The music publisher who was the co-founder of Northern Songs, Dick James had a varied career in the music business.
The son of Polish Jewish immigrants, he was born Reginald Leon Isaac Vapnick on 12 December 1920 in London’s East End. In his early teens he sang with dance bands in the capital, sang regularly at the Cricklewood Palais, and found success with the Henry Hall band.
He made his first radio broadcast in 1940, and joined the army in 1942. After the war, while working with band leader Geraldo, he was encouraged to change his name to the more commercial-sounding Dick James.
Following World War Two he had some success with the Cyril Stapleton Orchestra and in 1955 had several UK hits with vocal group The Stargazers. He wrote Max Bygraves’ children’s hit I’m A Pink Toothbrush, I’m A Blue Toothbrush, and in 1956 was signed by George Martin to Parlophone. Martin produced Dick James’ biggest big hit, the theme for the 1950s British television series The Adventures Of Robin Hood.
As his singing career began to wane, Dick James entered the music publishing business. He established Dick James Music in 1961. Early in 1963 he was contacted by Brian Epstein, who was looking for a publisher for The Beatles’ second series Please Please Me.
Epstein suggested to George Martin that he was considering offering to let US company Hill & Range, publishers of Elvis Presley’s songs, to handle John Lennon and Paul McCartney‘s original compositions. Martin suggested that he instead consider somebody smaller and “hungrier” for success, and put forward Dick James’ name.
James reacted positively to Please Please Me, but during their first meeting Epstein asked what he could do for The Beatles that EMI’s publicity department couldn’t. James picked up the telephone and called Philip Jones, the producer of the hit show Than Your Lucky Stars, who agreed to give The Beatles their first nationwide television appearance. The action was enough to seal the deal.
Brian knew Dick James, who was famous for singing ‘Robin Hood’ on the TV series and had started his own music-publishing company. John and Paul were beginning to write their own songs and Brian played him some tapes of theirs.
Dick James got the rights to the single Please Please Me, and all the subsequent songs, too. We were all pretty naive back then and I think that The Beatles have all since regretted the deals they got into regarding song ownership.
Following the success of Please Please Me, James proposed that he and Epstein start a separate company, Northern Songs, to publish Lennon and McCartney’s original compositions. On the morning of 22 February 1963 the songwriters were driven to a small Liverpool mews house where they signed the necessary contracts.
Brian was at the house with a lawyer-type guy, but nobody said to us, ‘This is your lawyer and he’s representing your interests in this thing.’ We just showed up, got out the car, went into this dark little house, and we just signed this thing, not really knowing what it was at all about, that we were signing our rights away for our songs. And that became the deal and that is virtually the contract I’m still under. It’s draconian!
John and I didn’t know you could own songs. We thought they just existed in the air. We could not see how it was possible to own them. We could see owning a house, a guitar or a car, they were physical objects. But a song, not being a physical object, we couldn’t see how it was possible to have a copyright in it. And therefore, with great glee, publishers saw us coming.
We said to them, ‘Can we have our own company?’ They said, ‘Yeah.’ We said, ‘Our own?’ They said, ‘Yeah, you can. You’re great. This is what we’re going to do now.’ So we really thought that meant 100 per cent owned. But of course, it turned out to be 49 per cent to me and John and Brian, and 51 per cent to Dick James and Charles Silver.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
The initial share capital for Northern Songs was £100 in £1 shares. Dick James received 25 per cent of the shares, as did his accountant and financial partner Charles Silver. Lennon and McCartney were each given 20 per cent, and Epstein received 10 per cent. Northern Songs was administered by the company Dick James Music, with directors Brian Epstein and Dick James.
The deal outwardly seemed fair, but James and Silver had one more share between them than Lennon, McCartney and Epstein. The act would have devastating repercussions for Lennon and McCartney in later years.
There was always this voting share that could beat us. We could only muster 49; they could muster 51. They could always beat us. John and I were highly surprised to find that even though we’d been promised our own company, it actually was a company within Dick James’s company that was to be our own company. And we thought that’s not fair at all, but this was just the way they pulled the wool over our eyes. And we were on such a roll creatively, you couldn’t just take a year off and sort out the business affairs. We had no time. We never met this Charles Silver guy; a character who was always in the background. Jim Isherwood clued us in a little bit as to who he was. He was the Money, that was basically who he was, like the producer on a film. He and Dick James went in together, so Silver always got what was really our share! There were the two of them taking the lion’s share, but it was a little while before we found out.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles