Nat Joseph loved the English language. He loved literature, poetry and prose. And it showed in his conversation and his writings. Personal notes, business correspondence, even simple memos to staff members - all displayed Nat's mischievous wit.


By Nathan Joseph

Looking back, which I don't do much, it's easy to romanticise Transatlantic Records - or 'Tranny' as it was affectionately known by its employees - as an idealistic dream which logically progressed from A to B and indeed Z. In fact it was a largely unplanned series of eclectic and sometimes opportunistic leaps from one thing to another, which only in retrospect seem to encompass logically most that was innovative, interesting and exciting in British music (particularly acoustic music) and comedy in the 1960's and 70's.

Frankly, in 1960/61 having graduated from university and spent a year teaching and then bumming around the USA, I had to earn some money. While in the States I became conscious of the rise of the record industry and since I had always loved music (almost as much as theatre), I returned home from England determined to start a record company.

I had obtained some agencies for US labels including language records and some folk and religious recordings, and imported these on the basis that I got ninety days credit from the US suppliers and had to sell them and get paid in sixty days to start to build the capital I hadn't got. I trudged daily around Southern England carrying samples in paper bags.

It worked. Sales built up, capital built up; but I needed a real breakthrough, a record which would be produced in the UK, not imported, and would provide a substantial fund of cash for future productions.

What were the three things which at the time appealed to the British Public? Royalty, money and sex were the answers. I couldn't get the Queen and money seemed a dull subject for a record, so sex was the answer.

I recorded three LPs with Dr. Keith Cammeron, the pseudonym for the then famous/notorious sex therapist Dr. Eustace Chesser. The LPs were given huge publicity by everything from the British Medical Journal to the News Of The World; the three albums sold approaching 100,000 copies between them.

Around the same time I met Bill Leader, then the manager of Collets Folk Record shop in New Oxford Street and a prime customer for our US imports. We struck up an immediate friendship and Bill, who already produced traditional music recordings for Topic, introduced me to the folk scene. I was soon "hooked". Visits to Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger's club in London and Ian Campbell's Jug of Punch in Birmingham made me into an immediate enthusiast. Particularly Campbell's club, where I sensed a more joyous and modern approach. Lorna's voice, Ian's musicality and gritty candour and integrity, and Dave Swarbrick's swooping and soaring fiddle playing fired me up. I wanted to sign and record my first group, and later did - The Ian Campbell Folk Group.

Meanwhile I had matched the finest female traditional singer at the time Isla Cameron, with a favorite actor, then star of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Tony Britton, for "Songs Of Love, Lust and Loose Living" (the sex theme continued unabated), which was a magical mixture of great poetry and song and remains to this day one of my favourite records. It sold astonishingly well for a largely spoken-word album - and won a 'Gramophone' award.

My lifelong love of poetry influenced me to record poets Christopher Logue and Adrian Mitchell and also jazz singer Annie Ross performing brilliantly Logue's jazz lyric. That led to Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated. I said it was eclectic - and it was, from the beginning. Then came the Campbell's first record and I knew 'Tranny' was really on the way.

At about this time I met my greatest mentor, the legendary and wonderful Moses Asch of Folkways Records in the USA. We became Folkways' importer and later licensed about thirty records from its catalogue for our mid-price label XTRA; a great honour since Moe Asch never in the history of Folkways licensed his recordings to anyone else. He also gave me over 15 years' wise and wonderful advice and I revere his memory.

The eclecticism continued with folk to the fore; the marvelous Dubliners following the Campbells onto the roster, signed by Bill Leader and myself on a memorable trip to the Wickford Hills, which included meeting Dominic Behan for the first time, hearing amazing music through a starry night and drinking more Guinness than seemed possible. It was the start of a long association with Irish music - the Johnstons and the Fureys in particular.

Then came the guitarists and singer-songwriters. Bert Jansch was another brought in by Bill Leader. John Renbourn and Pentangle followed. So did Ralph McTell, Harvey Andrews, Stefan Grossman. Then the Scottish scene: Hamish Imlach, one of the largest, friendliest and funniest of men; Billy Connolly, Gerry Rafferty, The Humblebums (Connolly and Rafferty in unharmonious but melodious partnership), The McCalmans and the Boys of the Lough.

Connolly then metamorphosed, with some encouragement from me, from a caterpillar of a folksinger to a multi-coloured butterfly of a comedian and we recorded his first major concert and his massive double LP hit "Solo Concert."

However at the same time we recorded such diverse talents as John Bird hilariously 'imitating' Idi Amin (a comedy bestseller), other folk comedians such as Richard Digance and Mike Harding as well as the amazing post-modern Portsmouth Sinfonia and later still the classical folk-baroque band Gryphon and the great brass band, the Brighouse and Rastrick whose single "Floral Dance" Terry Wogan made into an unlikely No. 2 in the charts.

The rock music age had then arrived (we're now in the early to mid-70's) and here we were less surefooted with the mainstream bands in the idiom, but scored with the more 'way out' Deviants, the Purple Gang's "Granny Takes A Trip" and Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias. 'Modern' electronic music such as Tim Souster's work, music of the New Chilean Song movement and Greenwich Village 'Fug' music were all released. Another source of pride was being entrusted to release some of Frank Zappa's albums here by Warner-Reprise USA.

By the late 60's, early 70's, Transatlantic had also become a distributor of other labels, English and American. Elektra's famous Nonesuch classical label was one and we had two great hit albums with Joshua Rifkin's version of the Scott Joplin rags. Another US classical label was Everest and from England there was John Goldsmith's Unicorn label. Jazz was represented by two great names, Prestige and Bue Note and Tony Bennett's own label, Improv. In folk, Bill Leader's own labels, Leader and Trailer, were distributed through our network.

It was a magical yet frightening time. There were few if any artistic compromises. I put out what I liked and what I wanted, advised principally by Bill Leader, John Whitehead, Martin Lewis and Laurence Aston.

Sometimes I and they were right; sometimes horribly wrong. If there were few compromises there were many risks which were often shared by a stressed bank manager. Luckily for him and for me the 'hits' outweighed the misses. I was helped by a wonderful team of people over the 16-17 years. In addition to those already mentioned I must single out Mike Watts, Barbara Blyth and Ray Cooper. Ray and Mike have since risen to giddy heights in today's music and media worlds.

I wonder if such a time and such a strange, complex, forward-looking experimental, jumbled (oh hell, let's use eclectic again!) music company could ever exist today. Taking risks was not one hundredth as expensive then and there were opportunities for genuine new talent and new directions everywhere. I remember many bitten finger nails and sleepless nights, but many glorious ones of music and laughter and friendship. Yes, on the whole, they were very good years…

Nathan Joseph
June 1998

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