Sir Lew Grade

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Lord Grade, often better known as Sir Lew Grade, was mostly known for his work in film and television entertainment. His main influence in music, apart from his days representing Louis Armstrong, was…
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Lord Grade, often better known as Sir Lew Grade, was mostly known for his work in film and television entertainment. His main influence in music, apart from his days representing Louis Armstrong, was as a financier and his having wrested control of Northern Songs and, by extension, all but two songs in the John Lennon-Paul McCartney publishing catalog (and one by George Harrison) away from the Beatles. Born Lewis Winogradsky in Russia in 1906, he was one of three sons: Lewis and his brothers Leslie and Bernard. He and his family fled their homeland in 1912 and settled in London's East End. Isaac Winogradsky was in the clothing business, and Lew Grade, as his son became known, left school at 14 to help his father out. Life in what amounted to a lower-class Jewish ghetto was tough and offered few prospects, but Grade found his way out when he won first prize in a Charleston contest -- he took that as a cue and a clue to his future and became a professional dancer. From those early days in vaudeville, he moved into the business end of the business, becoming an agent representing other entertainers and succeeding through sheer force of will, working 19 hour days on behalf of his clients, whose ranks included a young singer named Dick James.

Eventually, by the mid-'50s that client list also featured some huge names, including Louis Armstrong, whom Grade represented in England. In the mid-'50, Grade acquired an interest in a fledgling commercial television production company called ATV. At the time, television had barely gotten out of the starting gate in England, whose populace was still living under rationing eight years after the end of World War II. While working-class Americans were making television sets standard equipment in their homes, only the most well-off Britons owned television sets at that time. The BBC was the only source of programming and, with a few notable exceptions -- Nigel Kneale's The Quatermass Experiment, in particular -- its programs were bland and educational, with high purposes in mind. Under Lew Grade, ATV changed that, beginning with a series called Robin Hood, starring Richard Greene, which proved a breath of fresh air -- especially for younger viewers -- and was even picked up for distribution in America. Grade followed suit a couple of years later with a series called Ivanhoe, based on the Sir Walter Scott novel (set during the same period as the Robin Hood legend), and starring Roger Moore. Both programs were popular in England -- and almost as well remembered for their theme music as their on-screen content (Monty Python's "Dennis Moore" sketch was built around a parody of the Robin Hood theme). Both were also modest successes in America, as were a pair of lesser-known series, William Tell and The Buccaneers, the latter starring a young Robert Shaw, and they pointed Grade and ATV in a direction from which they never looked back.

Lew Grade continued to produce programs aimed at British audiences, including Sunday Night at the Palladium, which was the kind of variety programming that he seemed to like and understand best personally. But he also began producing television shows with the American market in mind, and scored big early in the 1960s, first with Danger Man, aka Secret Agent, starring Patrick McGoohan, with The Saint starring Roger Moore, and then with The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan. The children's shows that he produced, including Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and The Thunderbirds, also flourished in the 1960s on both sides of the Atlantic. Some of these series did add some interesting musical sounds to television. The Captain Scarlet theme song, sung by the Prism, was one of the earlier rock numbers to become associated with television, and The Saint, Danger Man, and Secret Agent made composer Edwin Astley into a familiar name in television. At various times, each of these programs made it onto the American television networks, and Grade was responsible for bringing tens of millions of dollars into England. In 1969, Grade scored one of the biggest coups of his career when he acquired 35 percent of Northern Songs, the publishing company founded by his onetime client Dick James, which included all but three of the Beatles' original songs. At the time, Lennon and McCartney and the entire Beatles organization were in disarray, in the midst of serious business and personal disputes that culminated in the collapse of their effort to keep Grade away from ownership of their songs. Grade was not a favorite of John Lennon's, who was then in the midst of his anti-establishment, political theater period, and regarded the cigar-chomping mogul as the worst kind of fat-cat businessman.

By the mid-'70s, however, his outlook had softened considerably, so much so that Lennon appeared in a televised tribute to Grade. He became Sir Lew Grade in 1969, although his critics -- highbrow writers, primarily -- often called him "Sir Low Grade." While the BBC and other companies generated programming that turned up on Masterpiece Theater, Grade's productions were more along the lines of Space: 1999 and The Persuaders. His work was popular with a vast part of the television audience, however, and he also moved into motion pictures and miniseries, including The Exorcist, the revived Pink Panther movies, Sophie's Choice, and Jesus of Nazareth. His most beloved production, however, may have been The Muppet Show, which ran 120 episodes and yielded three feature films. In the 1980s, Grade's ATV was bought out by Michael Jackson, giving the entertainer control of the Beatles' songwriting catalog. Grade was made a life peer, Lord Grade of Elstree, in December of 1976 by the outgoing Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. His brother, Bernard, was made a life peer, Lord Delfont, and was at one time the head of EMI.