That famous red label

Although they borrowed their name from the River Crane they had very little to do with our river and even less to do with St Margarets. Although the group was made up of some of the finest skiffle musicians of the time with worldwide hits to their credit the Cranes Skiffle Group didn’t really exist at all. They were a fiction specially created for an unusual record label called Embassy.

In 1954, long before pop stars and groups had become celebrities, record buyers were much more interested in the songs on their discs than the artistes actually singing them. Sheet music was still selling in vast quantities and popular songs were often covered by many artists. It was the song rather than the singer that was the selling point. All of this gave Oriole, a successful record company of the time, an idea. Why not start a new record label using talented unknowns rather than expensive established artistes to produce high quality copies of the latest hit tunes? Oriole sold the idea to Woolworth’s - who liked it - and together they established Embassy Records to be sold exclusively through the ‘Woolies’ stores.

By paying only session fees (rather than royalties), recording in Oriole’s own studios and pressing the discs in their own plants Embassy Records were able to sell their records for just 2/6d (12.5p), less than half the price of ‘normal’ records which cost 6/8d (33p). One remarkable feature of the cost cutting process was they managed to record 4 ‘sides’ in just one 3-hour session. This included setting up the equipment, rehearsing the material and taking the obligatory coffee and fag breaks. To work for Embassy you needed to be able to get it right in the first couple of takes! The first Embassy disc was released in November 1954, a 10 inch 78 rpm disc featuring Larry Cross singing “Three Coins In The Fountain” (a U.S. hit for both Frank Sinatra and the Four Aces) coupled with “If I Could Write A Song”.

Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group featuring Nancy Whiskey. Chas is the one with the beard.

For all the speed of production Embassy Records were well crafted ‘copies’ of the popular music of the time - light classics, jazz, big band ballads, children’s songs, film and show tunes and musicals as well as chart songs from the new Hit Parade Top Ten. The challenge for the Woolies and Oriole bosses was to predict which newly released songs had chart topping potential and were therefore worth covering. That decision was usually made in the early part of the week. The chosen tracks would be recorded on Thursdays, pressed and distributed over the weekend, all ready for sale on Monday. If you heard and liked “Apache” by the Shadows on Tuesday and couldn’t afford 6/8d you could always buy the Embassy copy by Bud Ashton the following Monday for 2/6d! As an added bonus there was a copy of Duane Eddy’s “Because They’re Young” on the flip side! Result!

Apache by Bud Ashton

In the early days most of the Embassy vocalists were ex big band singers but with the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll, beat and blues in the early 60’s younger, more dynamic songsters were required along with copy-cat groups. Beatle songs were covered by the Typhoons whose lead singer was Ray Reardon. (No, he had nothing to do with snooker!). He also appeared on Embassy as Ray Pilgrim and Bobby Stevens and was a leading member of The Starlings, The Jaybirds and The Beatmen.

Hard Days Night by the Typhoons

Another Embassy ‘star’ was Redd Wayne a.k.a singer Mike Redway. Singer Ken Barrie became Les Carle until someone mentioned that Les Carle meant “The Charlie” in French. (Ken Barrie did eventually achieve some star status as “Postman Pat!) Wally Carr was actually Teddy Johnson, the husband of Pearl Carr. Teddy and Pearl were recording stars in their own right with “Sing Little Birdie and “How Wonderful to Know” in the late 50’s, early 60’s. Another undercover Embassy star was Linda Joyce who had hits with “Like I Do” and “The Big Hurt” under her own name, Maureen Evans, in the early 60’s.

Rumours have surrounded many of the artists on Embassy. Were the Jaybirds really 60’s blues sensations “Ten Years After”? Was David Ross really Ross McManus, father of Elvis Costello? Was Bud Ashton actually Bert Weedon? (Bert vehemently denies it.) No one is actually saying…well, apart from skiffle star Chas McDevitt of the Cranes Skiffle Group. Chas had enjoyed a considerable skiffle hit in 1957 with “Freight Train” recorded by his own group - the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group featuring Nancy Whiskey. It reached Number 5 in April of that year…on Oriole!

Morris Levy, the head of Oriole, was never one to let a good chance go by and suggested releasing the record again but this time on Embassy. If it had worked on Oriole why shouldn’t it work again on his budget label? The version of “Freight Train” they released was very similar to the “featuring Nancy Whiskey” recording on Oriole, but it didn’t feature Nancy Whiskey! Of course they couldn’t use the same group name either. As the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group were known as Oriole artistes the Embassy recording of “Freight train” is by “The Cranes Skiffle Group”. This was a gentle reference to Chas’s time playing banjo with the Crane River Jazz Band. They were first band to play skiffle in Britain and here’s a slight connection with St Margarets - they were based on the River Crane - in Cranford.

Freight Train by the Cranes Skiffle Group

By 1965, with the rise of pop stars and fans who adored them, there was no call for copy cat sound-a-like records, no matter how cheap they were. Embassy folded. By then other labels like Cannon, Crossbow, Top Six and Top Pops, were imitating the concept.

Chas McDevitt – Still skiffling!

As for Chas McDevitt, he is still playing out there playing skiffle and still very much in touch with the music scene. He is also probably the only person to have covered his own worldwide hit under a pseudonym!

– from Martyn Day