By E. Mark Windle April 2020.
The passing of Edwin James Balbier a couple of years ago went virtually unnoticed in UK northern scene circles: indeed few outside of the industry will recall his name. Yet, this individual would be the unwitting driving force behind one of the most popular soul re-issue (if brief) label imprints of the 1970s, even if it was the company’s younger soul music enthusiast employees who shaped the nature of the label arm of the operation.
Balbier’s initial interests did not lie in soul music, but more generally in the oldies market. Born in 1930, the Philadelphian had an early career in the US Air Force, then turned to retail and wholesale record business in Philly in the 1960s. Balbier arrived on UK shores in 1971 with his familial entourage of nine children to explore making a living in record importing and sales. The move to Manchester in 1971 wasn’t an overnight success, but he was a determined man with a strong work ethic and a desire to provide the best for his large family.
“Global Records was one of the first companies to import records into the UK” comments Rick Cooper, one-time employee of Ed Balbier’s empire. “Ed owned a couple of record stores in Philly in the early 60s. By the mid-60s he was a distributor of indie labels and then moved into the oldies and deletions business. Somehow, he must have found out that his warehouse full of old records was worth more in the UK than the US. Maybe UK collectors started turning up at his warehouse. Global was set up in a small basement on Corporation Street in Manchester city centre. His eldest son Eddie Jr. stayed in Philly keeping the house going and the warehouse operating. Ed never set out to specialise in northern soul. His main business was country, rock and pop albums and oldies singles. However he knew it was worth employing someone who could pick the titles that were in demand. Derek Howe was one of the first to work there, then Barry Tasker and Richard Searling. Barry was one of the best DJs in the early days and gave Richard his big break at Manchester's Pendulum Club. I landed a part time job at Global and was full time by 1973. By then Balbier had moved to larger premises on Princess St. and finally to the whole basement of an office block off Oxford St. This was about the size of a football pitch and could hold a huge number of records.”
Global’s first priority was to establish the importing side of its business:
“Balbier would go to the States every five or six weeks. He’d stay in Philly and use the warehouse as a collection and packing facility. Two or three times a year he would send a container by sea freight instead of the usual air freight. These would be filled with anything he picked up cheap, both singles and albums. I don't know where he bought them from but was probably smart enough not to buy anything that had already been picked clean. The singles always had some great stuff but not massive quantities. I wouldn't have time to play every unknown title so probably missed some good stuff. Also northern soul was still a fairly narrow genre so even playing everything I couldn't have predicted the future moves through mid-tempo, beat ballads, R&B and funk-edged soul. The best container had multiple copies of Eddie Spencer, Tobi Lark, Mikki Farrow, Jimmie Soul Clarke and most of the Miracle label. One-offs I remember were International GTOs, Gwen and Ray, and Michael and Raymond. I got quite a few unknowns but just kept them rather than selling them to DJs. Several of these eventually received plays at Stafford all-nighters and beyond.
I went to the States with Balbier a couple of times. This should have been a dream come true but was very disappointing. I would have to get up very early, be driven up to eighty miles to huge warehouses full of albums, spend eight hours sorting boxes looking for country and rock music, then get back late at night, exhausted. On my last trip with Global to the States, I was sent on my own. Another employee called Will, was already there. He was living in the Philly warehouse, sleeping in a tiny little room with instructions to never leave after dark. I flew in and was met by Ed’s son. As it was late, I stayed with him that night at the family house in the suburbs. Next day I got the train to inner city Philly to meet Will. As I was leaving the train station a young man approached me, asking the time. Being a young naive Brit I stopped to tell him. He grabbed my jacket, pulled out my wallet, took the contents and calmly walked off. No guns, knives or any violence so I wasn't too bothered especially as it wasn't my money he took. I got to look through books of mug shots at the police station and ride around in a cop car looking for the guy, but we didn’t find him. The warehouse work involved a ten- or eleven-hour day sorting albums with hardly any time to look for singles - even though there were thousands. Also it was February and -15C at night. All I wanted to do was keep warm with a beer in that tiny office. Looking back I should have spent time going through some of paperwork and files.”
Back in Manchester the imported sales were doing well. Record collectors would turn up at the huge basement location to pick up old recordings and to see what had just been imported, and mail order facility was provided. An occasional mail order list was available for customers with around a dozen pages of singles and albums. Ed Balbier focussed on the numbers end of the business, whilst day to day sales and customer contact were left to his employees. Balbier quickly become suspicious if any large orders were received. Panicking that the product was under-priced, items would routinely be marked as “out of stock” until the next list, by which time the price tag would be increased.
“The titles in large quantities were listed for wholesale to shops and northern titles listed on a ‘specials’ list. There was also loads of other stock that was lying around. Some of this had been roughly sorted by artist for unlisted collectors’ stock. The idea was that if someone asked what they had by, say James Brown, it was easy to find a large selection. This proved handy when something started getting played by a known artist on the northern scene. I got “Landslide” as soon as Ian Levine played it by simply going to the Tony Clarke section. Same for The Coasters’ “Crazy Baby”, Gene Chandler’s “Mr Big Shot” and The Van Dykes on Mala. Barry Tasker and Richard Searling got plenty of good stuff before me, so it was really when new stock arrived that I got the best records.”
So to the label arm of Global Records. Back in the 1960s Balbier was not entirely unaware of the soul music market as he distributed a number of independent labels back in Philadelphia, including stock running into the thousands of The Precisions’ “If This Is Love” on Drew. Balbier’s professional connections with Bernie Binnick, owner of Swan Records would be the root of the inception of Global’s foray into label releases and the eventual Cream imprint. Ed had acquired some Swan material from Bernie on ¼” mono tapes and ½” studio masters. Rick Cooper took the tapes to a former BBC sound engineer in Altringham who had facilities to deal the ½” tape. The engineer mixed the material including some instrumental versions of particular tracks and pressed up some 2-3 acetates of each track.
Global’s first two pressings replicated the Swan logo, as part of the requirement of the agreed licencing contract. These were The Guys From Uncle “The Spy” (UK Swan S-4240), a popular Wigan Casino instrumental at the time, and The Modern Redcaps “Never Too Young To Fall In Love” (UK Swan S-4243).
As these sold well, Ed Balbier supported Rick’s idea to set up a label dedicated to releasing further content. There was still Swan material left to utilise, and a new label imprint meant that sourced from other labels could be considered. With that, Cream was born.
Swan output was further represented via Eddie Carlton “It Will Be Done” (Cream 5001), which was mixed from a four-track session master tape. The instrumental version was chosen to replace “Misery” which appeared on the original 45. Cream 5003 would complete the Swan product, featuring The Jaywalkers’ up-tempo “Can’t Live Without You”, and on the flip, an instrumental version of Sheila Ferguson’s “Heartbroken Memories”.
James Fountain’s “Seven Day Lover” (CRM 5002) would be Cream’s biggest seller. Rick felt the time was right to choose this as the inaugural release. In many ways a ground breaker for the northern soul scene with its heavy funk bassline, it was near the peak of its popularity with the original Peachtree format being played by DJs at various events across the country. The time was also right to market a legitimate reissue as demand had not been affected by bootlegging.
“William Bell owned the Peachtree recordings. He wasn’t exactly hard to get a hold of, being a public figure. I contacted him by letter, we drew up a contract. The contract was fairly simple. He confirmed he had the right to licence out the recording. Global agreed to pay an advance and an amount per record when sales had covered the advance. The rights were exclusive for three years. We started pressing and did lot of promotional work was done on this one. Advertisements were placed in Black Echoes and Black Music magazines. We even tried to get national distribution through the major labels, including CBS. In the end they didn’t want to commit, so we supplied directly though Global. Some high street shops picked it up also, like HMV and Boots. The first pressing run of 5000 sold within a week, so we followed it up with another 5000, and then another 2-3000. We must have sold up to 11000 in the end.”
Enter American #2; Irving Weinroth. Irving, a local Judge and his son had been co-owners of the US Party Time label in the 1960s, which had featured the Showstoppers on “Ain’t Nothin’ But A House Party” and The Four Perfections “I’m Not Strong Enough”. Both groups were known on the UK northern soul scene for these recordings and would make easy choices for release.
“He was the person I dealt with for leasing The Showstoppers and The Four Perfections” says Rick. “At the time Irving was out of the record industry. He told me that the Party Time label had been set up for his son some years before. I guess Irving provided the money to try to get his son into the record business. I met him at the North Broad St. warehouse in Philly. He mentioned the producer listed on the Four Perfections record, Kip Gainsborough, was a made-up name from Kip their dog and the street they lived on. Maybe they did this to hide some-one under contract to another label, who knows. He gave me a copy of the Four Perfections and a couple of unreleased Showstoppers tracks. The instrumental version of “I’m Not Strong Enough” on the flip of the Cream release was mixed at Grand Prix studios by Walt Khan, the producer of Life’s “Tell Me Why”.”
Johnny Jones and the King Kasuals’ funked-up version of “Purple Haze” would see a simultaneous release in 1976 on both UK Brunswick and Cream:
“Around the same time, “Purple Haze” was becoming popular in the northern clubs. The original US Brunswick stated it was a Peachtree record, produced by William Bell, not a Peachtree recording (the usual term). We felt this inferred that Peachtree retained more ownership than merely producing the record. I asked William if we could licence “Purple Haze” for release on Cream in the UK. He told us he had owned the recording, so we exchanged contracts and had the record pressed. About two weeks later Decca issued “Purple Haze” on UK Brunswick. We sought legal advice and informed Decca that we had exclusive rights to release the record, through William Bell. The only way we could prove this claim was to refer to William Bell’s contract with US Brunswick. I phoned him and said he’d try to find it. Time was running out as Decca was already selling their record as well as threatening a court injunction. I was on the phone to William Bell every day for about a week to see if he had found the contract. Eventually we decided to withdraw our release of the record as the contract couldn’t be located. I don’t know if Ed Balbier sorted the money side with Bell, maybe he refunded the advance. Whatever, I don’t remember any animosity between Global and William Bell.
One of the DJ's from Amsterdam used to take any deep soul stuff I had at Global. Millie's records bought loads. Loads of the stuff sold by Global to the Netherlands was originally surplus stock we’d bought from John Anderson’s Soul Bowl. I was sent three or four times in the mid 70's to Norfolk in the largest van you could drive without an HGV licence. John Anderson took me to what looked like an old village primary school a few miles out of King’s Lynn. This was packed with 45's. We loaded up the van as much as possible paying about 1p per disc. Back at Global I'd play through them and send samples off to customers in Holland. They would order hundreds at 75p each. We must have got tens of thousands of records from Soul Bowl but not one was in any way ‘northern soul’. John must have been the most thorough dealer of them all. Most people would have let a few slip through. One load was the remains of his Sue/Symbol/Eastern label buy. We also approached William Bell again for a contract to press one thousand copies of Mitty Collier’s “Share What You Got / I’d Like To Change Places” (UK Peachtree P 122) from the original master tape, to sell to the Netherlands. A few copies of that ended up in HMV in Manchester, the rest went to Millie's.
“I left Global after a disagreement with Ed Balbier just after The Showstoppers’ record came out on Cream” continues Rick Cooper. “I'd done the work on the record. It was getting good reviews in the music press and I had been busy sending out promos. Ed then told me that the record, and all previous releases on Cream, were to be sold at the top price charged for US issues and not the same as the usual UK label price. From memory I think this would be 75p instead of 59p. This would mean the price in the shops would be at least £1.25, same as US pressings. This to me was crazy as the whole point of setting up the label was to get records into the big chains such as Boots, HMV, Smiths and Woolworths. They would have never allowed one label's singles to sell at higher prices. If Ed wanted the higher price it would have been simpler just to get the records from the US via the owner or label. We did this for plenty of titles- Carstairs, Oscar Perry, Nasco, Jamie Guyden etc. These sold well in specialist shops but were not really worth issuing on Cream. This is how Inferno, Grapevine, Selectadisc and Black Magic worked it with their records, so I couldn’t understand why Ed thought he could do it differently. We also stocked The Showstoppers’ original record in large quantities at Global, so what was the point of the Cream release. Seemed bloody stupid. I left Global in 1976 and sold most of my own collection to fund a trip to the States. Global would eventually close in the late 1980s. Yanks was the name used for the retail part of the Manchester warehouse, situated in the same premises but set out more like a shop with records in racks. His son, Gregg, was more involved with this but this was after I'd left. Roger Banks helped Ed sort out and price up the stock as northern started its comeback”
So, the epilogue: much of the remaining stock and tapes were eventually sold to Rollercoaster Records, where Dave Flynn remembers initially stored the stock in an attic lorry trailer in a field before moving indoors to a low ceiling ladies clothing store in Cirencester. Robinson's Records also apparently accrued some of the stock. Ed Balbier returned to the US, around ten years after his first wife Anna had passed away. He retired from the business in the 1980s, settling in Denver, Colorado but still took the time to travel the world. He passed away in September 2018, aged 87. His obituary reads: “Edwin is survived by his second wife Gloria, his nine children, eleven grandchildren and four great grandchildren. He will be remembered for his demanding work ethic, love of travel and decaf mocha!”
Copyright 2020 E. Mark Windle, A Nickel And A Nail and Soul Music Stories e-zine.
Acknowledgements: Rick Cooper, Richard Searling, Pete Smith, Roger Banks, Neil Rushton, Ian Cunliffe, Dave Flynn, Dave Moore.