The Record Contract – a musical story

THE RECORD CONTRACT

 

Gingerly Heather Craig nibbled on the thin slice of dry toast and drained her cup of weak black tea. The morning sickness was getting worse and she didn’t know if she could hide her pregnant state from Malcolm for much longer. She was relieved that she had an appointment with her gynaecologist that morning, and not a moment too soon.

Mrs Hubbard bustled into the dining room with the first post. Malcolm’s agent had forwarded the week’s fan mail, so she put the pile of letters at Malcolm’s place. The pile was not quite as high as it had been four or five years earlier, but it was still sizeable. In contrast, Heather received a few accounts and the weekly letter from her mother. Heather noticed that the month’s copy of Gramophone had arrived, probably containing the anticipated review of Malcolm’s first long-playing record.

Heather decided to read the review before Malcolm came down for breakfast. He was due at the recording studios later that morning for his regular recording session. She had difficulty in locating the review as it was much shorter than she had anticipated. As she read the brief review her nausea returned, this time brought on by shock and dismay. One sentence stood out above all the others.

“Only Malcolm Craig’s most ardent fans will enjoy this innocuous collection of highly forgettable songs.”

Heather heard Malcolm’s footsteps on the staircase and hurriedly hid the periodical under her chair. This spiteful piece was the last thing he needed to see before his recording session and the Watford concert that evening.

“You’re up early, darling,” he remarked as he planted a kiss on the top of her blonde head. “Have another cup of tea and keep me company while I eat.”

Malcolm poured some strong tea into her cup, but she knew she would not be able to take a sip of it.

Malcolm glanced perfunctorily through his post.

“No sign of the Gramophone?” he asked casually.

“Perhaps it’ll come by the second post.” Heather tried to sound light and cheerful, willing her warring stomach to settle down. She bent down and somehow managed to hide the offending periodical under her red dressing gown, before fleeing from the table. Just in time she managed to reach the privacy of the bathroom before nausea overwhelmed her completely. Malcolm would have to wait until tomorrow before he faced some unpleasant reading.

-0-

It was March 1951 and Malcolm Craig’s recording contract was due for renewal. The ritual was always the same. Each year, for the last twenty years, Frank Downey, the managing director of the famous BRG recording studio in Wigmore Street, would arrive before the session and invite Malcolm into his office to sign the new contract when he had finished his work. The business concluded, Downey would offer him a tot of his excellent single malt whisky.

“How are you, Malcolm?” Frank Downey greeted Malcolm Craig effusively. “Would you mind calling into my office after your recording session? I have some business to discuss with you.”

Malcolm Craig recorded the eight selected songs in less than three hours. He was an excellent sight-reader, so all he needed was a brief run through with the eminent accompanist, George Manning, before he was ready to lay the cake on the table.

He listened to the takes with his producer and George Manning, then, satisfied with the morning’s work, made his way up to Frank Downey’s sumptuous office to find the gentleman already hovering at the door ready to greet him.

Downey ushered Malcolm to the plush leather chair facing his large oak desk. Usually the contract was lying on the desk waiting for him, a gold Schaeffer pen near at hand, ready for him to sign on the dotted line. But today the desk was bare and Malcolm speculated about the empty desk and why Downey appeared so fidgety and uncomfortable.

“Is the contract late?” Malcolm asked, trying not to show concern.

“That’s what I wanted to discuss with you, Malcolm,” Frank began. “What with the advent of the LP and changes in people’s taste since the war, your records are just not selling the way they used to.”

Downey watched Malcolm’s rugged face slowly lose its colour. He really had not reckoned on the man passing out on him.

Despite his pallor, Malcolm spoke in measured tones.

“Frank, I’ve known you too long to listen to a lot of soft soap. Are you telling me you’re not renewing my contract?”

“I’m so sorry, Malcolm. I fought against it of course, but I was outvoted.”

As though to console Malcolm, he added brightly, “You’re not the only one to suffer – we’re not renewing the contracts of many of our gifted pre-war artistes. They’re all still in good voice, but there’s no demand for them these days. I’m really sorry.”

Malcolm’s legs were trembling. Despite being nearly fifty, and one of Britain’s’ greatest and most versatile tenors, he was close to tears. He was still in the prime of his vocal life, and here he was being discharged like an indolent office boy. He was due to sing at a concert in Watford that evening. After this blow he would need all his professional expertise to carry the engagement off successfully.

He rose to his feet, willing himself to leave with dignity before he broke down.

“There’s nothing more to be said then,” he said baldly. “No doubt you’ll send any money owing to my agent.”

“Please don’t leave like this, Malcolm! Have a whisky with me for old time’s sake,” pleaded Downey.

What was there left to discuss now that he had no contract binding him to the company? The whisky would choke him. He turned on his heel and walked out of the office, and left the building without a word of farewell to anyone. He gained the privacy of his Wolseley, lit a forbidden Capstan and drew on it deeply. Concert and radio dates had been falling off a bit lately, but he and Heather relied on the steady income from his recordings to keep them in comfort. What was he to tell her?

He made his way to his comfortable home in Hampstead, aware that he would probably never drive the same route again. He wondered whether his voice, the splendid gift he had taken for granted since childhood, could be failing him. But that couldn’t be right. He had just heard the recordings he had made that very day. His voice sounded better than ever. As he edged the big car slowly up the driveway, he glimpsed Heather, in tiny pink shorts and a bright seersucker top, sunbathing on a deck chair near the rose bower.

He had met Heather in a concert party in Margate, a few years after he had signed his first record contract, a gorgeous blonde of twenty, with sea green eyes and a complexion like a ripe peach. Her stunning looks and charm excused the fact that her voice, though pretty and sweet, was merely run of the mill. She had managed to make a stage career for herself because of her looks and charming personality.

They had fallen in love, and spent every free moment together, mingling with the holidaymakers licking cornets, while their children were having special treats seated on the staid donkeys on the beach. The light-hearted atmosphere on the seafrom contrasted with their seaside lodgings where they were surrounded by elderly corseted widows in the dining room and the lounge.

They were married at the end of the season and Heather was only too happy to stop attending audition calls to take on her new role as Malcolm’s dutiful and loving wife. In those heady days he was in great demand for West End musicals, oratorios, Masonic Concerts, recording and broadcasting for the BBC, Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandy.

Malcolm’s successful singing career gave them all the luxuries of life, but their mutual desire for children remained unfulfilled. Heather had twice fallen pregnant, but had miscarried both times. They eventually accepted that they would be childless and transferred their thwarted parental instincts to their two Scotties, Whisky and Soda.

Malcolm emerged from his reverie and watched Heather as she lounged, half-asleep in the sun without a care in the world. The two dogs had been cavorting around the garden, always with half an eye on their beloved mistress, but now they bounded in his direction to greet him with an effusion he found difficult to reciprocate that day.

-0-

Heather had kept her appointment with her gynaecologist. Dr Urquhart, an elderly Scot, did a thorough unhurried examination to which Heather submitted with stoicism. She had been through such inspections before to no avail. At the age of forty she had not held out very great optimism that she could have a child at such an advanced stage of life.

“I can safely say your pregnancy is going smoothly, Mrs Craig,” he said with a rare smile. “You’ll have to take things easy for you are not young as far as child-bearing is concerned and you have had two problem pregnancies before, but if you look after yourself I see no reason why you shouldn’t carry this infant to full term.”

-0-

“Darling!”

Heather had seen Malcolm’s car at last and hurried to him, eager to kiss him and tell him her glad news right away, but her elation evaporated at the sight of his haggard face.

“Did you sign your new contract?” she asked uncertainly, knowing before he spoke that all was far from well.

“There is no new contract,” Malcolm murmured under his breath. “I’m finished at BRG. I’m sorry, darling.”

Heather took his hand in hers, hurt to see her usually cheerful uncomplicated husband so downcast.

“It doesn’t make sense. You’ve never sounded better. Did Frank give you an explanation? There must be a mistake.”

“They’re getting rid of a lot of us pre-war singers because public tastes have changed. The British public prefers crooners these days. I fear my days as a singer are numbered.”

“Nonsense! As soon as other companies hear you’re free they’ll jump at you,” said Heather hopefully.

“I don’t think so,” replied Malcolm dejectedly. “I’m getting an old man.”

“Rubbish!” she said. “You’re not even fifty. You have years ahead of you as a singer.”

“I’m too upset to talk about it. I still have to get through that concert in Watford tonight, though I don’t know if I’ll have the strength to do so.”

Her heart went out to him in his misery. She decided to postpone her news until after the concert. The copy of the Gramophone was under her side of the mattress. It would be a while before she would produce it. He didn’t need another knock for a while.

Malcolm bathed and changed, then sat on his favourite chair in the drawing room, absentmindedly stroking one of the Scotties, idly regarding the Spanish cabinet, the Chappell grand piano, the Wilton carpets, and the fine antiques, all the beautiful possessions he and Heather had acquired from the money he had earned over the years. How could they afford to go on living like this now his career was on the wane?

He was surprised to see Heather emerge in her low-cut red evening gown – always his favourite – with the diamond necklace he had given her for her last birthday gleaming at her throat.

“‘You take my breath away Heather,” he remarked with a gentle smile. “I didn’t know you were going out this evening.”

“I’m going out with you to your concert,” she replied. “It’s a long time since I heard you singing in public. You‘re still the greatest tenor in Britain whether you have that contract or not.”

He knew she was being kind but he was comforted by her presence on the trip to Watford. The concert was sold out, and a group of ardent fans was waiting for him at the stage door of The Playhouse.

Thousands admired his voice, but this small coterie of fans bought all his records, collected his press cuttings, and travelled to all his concerts up and down the UK if they had money to spare. Over the years, he had developed a personal relationship with them and he and Heather sent them Christmas cards and sometimes complimentary tickets for one or other of his appearances.

Singing had certainly given him an insight into vagaries of human nature he would never have experienced had he been voiceless and working in the family butchery alongside his two older brothers.

Heather watched him brace his shoulders to face his fans with good grace. Although it was the last thing she felt like doing, she smiled as she wafted quickly through the crowd, knowing it was Malcolm they really wanted to talk to.

“Hello, Geraldine. Don’t tell me you’ve come all the way from Manchester just for tonight. David and Veronica – lovely to see you again.”

Malcolm was always genuinely pleased to greet his loyal fans. Tonight especially it cheered him to see their friendly faces glowing with pleasure at his kind words.

“We couldn’t believe that review in the Gramophone,” said Veronica. “I’ve already written to the editor to say that it was a disgraceful criticism. The reviewer ought to offer you an apology.”

“The review? You mean the review of my LP record?”

For the second time that day, Malcolm’s face lost all its colour.

“Was it very bad?” he asked in a small voice.

“Quite uncalled for,” said David, as the others nodded their agreement. “But don’t you worry, Malcolm. We think you’re still the greatest tenor in the world – never mind just in Britain. We’ll all be buying your LP.”

Malcolm tried to smile.

“I hope you enjoy the concert. I’ll probably see you all afterwards. God bless you for being here tonight.”

He went to the Green Room to warm up with George Manning, who had played for him at BRG earlier that day, and had booked him for tonight’s concert.

“I’m so sorry about the contract, Malcolm,” George said. “Frank was distressed when you left so suddenly.”

“Not half as distressed as me!” replied Malcolm dryly.

He caught a glimpse of his beloved Heather sitting in the prompt corner and raised his hand to her. Even without the record contract and news of the bad notice in the Gramophone, he was still the luckiest man alive to have such a beautiful and loving wife. As he walked onto the stage, the audience rose to cheer him before he had even sung a note. He was engulfed in the warmth of their sincere affection.

He raised his hand and immediately they sat down, waiting in silence for the recital to begin. George began playing the opening bars of Schubert’s To Music. Malcolm’s earlier ordeal had put him on his mettle. He sang better than he had ever done before. They were stamping for him at the end and he sang several encores, finishing with I leave my heart in an English Garden from Dear Miss Phoebe by Harry Parr-Davies. The show had opened at the Phoenix Theatre the year before and was still running.

Although his mood had lifted, he dreaded the mayoral reception, but it was in his honour so it would be bad manners to disappoint the guests and go straight home as he longed to do.

When he and Heather entered the reception, the guests applauded, although most of them were not music lovers, but the well-heeled influential great and good of Watford. To Malcolm’s surprise, he saw George, already settled with his whisky and soda, chatting easily to Frank and Lucille Downey. He thought he had seen the last of Frank for a long time and he certainly didn’t want any more of him now, but Frank was bounding towards him relentlessly.

“I’ve never heard you sing better,” he told Malcolm effusively.

“So why is my contract not being renewed?” enquired Malcolm.

“We may still be able to offer you a bit of work on an ad hoc basis here and there, with all the music we’ll be putting on to the LP format. That’s what I had wanted to tell you before you rushed off this morning. After all, aren’t you one of the most versatile tenors in Britain today?”

Frank Downey was relieved to see that Malcolm was slightly mollified by his remark, although he said nothing.

Heather and Malcolm left the party early. He longed to shut out the world of fans, admirers, detractors and record producers, without giving a thought to singing. He wanted to relax with Heather in his arms.

When they were in bed, Heather said, “I have some news, but it might not be as welcome as I thought it would be when I saw Dr Urquhart.”

“You’re not ill?”

Malcolm realised that the cancelled record contract was nothing in the scheme of things compared with his darling Heather being in poor health. Now that he looked at her properly, she did look ratherpale and drawn.

“I’m pregnant, darling. I have been for a few months but I thought I was starting the menopause early so I didn’t say anything until I saw Dr Urquhart today. He seems to think I’m over the danger period, but I’ll have to take things very easy for the rest of my pregnancy.”

Malcolm took Heather gently in his arms and kissed her, all thoughts of the lost record contract and the bad review forgotten.

“I’ll make sure you take things easy, darling,” he said. “The contract pales into insignificance when I think of holding our baby in my arms at last.”

It had been a funny old day with highs and lows as wide as his extraordinary singing range. He was glad it had ended on a high, he thought, as he lay close to Heather.

Towards the end of 1951, he signed a lucrative record contract with Mellotone Records. A week later Heather gave birth to their adorable little boy.

 

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