Sunday, 25 November 2012

Don Fardon: whatever you do, read the contract first

Despite selling well over ten million records, Don Fardon never received a single penny in royalties: the classic story of poor contracts, lousy royalties and little or no advice. Then, things changed.
Pop is the preserve of the young. It's sold aggressively to successive target generations. The guys who sell it need a steady supply of fresh compliant talent to sell to each new crop of consumers. Implicit is this is the idea that the musicians who benefit from this process should play nice, and move over to make way for the latest newcomers. Don't make a fuss once the money's been made... just, er, go away, there's a good boy. 

Fine for the business, but I have yet to meet any performer who thinks even remotely along those lines. People may have long or short music careers, for all sorts of reasons. But, without exception, the creative motivation is to make and perform music to fire imaginations, to touch audiences... to do good. Age has nothing to do with that. And being casually written off by music industry suits isn’t on the radar either.    

I met Don Fardon when he was working up a single with the excellent DC Fontana. They had sought him out because of his fine 60s work; the young Tamworth guns and the veteran Coventry singer now enjoy a solid collaborative partnership. I wrote about their joint work here earlier this year, and also collected an interview with Don for this post.

Don is closing on 70, and he’s having a ball. This Christmas, with a 2011 Europe-wide hit under his belt, four sold-out gigs are set at Coventry's Ricoh Arena, where he will play to 10,000 people. It’s an interesting turn of affairs for someone who left the industry some 40 years ago.

Don started with The Sorrows, a Coventry freakbeat outfit older readers will remember for 'Take A Heart' (there's a video below). Later, after the Sorrows had had their day, he hit big with Indian Reservation. As was often the way in the 60s, US hits were covered in the UK, new versions rushed out to try to beat the original to the punch. So Petula Clark covered Lee Dorsey; Cilla Black covered the Righteous Brothers… believe me, it happened. Don was handed a song written by celebrated US writer, John D Loudermilk. It turned into a worldwide hit.
“I was signed to a company called Youngblood – a young cockney producer called Miki Dallon. He’d been to America and come back with a boxful of demos. He was playing though them, and stopped at this one…said ‘I like the sound of that… I think you’d make a good job of that'. I listened, and thought ‘That’s not very poppy’. In the end it was recorded on a session with five or six other songs. And it became a massive worldwide hit. 
I was the first person who recorded 'Indian Reservation', and about four or five years later it was done by an American band, Paul Revere and the Raiders. 
So a matter of pure chance – Miki Dallon picking up on a demo - led to you breaking in the States? 
Eventually, it took me to the states as well. I kept saying to him ‘When Am I going to America? And he kept saying I need a few more hits before I could be booked onto tours over there. So in fact it took me until the 80s before I went over there. And I went at the invitation and the behest of the Cherokee Indian Nation 
My god....
It was the 150th anniversary of the great Trail Of Tears, when they marched them from Colorado to Indiana, away from their traditional hunting grounds, in the dead of winter. Thousands of them died. 
Don, did you know anything about this when you recorded the song? 
No. Nothing. Nothing at all. And when we arrived at the venue and I realised what was going on, I was deeply moved. I was the only white person – never mind a Brit - among 3500 Native Americans, all in their traditional costumes. It was the most awesome thing, and a little un-nerving. 
I was glad that the chief – a woman, Wilma Mankiller, a fully qualified lawyer, welcomed me. Some of the younger guns were quite aggressive, asking me what I was doing? Why was I there? What was in it for me? 
But that’s understandable. 
Absolutely. I remember the chief saying to me: “Unfortunately, my people only picked up the bad things that the white man told them”. 
Surreal – you cut this song in the 60s, and twenty years later you’re guesting at a highly politicised tribal gathering, a Brit at the heart of the Cherokee Nation. 
Yes. But it was a privilege. 
Tell me about the Sorrows. 
I formed the Sorrows in 1963. We were picked to play in a Battle Of The Bands competition; about eleven local bands. We won it. The prize was a recording test at Pye Studios in London, for Tony Hatch. We auditioned, and Hatch told us to come back on two years – we weren’t ready. But as we walked out, in walked John Schroeder, who was the man who did all the Sounds Orchestral stuff. He’d heard us and signed us on the spot. 
What kind of a deal did you get?
He signed us for three albums. As it happened we only did one, because the band split. We did about forty or fifty titles with him. The band split because we were supposed to be going to Italy, and I didn’t want to do it. I had a new wife and a new baby, and I didn’t want to go. So… the band went without me. I went back to engineering for a year or so. This was in '66. 
So a very short pop career to start with? 
Three years. But they were really really busy for us. The venues we had to play in - in Birmingham you could work three nights a week for a year and never play the same places. Unbelievable. 
Did you think it was all over by ’66? 
How did that feel? 
I wasn’t bothered at the time. We’d got to the situation where we were working flat out, playing all over Europe. But there was a massive cash flow problem. We were always waiting for money, and by the time it came, it was spent. Along with every other band, right? I was very disillusioned. I was planning on calling it a day, and I was getting grief from my friends and family. 
Did you stop completely? 
No work, no gigs, nothing. But I had a steady income. Until... I was sitting at my drawing board at Wickman’s – they did machine tools, and they were the inventors of tungsten carbide - one day, and the gateman came in and said ‘There‘s a car outside for you. I can’t let him in’.
So I went out and said I’m Don Fardon, what do you want?' He said 'I’m the representative of a record company.’ I sent him on his way. But three days later he was back. And they were persistent.
So eventually I said ‘I want a year’s money – my current wages – in a lump sum, paid in advance into a bank account of my wife’s choosing. When that’s paid, I’ll come and talk to you.’
They said ‘You’ve got It’. And that was Miki Dallon and Youngblood records. Miki knew about me as the voice of the Sorrows. He wrote the Sorrow’s hit ‘Take a Heart'.
Back in the business then
Yes, except… that there was a rights war between Pye and Youngblood over me. Pye still had the contract for the Sorrows; so I was prevented from working for a year, and by the time the injunction was lifted, a lot of the people who were interested in me had moved on. And then Youngblood went into liquidation, and I was stuck.
Without much to show for it?
I met a guy who nearly bought the company (Youngblood). He went through the books, and told me that Indian Reservation eventually had sold ten million copies worldwide.
From which you received….?
Nothing. I never got a penny. Not a penny. They clothed me and fed me… for which I was charged, of course. But I was only on a penny and five eighths royalty per copy anyway. An old penny, that is. 240 to the pound.
So less than one percent – before deductions. And you didn’t take legal advice before signing?
Of course not.
You’d be forgiven for being a little bitter and twisted over all this.
Well, the one thing it gave me was a fantastic name. And it opened a lot of doors. It kept me going in business and in show business.
I broke off in 76, till about 1996. Twenty years. Punk was coming in. The last tour I did was with the Bay City Rollers, and I thought ‘I don’t belong here anymore’ (laughs).
So we bought some restaurants, my wife and I – ended up with about five. We loved it, absolutely loved it. It was good for us. Then I got a little show on BBC Coventry, which turned into an afternoon show, and I loved that. That lasted until about 1998. 
You'd have thought it was all over. But well into this century, finally, a lot of things happened at once. Don had got back on stage, tempted out of retirement by DC Fontana – the blog post covering this is here. And then TV stepped in.
Don had recorded a fine piece of psych-pop in 1969, called ‘I’m Alive’: another cover, but one which far surpassed the US original. But it pretty much sank without trace at the time, possibly pulled under by Youngblood’s collapse. For the life of me I can’t understand why it didn't get bigger exposure - it was certainly good enough for airplay, with a terrific chorus and some fine work from Don, the song became one of those rare collectibles that completists obsess about. 

First, Coca Cola picked it up for a six month tv campaign, and then Vodafone decided to use the song for a Europe-wide campaign. And suddenly Don was in demand. And the song was back in the charts, in Holland and across Europe, in 2011.

There are now two videos of ‘I’m Alive’ - the old one, shown above, lovingly cobbled together with footage from the swinging sixties, and a newer one, assembled more recently off the back of the new hit, featuring Don at about 2'15" in, as the gardener in a hospital where the old folk rebel against a repressive regime and assert … that they are, or course, alive. The location looks suspiciously like one of those private clinics in leafy Edgbaston.
Are you getting money for your work now?
I am - now – getting money. I went back to the company who bought out Youngblood, and all my back catalogue, and talked to them. They didn’t know where I was… but they had been saving up royalties for me. Of course once the song took off, I started to get royalties! And it’s a novelty for me; I’ve never had them before!
You’ve had –sadly – a not untypical career for a 60s artist. You got ripped off; robbed blind, effectively. And I’m quite sure that sort of thing is still going on now. What’s your advice for today’s young guns?
Don’t sign anything until you’ve had it read by a lawyer, a professional. Or take it home and sit down and read it in peace and quiet, so you know what you’re signing up for. The first agency agreement I signed with the Sorrows, we signed at a champagne cocktail party for the farewell tour for the Drifters. And we didn’t know till two years later that we were now managed, and owned, by the Krays!
You need to go to a lawyer. It’ll cost a bit, but you need that advice. It’ll be worth it. With record royalties, don’t sigh anything until you get a minimum – a minimum – of eighteen percent. That’s the starting figure.
Er...didn’t the Beatles get two?
Yes – and that was high for the time!