Sunday, June 20, 2010

Britain's Big Beat Business

By Royston Ellis

As an off-shoot of show business, the big beat when it hit Britain in 1960 became a profitable concern to a few people on the music scene. The main brain behind it was Larry Parnes (1930-1989). Under his aegis a remarkable crowd of boys, with stage names based on their peculiar talents - Power, Keene and Gentle are examples - were hurtled on to the scene.

Larry Parnes's "stable" as it was known, consisted of rocksters all under contract to him. Whereas other singers had managers and agents who took a percentage of their earnings, Parnes employed his singers instead of them employing him. Discovering them in various towns around the country (a surprising number came from Liverpool), he then groomed what talent they had and put them under contract to him.

This contract (usually a five year one) provided the boys with a regular weekly wage whether they were working or not. At first the wage was low (sometimes as low as 20 pounds a week) but the contract promised a regular pay increase until the fifth year when his stable boys expected astronomical earnings.

However, this meant that the young pop stars under him were not earning as much as, say, one of the self-employed singers who may have collected 500 pounds per week after only three months in the business.
But the Parnes beatsters considered the way they were working infinitely better than being entirely dependent on a fickle public for their personal fortune and fame.

Working with a five year contract, the boys felt they had some security with Larry Parnes behind them. Bearing in mind the way that singers could shoot overnight to oblivion as well as to stardom, some form of security was highly desirable.

The Parnes stable included Joe Brown, Dickie Pride, Tommy Bruce, Johnny Gentle, Duffy Power, Nelson Keene, Peter Wynne, Georgie Fame, Davy Jones, Johnny Good and Vince Eager.

One boy Parnes had under contract was one of the most artistically creative and sincere singers involved with the teenage side of the big beat business. Lumbered with a stage name that seemed to mock his true character, this boy stood out in the beat scene as an individual in his own right. He was known as Billy Fury.
These words may seem ridiculous when used to describe a singer so often slated for his near-obscene performances. One paper, referring to his appearance at a theatre, stated that Billy Fury turns into "a sex symbol of deformed contortions and suggestive songs the minute he walks on to the stage."

Critics claimed that "the simple act of lighting a cigarette takes on a deeper meaning when performed by one of these masters of the suggestive." Billy Fury, said critics, "is one of the rock 'n' roll entertainers who purveys badly disguised sex" to his audience. Those reports are quoted from a 1960 newspaper. They were saying the same thing about Presley years before.

It all served to drum up business for Parnes, and he soon became known on the beat scene as "Parnes, shillings and pence" - a reference to the currency in Britain at the time: pounds, shillings and pence.

Royston Ellis, author of over 60 biographies, novels and travel guides, now lives in Sri Lanka having left England, where he began as a beat poet, in 1961, age 20, for a life of travel. His latest book, The Big Beat Scene, has just been published by Music Mentor Books ( ), in a new edition for the first time in 50 years with a foreword and afterword about his association with The Beatles.

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