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Confessions Of A British Invader
He was in the vanguard of that wave of young Britons who, in the 1960s stormed our shores and gave us back our musical heritage
December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
They were crying for me because of my connection with England, Liverpool, Manchester, whatever, so long as it was cutely rude and British.
We listened to the playback, had a laugh, and went our various ways. The protest song was to be the hit, a worthy successor to “This Sporting Life,” already in the Top Ten of Los Angeles.
Over in Hollywood, inside the tower that resembled a stack of platters, the Tower Records executives ignored “No Tears for Johnny” but took the panting track seriously. A seasoned promotion man, “Jumping” George Sherlock felt its potential immediately. “It’s a record,” he said. “Definitely a happening one. A possible stone fox smash.” The president of the label, genial Gordon “Bud” Fraser, a twenty-five-year veteran of the disk business, a man who had walked with Sinatra, gave Jumping George a brief: Make a few test pressings, and take this mother and run it around the stations if you feel so hot for this weird thing. Run it up the flagpole, in other words, and see if anyone salutes (both Bud and Jumping were fifties people).
At my rooms at Trinity College the telegrams came in once more. “You Turn Me On” (a.k.a. “The Turn On Song”) is a “pick” in Billboard, Cashbox, Record World , and Music Business and is becoming a “national breakout” via Los Angeles. “We’re shipping 50,000 of these babies a day! Are you ready for this, Ian baby??” — signed by George Sherlock, the West Coast promotion chief. … ‘Tan your record will make it big. Working to put it in Top Ten within next thirty days. Regards Gordon “Bud” Fraser, President Tower Records.”… “You are scheduled to appear on the ABC TV network show “Shindig” next week. Jerry.” …
Stardom at last! First I was flown to New York, where Tower’s East Coast personnel greeted me. One of the promotion men, a Mr. Licata, rehearsed me in my hotel room, showing me how to mime (“lip synch”) to my record, suggesting spins and hand gestures. Then I was escorted around the trade-paper offices, to shake hands with kindly old gents who had pipes and memories of the great days when Frankie Laine and Guy Mitchell were riding high in the charts, when artists were under the control of the executives and knew their places in the great well-oiled American entertainment machine. Now all was chaos; the inmates had taken over the asylum. Could you believe the surliness of those Rolling Stones, Kinks, Animals? None of them can read music, none of them could play Vegas! Now you, Iron —you got class, you got manners. And also a stone fox smash, added Mr. Licata. “You Turn Me On” was currently at No. 25, with a bullet.
Mr. Licata next escorted me to the TV studio where I lip-synched to my record. Back to camera for a few bars, spin around slow and British, sidle about, and then cup hands sexily for the panting on the “Huh! Huh!” break. These shows were all the same, all without any order or direction. Show business was not yet prepared for framing the British Invaders as it had gorgeously framed Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and even Elvis. It had no idea what to do with these untamed youngsters from the erstwhile land of the bowler hat. Nor did I have any idea what to do. I was a student having fun, enamored of America, longing to meet some of my R&B idols and sorry that Jelly Roll Morton was dead.
I remember well one of these television lip-synch shows—in upstate New York and employing an endless array of miming stars, including Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Dizzy Gillespie, all selling their latest wares, the little bit of vinyl. The kid audience showed scant interest in these stars and too much in me, screaming at every shake of my long hair. Beatles stardust had fallen like dandruff onto my shoulders. These kids were crying for me simply because of my magical connection with England, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, whatever, so long as it was cutely rude and British. I approached Dizzy Gillespie to commiserate with him, but he merely shrugged his shoulders and emptied some spittle from his trumpet.
Next stop, Hollywood. At the Los Angeles Airport I was mobbed in the arrivals area. Girls, some very little, broke through the police barriers to press into my hands stuffed animals, brownies, Bermuda shorts, books of poems. I was eventually helped into a police car and then transferred to a civilian one. “We’ll give them a run, but keep in touch—know what I mean?” said my driver, smiling winningly from his glinting suit. “Hi, I’m George Sherlock, West Coast promo man, and you’re a star.” I asked what was happening. “You’re what is happening, baby! You’re hot, you’re the hottest, so grab it. Everybody wants to know who and what you are. Are you truly British or are you a colored Ohio Jew? That type question.” Then he punched a button on his radio; “Huh! Huh! Huh!” came out. He punched another: same thing. George, pounding the steering wheel on the off beat, told me I was breaking all over America and even infiltrating Brazil and Canada. But controversy was collecting: Authorities in Portland, Oregon, had banned me for encouraging loose sex and drug taking. “Cheer up,” said George. “You’re a star now, whatever the reasons.”