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19 Mar 2008

Unforgettable People (XIV): Dick James

Born Richard Leon Isaac Vapnick, James entered the music business as a singer. Dick James founded in 1963 Northern Songs Ltd., a company founded with Brian Epstein, and The Beatles, to publish songs written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

On February 1968, Dick James started his own self-named label and both Elton and Bernie became its first official writers. “Who the hell are Reg Dwight and Bernie Taupin?” shouted James and he got Caleb Quaye to play some of the stuff he had recorded. “I don’t think he was very impressed but he agreed to sing us up because Caleb, who was his blue-eyed boy, said he thought it was good” justified Elton. But Elton’s depression was magnificied when Dick James rejected the album worth of songs he and Bernie recorded. There were songs on it like “Regimental Sgt. Zippo”, “Watching The Planes Gone By”... very esoteric lyrics which James didn’t understood. Matters not helped when Caleb Quaye left the company.

James grew to see Elton’s talent as a songwriter for other artists more than a performer himself. When they thought that was the end, Steve Brown arrived as a plugger for the new Dick James Music label. Elton and Bernie decided to ignore James (“A Meal Ticket” later they wrote it about) and recorded songs without commercial considerations: “Lady Samantha”, “Empty Sky” and “Skyline Pigeon” for example were on the set. “Lady Samantha” sold 20.000 copies and became a turn-table hit. That was the deciding factor that James gave them complete freedom to record a whole album of the kind of songs they felt comfortable writing: that was “Empty Sky”. Before the album was released, Dick James took over management responsabilities for both Elton and Bernie. The single “It’s Me That You Need” sold only 2.000 copies but it drew attention about his talent composition. After that, James agreed to spend 5.000 pounds on an Elton’s second LP, after hearing the potential of “Your Song”, “Sixty Years On” and “Take Me To The Pilot”.

John Reid’s arrival within the organisation made great waves, specially with Dick James’ son Stephen, because he complained that Elton’s publishing agreements were unfair, specially in the USA. Although Elton’s products would be released by Dick James Music until 1975, the spirit of Elton was gone and the renewed was cancelled.

There was also a story behind "Daniel", when Dick James didn't want to put out this song as a single and finally did, following Elton's suggestion: "Dick James said he didn't want another single released to detract from sales of the new album, so I've more or less forced him to put it out. He has disowned it, so I am having to pay for all the advertising. But he says he will pay for the adverts if the single makes the Top Ten"

On January 1986 Elton and Bernie won a lawsuit against James to receive back copyrights in the 144 songs published during their six year contract, including their gretest hits, the thirty-six unpublished songs and the forty-four unreleased tracks. Within a week, Dick James died of a heart attack. His son Stephen blamed Elton for the death.

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