Feature CD Review – Sepia: The Colour of Vintage Record Success

Written by: Michael Darvell

Many popular singers and recordings of musical shows are lost to today’s audience merely because they have not been issued on CD. Richard Tay’s Sepia Records label exists to change all that, as Michael Darvell reports…

What do Barbara Cook, Lizbeth Webb, Ann Sothern, Dorothy Lamour and Jane Morgan have in common? Well, they are all singer-actresses from the golden age of the vintage musical. Of the five only Barbara Cook is still working (this article written in April 2009); Lizbeth Webb and Jane Morgan are in retirement and Ann Sothern and Dorothy Lamour have passed on. What they also have in common is that they all appear on releases from nostalgia label Sepia Records. Barbara Cook is featured in an original television cast recording of “Hansel and Gretel” by Alec Wilder and William Engvick and a TV version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Yeomen of the Guard” (SEPIA 1125). Lizbeth Webb was the star of “Bless the Bride” in 1947. The Vivian Ellis/A. P. Herbert show gave the singer her first leading role and it was one of London’s longest-running musicals (nearly 900 performances). The original cast recording is on SEPIA 1124.

Ann Sothern and Dorothy Lamour were more famous for Hollywood movies and indeed they both appeared in the chorus of Busby Berkeley’s “Footlight Parade” in 1933. Sothern went on to appear in more musicals and other films including the Maisie series of comedies, while her later television career included her own show plus “Private Secretary” and appearances on “The Lucy Show” among many others. Dorothy Lamour also made many films but is chiefly remembered for her appearances in the ‘Road’ series of comedy films with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Both women were singers and they appear together on the same CD, performing some of their most famous recordings (SEPIA 1127).

Jane Morgan, a popular performer from the 1950s, originally trained as an opera singer, but went on to have many pop hits including English and French versions of Gilbert Becaud’s ‘The Day the Rains Came’ which was a UK number one fifty years ago. Many other hits later, she appeared on the musical stage, taking over from Angela Lansbury in “Mame”. Her album contains re-issues of 27 of her popular favourite songs.

Sepia Records was started in 2002 by Richard Tay in order “to preserve the great recordings of our musical heritage”. Most mainstream record companies are not interested in re-issuing vintage material onto CD, but there is still so much older material that many popular-music enthusiasts might never hear again. Who plays vinyl these days? Just a minority of true fans, including Tay, whose north-west London one-man ‘factory’ is an archive of splendid vintage material just waiting and aching to be re-issued. How did he get started seven years ago?

“Some of us have dreams to pursue, to put out things we like. In my case they are recordings from what I call the ‘golden age’, from the 1930s to the early 1960s. The general quality of the writing, the arrangements, the singing and the playing and the way the music is written and constructed: for me it’s beautiful and it saddens me that so many pieces of music are now lost or neglected just because they haven’t been revived or because record companies have chosen not to re-issue them. I have always loved old records.

“I was born in Malaya where my parents were big vinyl fans. As a child, instead of playing with toys, I’d be listening to records. My older brothers had 45s of The Shadows and Helen Shapiro. My father was a mood-music person, so had instrumental and orchestral records by Russ Conway, Winifred Atwell, Paul Weston, Tony Osborne, Frank Chacksfield and Mantovani. My mother was a big fan of Dinah Shore, Jo Stafford, Rosemary Clooney and Doris Day, so I grew up with their sort of music. Theirs were the pop tunes of the day and they formed a great part of my childhood.”

The first CD to appear on the Sepia label in 2002 was “The Early Hits of Doris Day” (SEPIA 1000) followed by albums of songs by Richard Rodgers written with Lorenz Hart (1001) and with Oscar Hammerstein II (1002). Then came Ella Logan (1003) and Dorothy Squires (1004) compilations. The first musical shows Tay re-issued were a triple-bill of Irving Berlin’s “This is the Army”, Harold Rome’s “Call Me Mister” and Robert Emmet Dolan and Johnny Mercer’s “Texas, li’l Darlin’” (1005), plus double-bills of “Carmen Jones” and “Porgy and Bess” (1006), and then followed “Song of Norway” with “Roberta” (1007).

Since then there have been some 130 CDs, including by singers such as Deanna Durbin, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Billy Daniels, Jane Russell, Dolores Gray, Billy Eckstine, Jo Stafford, Vic Damone, Mel Tormé, Margaret Whiting, Tony Bennett, Julie Wilson, Josephine Baker, Betty Hutton, Dinah Shore, Nancy Walker, Mae West, Joyce Grenfell, Diana Dors, Alma Cogan, Petula Clark and Twiggy, and original-cast recordings have included “High Button Shoes”, “The Buccaneer”, “The Water Gypsies”, “Salad Days”, “Free as Air”, “Grab Me a Gondola”, “Love from Judy”, “The King and I”, “Guys and Dolls”, “Kiss Me, Kate”, “Paint Your Wagon”, “Hazel Flagg”, “Can-Can”, “The Boy Friend”, “The Band Wagon”, “The Pajama Game”, “Cranks” and “Irma la Douce” among many others.

Film soundtracks reissued by Sepia include “As Long as They’re Happy” and “An Alligator Named Daisy”, “The Jazz Singer” (the 1952 version with Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee), “London Town”, “Three Sailors and a Girl” and “April Love”, and there are television productions of “Lady in the Dark” and “Down in the Valley”, “Pinocchio” with Mickey Rooney, “Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates”, and the aforementioned “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Yeomen of the Guard”.

When Tay came to London from Malaysia to study in the 70s, he was then able to see as many shows as his students’ union card could afford. Having not done terribly well academically, his first job here was in a shoe-shop and he became the youngest manager in Bond Street. As he says, “once you have enjoyed a nice regular pay cheque to allow you to go to shows and buy records, somehow going back to school didn’t happen”. He stayed in the retail trade for six years and then moved into financial services. He obtained a post in a merchant bank in Hong Kong in the 90s where he made friends with people in the music industry.

“I had a massive collection of 78 recordings of Chinese songs from the Shanghai period. I helped re-issue them as they didn’t have the masters or the 78s”. He enjoyed this sort of work so much that, when he returned to London in 1995, Richard left financial services and joined the music industry. He worked for various records labels handling shows and popular music and then eventually created Sepia Records, despite the problems acquiring the rights for vintage material. Some of it is public domain material or is obtainable from fan-clubs or through private recordings, but if you have to deal with the major labels for deleted material, it can be, in Richard’s experience, a costly process.

“The major companies don’t make any allowances; they have their fixed prices which can be many thousands of pounds for a three-year licence, the normal practice, but in the current climate you can’t always recoup that in sales. I make preliminary enquiries, do the sums and see if I can make it work. If the artists are still alive, I check with them to make sure they are happy about deleted material being re-issued.”

Sepia rarely touches material that has already appeared on CD. Original cast recordings of shows such as Sandy Wilson’s “The Boy Friend” and “The Buccaneer” and Vivian Ellis’s “The Water Gypsies”, and “Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure” had not been released on CD before. Re-issuing them now means that potentially they have a new audience that can appreciate what were hitherto neglected or completely forgotten shows. Not only are these re-issues of rare material a very welcome reminder of what we have been missing, but they are also extremely good value. Many of these CDs include bonus tracks of alternative material by the same performers; there’s a 72-track double-album of the songs that Alma Cogan sang on BBC Radio’s Light Programme “Take It From Here” with Jimmy Edwards, Dick Bentley and June Whitfield, broadcast during the 1950s. These tracks have never been released before (SEPIA 8003) and includes unpublished demos and alternate takes from the collection of Stan Foster who wrote songs and recorded them privately with Alma which are now proving to be fascinating finds for fans of the singer and the collector of vintage material.

Is it difficult to gauge just what will sell nowadays in the nostalgia market? How does Tay know what the demand is? “There’s really no way of knowing what will or will not sell. Some releases have not sold well but I have no regrets. Timing is important because if another label puts out something very similar a month before you do, it means that all the sales get taken. There’s a lot of competition out there, about twenty other labels and, as we’re often talking about public domain material, it’s a free-for-all thing. I just try to be different by including better re-mastering using the CEDAR noise-reduction system, better booklets and often including bonus tracks and I also like going for the rarer material.”

In spite of the current climate, Tay is happy to carry on because there is such a wealth of good material out there and he is always pleased to receive suggestions. He has no real budget for extensive advertising, apart from Sepia’s website. “Even the albums that I have expected to do well haven’t done so. After the initial interest when a CD is released, most titles then settle down to limited sales each month. With some titles I give out more than I sell!”

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