Walking down Broadway earlier this week, Tony Hatch stopped on the northwest corner of 48th Street and looked at Times Square several blocks south. “This is the spot where the melody first came to me—just as the neon signs went on,” said the 73-year-old British songwriter-arranger, who will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on Thursday along with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, and four other composers.
As tourists pressed past him unaware and giant LED screens flickered, Mr. Hatch reminisced about his first trip to New York in October 1964 and the hit he wrote inspired by the upbeat crowds. “When I played my song for Petula Clark in Paris a few days later, she said that if I could write great lyrics, we’d have something fantastic,” he said. “So I added words and we had ‘Downtown.'”
Between 1964 and 1967, Mr. Hatch wrote and arranged nine more top-20 U.S. hits for Ms. Clark—including “My Love,” “A Sign of the Times” and “Don’t Sleep in the Subway.” But it was Mr. Hatch’s “Downtown” that gave the British Invasion its first No. 1 female hit—winning a Grammy in 1965 and proving that Swinging London’s big beat could appeal to adults when framed by a brassy orchestra.
Known as the “British Burt Bacharach” in Europe for composing, arranging and producing dozens of catchy U.K. hits, Mr. Hatch spent much of the 1960s in London writing for a string of British pop-rockers. The list included Ms. Clark, the Searchers, Kathy Kirby, Julie Grant and Jackie Trent. He also wrote and produced “Forget Him,” a No. 4 U.S. hit in 1964 for Bobby Rydell, and “Call Me,” a hit in the U.S. in 1966 for Chris Montez.
“I was a big admirer of Burt—and at times I found it difficult not to copy him,” Mr. Hatch said. “A lot of my songs have a Bacharach influence, but with ‘Downtown’ I realized I had to break the habit. That was pure me.”
Mr. Hatch’s brash build for “Downtown”—with its solo piano opening followed by a full string orchestra, big band and driving beat—broadened the nascent British Invasion. While the Beatles and other young U.K. bands relied on the electric guitar, electric bass and drum to hook teens’ ears, Mr. Hatch’s punchy symphonic approach on “Downtown” clicked with older audiences. The song’s orchestration was more reminiscent of John Barry’s James Bond film scores—priming the market for other Vegas-minded British songwriter-arrangers like Les Reed, who wrote “It’s Not Unusual” and other hits for Tom Jones.
Mr. Hatch’s orchestral backdrop on “Downtown” was a natural solution. Ms. Clark was 32 years old when she urged listeners to linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty. “I had to connect with young record buyers in the States but not alienate Pet’s older core audience in the U.K. and France,” Mr. Hatch said. “The trick was to make a giant orchestra sound like a rock band.”
Born in Pinner, England, in June, 1939, Mr. Hatch attended the London Choir School, where he sang and studied harmony. When his voice broke at age 14, he was appointed assistant choirmaster and began focusing on writing choral music. Rather than attend music school, at age 16 he took a job at a music publisher on Denmark Street—London’s Tin Pan Alley.
Hired to make tea and run errands, Mr. Hatch also played piano and could transpose music on sight—making him valuable when singers came in to try out songs. “One day in ’56, I arrived early and Decca’s head of A&R was sitting outside,” Mr. Hatch said. “I played him the song he wanted to hear, but I also played something I wrote—’Crazy Bells.’ He took my song with him and it became Engelbert Humperdinck’s first record.”
When the Decca executive moved to Rank in 1958, he hired Mr. Hatch. But 18 months later Rank folded, the executive returned to Decca and Mr. Hatch was out of a job. He soon took part-time work at Pye Records and eventually co-produced Ms. Clark’s 1961 hit “Sailor.”
“There wasn’t much of an R&B presence in Britain in the early ’60s,” Mr. Hatch said. “Kids were into trad jazz, rockabilly and skiffle—and only the Liverpool bands knew how to generate heat. /Recording covers of American pop artists was considered safe for established labels—and easy money.”
But when the British Invasion took off in 1964, many American music publishers held back hits that British singers could cover to protect the songs’ original artists. “This left us in a pinch,” Mr. Hatch said. “So I flew to New York to bring back unrecorded American songs. Original music was still too risky.”
After recording “Downtown” with Ms. Clark, Mr. Hatch played it for Pye executives. “Nobody knew what to make of it and no release date was set,” he said. “Then Pye’s general manager called and said Joe Smith—Warner Bros.’ head of A&R—was in London looking for British material. When Joe heard Pet’s record, he loved it and scheduled the single for urgent release in the States, where it went to No. 1 for two weeks in January ’65.”
Ms. Clark’s “I Know a Place” followed in early 1965, climbing to No. 3. “I wrote it as ‘Downtown, Part 2,'” Mr. Hatch said. “The theme and lyrics were similar—’Well, all around there are girls and boys / It’s a swingin’ place, a cellar full of noise.’ When I wrote those words I was thinking about the Cavern Club in Liverpool where the Beatles had played regularly.”
Hiring the right drummers for Ms. Clark’s pop-rock orchestral sessions was key. “I used the same two guys—the big beat had to be authentic and sound like the music was made in Britain,” Mr. Hatch said. “I also arranged the instruments so they were distinct—not like Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, which sounded to me like a Wall of Mud.”
In the early ’70s, Mr. Hatch continued to focus on pop, writing songs with Jackie Trent—his wife then—and composing for British television, the theater and the movies. Mr. Hatch also arranged, conducted and produced dozens of albums under his own name, featuring chipper orchestral versions of contemporary hits.
Looking back, Mr. Hatch tried to pinpoint the moment when British pop shifted to hard rock. “In ’66, more new artists began writing their own material and the beat became secondary to a song’s overall concept,” he said. “That year I signed and recorded a raw 19-year-old artist named David Jones. We released some singles but the material didn’t really work, so the label cut him loose. Three years later, he figured out how to scale his ideas on albums. By then he was known as David Bowie.”
Mr. Myers writes daily about music at JazzWax.com and is the author of “Why Jazz Happened” (University of California Press).
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