To fans of classic English rock & roll, Walter J. Ridley is best known as the man who brought Johnny Kidd the Pirates to EMI Records. In his broader career, however, Ridley transformed EMI's HMV label into a major outlet for popular music, which it previously had not been, and played a key role in moving EMI into the '60s in a profitable condition. Walter J. Ridley was born in London in 1913, and, at age 13, won a scholarship to study the manufacturing of pianos from Northern Polytechnic. He was a talented pianist himself, and in 1928, at age 15, went to work for Feldman publishers as a song plugger. After a stint with Peter Maurice's publishing firm, when he became a professional manager, Ridley spent much of World War II organizing performances by Vera Lynn, producing her broadcasts and also programs like Educating Archie. Ridley's entry into the recording industry, where he would become a massively influential figure, took place after World War II, when new opportunities began to open up in that business.

The end of the war heralded a slow -- at first barely perceptible -- change in the British music business. There was still not a lot of disposable cash in England after the war, and it took years for the country to return to a condition of "normalcy," a period in which the British entertainment industry awaited the beginning of the kind of boom that its American counterpart began experiencing in 1946. In 1949, EMI began making moves to build its popular catalog in new directions. The American record industry had not only survived, but thrived during World War II, and came out of the war at the outset of what proved to be long boom era. One of the elements that they lacked was overseas outlets, and EMI was a licensee for many of them -- new labels like MGM and established companies such as RCA-Victor and Columbia. Despite the presence on EMI roster of American artists such as Frank Sinatra and Guy Mitchell, whose licensed records sold extremely well in England, EMI saw it as a necessity to find native British talent to record.

The company engaged Ridley as a producer, his assigned task to build a popular music catalog for its HMV line which, up to that point, had been perceived as a classical label. Ridley's early signings included Max Bygraves (Try Another Cherry Tree) and Donald Peers, and he later produced records by Ronnie Hilton (I Still Believe) and Eartha Kitt, and bandleader Joe Loss. HMV also had a huge hit in 1955 with its release of Pérez Prado His Orchestra doing Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White. Ridley's biggest homegrown discovery during the '50s was Alma Cogan, whom he put under contract at the dawn of the '50s, and who charted more records than any other female British singer of the '50s, including Dreamboat and a brace of other hit records.

HMV under Ridley was also the unit of EMI that served as the original British outlet for Elvis Presley's first six RCA-Victor singles. As it happened, Presley's early singles, beginning with Heartbreak Hotel, were very poorly received by critics and reviewers in England (not that this stopped the kids from buying them), but Ridley appreciated the startlingly new nature of the music that he was hearing, and what it was likely to do to popular music in England as well as America. He took the lesson to heart, even though he doubted that anyone in England could play instruments the way they were played on Presley's singles. (The closest there was in England was the band backing Tommy Steele on English Decca, all top jazz players who managed a dexterous if somewhat pallid imitation of American rock & roll). EMI's initial entry into the teenage music market was very furtive. They missed out on the birth of the skiffle boom, but got a chunk of that market through acts like the Vipers Skiffle Group and Johnny Duncan. The company's Columbia label opened the market up in 1958 with Cliff Richard the Shadows, and soon after that, Ridley signed Johnny Kidd the Pirates to HMV.

Kidd one of the hottest acts of the period and one whose sound anticipated much of what was to come through the first six or seven years of the '60s. His hit Shakin' All Over is the most revived English rock & roll originals of the pre-Beatles era. Unfortunately, HMV and Ridley were never 100-percent sure of what to do with Kidd -- some of the latter's best R&B sides remained unreleased for more than a decade after his death in 1966, while several ill-advised pop/rock covers by Kidd were issued as singles during his time on the label. Those sides sound superb technically, but they're a bit of an embarrassment musically, an attempt to turn Kidd -- a true, native British R&B-based singer -- into a pop-style crooner, in the direction that EMI's Columbia label was taking Cliff Richard at the time.

By the early '60s, once the Beatles had transformed the rock & roll landscape, Ridley and HMV caught on to what they'd been doing wrong with Kidd. He signed the Swinging Blue Jeans, who were one of the better acts of their era, and who made good records in 1966, by which time music was changing again. Ridley was never able to follow them up with any rock act nearly as promising or successful. Into the late '60s, he was still generating records outside of rock with artists like pop singer Ronnie Hilton (Glory Glory Leeds United, We Shall Not Be Moved). Although the HMV label continued as an active concern into the early '70s, Ridley's successes were confined to the field of cast recordings (The Boy Friend etc.). He also produced some notable comedy records, by Peter Sellers and veteran music hall comedian Benny Hill.

Walter J. Ridley retired in 1977 from an EMI organization that no longer had an HMV label, the company having reorganized itself completely several times over. In the course of 28 years with the label, he won two Ivor Novello Awards for his work in the British entertainment industry, and also composed more than 200 songs. Ironically, it was just around the time of his retirement that Benny Hill, whom Ridley had signed to HMV in the early '60s, suddenly became an international television star with his bawdy brand of music hall comedy, creating new demand for all of his records. Ridley didn't stop producing after he left EMI, and, in fact, generated a hit album with tenor Jose Carreras, Love Is Jose Carreras, in 1984 on the Philips label. Some of his show recordings have also been reissued in recent years, mostly in compilations, along with his recordings of Peter Sellers.

Among rock & roll listeners, however, he is best remembered for his recordings of Johnny Kidd the Pirates and the Swinging Blue Jeans, which began getting licensed heavily by labels such as Colin Miles' See for Miles label during the late '70s and early '80s. Both of those groups, as well as Alma Cogan's music, have become the objects of extensive CD reissues in the '80s and '90s, by EMI and other labels. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi

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