|Parent company||Universal Music Group|
|Distributing label||Decca Music Group (In the United States and the UK)|
|Country of origin||UK|
|Official Website||Decca Records|
Decca Records is a British record label established in 1929 by Edward Lewis. Its U.S. label was established in late 1934; later the link with the British company was broken for several decades. Notable for its development of recording methods (in the United Kingdom) and for the development of original cast albums (in the United States) both wings are now part of the Universal Music Group, which is owned by Vivendi, a media conglomerate headquartered in France.
The name "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." Decca bought the UK branch of Brunswick Records and continued to run it under that name.
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. By 1939, Decca and EMI were the only record companies in the UK.
In 1934, a United States branch of Decca was launched. Decca became a major player in the depressed American record market thanks to its roster of popular artists, particularly Bing Crosby, and the shrewd management of former US Brunswick General Manager Jack Kapp. 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.)
Artists signed to Decca in the 1930s and 1940s included Louis Armstrong, 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 subsequenrtly 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.
Al Jolson, who had recorded for the Victor Talking Machine, Columbia Records, and Brunswick Records, made a series of recordings for Decca from 1946 until his death in 1950, following the success of Columbia Pictures Technicolor film biography The Jolson Story (1946).
In 1942, Decca released the first recording of "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby. He recorded another version of the song in 1947 for Decca, which became the best-selling single ever at that time (and remained so until 1997).
In 1943, 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 utilizing 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 influenced the recording of theatrical shows in U.S continues - in Decca's home country, the UK original cast albums had been a fixture for years. Columbia Records followed with theater recording albums, starting with the 1946 revival of Show Boat. In 1947, RCA Victor in released an original cast album of Brigadoon. By the 1950s, many recording companies released Broadway show albums recorded by their original casts.
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.
During the 1950s, American Decca released a number of soundtrack recordings of popular motion pictures, notably Michael 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. 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 and RCA Victor labels.
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). In retrospect this was a historic mistake. Other refusals of note include The Yardbirds and Manfred Mann. However Decca had earlier accepted 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.
Ironically, 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. Singer Elkie Brooks recorded a version of the Etta James song "Something Got a Hold on Me", released on Decca in 1964.
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 didn't have under Decca distribution.
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 and 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.
Mendl was sidelined by a heart attack in 1979; during his convalescence Sir Edward Lewis died and Decca was taken over by PolyGram, and when he returned to work he discovered that his office had been cleaned out and his diaries—which would have provided a vital insight into the company's history—had been thrown away.
The company's fortunes declined steadily 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. 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.
Although Decca had set up the first of the British "progressive" labels, Deram Records, in 1966, by the time the punk era set in 1977, Decca had become known primarily as a classical label which had only sporadic pop success with such acts as John Miles, novelty creation Father Abraham and The Smurfs, and productions by longtime Decca associate Jonathan King. Decca sadly became a label of last resort, dependent on re-releases from its back catalogue. Contemporary signings, such as the pre-stardom Adam Ant and Slaughter & The Dogs, were firmly second division and second rate when compared to likes of PolyGram, CBS, EMI, and newcomer Virgin's rosters of hitmakers.
In 1934, Jack Kapp established a country & western line for the new Decca label by signing Frank Luther, Sons of the Pioneers, Stuart Hamblen, The Ranch Boys, and other popular acts based in both New York and Los Angeles. Louisiana singer/composer Jimmie Davis began recording for Decca the same year, joined by western vocalists Jimmy Wakely and Roy Rogers in 1940. From the late 1940s on, the US arm of Decca had a sizable roster of Country artists, including Kitty Wells, Johnny Wright, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, Wilburn Brothers, Bobbejaan Schoepen, and Red Foley. In the late 1950s, Patsy Cline was signed to the US Decca label from 4 Star Records. As part of a leasing deal, Patsy's contract was owned by 4 Star; though she recorded for Decca as part of this deal, she recorded an album but saw little money. In 1960, she signed with Decca outright and released two more albums and numerous singles while she was alive and several more albums and singles produced after her untimely death in a 1963 plane crash. The Wilburn Brothers were ultimately signed to a lifetime contract with Decca. Doyle Wilburn of the Wilburn Brothers obtained a recording contract for Loretta Lynn who signed to Decca in the early 1960s and remained with the label for the next several decades. Owen Bradley was the A&R man for all of these artists. Decca quickly became the main rival of RCA Records as the top label for American country music by the early 1950s and remained so for decades.
Decca's country music branch was revived in 1994, with Dawn Sears being the first act signed to the newly-reformed label. Other artists signed to the label would include Rhett Akins, Gary Allan, Mark Chesnutt, and Lee Ann Womack; of these, all but Sears would be shifted to the MCA Nashville roster after parent Universal Music absorbed PolyGram in 1998 and shut down Decca Nashville.
In 2008, the Decca country division was revived, with One Flew South becoming the first act signed to the newly re-established label.
In classical music, Decca had a long way to go from its modest beginnings to catching up with the established HMV and Columbia labels (later merged as EMI). Decca's emergence as a major classical label may be attributed to three concurrent events: the emphasis on technical innovation (first the development of the FFRR technique, then the early use of stereophonic recording), the introduction of the long-playing record, and the recruitment of John Culshaw to Decca's London office.
For many years, Decca's British classical recordings were issued in the US under the London Records label because the company was not allowed to use its name there. When the MCA and PolyGram labels merged in 1999 and created Universal Music, the practice was eliminated. American Decca made a modest number of classical recordings released with distinctive gold labels, primarily with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Max Rudolf and guitarist Andres Segovia.
The pre-War classical repertoire on Decca was not extensive, but was select. The 3-disc 1929 recording of Delius' Sea Drift, arising from the Delius Festival that year, suffered by being crammed onto six sides and was withdrawn before 1936, probably as a result of the standardisation on 78 revolutions per minute. However it won Decca the loyalty of the baritone Roy Henderson, who went on to record for them the first complete Dido and Aeneas of Purcell with Nancy Evans and the Boyd Neel ensemble (Purcell Club, 14 sides, pre-1936); and Henderson's famous pupil Kathleen Ferrier was recorded and issued by Decca through the period of transition from 78 to LP (1946-1952). Heinrich Schlusnus made important pre-war lieder recordings for Decca.
FFRR (full frequency range recording) was a spin-off devised by Arthur Haddy of Decca's development during the Second World War of a high fidelity hydrophone capable of detecting and cataloguing individual German submarines by each one's signature engine noise, and enabled a greatly enhanced frequency range (high and low notes) to be captured on recordings. Critics regularly commented on the startling realism of the new Decca recordings. The frequency range of FFRR was 80-15000 Hz, with a signal-to-noise ratio of 60dB. While Decca's early FFRR releases on 78-rpm discs had some noticeable surface noise, which diminished the effects of the high fidelity sound, the introduction of long-playing records in 1949 made better use of the new technology and set an industry standard that was quickly imitated by Decca's competitors. Nonetheless titles first issued on 78rpm remained in that form in the Decca catalogues into the early 1950s. The FFRR technique became internationally accepted and considered a standard. The Ernest Ansermet recording of Igor Stravinsky's Petrushka was key in the development of full frequency range records and alerting the listening public to high fidelity in 1946.
The Long-Playing record was launched in the USA in 1948 by Columbia Records (not connected with the British company of the same name at the time). It enabled recordings to play for up to half an hour without a break, compared with the three minutes playing time of the existing records. The new records were made of vinyl (the old discs were made of shellac), which enabled the FFRR recordings to be transferred to disc very realistically. In the UK Decca took up the LP promptly and enthusiastically, in 1949, giving the company an enormous advantage over EMI, which for some years tried to stick exclusively to the old format, thereby forfeiting competitive advantage to Decca, both artistically and financially.
Decca recorded high fidelity versions of all the symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams except for the ninth, under the personal supervision of the composer, with Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Benjamin Britten conducted recordings of many of his compositions for Decca, from the 1940s through the 1970s; most of these recordings have been reissued on CD.
The Decca recording engineers Arthur Haddy, Roy Wallace and Kenneth Wilkinson developed in 1954 the famous Decca tree, a stereo microphone recording system for big orchestras. Decca started recording in stereo on 14-28 May 1954, in Victoria Hall in Geneva, the first European record company to do so, only three months after RCA Victor began recording in stereo in the U.S. Decca archives show that Ernest Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande recorded Tamar by Mily Balakirev; the overture to Benvenuto Cellini by Hector Berlioz; Stenka Razin by Alexander Glazunov; and Anatoly Liadov's Baba-Yaga, Eight Russian Folksongs, and Kikimora. These performances were initially issued only in monaural sound; the stereo versions were finally issued in the 1960s as part of the "Stereo Treasury" series. The Decca Stereo format was called (in succession to FFRR), 'FFSS', i.e. 'Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound'. With most competitors not using stereo until 1957, the new technique was a distinctive feature of Decca's. Even after stereo became standard and into the 1970s, Decca boasted a special, spectacular sound quality. In the 1960s and 1970s, the company developed its "Phase 4" process which produced even greater sonic impact. Decca recorded some quadrophonic masters that were ultimately released only in stereo, due to the commercial war of incompatible formats that brought an early end to quadrophony.
Starting in the late 1970s, Decca developed their own digital audio recorders used in-house for recording, mixing, editing, and mastering albums. Each recorder consisted of a modified IVC model 826P open-reel 1-inch VTR, connected to a custom codec unit with time code capability (using a proprietary time code developed by Decca), as well as outboard DAC and ADC units connected to the codec unit. The codec recorded audio to tape in 16 bits (although later versions of the system used 20 bits). With the exception of the IVC VTRs (which were modified to Decca's specifications by IVC's UK division in Reading), all the electronics for these systems were developed and manufactured in-house by Decca (and by contractors to them as well). These digital systems were used for mastering most of Decca's classical music releases to both LP and CD, and were used well into the late 1990s. After the start of the new century, Decca became actively involved in pioneering a new generation of high-resolution and multi-channel recordings, including, for audio recordings, the SACD "Super Audio Compact Disc" format, and for videos, the DVD-As "Digital Versatile Disc" format. Decca is now routinely mastering new recordings in both SACD and DVD-A formats.
Decca Special Products developed a number of ground-breaking products for the audio marketplace. These included:
The Decca phono cartridges were a unique design, with fixed magnets and coils. The stylus shaft was composed of the diamond tip, a short piece of soft iron, and an L-shaped cantilever made of non-magnetic steel. Since the iron was placed very close to the tip (within 1 mm), the motions of the tip could be tracked very accurately. Decca engineers called this "positive scanning". Vertical and lateral compliance was controlled by the shape and thickness of the cantilever. Decca cartridges had a reputation for being very musical; however early versions required more tracking force than competitive designs - making record wear a concern.
The Decca International tone arms were fluid-damped unipivot designs. They were designed to complement the Decca phono cartridges. They would enjoy a brief renaissance in the 21st century as they were almost a drop-in replacement for the pick-up arms of Lenco GL75 record turntables from the 1970s. The arm damping was via a viscous silicon fluid held in a well, and magnetic repelling force supported the arm, and provided anti-skate (bias compensation). New Old Stock arms rapidly sold out by 2008 as vintage hifi enthusiasts sought them for refurbishment projects.
Decca Special Products was spun off, and is now known as London Decca.
John Culshaw, who joined Decca in 1946 in a junior post, rapidly became a senior producer of classical recordings. He revolutionised recording – of opera, in particular. Hitherto, the practice had been to put microphones in front of the performers and simply record what they performed. Culshaw was determined to make recordings that would be ‘a theatre of the mind’, making the listener's experience at home not second best to being in the opera house, but a wholly different experience. To that end he got the singers to move about in the studio as they would onstage, used discreet sound effects and different acoustics, and recorded in long continuous takes. His skill, coupled with Decca engineering, took Decca into the first flight of recording companies. His pioneering recording (begun in 1958) of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen conducted by Georg Solti was a huge artistic and commercial success (to the chagrin of other companies). In the wake of Decca's lead, artists such as Herbert von Karajan, Joan Sutherland and later Luciano Pavarotti were keen to join the company's roster.
Today Decca makes fewer major classical recordings, but still has a full roster of stars including, Cecilia Bartoli and Renée Fleming. Its back catalogue remains one of the glories of classical music. The Solti Ring was voted best recording of all time by readers of the influential magazine The Gramophone and Luciano Pavarotti remained an exclusive Decca artist throughout his recording career.
The American branch of Decca functioned separately for many years as it was sold off during World War II; it bought Universal Pictures 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 utilizing the MCA Records label, with distribution fluctuating between British Decca and other English companies over time.
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. 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 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. As mentioned, it is reentering 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.
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. 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 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 theater recordings from record labels UMG and predecessor companies acquired over the years.
It should be noted, however, that 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.