Sitting in the Groucho Club, London’s premier theatrical private members enclave, you spot a famous TV actor here, a well-known comedian there, or an important- looking producer deep in conversation. Many wouldn’t realise the man I am sitting with is something of a legend. Mitch Murray was pivotal to the golden era of British pop music in the 1960s.
Now 77, suntanned, all smiles and clearly very comfortable in his own skin, Murray penned number-one hits for Gerry and the Pacemakers, Freddie and the Dreamers, The Tremeloes, Tony Christie and many more. He’s also the man who wouldn’t let The Beatles release their version of one of his songs.
“The story is George Martin wanted How Do You Do It? — a song I’d written actually with Adam Faith in mind — for The Beatles as their first single,” says Murray
“He thought that was the single, but they didn’t want to do it because they wanted to record their own songs. At that point, George didn’t know whether their songs would be any good!
“So George Martin said to Lennon and McCartney. ‘When you can write a song as good as this then you can record your own songs. Until then, you are doing this.’
“Anyway, they recorded it but didn’t put their best into it. I don’t blame them, they knew who they were, even if It was before they were ‘Lennon & McCartney’!”
The upshot was, Murray was disappointed by the recording and wouldn’t let them release it and told them: “‘I’m hoping for a hit record but I don’t think this is it. The very best that will happen is, it’s a B side.’”
Meanwhile, Beatles manager Brian Epstein invited Murray to Liverpool to see another band he had up there. “So, I went up to have lunch in Liverpool with Brian. Gerry Marsden and the Pacemakers ended up recording How Do You Do It? and the rest, as they say, is history!” The record went to number one hotly followed a couple of months later by another Murray composition, I Like It.
The Beatles included their version of How Do You Do It? on The Beatles Anthology released in 1995; “And I’m very grateful for the royalties!” Murray laughs.
He was born Lionel Michael Stitcher — “You can see why I changed it” — and grew up in Golders Green, going to the former Avigdor Primary School. He had no dreams of a musical career.
“Most of the family were tone deaf,” he says. “My father could hold a tune together but he wasn’t a professional.”
His father, Eric, was a manufacturer and wholesaler of handbag frames before going into the property market.
Murray recalls “I worked for him in the handbag trade, I became a traveller, I went all over the country. I was 17. Later, I started to write songs for fun.”
His songwriting career took off when he bought a guitar. Murray taught himself to play from 1930s sheet music, and started writing tunes to fit the chord sequences almost by accident.
His professional career took off with a bang. In 1964, when How Do You Do It? became his first number one, he had 12 records out. “It was exactly a year after I’d started writing songs that it was number one and I decided to write songs professionally then. It could only happen to a man without a plan!”
Murray’s conversation is peppered with anecdotes of famous names, not because he is a show off but because that was his life.
There are tales of hanging out with Mick Jagger, or how Lee Eastman, Linda McCartney’s dad, gave him advice about selling rights to songs (in a word: Don’t).
Many of Murray’s hits were written with Peter Callander, among them, The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde for Georgie Fame, Avenues and Alleyways, Las Vegas and I Did What I Did for Maria for Tony Christie.
With Callander, Murray formed a record company, Bus Stop and produced the group Paper Lace having written their hit Billy Don’t Be A Hero.
Murray married actress Grazina Frame, although they are now divorced. “ We’re still really close friends; her husband has become one of my closest friends.” The couple’s daughters are both musical theatre stars, Mazz is in the West End production of Mamma Mia and Gina touring in Hairspray.
Murray wrote a book, How To Write A Hit Song, in 1964. A young man called Gordon Sumner from Newcastle read it. Sumner, better known as Sting, has often cited Murray as his mentor.
“I had no idea he had read the book,” says Murray. “I was collecting an award, and he came up and introduced himself and explained the story. That was so lovely, he’s very nice, a good bloke.”
When Murray later turned his hand to public speaking, Sting wrote the foreword for Murray’s bestselling book The Handbook For the Terrified Speaker, Valium In a Volume (W Foulsham & Co 1999). Murray is now regarded as one of Britain’s leading professional humorous speech-writers, and has written several other best-selling books on the subject.
Happily dividing his time between the Isle of Man and London, he cites Gary Barlow as a favourite current song writer; “He writes songs near to the type of songs we were doing.”
Barlow is a member of SODS, the Society of Distinguished Songwriters founded by Murray in 1971. There are fewer than 50 members, including Errol Brown of Hot Chocolate, Tim Rice, Brian May, Bjorn and Benny from Abba and most recently Sir Van Morrison.
The club is all about fun, with strictly no charitable ventures. “We meet three times a year, in a private room, in one of the best restaurants we can find. It’s meant to be satirically excessive. There was a time in the ’70s it was embarrassing to have money, I went the other way. ‘We have the money, let’s enjoy it.’”
To quote a Murray hit, I like it.