Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Record division of the Dutch multinational Philips Gloeilampenfabrieken, formed '62 by the merger of Phonogram, Philips' record division, and Polydor/Deutsche Grammophon. Its history goes back to the early European record industry: in 1898 Emile Berliner (see Recorded Sound) sold the European and British Empire rights to his gramophone record to Britain's Gramophone Company (see HMV); that year with brothers Joseph and Jacob he formed Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft (German Record Company) to make records for the Gramophone Company at their telephone factory in Hanover. After some dispute between London and Hanover about who owned what, the Gramophone Company took control of Deutsche Grammophon late 1899. In '13 HMV moved most of the German masters to their new record factory in Hayes, Middlesex; for most of WWI HMV kept a tenuous control over their German affiliate, often with the help of their USA affiliate Victor; but by '17 the USA was in the war and Germany was desperate: the German government wanted to melt down DGG's metal stampers for the war effort, but HMV objected, so the Germans offered not to do that if Britain would arrange to send an equivalent amount of metal to Germany. HMV considered this but the British government forbade it. The Germans did not melt the stampers, but seized DGG as enemy property and sold it at auction '17 to Polyphon Musikwerke.

Between the wars there was continuing dispute about the ownership of trademarks, matrices; HMV gave up attempts to reassert control in '26, hiring DGG's general manager to set up Electrola. As a result of these disputes DGG, unable to use its trademarks outside Germany, set up Polydor for exports. DGG produced classical records licensed to Brunswick in the USA, Decca in UK; was purchased by the Munich based electrical firm of Siemens und Halske '40. It used the HMV label for classical music until EMI retrieved the trademark after WWII; in '52 it was reorganized, the DGG label created for classical music, Archiv for historical/early music, Polydor for popular. In '62 Philips and Siemens merged their record company interests, with Phonogram and DGG retaining autonomy; a unified management was created under the PolyGram name in '72. Polydor was slow to establish itself in international pop, though it launched the Bee Gees (on Atco in the USA), also had Slade, the Jam, the New Seekers. Philips had been founded by record shop owner H. van Zoelen, who had been with Dutch Decca; he sold his shares to Philips Gloeilampenfabrieken of Eidhoven in '46. Philips built up an international chain of companies '50s helped by a licensing deal with CBS which gave them access to the best American product: in '56 Philips enjoyed a 22-week run at no. 1 in the UK, with only four of those weeks secured by a British act.

Philips signed an exchange agreement with Mercury '61 and subsequently bought the company, with jazz subsidiary EmArcy. Mercury had been formed '45 in Chicago by Irving Green as an R&B label (eight-CD anthology The Mercury Blues And Rhythm Story 1945--1955 '96 has 211 tracks by Bill Broonzy, T- Bone Walker, Lightnin' Hopkins, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Dinah Washington, many more). By the late '40s with producer Mitch Miller it was established by huge hits from Frankie Laine, Patti Page, Vic Damone etc and invented the promotional tour, sending Laine around Midwestern clubs to sing his new singles. Mercury had the first no. 1 USA pop hit by a black R&B act '55: 'The Great Pretender' by the Platters. During the 'battle of the speeds' Mercury at first went with RCA's 45 r.p.m. record in order to acquire access to RCA's pressing facilities for 12]im[ classical 78s, having got into classical music prod. by John Hammond, but soon took up Columbia's LP as well, and original editions of Mercury's 'Living Presence' classical records 1951--67 are still among the most collectable records ever made. DGG and Philips had deserved high reputations for classical discs, incl. pressing quality; on the pop side in the '60s Philips scored with the Springfields, then Dusty Springfield solo; the Walker Brothers and the Spencer Davis Group (on Fontana) were big sellers; so at first were Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, whose sexually suggestive 'Je t'Aime ... Moi Non Plus' became the first record banned by all broadcasters to reach no. 1 in the UK: a furore arose over the French words and heavy breathing; Philips dropped the record as it climbed the charts (picked up by Major Minor); Philips talked about morality but took out adverts in the USA about the disc's notoriety in Britain: there was less outcry in the USA and it barely reached the top 60. (The English-born actress Birkin and the heavy-drinking Gainsbourg survived a stormy relationship until he died 2 March '91 in Paris.)

PolyGram bought interests in Casablanca (incl. Donna Summer, whose biggest hit also tended toward the orgasmic) and Robert Stigwood's RSO label, which had a no. 1 US album in soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever '77, and enormous success with the Bee Gees, who had six USA no. ones in a row '77--9, the first three from Fever; RSO set a record, holding the no. 1 slot in the US pop chart for 23 weeks '77--8 with six singles: four from Fever incl. Yvonne Elliman's 'If I Can't Have You'; hits by Andy Gibb and 'Baby Come Back' by Player (LA pop group, hits written by vocalists/guitarists Peter Beckett and John Cowley). In the '80s Mercury became PolyGram's main pop label, with Philips for classical; Mercury had Dexy's Midnight Runners, John Cougar Mellencamp, Def Leppard and Bon Jovi, the adolescents' favourite of '86 (Slippery When Wet was a no. 1 LP, two no. 1 singles); Mercury signed Robert Cray '86. PolyGram took over Decca '80 (which see); other labels in the group incl. MGM and Verve: MGM was an offshoot of the film studio, formed '46, had many valuable soundtracks, plus Hank Williams, Conway Twitty, Connie Francis; picked up Sam the Sham '60s, then the Animals and Herman's Hermits from EMI-Columbia, passed over by Capitol. Jazz label Verve was formed '49 by Norman Granz in Hollywood; the valuable catalogue incl. Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson had been sold to MGM '58: in '60s Verve had the Righteous Brothers, the Velvet Underground and the Mothers of Invention (see Frank Zappa). PolyGram acquired Herb Alpert's A&M and Chris Blackwell's Island Records '89, by then one of five majors operating subsidiaries on all six continents with companies in 18 countries, behind only EMI and Sony. The Hanover factory had been the European home of gramophone technology in the 1890s and then became the first CD factory outside Japan. Having paid a lot of money for A&M, PolyGram closed it '98, and was itself purchased for $10.4 billion in June by Seagram, who already owned MCA.


In 2011 the Universal Music Group had absorbed PolyGram including British Decca, Philips and Deutsche Grammophon, and MCA including American Decca), all of which in various groups included legendary labels such as Mercury, Verve, A&M, Island, Geffen, Interscope, Impulse, ECM and many more; it was already the biggest record company in the world when it purchased the recorded music division of Britain's EMI. It is wholly owned by the French media conglomerate Vivendi; a Wikipedia entry is here