Monday, 20 February 2012

Cockney King of Country music

Express.co.uk - Home of the Daily and Sunday Express Express Yourself :: Cockney king of Country music

Mervyn Conn archive photo
Hosted by Daily Express Reporter

THERE can't be many places where Dolly Parton sits beside Marlene Dietrich, Margaret Thatcher and Jimmy Carter but the drawing room of Mervyn Conn's Wimbledon home is one of them.

The entire house in fact, is crammed with photographs, posters and other memorabilia that document a long career in showbusiness as a music impresario.

Mervyn is in each photograph, resplendent and grinning in a tuxedo, the pictures representing his journey from the variety shows of the Fifties through to pop music via the heady days of rock’n’roll.

He was responsible for launching the careers of an array of huge stars in the Sixties and Seventies including Don Williams and Johnny Cash, but Mervyn’s greatest achievement was the invention of the International Festival Of Country Music; a series of huge shows running from 1969-1991 that introduced the biggest names in the business, such as Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, to the wider world.

Still boisterously energetic – he turns 77 tomorrow (5 Feb, 2012) – East Ender Mervyn is coming out of retirement to revive the 9,000-capacity festival at Wembley Arena after a 21-year hiatus. Why? “For love rather than money,” Mervyn says with a wink.

After I wrote my autobiography in 2010 I did a lot of radio interviews and people kept asking when I’d bring it back so eventually I thought I would. It’s more about my own ego – to prove to people that I can still do it.”

When he began in the music business more than half a century ago, there was “none of this TV talent show business you have today” he says. After running the legendary club Romano’s in London’s Soho where his mother would cook the food and his father worked behind the bar, he joined forces with Joe Collins (father of Joan and Jackie) and staged the first Beatles’ Christmas shows.

It was only after he had toured with Johnny Cash in 1964 he real- ised that there was a gap in the market for Country music. “I went along to the forming of the CountryMusic Association and I couldn’t believe people had come from all over Britain to launch it. On the way home that night I thought there’s a big opening in the market so I stepped in. Before me, there was no Country music in Britain.”

The first festival saw thousands of enthusiasts descend on Wembley clad in Stetsons, fringes and cowboy boots.

They returned every year for performances by legendary artists ranging from Willie Nelson to Jerry Lee Lewis.
1969 was magical and I hope I can recapture it this year,” says Mervyn.

“This will bring the festivalup to date. I’ve got a great line-up of artists, some really good acts that transcend several genres.

“The ones to watch are Lonestar – the lead singer Richie McDonald has come back into it. He’d left the band but when he found they were playing the festival he rejoined.

Ricky Skaggs is the best Blue- grass musician in the world and Bluegrass has a big following among young people here.

“Then we’ve got our leading lady Reba McEntire – I‘m eagerly antici- pating her performance. She’s sold £38million worth of records in America and I’m hoping we can do the same here. She could be in the same bracket as Tammy or Dolly.”

Sadly, Mervyn is no longer in touch with Dolly herself. “She’s a wonderful woman but I can’t afford her these days,” he laughs.

“She was always utterly charming. We were flying from London to Finland once and had to get up at 4am but Dolly was always the first one at reception waiting to go.

“That same tour we had this act, Tompall Glaser, who was playing up because he thought he was a bigger star than he was. He refused to go on stage so Dolly strode into his dressing room and gave him what for. She said, ‘You’ll never be as big as Kenny Rogers, now get out there and get on stage.’ He did as he was told after that.”

While not all friendships forgeddecades ago have survived the test of time, Johnny Cash was one star who remained a great friend until his death. Mervyn has a wealth of anecdotes about Johnny and his wife June Carter.

“Johnny and June moved into my flat in Canonbury at one time and my mother lived around the corner in Highbury. She invited them over for the Jewish Friday night dinner where she cooked traditional chicken soup, which Johnny loved. But there wasthis big bowl of cut pineapple for dessert and Johnny said, ‘Lil, I’m gonna put some pineapple in the soup.’ Of course Mum didn’t mind.”

On another occasion June was ironing a pair of Cash’s trousers and found two $20 bills in the pocket. “She asked my mum what she should do with them and Mum didn’t miss a beat. ‘Keep them,’ she said, ‘he won’t miss it.’ After that June and my mother struck up a good friendship.”

If there was one star that Mervyn created it was Don Williams. “I was at a party in Nashville and they were playing this great record,” he recalls.

“Of course no one had heard of Don so I arranged to handle him exclusively and set up a meeting with ABC records.

“At that time people listened to me because I knew what I was talking about. I told them they’d have a big star on their hands and they did because You’re My Best Friend was an instant hit and Don became a huge star. Without me the record would never have been released so I really kick-started his career.”

Pride of place in Mervyn’s drawing room is a silver-framed photo of himself with Margaret Thatcher who he refers to as “my favourite lady”.

She invited him to Downing Street after seeing a performance of the Red Army Ensemble he staged in 1988.

He says: “I’m the only man I know who’s dined at the White House, Kremlin and Downing Street. Not bad for a music promoter from the East End.”

To read more about Mervyn Conn’s amazing life story which straddles many decades from Mervyn's childhood in war-torn Britain to his triumphs in making the International Festival of Country Music at Wembley check out this 256 page book published by Tonto Books (11 Nov 2010)
Link: Mr Music Man: The Life and Times of a Music Promoter

SOURCE - By Daily Express Reporter (Report 4 February, 2012) - LINK

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