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Richards, Ron [real name Ronald Richard Pratley] (1929–2009), record producer, was born Ronald Lipscombe on 22 January 1929, the son of Mary Lipscombe, a hotel chambermaid (subsequently a domestic cook) in London's West End. His father was an Irish jockey and a brief liaison between the couple led to the boy's birth. He was adopted by Richard Pratley, a postman, and became Ronald Richard Pratley (which he shortened to Ron Richards for professional reasons). It was only later in his life that he discovered the circumstances of his birth.

As a child Ronald Pratley learned to play the piano and, later, while doing national service, he played saxophone in the Central Band of the Royal Air Force. In 1952 he was employed as a song plugger for the music publisher Chappell, working from their offices in London's Denmark Street, then popularly known as Tin Pan Alley, and base camp for many of the important players in the burgeoning popular music business. He subsequently began to undertake management duties, working with the popular crooner Michael Holliday among other singers. On 14 August 1954 he married Ellen Fraser (1931–2004), a student nurse at the Central Middlesex Hospital, and daughter of John Stewart Fraser, steel roller. They had two sons and one daughter.

In 1958 (by now known as Ron Richards) he joined EMI Records' Parlophone label, initially working in promotions. The Parlophone label manager, George Martin, who was already established as a producer of comedy and novelty records, and who several years later was to become world renowned for his production work with the Beatles, recognized his potential as a record producer, and promoted him to working as his de facto assistant, as well allowing him to supervise sessions on his own. Richards discovered a young songwriter, Jerry Lordan, and produced two of his hits, ‘I'll Stay Single’ and ‘Who Could Be Bluer’, both in 1960, as well as Lordan's album All My Own Work, released in 1961. Richards persuaded Lordan to write for other artists as well, including Shane Fenton (much later reincarnated as Alvin Stardust) and the Fentones, who had a top thirty hit with ‘I'm a Moody Guy’ (1961). Further production assignments included working with Paul Raven (later to become better known as Gary Glitter), the guitarist Judd Proctor, and the Clyde Valley Stompers, the latter with an interpretation of ‘Peter and the Wolf’.

In June 1962 Richards was assigned by George Martin to produce several recordings by a then-unknown Liverpool group called the Beatles. Pete Best was the drummer with the group but Richards was unimpressed with Best's efforts in the recording studio, and asked Martin for a second opinion. Martin agreed and Best was subsequently replaced by Ringo Starr, invoking much controversy among the group's loyal Liverpool fans. Richards persuaded Martin that the Beatles should record the Tin Pan Alley songwriter Mitch Murray's ‘How Do You Do It?’ (which had been previously rejected by Adam Faith), and Lennon and McCartney's composition ‘Love Me Do’, with Starr playing drums on both, but the studio results, recorded in September 1962, again lacked lustre. Undaunted, Richards hired the drummer Andy White for another session the following week and between them Martin and Richards produced the Beatles' first Parlophone single, ‘Love Me Do’, which was coupled with ‘P.S. I Love You’.

While Martin took over full-time production duties with the Beatles (with Ringo Starr now firmly installed as their drummer) Richards worked in tandem with him in producing another Liverpool group, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the first act to go to number one with each of their first three singles, ‘How Do You Do It?’, ‘I Like It’, and ‘You'll Never Walk Alone’. Hoping to emulate this early success Richards embarked on a talent search of the north-west in 1963, and was instrumental in persuading EMI to sign the Manchester pop group the Hollies to Parlophone. It was the beginning of a long and successful studio partnership: Richards produced nearly all the Hollies' singles and albums from 1963 to 1975, including their number one ‘I'm Alive’ (1965). Richards also recruited the early song-writing abilities of Graham Gouldman (much later a linchpin of the 1970s band 10cc), who penned their hits ‘Look Through Any Window’ and ‘Bus Stop’. The Hollies eventually became the most successful British singles group of the 1960s, with twenty-two UK top forty chart entries between 1964 and 1970.

During the 1960s Richards worked in the recording studios with many other artists including the Graham Bond Organisation (which included the future Cream members Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker), and Adam Faith's backing band, the Paramounts (who subsequently evolved into Procul Harum). The American singer P. J. Proby was also produced by Ron Richards, who was responsible for the top ten hit singles ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Maria’ (both from West Side Story), and the albums P. J. Proby (1964) and In Town (1965). His proudest recording studio moment, however, was working with the legendary American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald at Abbey Road, assisting George Martin in producing her swing version of the Beatles' ‘Can't Buy Me Love’ (1964).

After a working trip to the USA, where he discovered that his record producer counterparts received royalties from their hit records, Richards returned to London and persuaded George Martin, John Burgess (also of EMI Records), and Peter Sullivan (of Decca Records) that they should establish their own in-house production company, which became known as AIR Studios. Apart from AIR's early involvement with artists such as Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, Richards was instrumental in pushing AIR into the lucrative jingles and advertising market, and also music publishing, via a subsidiary company, Maribus, derived from their respective surnames. AIR became very successful and Richards undertook much of the administrative work for the Beatles' sessions and for the soundtrack of the Yellow Submarine cartoon film. He continued his association with the Hollies, albeit trying to dissuade them (unsuccessfully) from moving into psychedelia with ‘King Midas in Reverse’, a top twenty success in 1967. He produced ‘Time Seller’, a top thirty hit for the Spencer Davis Group on Fontana Records in 1967, and also worked with Del Shannon, Cilla Black, and the progressive rock band Circus. Richards's last major hit was the Hollies' ‘The Air That I Breathe’, a number two success in 1974 (although a reissue in 1988 of the earlier Richards-produced ‘He Ain't Heavy—He's My Brother’ belatedly gave the Hollies another number one hit).

In 1974 Richards and George Martin parted company after a sixteen-year working relationship. AIR had become a very successful business proposition, attracting bids from the Dick James Organisation and MAM, and in 1974 a further offer was received from Chrysalis. Martin, the AIR chairman, favoured accepting the offer from Chrysalis, while the managing director Richards opposed the move. After the deal was sealed Richards resigned from AIR. He undertook some independent production work with Tom Paxton and Prelude, and his final album was the Hollies' 5317704 (the band's name upside down, in digital number view) in 1979. Richards then effectively retired from record production, citing ill health as the reason, and focused instead on his family and outside interests, which included photography and gardening.

Richards died at Watford General Hospital, Hertfordshire, of sepsis and pneumonia following a stroke, on 30 April 2009, and was survived by his three children. Bobby Elliott, the Hollies' long-time drummer, on hearing of Richards's death, paid tribute to his long-time work with the group: ‘Ron Richards was the father figure whom we all respected and admired. He was the Hollies' headmaster, the guy whom we could go to for advice on just about anything’, he said. ‘In the early days we knew when we had something special—over the intercom we'd hear Ron's voice, “Come and have a listen”. He would only use that phrase when he was happy with our performance. Then it was around to the Abbey Tavern for a nightcap’ (www.hollies.co.uk).

Chris White

Sources  

The Independent (11 June 2009) · Daily Post [Liverpool] (12 June 2009) · The Times (15 June 2009); (23 June 2009) · The Stage (21 July 2009) · www.hollies.co.uk, accessed on 16 Aug 2012 · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Likenesses  

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