Oriole Records was the first British record label. It was founded in 1925 by the Levy family, who built up their business from an east London record shop, and had its own distribution system, recording studio and pressing facilities. It enjoyed a fruitful first decade of operation but lay dormant until 1950, when Morris Levy revived it. It started its rebirth by licensing from the American Mercury Records label, before turning to British acts.
Early hitmakers included the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group with the Number 5 ‘Freight Train’, featuring Nancy Whiskey on vocals, and Liverpool-born former Butlins Redcoat Russ Hamilton’s ‘We Will Make Love’, which reached Number 2 in the UK singles chart in 1957. Oriole also produced cover versions of chart hits, released on the budget Embassy Records label through Woolworths stores.
The stakes rose considerably when John Schroeder joined in December 1961. His brief was to develop Oriole, the only independent record company at the time, into a rival for major labels like EMI, whence he had come after carving a reputation as Cliff Richard producer Norrie Paramor’s songwriting sidekick. It was, he admitted, ‘Quite a daunting proposition.’
His first hits came with singer Clinton Ford, who mixed country with comedy, followed by Maureen Evans. Her ‘Like I Do’ made Number 3, sold a quarter of a million records and inspired Paramor to send Schroeder a personal note saying: Congratulations on “Like I Do”. Please leave some space in the charts for me!’
The Spotniks, an instrumental group from Sweden, introduced themselves to Oriole when their manager heard the label’s sponsored show on Radio Luxembourg. They made the Top 30 with ‘Orange Blossom Special’, promoted by an appearance in space suits on BBC-TV’s Top Of The Pops (this was in the era of the space race between America and the Soviet Union). They would follow up with an equally unlikely cover, ‘Hava Nagila’; this did even better, but the gimmick inevitably faded.
Other signings of note included Susan Singer (Helen Shapiro’s cousin) and the Dowlands, a duo produced by maverick Joe Meek in an independent deal. Jackie Trent was another discovery, a talented singer-songwriter who would eventually team personally and professionally with Tony Hatch.
Among the people who approached Oriole but didn’t make it were Jonathan King, a chart-topper a few short years later with “Everyone’s Gone To The Moon’, and Galt McDermott, Canadian composer of the hit Sixties musical Hair.
Oriole and Schroeder’s place in the history books was assured when they became the first record label to bring Motown to Britain. Schroeder took label boss Berry Gordy and vice president Barney Ales to dinner at the Talk of the Town nightclub to seal the deal. He had something in common with Gordy in that they were both successful songwriters, Schroeder having penned Helen Shapiro’s first hits.
‘I knew we had a mammoth task ahead of us,’ Schroeder later explained, ‘but I also knew the sheer talent featured on this label could not help but eventually register. It was only a matter of time.’ Oriole released nineteen Motown discs in total on their black and white Oriole American label, but were stymied by the lack of domestic airplay for the music.
Schroeder had the courage to begin the operation with three singles released simultaneously in September 1962 – Mary Wells’ ‘You Beat Me To The Punch’, The Contours’ ‘Do You Love Me’ and the Marvelettes’ ‘Beechwood 4-5789’, all featured here. For two years he and his team worked on Motown’s music. But no sooner had they tasted real success with Stevie Wonder’s ‘Fingertips Part 2’, than the licensing contract expired and Motown moved on to EMI Records.
John Schroeder’s next move, in July 1963, was to thrust Oriole into the thick of domestic pop by taking a mobile recording unit to Liverpool and recording two albums of local talent entitled ‘This Is Mersey Beat Vol 1 and 2’. Many bands got their first break this way, but while Schroeder met both John Lennon and Beatles manager Brian Epstein he was inevitably beaten to the biggest names by his wealthier rivals.
Oriole ceased to exist in 1964 when American recording giant Columbia bought the company and renamed it CBS Records. The attraction was Oriole’s record pressing factory in Aston Clinton Buckinghamshire. John Schroeder had, by then, moved on to Pye Records where he would produce Status Quo and Man, among many others. He has written about his Oriole years in a book, Sex & Violins (Pen Press), which is much recommended.
Oriole worked hard to compete with the ‘big boys’, but ultimately the stakes were too high for a family firm. The music they brought to the market was, however, fascinating, and still has the capacity to entertain half a century later.