Hugh Mendl looms as one of the most influential if unheralded figures in postwar British pop -- for four decades a producer and A&R exec with Decca Records, he helmed skiffle pioneer Lonnie Donegan's earliest recordings, signed artists spanning from David Bowie to Genesis, and spearheaded the Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed, a landmark in the development of progressive rock. Born in London on August 6, 1919, Mendl graduated from Oxford's University College with plans to pursue a career in government, but his discovery of jazz prompted him to seek a record industry position instead. It just so happened that his grandfather was chairman of The Decca Gramaphone Company, although he entered via the company mailroom, earning only ten shillings a week during his six-month tryout. After his probation period ended, Mendl was promoted to serve as an assistant to Decca secretary Freddie White. World War II interrupted his climb, however, and while stationed in Jerusalem he hosted a jazz program on Palestine Radio. Upon returning to civilian life Mendl applied for a position with the BBC, but blanched at the corporate culture and soon returned to Decca, which kept him on the company payroll throughout the war. He was installed as the label's first "radio plugger," lobbying broadcasters to play Decca releases -- Mendl's actions quickly led to a reprimand from the British Phonographic Industry, but he continued on, simply adopting more discreet tactics.

Mendl made his debut as a producer with crooner Reggie Goff's 1950 single So Tired, followed by sessions headlined by pianist Winifred Atwell and American folkie Josh White. When Frank Lee was hired in 1952 to lead Decca's artists' department, Mendl was promoted to serve below him as label manager for the Brunswick subsidiary, with Dick Rowe named to the same position at Capitol. (Rowe is notorious in record industry lore for rejecting the Beatles after their Capitol audition, explaining to their manager, Brian Epstein, "Guitar groups are on their way out.") In his efforts to discover new talent, Mendl began frequenting London's now-legendary 100 Club, epicenter of the burgeoning British trad jazz culture -- there he spotted bandleader Chris Barber, and on July 13, 1954, produced their first Decca session. When Barber ran out of material, singer/banjo player Lonnie Donegan suggested "We could do a bit of skiffle" -- their resulting rendition of Leadbelly's Rock Island Line combined traditional folk with elements of jazz, blues, and country, its frenetic energy effectively prefiguring the sound and style of rock & roll. Decca nevertheless shelved Rock Island Line for more than a year, but upon its 1956 release the single proved a sensation, becoming the first debut in British chart history to earn a gold record and entering the U.S. Top Ten. Many of the key acts of the British Invasion later cited Donegan as a major influence -- John Lennon formed the pre-Beatles band the Quarrymen in March 1957 to play skiffle, and Donegan's Putting on the Style topped the charts when he met Paul McCartney three months later.

In the meantime, Mendl continued his chart success, signing fledgling teen idol Tommy Steele and producing hits for crooner Dickie Valentine and chanteuse Joan Regan. He also assumed control of Decca's musical theater efforts, helming cast recordings of the stage hits +Hello, Dolly! and +Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be. After Rowe fumbled away the Beatles, Mendl sought a viable replacement, scouting the Rolling Stones during an early gig at Richmond's Station Hotel -- when the Beatles' George Harrison recommended the Stones to Rowe, Decca formally extended a contract offer. Mendl also signed to the label artists like David Bowie and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, and as British pop evolved into psychedelia and progressive rock, he brought aboard acts including Genesis and Caravan, setting up the new Deram imprint to showcase recent advances in stereo recording (which the company dubbed "deramic sound"). Mendl additionally served as executive producer on 1967's symphonic rock masterpiece Days of Future Passed, writing in the liner notes "The Moody Blues have at last done what many others have dreamed of and talked about: they have extended the range of pop music, and found the point where it becomes one with the world of the classics." He remained with Decca until 1979, when he suffered a massive heart attack -- when PolyGram acquired the label a year later, Mendl retired from the music industry for good, operating an antiques shop in Devon. He died July 7, 2008, at the age of 88. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi

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