History of EMI – the 1950s-60s


During the 1950s, EMI held the worldwide license and distribution rights the American recording companies Columbia Records and RCA Victor except for North and South America. Columbia Records was the North American descendant of Columbia Graphophone, the parent company. So in this post, we’ll look at the History of EMI – the 1950s-60s.

One of the artists on the RCA label was a young performer from Mississippi named Elvis Presley. Elvis’ first records that were released outside America (it all started in 1956 with Heartbreak Hotel) were released on EMI’s HMV (His Masters Voice) Pop label.

Over the two following years, EMI released around a dozen of Elvis’ first hit records including Love me tender, Blue Suede Shoes, Hound Dog as well as Elvis’ first UK number one hit, All Shook Up. In 1957, however, EMI’s license agreement with RCA Victor ended and RCA set up its own London office.

Similarly, Columbia had decided to market its international record releases by itself and had ended its contracts with EMI already in 1952. Together, RCA Victor and Columbia supplied the majority of EMI’s U.S. music representations so, in response, EMI set out to look for American performers and artists all by itself.

In 1955, EMI acquired Capitol Records, one of America’s largest record companies. Capitol, headquartered on America’s West Coast, came with an impressive and important roster of performing artists and singers including Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Gene Vincent, Dean Martin, and Les Paul.

Besides developing a roster of American singers and artists, EMI (born from a merger of The Gramophone Company and Columbia) was investing heavily in British talent. Within a decade, the company accounted for more than 40% of all UK pop music releases and they were very successful. In the 1950s, EMI signed artists like Shirley Bassey, Adam Faith, Frankie Vaughan, Alma Cogan, and Max Bygraves.

All these artists were rather successful and headed a remarkable pop explosion across Britain. And, of course, there was also the most successful artist of those days, Cliff Richard. After releasing Cliff Richard’s first record (Move It) in 1958, EMI succeeded in making Sir Cliff one of the most enduring and successful artists in the history of British pop music. Check out also this post that tells you all about how the EMI Canada Archive was donated to the University of Calgary a few years ago.


So in the 1950s, British pop music was growing steadily. In the 1960s, though, it started to explode and EMI was both at the heart and at the forefront of these developments. Ans this was, not least, due to a few guys from Liverpool that had formed a new band that was signed to EMI’s Parlophone label.

The Beatles’ first single record, Love Me Do (1963), had only reached to number 17 in the British pop charts but it wasn’t long before the British music and record lovers realized what they’ve been missing. Their follow-up single, Please, Please Me, reached number two in the charts and since then, the world of pop music has not been the same. To learn more about Canadian EMI star Anne Murray, see this article.

Before 1963 was out, the Beatles had released From Me To YouI Want To Hold Your Hand, and She Loves You  All of these releases went straight to number 1, actually the first three of their in total 17 UK number-1 hits. Besides The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, brought more  ‘Merseybeat Talent’, such as Cilla Black and Gerry & the Pacemakers to EMI’s attention. In one single year, 1963, the company’s releases were accounting for 15 out of all 19 number-1 hit singles. The year thereafter, EMI artists were holding number-1 positions in the UK singles chart for a stunning 41 weeks in total.

EMI’s British successes were also mirrored in Canada and in America where, after Capitol Records signed The Beach Boys, EMI had concluded a great license deal with Detroit’s Tamla Motown label. During the 60s and the 70s, EMI’s roster of artists was just incredible – Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross & the Supremes, the Temptations, the Jackson Five, and Smokey Robinson… Well, the list goes on and on. By the 70s, EMI saw2 out of every 3 Motown releases become great hits, a success rate that was never heard of before in the pop music business.