Published On: Wed, Nov 1st, 2023
Music | By MDN

‘Sex is bad. Music is the best substitute’: Lawrence Wright, the mogul who kickstarted London’s pop industry | Music

If it wasn’t for a tragic mining disaster in Cumbria, music might never have found a home on London’s Denmark Street. At around 7.30pm on 11 May 1910 at the Wellington Pit in Whitehaven, a buildup of methane was set alight by a stray spark, possibly caused by a faulty safety lamp. The explosion and underground fire destroyed tunnels and blocked potential escape routes. At the time, 140 men and boys were working deep in the mine. Four escaped, but the rest remained unaccounted for. Although one of the survivors immediately went back into the mine to aid the rescue party, conditions proved impossible. The King sent a telegram to the mine owners to express his concern while families waited to hear of the fate of their relatives. “It was a night of wholesale human agony,” reported the Times & Express.

The mine wasn’t opened again until late September, at which time 136 bodies were slowly and painfully recovered from the earth. Among them were a father and his two sons, who had made themselves a bed and were found embracing each other. A message was written in chalk on a nearby wooden beam: “God is our refuge and our strength.”

Sheet music for Don’t Go Down in the Mine, Dad.
Sheet music for Don’t Go Down in the Mine, Dad.

The tragedy caught the public imagination, and a song caught the public mood. Don’t Go Down in the Mine, Dad, was said to be inspired by a mining disaster in Wales in 1907, and credited to Will Geddes and Robert Donnelly. It tells the story of a child who dreams of a fire in a mine and warns his father, a miner, about his premonition. The father heads off to work nonetheless before at the last minute, while “waiting his turn with his mates to descend”, he changes his mind and returns home, so escaping the pit fire that kills a score of his colleagues. The song was revived following the disaster at Whitehaven and became a hit. The rights were owned by a Midlands-based sheet-music publisher named Lawrence Wright, who sold more than a million copies of the score, giving a halfpenny from every copy to the disaster fund and using the rest to fund a move to London.

Wright arrived on Denmark Street on a wet Wednesday morning in 1911. According to mythology, on arrival at St Pancras station he hired a wheelbarrow and packed it with sheet music, his violin and a mandolin, then pushed the lot down Tottenham Court Road to Charing Cross Road, turning left on to Denmark Street where he rented a basement at No 8 for £1 a week – and sowed the seed for what became the most important street in the British music industry.

Denmark Street was not a particularly plush place for an office. The St Giles area still carried the stigma of its recent history as a crime- and disease-ridden slum – and the smell of stewed fruit from a large Crosse & Blackwell factory which produced a range of pickles, sauces, mustards and jams. Wright was also not quite the street’s first music publishing company: first to venture into this region of molasses and vice was Francis, Day & Hunter, who in 1897 moved to Charing Cross Road to be closer to the centre of London bookselling and the heart of the West End theatre district.

Sheet-music publishing could be an extremely lucrative business. In the absence of gramophones or radio, most homes and just about every pub had a piano around which people would gather; new songs were usually debuted at music halls and those that turned out to be popular with the public were rushed into print in the form of sheet music. A hit – which usually meant one with a memorable chorus and a melody that was easy to master by an amateur pianist – could shift hundreds of thousands of copies.

Cover for sheet music of My Inspiration is You by Edgar Leslie (lyrics) and Horatio Nicholls (music), AKA Lawrence Wright.
Cover for sheet music of My Inspiration Is You by Edgar Leslie (lyrics) and Horatio Nicholls (music), AKA Lawrence Wright. Photograph: Alamy

The publisher had an exalted position in this nascent industry. He was the person who found the songwriters and paid for their songs, then printed and sold the sheet music. The publisher needed good ears so he could spot a hit song and buy it – preferably for peanuts – before it was nabbed by a rival. This system formed the basis of the music industry in London for the next 50 years. “If they [the publisher] took up a songwriter, or accepted one of his songs, it was their plugging to the record companies and the radio people which gave it a chance of being a hit,” Beatles producer George Martin once explained. “If you didn’t have a publisher behind you, you might as well not bother to write at all.”

Lawrence Wright turned Denmark Street into a British version of New York’s songwriter avenue, Tin Pan Alley. Wright was born in Leicester in 1888, the son of a violinist who sold sheet music and instruments. He went into the family trade, playing and singing songs on an old upright piano out on the street, and selling the sheet music to his audience. He was successful and opened his first shop in 1906 in Leicester, while running four market stalls across the Midlands.

At first, much of the music Wright sold came from the US but he soon began writing songs of his own. Early successes came through topical songs, such as Long May He Reign/Coronation March for the coronation of George V in 1910, but his breakthrough came when he spent £5 on the rights to publish Don’t Go Down in the Mine, Dad. On Denmark Street, Wright went into overdrive. In his 1972 account of the origins of popular music, After the Ball, Ian Whitcomb describes Wright “building the shelves, making the furniture, sleeping on a folding couch in the basement, writing most of the stuff he published”.

Lawrence Wright’s premises on Denmark Street.
Lawrence Wright’s premises on Denmark Street. Photograph: Reg Warhurst/ANL/Shutterstock

Wright expanded his empire from the basement of No 8 until he occupied the entire building. Before long, even that proved insufficient for the scale of his business and he moved to larger premises at No 19, which he named Wright House. Wright also published numerous hugely successful songs that he wrote under the pseudonym Horatio Nicholls. His talent was to write “simple songs for unsophisticated people”, as one contemporary put it. His first million-seller as a writer was Blue Eyes, which he wrote in 1915. Four years later he co-wrote That Old Fashioned Mother of Mine, supposedly inspired by a conversation overheard on Tottenham Court Road, and which sold around 3m copies.

His biggest success of all was Among My Souvenirs, with lyrics by Edgar Leslie, which the pair concocted in the back of Wright’s Rolls-Royce on the way to Llandudno. Among My Souvenirs is one of the few prewar Tin Pan Alley songs that you might still hear today: it was a hit first for American bandleader Paul Whiteman in 1928, then again for Connie Francis in 1959 and Marty Robbins in 1976, and has also been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. As its author was fond of saying: “You can’t go wrong with the Wright songs.”

Wright was so convinced that Among My Souvenirs would be a hit that he bought the front page of the Daily Mail to advertise it. There came a point when he wasn’t content to rely on the existing press for publicity and so he founded his own newspaper, the Melody Maker, in January 1926, primarily to promote his own catalogue. It was published monthly out of the basement of No 19 and edited by drummer and dance-band leader Edgar Jackson. The star of the first issue was Horatio Nicholls – in other words, Lawrence Wright himself – modestly heralded as “one of the finest and most popular composers of lighter music, not only in England but throughout the world”.

The Melody Maker, Vol 1, No 1, January 1926.
The Melody Maker, Vol 1, No 1, January 1926. Photograph: Paul Gorman

Wright retained an interest in Melody Maker right up until his death in May 1964. When writer Chris Welch began working at the paper in the early 1960s, Wright was still alive: “My editor, Jack Hutton, would say he was off to lunch with the ‘GOM of TPA’ – the Grand Old Man of Tin Pan Alley,” says Welch. “He was this father figure and whatever he said or did we had to write about it. Even if we’d rather be writing about the Beatles, we had to cover Lawrence Wright stuff.”

In interviews, Wright, a non-smoking teetotaller, comes across as a bore: “Drink is bad, smoking is bad, sex is bad,” he said. “Music is the best substitute – it speaks a universal language. If I speak English to a Frenchman or German they cannot understand, but if I play a tune by Schubert or Irving Berlin the whole world responds.” But when it came to selling records, he would do whatever was required. He hired a plane to fly over Blackpool with Jack Hylton and his band on board, playing a song called Me and Jane in a Plane and dropping sheet music on the beach to astonished promenaders. He had staff members ride around London on a camel to promote a song called Sahara.

Other stunts included distributing bananas to audiences when bands were performing Frank Silver and Irving Cohn’s Yes! We Have No Bananas. After that became a success, Wright got hold of a song called I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana and offered £1,000 to anybody who could produce such a thing. Boxes of bananas flooded the office, with Wright eventually giving £1,000 to the person who produced the least curved one.

In 1933, Wright bought his own theatre, the Princes Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, where he staged versions of Blackpool revues for London audiences. As Horatio Nicholls, he wrote hundreds of songs, and as Lawrence Wright he published thousands more – among them hits like On the Sunny Side of the Street, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Burlington Bertie from Bow and Old Father Thames. Wright was earning so much money that when his Maida Vale home was bombed in 1940, he moved into the Park Lane hotel and stayed there until his death in 1964. He left a legacy as a one-man music-making machine – and around him coalesced the beginnings of an entire industry.

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