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"Decca" dates back to a portable gramophone called the "Decca Dulcephone" patented in 1914 by musical instrument makers Barnett Samuel and Sons. That company was eventually renamed The Decca Gramophone Co. Ltd. and then sold to former stockbroker Edward Lewis in 1929. Within years, Decca Records Ltd. was the second largest record label in the world, calling itself "The Supreme Record Company". The name "Decca" was coined by Wilfred S. Samuel by merging the word "Mecca" with the initial D of their logo "Dulcet" or their trademark "Dulcephone." Samuel, a linguist, chose "Decca" as a brand name as it was easy to pronounce in most languages. Decca bought the UK branch of Brunswick Records and continued to run it under that name. In the 1950s the American Decca studios were located in the Pythian Temple in New York City.
In Britain, Decca bought out the bankrupt UK branch of Brunswick Records in 1932, which added such stars as Bing Crosby and Al Jolson to its roster. Decca also bought out the Melotone and Edison Bell record companies. In late 1934, a United States branch of Decca was launched. In establishing the American unit, the founders bought the former Brunswick Records pressing plants in New York City and Muskegon, Michigan, which were shut down in 1931, from Warner Bros. in exchange for a financial interest in the new label. Decca became a major player in the depressed American record market thanks to its roster of popular artists, particularly Bing Crosby, the shrewd management of former US Brunswick General Manager Jack Kapp, and the decision to price Decca at 35 cents. The US label also brought back the discontinued Champion label (from Gennett), as well as a short-lived version of the Broadway label. The following year, the pressing and Canadian distribution of US Decca records was licensed to Compo Company Ltd. in Lachine, Quebec, a breakaway and rival of Berliner Gram-o-phone Co. of Montreal, Quebec. (Compo was acquired by Decca in 1951 although its Apex label continued in production for the next two decades.) By 1939, Decca and EMI were the only record companies in the UK. American Decca acquired Brunswick Records and its sublabel Vocalion Records in 1941 from Warner Bros., which had a financial interest in Decca.
In 1939, British Decca head Edward Lewis sold his interest in American Decca because of World War II. In 1942, stock in American Decca began trading on the New York Stock Exchange as Decca Records Inc. Therefore, the two Deccas became separate companies and remained so until American Decca's parent company bought British Decca's parent company in 1998. Artists signed to American Decca in the 1930s and 1940s included Louis Armstrong, Charlie Kunz, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Jane Froman, The Boswell Sisters, Billie Holiday, The Andrews Sisters, Ted Lewis, Judy Garland, The Mills Brothers, Billy Cotton, Guy Lombardo, Chick Webb, Louis Jordan (the #1 R&B artist of the 1940s), Bob Crosby, The Ink Spots, Dorsey Brothers (and subsequently Jimmy Dorsey after the brothers split), Connee Boswell and Jack Hylton, Victor Young, Earl Hines, Claude Hopkins, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the original 'soul sister' of recorded music.
In 1940, American Decca released the first album of songs from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. However, it was not a soundtrack album but a cover version featuring only Judy Garland from the film, with other roles taken by the Ken Darby Singers.
In 1942, American Decca released the first recording of "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby. He recorded another version of the song in 1947 for Decca; to this day, Crosby's recording of "White Christmas" for Decca remains the best-selling single worldwide of all time. In 1943, American Decca ushered in the age of the original cast album in the United States, when they released an album set of nearly all the songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, performed by the same cast who appeared in the show on Broadway, and using the show's orchestra, conductor, chorus, and musical and vocal arrangements. The enormous success of this album was followed by original cast recordings of Carousel and Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun, both featuring members of the original casts of the shows and utilising those shows' vocal and choral arrangements. Because of the technical restrictions of recording on 78 rpm records, none of these scores were recorded totally complete; they were shorter than cast albums made after LPs were introduced. But Decca had made history by recording Broadway musicals, and the influence of these releases in the recording of theatrical shows in the U.S continues to this day - in Decca's home country, the UK original cast albums had been a fixture for years. Columbia Records followed with musical theatre albums, starting with the 1946 revival of Show Boat. In 1947, RCA Victor released the original cast album of Brigadoon. By the 1950s, many recording companies were releasing Broadway show albums recorded by their original casts, and the recording of original cast albums had become standard practice whenever a new show opened.
Decca throughout the 1930s and early-to-mid 1940s was a leading label of blues and jump with such best selling artists as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Louis Jordan (who was the best selling R&B artist of the 1940s). In 1954, American Decca released "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley & His Comets. Produced by Milt Gabler, the recording was initially only moderately successful, but when it was used as the theme song for the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle, it became the first international rock and roll hit, and the first such recording to go to No. 1 on the American musical charts. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it went on to sell 25 million copies, returning to the US and UK charts several times between 1955 and 1974.
American Decca embraced the new post-war record formats adopting the LP in 1949 and the 45 rpm record around a year later while continuing to sell 78s. During the 1950s, American Decca released a number of soundtrack recordings of popular motion pictures, notably Mike Todd's production of Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) with the music of veteran film composer Victor Young. Since Decca had access to the stereophonic tracks of the Oscar-winning film, they quickly released a stereo version in 1958. Because American Decca bought Universal Pictures in 1952, many of these soundtrack albums were of films released by what was then called Universal-International Pictures.
In 1961, American Decca released the soundtrack album of Flower Drum Song, Universal Pictures's film version of the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. In a reversal of the usual situation, in which American Decca had released original Broadway cast albums of three Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, this was the only film soundtrack album of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show ever released by Decca, while the Broadway cast album had been released by Columbia Masterworks.
The American RCA label severed its longtime affiliation with EMI's His Master's Voice (HMV) label in 1957, which allowed British Decca to market and distribute Elvis Presley's recordings in the UK on the RCA label (later RCA Victor).
British Decca had several missed opportunities. In 1960, they refused to release "Tell Laura I Love Her" by Ray Peterson and even destroyed thousands of copies of the single. A cover version by Ricky Valance was released by EMI on the Columbia label, and it went to #1 on the British charts for three weeks. In 1962, British Decca executive Dick Rowe turned down a chance to record The Beatles in favour of local beat combo Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. Dick Rowe, head of the pop division, famously told the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein: "We don’t like their sound, and ‘guitar music’ is on the way out" (see The Decca audition), a historic mistake. Other refusals of note include The Yardbirds and Manfred Mann. Decca had earlier accepted London-born pioneer rock'n'roll singer Terry Dene, who was later known as the British Elvis Presley, and another Merseyside singer, Billy Fury. Delia Derbyshire, an early pioneer of Electronic Music and one of the founders of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, was refused an interview for a sound engineer's job because Decca would not employ a woman in such a post.
The turning down of The Beatles led indirectly to the signing of one of Decca's biggest 1960s artists, The Rolling Stones. Dick Rowe was judging a talent contest with George Harrison, and Harrison mentioned to him that he should take a look at the Stones, whom he had just seen live for the first time a couple of weeks earlier. Rowe saw the Stones, and quickly signed them to a contract.
Staff producer Hugh Mendl (1919–2008) worked for Decca for over 40 years and played a significant role in its success in the popular field from the 1950s to the late 1970s. His first major production credit was pianist Winifred Atwell. He produced "Rock Island Line", the breakthrough skiffle hit for Lonnie Donegan, and he is credited as the first executive to spot the potential of singer-actor Tommy Steele. Mendl's other productions included the first album by humorist Ivor Cutler, Who Tore Your Trousers? (1961), Frankie Howerd at The Establishment (1963), a series of recordings with Paddy Roberts (best known for "The Ballad of Bethnal Green"), numerous "original cast" and soundtrack albums including Oh! What a Lovely War and even an LP record of the 1966 Le Mans 24-hour race, inspired by his life-long passion for motor-racing. Mendl was a driving force in the establishment of Decca's progressive Deram label, most notably as the executive producer of The Moody Blues' groundbreaking 1967 LP Days of Future Passed. He is credited with battling against Decca's notorious parsimonious treatment of their artists, ensuring that the Moody Blues had the time and resources to develop beyond their beat group origins into progressive rock, and he also used profits for pop sales to cross-subsidise recordings by avant garde jazz artists like John Surman.
British Decca lost a key source for American records when Atlantic Records switched British distribution to Polydor Records in 1966 in order for Atlantic to gain access to British recording artists which they did not have under Decca distribution. The Rolling Stones left the label in 1970, and other artists followed. Decca's deals with numerous other record labels began to fall apart: RCA Records, for instance, abandoned Decca to set up its own UK office in 1971. The Moody Blues were the only international rock act that remained on the label. The company's fortunes declined slightly during the 1970s, and it had few major commercial successes; among those were Dana's 1970 two-million selling single, "All Kinds of Everything", issued on their subsidiary label, Rex Records.
Although Decca had set up the first of the British "progressive" labels, Deram Records, in 1966, with such stars as Cat Stevens and The Moody Blues, by the time the punk era set in 1977, Decca had pop success with such acts as John Miles, novelty creation Father Abraham and The Smurfs, and productions by longtime Decca associate Jonathan King. King had a hit, "Everyone's Gone to the Moon", on Decca, while he was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, Sir Edward Lewis's alma mater; they became good friends and Lewis adopted King as his "mascot", allowing him to run the label in all but name twice for long periods of time. Decca became dependent on re-releases from its back catalogue. Contemporary signings, such as Slaughter & The Dogs and the pre-stardom Adam and the Ants (whose sole single with Decca, Young Parisians, would later be a UK Top 10 hit on the back of the band's success at CBS), were second division when compared to the likes of PolyGram, CBS, EMI, and newcomer Virgin's rosters of hitmakers.
American Decca bought Universal-International in 1952, and eventually merged with MCA in 1962, becoming a subsidiary company under MCA. Dissatisfied with American Decca's promotion of British Decca recordings and because American Decca held the rights to the name Decca in the US and Canada, British Decca sold its records in the United States and Canada under the label London Records beginning in 1947. In Britain, London Records became a mighty catch-all licensing label for foreign recordings from the nascent post-WW II American independent and semi-major labels such as Cadence, ABC-Paramount, Atlantic, Imperial and Liberty. Conversely, British Decca retained a non-reciprocal right to license and issue American Decca recordings in the UK on their Brunswick Records (US Decca recordings) and Coral Records (US Brunswick and Coral recordings) labels; this arrangement continued through 1967 when a UK branch of MCA was established utilising the MCA Records label, with distribution fluctuating between British Decca and other English companies over time.
In Canada, the Compo Company was reorganised into MCA Records (Canada) in 1970. In Taiwan, PolyGram acquired 60% of Linfair Magnetic Sound (founded in 1961) in 1992, and renamed to Decca Records Taiwan. The name remains until 2002, when it decided to sell its 60 percent stake, and changed its name to Linfair Records, making the company independent from Universal Music. In addition to Decca label, Linfair Records also distribute V2 Records' releases, and some independent labels. However, Linfair Records' releases outside Taiwan will continue to be released internationally via Universal Music.
The Decca name was dropped by MCA in America in 1973 in favour of the MCA Records label. The first-run American Decca label went out with a big bang with its final release, "Drift Away" by Dobie Gray in 1973 (label #33057), reaching #5 on the Billboard chart and receiving gold record status.
PolyGram acquired the remains of Decca UK within days of Sir Edward Lewis's death in January 1980. British Decca's pop catalogue was taken over by Polydor Records. Ironically, PolyGram descended from British Decca's former Dutch distributor Hollandsche Decca Distributie.
In the mid-1990s, MCA Nashville Records revived Decca in the US as a country music label. The Decca label is currently in use by Universal Music Group worldwide; this is possible because Universal Studios (which officially dropped the MCA name after the Seagram buyout in 1997) acquired PolyGram, British Decca's parent company in 1998, thus consolidating Decca trademark ownership. In the US, the Decca country music label was shut down and the London classical label was renamed as it was able to use the Decca name for the first time because of the merger that created Universal Music. In 1999, Decca absorbed Philips Records to create the Decca Music Group (half of Universal Music Classics Group in the USA, with Deutsche Grammophon being the other half).
Today, Decca is a leading label for both classical music and Broadway scores although it is branching out into pop music from established recording stars: its most recent hit was Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA (2007) by Boyz II Men, which reached #27 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart. In 2007 they won the race to sign English teen jazz sensation Victoria Hart and released her first album 'Whatever Happened to Romance' in July. In December 2007, it was announced that Morrissey would be joining the Decca roster. In August 2009, it was revealed that American Idol alum, Clay Aiken, had signed with Decca. It reentered the American country music scene in 2008. There are two Universal Music label groups now using the Decca name. The Decca Label Group is the US label whereas the London-based Decca Music Group runs the international classical and pop releases by such world famous performers as Andrea Bocelli and Hayley Westenra. The London Records pop label that was established in the UK in 1990, run by Roger Ames, and distributed by PolyGram became part of WEA in 2000 when he was hired to run that company.
It is also the distributing label of POINT Music, a joint venture between Universal and Philip Glass's Euphorbia Productions that folded shortly after the merger that created Universal Music. Ironically, the American Decca classical music catalogue is managed by sister Universal label Deutsche Grammophon. They include the recordings of guitarist Andrés Segovia. Before Deutsche Grammophon founded its own American branch in 1969, it had a distribution deal with American Decca until 1962 when distribution switched to MGM Records. Éditions de l'Oiseau-Lyre is a wholly owned subsidiary specialising in European classical music of the 15th to 19th centuries. American Decca's jazz catalogue is managed by GRP Records, an imprint of Verve Records. The American Decca rock/pop catalogue is managed by Geffen Records. The Decca Broadway imprint is used for both newly recorded musical theatre songs and Universal Music Group's vast catalogues of musical theatre recordings from record labels UMG and predecessor companies acquired over the years.
On January 10, 2011, Universal Music Group, which owns the masters to Decca Records, announced that it was donating 200,000 of its master recordings from the 1920s to the 1940s to the United States Library of Congress. The collection of master recordings will be cleaned and digitized. Included in this group are Bing Crosby's original recording of 'White Christmas' and thousands more by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, the Andrews Sisters and other famous and lesser-known musicians who recorded during this time period. Because of this transaction, once the Library has organized and cleaned the collection, the public will eventually have some degree of access to thousands of recordings that have been commercially unavailable for decades. According to the Los Angeles Times, "[a]s part of the agreement between UMG and the library, Universal retains ownership of the recording copyrights and the right to exploit the cleaned-up and digitized files for commercial purposes."