Sir Edward Lewis

Biography by Bruce Eder

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Edward Lewis -- later Sir Edward Lewis -- was the founder of The Decca Record Company, which, for many years, was one of the two major recording companies in England, alongside EMI. The company's origins…
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Artist Biography by Bruce Eder

Edward Lewis -- later Sir Edward Lewis -- was the founder of The Decca Record Company, which, for many years, was one of the two major recording companies in England, alongside EMI. The company's origins go back to the period immediately prior to the First World War, and the Decca Dulcephone, a gramophone machine made by Barnett Samuel & Sons, which was renamed the Decca Gramophone Company. In 1929, that company was bought by Lewis, a shareholder and former stockbroker by profession -- he correctly reasoned that a company that made phonographs but not phonograph records was giving away at least half its market to others and set out to correct this oversight, and thus was born The Decca Record Company, also known as The Supreme Record Company, with Lewis as its head. In 1932, the label purchased the bankrupt British unit of Brunswick Records, which gave them access to such top American talent as Bing Crosby and Al Jolson. Additionally, Lewis put up the money with which Jack Kapp founded the American Decca label in 1934. The two labels would part company during World War II, after which English Decca would create the London Records imprint for its U.S. identity, while Decca Records in America went its separate way, subsequently as part of MCA (Music Corporation of America), which later took over ownership of Universal Pictures and became a multimedia conglomerate. But the initial link between the two labels during the 1930s gave Lewis access to artists such as Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters, and Billie Holiday.

Lewis was a man of many parts, including a bent toward chemistry, invention, and applied science, and one of his notable innovations was a process for generating a notably pure and good-sounding shellac for the company's 78 rpm records. The company's work on radar, on behalf of the government during World War II, also proved significant. The Decca technology's ability to capture and replay an extended range of both high- and low-frequency sounds became the basis for "Full-Frequency Range Recording" (FFRR for short, and a logo), which produced an exceptionally rich, vivid sound. When this process was combined with Decca's high-grade pressings (which carried over from shellac 78s to vinyl LPs), the results were not only impressive but difficult for rival EMI to beat. And once the changeover was made from disc recording to magnetic tape recording at the end of the 1940s and the start of the 1950s, the label achieved a state-of-the-art sound in the monaural format.

Lewis recognized that innovation was needed to keep ahead of the competition and make full use of the new technologies that were emerging constantly after World War II, and in the years immediately after the war shored up the company with the hiring of John Culshaw. More than any other producer of his era, Culshaw understood the uses and purpose of sound engineering in the modern world -- he came into his own as a senior classical producer with the advent of the stereo era in the mid-'50s, creating recordings that were true multi-dimensional listening experiences. His recording of the Wagner "Ring" cycle with Sir Georg Solti in the late '50s was celebrated musically for good reason, but was also notable for opening new horizons in the art and science of stereo recording. This approach eventually boiled over even into the company's pop releases such as Days of Future Passed and In Search of the Lost Chord by the Moody Blues, under producer Tony Clarke and engineer Derek Varnals. The combination of Full-Frequence Range Recording and stereo made Decca fully competitive with any label in the world during the second half of the 1950s and all of the 1960s. Their "Phase 4" stereo sound releases are still sought after by collectors in the 21st century.

Amid this era of technical superiority, the company got a leg-up on rival EMI in music when it latched on to "Rock Island Line," the Lonnie Donegan single that jump-started the skiffle boom in England. But then Decca's management threw away their edge when they failed to sign Donegan to a long-term contract and lost him to a new rival organization, Pye-Nixa Records. They did have early quasi-rock & roller Tommy Steele on their roster, and later recorded Billy Fury with some considerable success, but the loss of Donegan pointed up a blind spot that would increasingly afflict the company across the next 25 years. Lewis presided over Decca successfully into the 1960s, but it was during that decade that Decca would make some of the worst missteps of its history, rejecting the Beatles in favor of Brian Poole & the Tremeloes -- because the latter were based in London and, thus, easier to record -- and then, when Poole and company split, keeping the singer (whose career soon ended) and casting off the Tremeloes, who enjoyed decades of success; and losing the Small Faces, who were literally starved out of their contract despite a string of hits. Lewis' management kept the label competitive if not dominant throughout the 1960s, and they even managed to get in on the ground floor of the psychedelic boom with the Moody Blues' release of Days of Future Passed.

Too much of what Lewis and Decca were doing right, however, was happening by chance rather than by design. They'd signed the Rolling Stones, mostly out of fear of turning away another act like the Beatles, and were enjoying huge success with their records, but the Stones operated almost independently of Decca, not even recording at the company's studios after early 1964. Lewis appreciated the importance of the group, if not their work, and for his trouble was viciously parodied in their unreleased song "Andrew's Blues" in 1965. He actually liked the Moody Blues and helped them to carve their own niche -- through the founding of their own label, Threshold -- in the late '60s, but he was increasingly out of touch with the music marketplace of the late '60s and early '70s. He did have an advisor to help him run the pop label for a time in producer Jonathan King, but King -- who was still a young man, and whose interests in music were more direct, and had also been a successful recording artist himself -- was unwilling to take on the responsibility of running an entire record label within the framework of a corporation. At the end of the 1960s, Decca suffered what amounted to a catastrophic blow when the Rolling Stones chose not to renew their contract with the label; although the company would continue to exploit the group's older recordings for years to come, in top-selling compilations such as Hot Rocks and More Hot Rocks, and their back catalog would never lose popularity, this was a loss from which Decca never fully recovered. By the start of the 1970s, apart from the Moody Blues and, to a much lesser degree, Ten Years After, the label had no internationally established rock acts. By then, Decca had also fallen behind in technology as well, the one area where it had always kept ahead of the competition. In 1974, Lewis took what seemed to be a drastic step to save his ailing company by hiring ex-EMI executive Ken East to run Decca; unfortunately for East and the label, however, Lewis proved unwilling to give him the authority or freedom he needed to rescue the company, and he quit in 1975. By that time, even the Moody Blues had gone on hiatus and the label was limping toward the end of the 1970s with its future in doubt. Lewis' death early in 1980 brought an end to Decca's history as an independent business organization -- within a matter of weeks, Polygram (comprised of rival companies Deutsche Grammophon and Philips) had bought out Decca, mostly for its classical roster and library. Ironically, less than two decades later, Polygram itself was purchased by MCA, the company formed in part by the American Decca label, which Lewis had financed in the first place in the early '30s.