English songwriter and producer at his peak during the 1950s and '60s, known for the tune "Portrait Of My Love."
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Norman Newell Biography

by Bruce Eder

Norman Newell was, for many years after World War II, the golden boy of the EMI company. As the head of EMI's prestigious Columbia label, and as a top staff producer, he had the confidence of the company's management and the biggest budgets, and the highest visibility of any music producer in England from the end of the '40s until the beginning of the '60s. He is also a very gifted songwriter, responsible for hits that include "More," "A Portrait of My Love," and "This Is My Life."

Newell began his music career as a songwriter with the London-based Cinephonic Music Company, a publishing house, immediately after World War II. He distinguished himself sufficiently to attract the attention of EMI's management, and was hired by that company in 1949 to become head of Artists and Repertory for the crown jewel of its operation, the British Columbia label. At the time, EMI's popular music business on all of its labels was heavily reliant on artists whose recordings it licensed from America, most notably from the U.S. Columbia label and RCA-Victor. Those records sold well, but EMI saw it as essential that the company develop native British talent. (This fear was borne out in the ensuing decade as RCA-Victor and American Columbia's contractual relationships with EMI lapsed). Newell was brought into the company to help secure that talent base. He immediately went to work signing up such talent as the 17-year-old radio and film star Petula Clark -- who only stayed with EMI for four songs -- and new artists Ronnie Ronalde and the Beverley Sisters.

He recorded hits with pianist Steve Conway, whose single "Roulette" was a number one hit for the company, and other already established artists, including Londonderry-born tenor Josef Locke and dance-band leader Victor Silvester. Newell proved so prodigious a talent that, in 1952, he exited EMI to move to America, intent on pursuing his career as a composer, but he was enticed back to the record company, where he went back to work for both the British Columbia and HMV labels. Newell recorded artists as different as Marlene Dietrich, Gracie Fields, Russ Conway, Geoff Love, Noel Coward, Shirley Bassey, and Paul Robeson. He also oversaw the recording of various opera highlights and operettas with the Sadler's Wells company, through the label's newly founded Music for Pleasure series, the company's first budget label, and an enviable series of cast albums of West End shows from the late '50s and early '60s. Newell's work as a songwriter proved essential to EMI. He knew everyone in virtually every position of authority in the publishing industry in London (particularly Chappel & Co., the biggest and most influential of publishing houses), and was able to help EMI lock up the rights to the British cast albums of any American show opening in London.

Conversely, EMI was also able to secure world rights to release cast recordings of many shows originating in England. Where's Charly and She Loves Me were among the more notable of the numerous cast recordings that Newell produced in the late '50s and early '60s. Newell was in an untouchable position at EMI well after the advent of rock & roll. The music landscape was shifting under Newell's feet as the '50s neared its end -- Norrie Paramor brought the EMI Columbia label into the new music era with his signing of Cliff Richard & the Shadows in the summer of 1958, and a year later, Walter J. Ridley signed Johnny Kidd & the Pirates to HMV. Although Richard & the Shadows, in particular, generated hundreds of thousands and even millions of pounds in revenue for EMI, they weren't treated as a serious part of the company's core business, but, rather, merely as a necessary and profitable part of it. What Newell produced, in the way of vocal music and pop recordings, was considered intrinsically more important to the company's mission and future than any sounds made with electric guitars.

That changed in 1963, the first full year that the Beatles -- signed to EMI's Parlophone label the previous year by George Martin -- were with EMI. They broke every sales precedent that year, and for the rest of the decade, generating revenue that was impossible not to take seriously, especially when they hit in America as well. By 1964, it was impossible not to notice the change or respect the efforts of those who work was generating that revenue. Norman Newell was never really a part of the musical world that George Martin opened up with the Beatles. The closest he came to crossing paths with the Beatles directly was a party he threw for Johnny Mathis in London, where John Lennon was one of the guests. He did get a small piece of the action from the new sound when he began producing Peter & Gordon, a duo whose value to the company and public profile were enhanced by the fact that Peter Asher's actress sister Jane was dating the Beatles' Paul McCartney at the time, who provided the team with a Lennon-McCartney cast-off song, "A World Without Love." One couldn't imagine Newell producing electric rock & roll, however, and he never did. He became a free-lance producer beginning in the mid-'60s, although he remained associated with EMI for many years after on selected projects.

He continued to produce cast albums, including the London cast recordings of shows such as Fiddler on the Roof and Gypsy, finally retiring as a producer in the '90s. Newell's accumulated honors across his career include one Grammy, an Emmy, and three Ivor Novello Awards for his contribution to the entertainment industry, and six British Music Industry Awards. In 1999, Newell's song "A Portrait of My Love" was honored at the BMI Awards in London for having crossed the threshold of two million radio plays, and his songs (particularly "More") have been covered by everyone from Judy Garland to Celine Dion and Aretha Franklin.

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