts of the period and one whose sound anticipated much of what was to come through the first six or seven years of the 1960's. Despite this early breakthrough HMV and Ridley were never quite sure what to do with Kidd - for example; the all-important follow-up to his debut hit was the old music hall number "If You Were The Only Girl In The World". Although a popular crooned number on stage it died a death on vinyl and is one of his more collectable singles today. Bing Crosby Kidd certainly wasn't. His classic no. 1 "Shakin' All Over" is undeniably the most revived English rock 'n roll original of the pre-Beatles era, however even that started off as a hurriedly composed b-side to another dusted-off ancient relic from the golden days of Variety. Some of Kidd's best r&b sides remained unreleased in favour of technically superb, pleasant pop-rock singles during his time on the label, some of which just didn't suit the true, native British r&b-voiced singer.
Once the rock 'n' roll landscape had been transformed by the Beatles it became apparent where Ridley and HMV had got it wrong with Kidd. In the Mop Tops wake he signed the Swinging Blue Jeans, one of the better acts of their era who deserved more success. Their last hit was in 1966 when the face of pop was about to fundamentally change and Ridley found himself unable to follow their success with any rock act nearly as promising or successful. The same year the hugely successful Manfred Mann defected to Philips minus singer Paul Jones whose hits quickly petered out. By the end of the decade Ridley was still producing MOR pop artists like singer Ronnie Hilton, recording ditties like "Glory Glory Leeds United" b/w "We Shall Not Be Moved". Into the early 1970's HMV's successes were limited to cast recordings and some notable comedy records by Peter Sellers and veteran music hall comedian Benny Hill.
By the time of the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977, HMV had ceased to exist as a label (although the name and famous logo are still found on Britain's high streets) and Ridley's 28-year career with EMI had seen him compose over 200 songs and win two Ivor Novello Awards for his contribution to the British entertainment industry. Ironically, he retired the same year, just as Benny Hill's bawdy music-hall style of comedy broke him big as an international television star, which created a new demand for his records. He still produced occasionally, notably with the "Love Is Jose Carreras" album on Philips which became a hit during 1984.
Ultimately, Walter J. Ridley will be best remembered amongst the rock 'n' roll fraternity for his Johnny Kidd and Swinging Blue Jeans recordings, especially with new compilations first on LP, then CD from the 1970's onward. Both of those groups (as well as Alma Cogan's music) have become the objects of extensive CD reissues in the 1980's and 1990's by EMI and other labels, most notably Colin Miles on his See For Miles label who have ensured that most of Kidd's unreleased R&R/R&B gems finally saw the light of day. Other artists produced on HMV/EMI under Walter Ridley included Malcolm Vaughan, Ronnie Hilton, Alma Cogan.