Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



International record label 1929-80. The trademark was first seen on a portable gramophone made by Barnett Samuel and Son Ltd, popular with troops in WWI. Stockbroker Edward Lewis bought the company and the failing Duophone label '29, formed Decca Records Ltd and dominated it for 50 years, making it the second biggest record group in the world, then dragging it down. Decca had top bandleaders Ambrose, Billy Cotton and Jack Hylton '30s; with purchase of British Brunswick '32 had access to Bing Crosby and Al Jolson. Acquired Edison Bell Winner '33, Crystalate Co. (Imperial, Rex, Vocalion) '37; by '39 Decca was the only record company in UK outside the giant EMI combine. Decca was offered Columbia USA for under $20,000 in '34, but ARC bought it; determined to break into the USA market Lewis established American Decca the same year under Jack Kapp, previously of Brunswick, who brought with him Crosby, the Mills Brothers, Guy Lombardo; he soon signed Louis Armstrong and discovered the Andrews Sisters. During the Depression Kapp sold his top records for 35 cents, less than half the then standard price; Prohibition had just been repealed, all the new taverns opening up had the new electric multi-selection juke box and the juke box operators liked the cheaper records too: Decca soon became the second biggest label in the USA. In '42 Crosby recorded 'White Christmas', the best-selling single of all time. Decca's WWII research into radar was paid for by selling off American shares; U.S. Decca was independent for just over ten years until taken over (for post-war USA Decca see MCA).

Lewis retained UK rights to USA Decca recordings until '74, but dissatisfied with its handling of his UK product in USA he formed London Records '47 as his outlet in USA and Canada. Plenty of hits on UK Decca from Mantovani, David Whitfield, Dickie Valentine; on London label in USA Gracie Fields had no. 4 hit '48 ('Now Is The Hour'); early attempts to build an American roster resulted in no. 1 hit for Teresa Brewer on London in USA ('Music, Music, Music' '50); Vera Lynn was the first UK artist to reach no. 1 in USA ('Auf Wiederseh'n' '52), Mantovani's Music Of Victor Herbert '53 was first UK LP to be no. 1 in USA; Whitfield's 'Cara Mia' was top ten '54 USA; Lonnie Donegan had then-rare UK million-seller with 'Rock Island Line' '56, also a big US hit; Tommy Steele was the UK's most popular rock'n'roll singer until Cliff Richard; Billy Fury also had UK hits; 'Telstar' by the Tornados '62 was the third UK record to be no. 1 in USA. Decca went international with branches in Europe and other territories but never matched EMI's global reach. Decca built a strong classical catalogue: first to issue long-playing records in UK '50; wartime research paid off in justly famous technical quality ('ffrr' meant 'full frequency range recording'); records by Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet were still renowned decades later; part of the success of Mantovani, Frank Chacksfield ('Ebb Tide'), Stanley Black etc was due to excellent sound. American RCA left EMI for Decca '53 which meant that after a sell-off period Decca sold Elvis Presley's hits in the UK on RCA's label.

Decca made history in '62 by turning down the Beatles in favour of Brian Poole and the Tremeloes; even so the '60s was a golden decade: London USA was Decca's agent in leasing the best US indie product from Dot, Sun, Liberty, Specialty, Atlantic/Atco, others issued on London in UK, the premier UK label for rock'n'roll, with Pat Boone, Little Richard, Everly Brothers, Bobby Darin, Ricky Nelson, Duane Eddy, the Drifters, Eddie Cochran, Del Shannon, Roy Orbison; the Crystals, the Ronettes, later Ike and Tina Turner from Phil Spector's Philles label, etc. The Rolling Stones, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck sold around the world; on the classical side, Georg Solti made the first complete studio recording of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen on 19 LPs (producer Robert Culshaw understood the potential of stereo, and wrote the book Ring Resounding about the project); Decca's Argo label was used for spoken word and esoteric classical stuff; L'Oiseau-Lyre was a classical label; Ace of Clubs and Ace of Hearts were budget labels. But the following decade was a disaster: the Stones left Decca '70, fed up with Lewis; others faded; the UK London label faded as US indies demanded their own logos (pioneered by Pye in UK); RCA left Decca to set up its own UK office '71. During a world-wide recession in the '70s the Moody Blues (on new Threshold label) were Decca's only international rock act. Ailing Sir Edward Lewis hired Ken East from EMI as Managing Director '74 and denied him the power to do his job; he left '75. PolyGram took over the remains of Decca and London within days of Lewis's death in January '80: new pop material was on the London label world-wide for simplicity, as PolyGram did not own the Decca trademark in the USA.


In 2011 the Universal Music Group had absorbed PolyGram including British Decca, Philips and Deutsche Grammophon, and MCA including American Decca, all of which in various groups included legendary labels such as Mercury, Verve, A&M, Island, Geffen, Interscope, Impulse, ECM and many more; it was already the biggest record company in the world when it purchased the recorded music division of Britain's EMI. It is wholly owned by the French media conglomerate Vivendi; a Wikipedia entry is here.