Tony Prince ‘The Royal Ruler’ tells his story: Radio Caroline, Radio Luxembourg, DMC, Mixmag, Wedding TV and now, coming full circle, United DJs Radio
I'm looking back over 75 years! 60 really, because I was 15 before life properly began when Elvis Presley sang Heartbreak Hotel. My life worthy of recall began then. I was already in love with Christine (who later became by wife) but needed to escape; from what, I didn't really know!
I grew up in a working class family in Oldham, the only child of a scrap metal worker and the grandson of a landlady. Ready to leave school at 15, I felt a powerful desire to escape my northern home town. Looking back, it’s clear that I was always destined to become a jockey, although I had a little bit of a false start when I headed to Yorkshire to ride horses! The pay of 4/6d seemed unimportant when Gerald Armstrong the trainer said he'd take me on, I was just happy for the change of scenery. I shared a bedroom with a Scottish lad who was a couple of years older than me. He's still a mate today, Willie Carson, the five time British Champion jockey.
My career in the music industry began at Butlins in North Wales. I entered a talent contest and Ringo Starr backed me on drums! I sang Be Bop a Lulu and won 2nd prize, a boot polish kit. This modest success led me to form my first band, The Jasons, with four pals: Alan, Malc, Trevor and Harold. I sang rock and Trevor sang Pat Boone stuff. In 1961, now back in Oldham, we were incredibly popular within a 20 mile radius. We worked two nights a week at the town’s top dancehall, The Savoy. The Black Swan in Irlam also booked us every month. Our transport consisted of a scooter, a small van for the drum kit and amps, and a Bond three wheeler car.
It was at this time that I first experienced lust. She was called Fran and she came from Irlam on three buses through Manchester to Oldham where my virginity awaited her. This was a fateful night. After she had seduced me we went to the opening of the Top Rank Astoria, a new venue in Oldham, where I met Johnny Francis the band leader. This led to me joining his 15-piece big band.
Becoming professional with The Jasons was hampered by the other band members' careers as plumber, accountant and fireman. This led the band to make the collective decision to turn down a season at Butlins, which was my cue to exit stage left. However, throughout my life I have always wondered how things would have turned out had we not broken up?
With the Johnny Francis Orchestra I sang and played guitar but when the band had a break I also earned extra money playing records – my first DJ gig! I'd resigned a job as an apprentice toolmaker on £2.00 a week and now pocketed £16.00!
I also advised the manager of the Astoria on which bands to book, including an up-and-coming act from Liverpool whose drummer I had already performed with! He booked The Beatles for next to nothing and I introduced them on stage the night Please Please Me hit the top 5 as Beatlemania was about to sweep the nation and then the world.
Later in my career I'd work with Paul McCartney a lot as the host of his annual Buddy Holly Week, I’d interview John Lennon in New York, Ringo in Paris and have George Harrison tell Dylan's Band I was “full of shit”. But that's another story…
Was it an impulse or was it an urge? For the second, and last, time I escaped my home town, this time heading to Bristol. The best years of my life? Well, I thought so at the time, but other great years would follow… incredible years… that included meeting Elvis Presley (twice)! But Bristol, for an 18-year-old escaped prisoner from a northern town, was a freedom such as I would never experience again.
I continued singing and playing records, which led to me being thrown out of the Musician's Union! (A test case, which I still feel I should have sued them over.) I also appeared on ‘Discs a Go-Go’, a weekly TV show introducing and partying with every chart-hitting band around. The microphone magnet had me well and truly in its grip!
I formed a new group and we were booked for Hamburg, following The Beatles trail, but I vomited over an audience in Cheltenham the night before we were to drive across Europe! I landed in hospital, according to the doctor, the youngest person ever to have a duodenal ulcer. But I will ever be grateful for that ailment, as without it I would not have landed a job on the new pirate station Radio Caroline.
I’d asked the producer of ‘Discs a GoGo’ to book Tony Blackburn onto the show. We couldn’t hear the pirate ships in Bristol but I kept reading about them in the pop papers and Tony’s name kept coming up. My instinct was right, Tony led me to the right person, I auditioned and started on Radio Caroline South. Then, after a few weeks, I moved to join the team on Radio Caroline North in Ramsey Bay, Isle of Man.
This was a great training ground, with American, Australian and Canadian DJs all teaching us the art of the radio disc jockey. It was where I took on the radio persona of the ‘royal ruler’ and I had some incredible experiences as a pirate DJ, which I will never forget. These may not have been the best days of my life, but they were certainly the most exciting.
Unfortunately, after 18 short months, it was all over. In August 1967 the British Labour government put this fabulous public experience and career-defining employment to an end. I met Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister, a few years later and thanked him for losing me my job. He asked if I had been a coal miner?!
The queue to join the BBC's new upstart channel Radio 1 was filled with DJs known in the south of England. Not one of the Radio Caroline North DJs was invited in, save DLT who had served on Radio Caroline South as well as the northern ship. The only other non-southern employee of Radio 1 was Scotland's Stuart Henry.
I had an agent, Bunny Lewis, who also managed Alan Freeman, Pete Murray and David Jacobs. This came about when Jacobs had visited my Bristol venue for a private function, liked my performance and promised to introduce me to his agent.
"We normally charge 20% management and agent commission," Bunny informed me when I had travelled from Bristol to his Knightsbridge HQ to sign with him. But, he explained, they wanted to treat David Jacobs to 10% as he had discovered me. Then he showed me his agent’s generosity by explaining he would only charge me 25% including the 10% for David!
I left him when I started singing with the band, but once I'd joined Radio Caroline we became married once again. When I auditioned for Radio 1 Bunny told me that the BBC had accepted me but there was no position available at that time. I did, however, get accepted by Radio Luxembourg and with Paul Burnett, Noel Edmonds and Kid Jensen set about being the first ever ‘all live’ DJ team living and dying in the Grand Duchy.
Like all DJs, I continued to send regular audition tapes to Broadcasting House. I loved Radio Luxembourg, but yearned to be on Top of the Pops! Soon Noel Edmonds, then Paul Burnet and Kid Jensen got the call to go back home to the UK and join the Beeb. I have a file of 'Yes, be patient' letters from BBC producers and I was sure that my time was soon to come.
At a Eurovision Song Contest final in Luxembourg the BBC Gods descended on us. I found myself cosying up to their Chief chief Douglas Muggeridge who said I should come and see him when I was next in London. I was next in London before you could cite disloyalty to 208, The Station of the Stars! We had tea and biscuits, and he asked, "Why do you want to work for Radio 1?" as he stirred his tea.
"Because I want to earn an absolute fortune and be on Top of the Pops," I thought honestly. But actually said, "I would be proud to work on my country’s premier radio station." The problem was, I had gone way, way over the head of the then Programme Controller, Derek Chinnery, a devout egocentric.
As Muggeridge showed me to the door he clasped my hand and looked at me like a father bidding his son farewell as he went off to war: "I actually think you will have a far better career with Radio Luxembourg than here at Radio 1."
And he was right! Sixteen years is a pretty good run, seven as Programme & Promotions Director. I chose some 350 ‘Power Plays’ during my time with that beautiful station. In its heyday Radio Luxembourg broke Elvis and The Beatles - what bigger influence in history could a radio station have? Well, it also happened to cause communism to crumble, but that’s yet another story (one that you can read in my book The Royal Ruler & the Railway DJ).
As my sixteenth year with Radio Luxembourg ended and a new directorship landed in the London HQ, I negotiated out. Their heads were in the clouds (satellite) whereas I still saw a longer life for traditional 208. But I had a better idea, something I will always wonder how it fell into my lap: mixing.
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 97, Pages 28-32.