Dick James

The music publisher who was the co-founder of Northern Songs, Dick James had a varied career in the music business.

George Martin, Dick James and Brian Epstein

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 told George Martin that he was considering letting US company Hill & Range, publishers of Elvis Presley's songs, 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 Thank 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.

Neil Aspinall

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.

Paul McCartney
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.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

9 responses on “Dick James

  1. mike hampton

    It just goes to show the sort of sharks there are in the music business. I think it’s criminal that John and Paul never owned any of their songs.It’s like having your babies taken away from you.If they’d been offered a decent lawyer the situation would have been sorted out and they wouldn’t have been sxxt on by unscrupulous music moguls who didn’t care about them anyway.

  2. NEIL

    The article states that James worked hard on behalf of the group. The only thing he and his cronies worked hard at was in enriching themselves at the Beatles expense.

  3. Joseph Brush

    Previous to the Beatles, there had been other robberies in rock n’ roll concerning song-writing as far as publishing (and claims of co-authorship as well). Artists such as Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry, for instance, suffered from one or both of the enterprises I mentioned above.
    Since the Beatles triumph was only equalled previously in rock n’ roll by Elvis Presley, there was no comparable measuring stick that existed. Unlike Elvis, the Beatles were successful song writers.
    Brian Epstein’s main experience in music before signing the Beatles was in managing a local record store. When Northern Songs was created, Epstein had only managed the group for about a year and a half. His contributions in that time frame was obtaining more gigs, putting them in suits and his undying belief in the Beatles. These contributions were integral to the Beatles’ success.
    In retrospect, however, his woeful lack of knowledge in dealing with London sharpies cost John and Paul dearly (and George as well to a lesser extent).

  4. Gary McAuley

    What’s not stated here is that Dick James gave J&P an extraordinary deal in 1962…normally songwriters owned NONE of their own copyright. And J&P hadn’t even had a Top 10 hit as yet.

    And it certainly needs to be stated that Dick James aggressively worked on behalf of the Beatles. It was money in his pocket to do so, and he certainly did, getting them television exposure in the early days as well as calling all his radio contacts and simply giving the Beatles and Brian Epstein his office to use anytime they were in London.

    An average publishing deal in 1962 would have had Dick James owning 100% copyright of J&P’s songs. He didn’t do that. Give him some credit.

    1. Robert lamont

      As one around at that time in another Tin Pan Alley publishers office, I totally agree with your comments regarding ownership of songs. Songwriters normally got 50% of royalties and the music publisher the remainder but retained total ownership of the song for the full term of copyright then 50years after death of the last writer. To give a share of the ownership was unheard of, that was to follow a few years later. We had Gordon mills and les reed under contract for “Its not unusual ” on a 50/50 and as Gordon became more successful we increasingly adjusted our percentage and ultimately ownership of songs with him. Interesting how people forget the different values we had in those days

  5. Gary McAuley

    It is patently false J&P didn’t understand profits of songwriting when they signed an agreement with Dick James. They had already received a number of royalty checks based on “Love Me Do” by that point; pretty handsome money at that given what they were making on stage, and this was not money being shared with George or Ringo. It was strictly J&P’s money.

    To rewrite history that J&P in late 1962/early 1963 “didn’t know” you could own a song – is incorrect.

  6. cravinbob

    Hindsight is always 20/20 they say and if there is a case to prove it here it is. John and Paul made a lot of money regardless. Had it been a badly written contact or they signed under duress a court probably could have negated it somehow. It is hard to do all the work and songwriters need publishers for the most part as there are many ways to market songs and receive payments. John later hired Allen Kline who was a crook from day one so John apparently learned nothing but Paul did. So much for “genius”!
    Artists are not really into financial dealings as we all know. Willie Nelson took his problem in stride saying he knew he was successful when he learned he owed the IRS 16 million dollars. Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote and performed “Working For MCA” for their record signing party. The song’s lyrics warned the suits that they were going to be watched and count every penny! Most bands never realized that hotels and limos etc was coming out of their end of the deal! Even artwork on album covers! One band’s manager refused contracts like that and forced the company to foot the bill for everything, the notorious and often brutal Peter Grant who managed Led Zeppelin. Grant had four aces and the record company knew it.

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