Pickwick Records was an American record label and British distributor known for its budget album releases of sound-alike recordings, bargain bin reissues and repackagings under the brands Design, Bravo (later changing its name to International Award), Hurrah, Grand Prix, and children's records on the Cricket and Happy Time labels.
The label is also known for distributing music by smaller labels like Sonny Lester's Groove Merchant, Gene Redd's De-Lite Records, Chart Records and the Swedish label Sonet Records (for which it distributed late-1960s recordings by Bill Haley & His Comets in Canada and the US). They also issued records from Britain's Hallmark Records label.
Pickwick Records (originally formed as Pickwick Sales Corporation, later Pickwick International) was founded in 1950 by Cy Leslie, whose first business was a prerecorded greeting card service that in 1946 turned into Voco Records, a label of children's records. In 1957, after successfully marketing its Cricket children's label of 78- and 45rpm records, Pickwick entered the LP market with low-priced records, beginning with its Design label. The albums from the 1960s into the early 1970s bore the "Pickwick/33" imprint.
Singer-songwriter Lou Reed once worked as a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records, and gained experience in its small recording studio. Several of Pickwick's soundalike albums from 1964 to 1965 feature Reed as an uncredited session musician. Two of his songs, "Cycle Annie" (credited to The Beachnuts) and "You're Driving Me Insane" (as The Roughnecks), both appeared on the Soundsville! compilation in 1965. "The Ostrich" and "Sneaky Pete", two earlier songs by Reed, united him with John Cale, leading to their founding of the Velvet Underground.
Amos Heilicher and his brother Daniel Heilicher merged their Musicland retail chain with Pickwick International in the late 1960s. Capitol Records had an early interest in Pickwick, and many Capitol artists including Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys and Nat King Cole, had recordings issued on Pickwick; however, Capitol sold its share in the company in 1970.
In the 1970s, the label changed direction, and began reissuing LPs that had been deleted from catalogs of the major record labels, especially the RCA Records budget reissue label RCA Camden. Most notable in the RCA Camden catalog, Pickwick obtained the rights in the mid-1970s to reissue Camden albums featuring recordings by Elvis Presley. The company also put out an edited reissue of Presley's soundtrack album of Frankie and Johnny, and a two-LP set of mostly movie songs titled Double Dynamite. After Presley died in August 1977, RCA began reissuing Presley's catalog and took back the rights to Presley's Camden releases from Pickwick.
Pickwick also reissued numerous LPs from the Motown catalog during the 1970s. On many of these albums, the cover art was changed, and/or the track listing was altered (with two or more songs deleted). In the early 1980s Motown began re-releasing its own catalog albums, thus ending Pickwick's series.
The company also started the subsidiary label P.I.P and started distributing Gene Redd's De-Lite Records, to issue original material. De-Lite hit it big in 1974 and 1975 with million-selling singles & albums by funk band Kool & The Gang. P.I.P had a couple of big dance club hits with "7-6-5-4-3-2-1 (Blow Your Whistle)" and "Drive My Car" by Gary Toms Empire in 1975.
In 1977, Pickwick was sold to the American Can Company, which relocated its corporate headquarters from Long Island City, New York to Minneapolis, Minnesota, then subsequently sold its assets to PolyGram in the same year. PolyGram maintained the De-Lite Records label for releases by Kool & the Gang who experienced a second wave of success after the addition of new lead singer, J.T. Taylor, beginning with the group's 1979 album, Ladies Night. PolyGram later did away with the De-lite imprint, and subsequent Kool & The Gang records were issued by PolyGram's Mercury label, while De-Lite Records was acquired by Unidisc.
After the purchase by PolyGram, Pickwick started putting out new material again, but this time it was "Sound-Alike" albums which featured covers of a certain artist or group on one album, and Disco Christmas albums. Most of those albums were performed by session musicians and singers dubbed Mirror Image; Pickwick also issued a few records from groups such as The Young Lovers and Kings Road in earlier years. This lasted until 1983 when PolyGram folded Pickwick.
The Hallmark name has since been revived as a budget record label owned by the Pickwick Group.
Pickwick's catalog (including the entire De-lite/Mercury catalog of Kool & The Gang) is now owned by Universal Music which was formed by the merger of the MCA and PolyGram families of labels in 1998.
From the liner notes featured on virtually all 1965-69 Design releases:
Design has created a series of Family Favorites- covering everything from "When the Saints Go Marching In" to the Beethoven Fifth Symphony; from Broadway's current favorites and standards to Flamenco music from Spain and Italian popular music.
Music is so intensely personal, so much a matter of what you yourself feel- and let the rules go hang- that the only sensible basis on which you should build your library is personal choice. If you like it, then by all means it belongs in your record collection. Enjoy it and play it with pride.
There's been a vast upsurge in interest in all kinds of music in America in recent years. Musicals are among the most successful of Broadway offerings. Night clubs featuring a Dixieland band can always count on filling the house. More people buy tickets to opera and symphony concerts each year than attend professional sports events. Dance bands remain popular as ever.
Contributing to this upsurge has been the ready availability of quality low-cost recordings of familiar favorites by outstanding popular, Broadway, semi-classical and classical artists- recordings such as those you'll find on the Design label. These recordings make it possible for you to build a library of your own personal favorites at a fraction of the price you'd have expected to pay even a few years ago.
Design's modern studio and manufacturing plant, featuring the latest equipment coupled with the company's low, low prices have made it possible to offer record buyers the world's finest music recorded by outstanding artists without sacrificing quality. The record you hold in your hands, made to standards as critical as any set in the industry, consists of pure vinyl.
In the early 1980s, Pickwick manufactured so-called "audiophile" pressings on heavy vinyl (usually 180-240 grams). However, some audio aficionados found sound quality in these pressings inferior to that of normal vinyl. These LPs were quickly taken off the shelves to a point where some record collectors are willing to pay fortunes for these pressings. In 2003, a copy of The Beach Boys Greatest Hits sold for just over $2,500 at auction, and in 2008 a copy of James Bond—The Themes (which was, in fact, cover singers, a purely soundalike record) sold for $4,000 in mint-sealed condition.
Pickwick was well known for its "soundalike" records which would often claim to be original, but had nothing more than in-house bands or singers covering. When they released The Everly's in 1984, all the songs were in fact covered by a singing duo called "Twice Divided".
References in popular culture
Pickwick was the record label to which the fictional band Crème Brulée, from British sitcom The League of Gentlemen, was nearly signed to during its 1970s heyday. This came from a running gag about the market-stall sales which Pickwick enjoyed in England.
- Broven, J. (2009). Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock 'n' Roll Pioneers. University of Illinois Press. p. 87. ISBN 9780252032905. Retrieved 2015-07-07.
- Hoffmann, Frank Editor & Ferstler, Howard Technical Editor Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound Routledge (2005)
- LA Garage Scene 69-89, Galaxy Books 1994