Alumni & Supporters

News items

AlumNews chats to Terry Ellis

As co-founder of Chrysalis Records, a former record producer and manager, Terry Ellis's contribution to music on both sides of the Atlantic – and around the world – is huge.

On a busy day during Freshers' Week, Terry went back to the Students' Union where it all began. Amid the bustle of new and returning students, we caught up with the music mogul to find out about his time here…

'My first very strong recollection is standing outside the Students' Union, just like today,' Terry smiles. 'It brings back so many memories.'

In 1963, Terry was responsible for kick-starting the Students' Union's reputation for having its finger on the pulse when it comes to booking exciting and upcoming bands. That reputation continues today as students up and down King's Walk hand out flyers for upcoming gigs.

'I wanted to make the most of being here,' he explains, 'I wanted the full student experience.

'I went to the Students' Union and asked for a job. The one job available was Social Secretary, so I gave it a crack. Usually they'd book the college jazz band and a local dance band for the entire year. It was the first year of BeatleMania, so I knew the students wanted pop groups.

'I did my research and I booked The Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo, a popular local band, for my first two nights in charge – they played for two and a half hours for just £25. That was just before they changed their name to The Animals and became world famous!'

The experience of working with up-and-coming acts was just the start for Terry. Throughout his career, he guided the career paths of the likes of Jethro Tull, Blondie, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Roxy Music, King Crimson and many more. The résumé of bands he has worked with reads like a dream playlist for any music fan.

Coming to Newcastle

Terry's time at Newcastle almost didn’t happen at one stage though. 'I was working in London trying to map out a career in computing,' he explains. 'I hadn’t done well enough in my exams to get into university the first time round. I was looking at job adverts and the penny dropped – I realised I needed a university degree.'

From that point onwards, Terry began focusing his attention on coming to Newcastle. 'I was born in Hertfordshire, but my family are from Newcastle, so I was interested in studying here,' he explains. 'I came up for a visit and talked to the science department. They liked my enthusiasm, but having failed in my exams, I knew I had to retake them and get better results. So that's what I did.'

Terry committed himself to his studies, while simultaneously holding down a full-time job. 'It was very challenging,' he says. 'I worked nine to five and had to travel three hours every day too, so I was studying on the train to and from work. Every waking hour outside of work meant studying.'

This tenet of hard work and persistence would not only follow Terry throughout his time at University, but also throughout his long career. Upon graduating, Terry sought to have his own booking agency and he teamed up with Michael Jeffery, who managed The Animals and Jimi Hendrix.

After a short period of time, Terry began to discover how competitive the music business was. 'I had youthful enthusiasm, but no contacts and no power,' he recalls. 'After a year I wasn't making any money, so I had to give it up. I was really upset, I felt like I'd failed.'

When most people would have quit, Terry remained focused on carving out a career in the music business and it wasn't long before he – quite literally – got back into the driving seat.

'My mother helped me put a deposit down on a car. At weekends I'd drive to colleges and persuade them to let me organise their entertainment,' he says. 'I began to build up a roster of colleges who booked their bands through me. After a year I found I was making enough money to leave my day job as Computer Systems Analyst.

'I had found myself spending all my time on the phone to colleges booking bands. I used to go out at lunchtime from work with a pile of coins for the phone box. I would call the agencies and colleges and leave messages knowing it was lunchtime and everyone would be out. I'd then go back to the office and field the incoming calls!'

Charting success

Terry's career would see him co-found Chrysalis Records and turn it into one of the world's most successful independent record companies, chair both the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and serve on the committees responsible for awarding Grammies and determining the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

'Our philosophy at Chrysalis was different to other labels. We got into the business because we loved music and wanted to work closely with the people we admired,' says Terry.

'As time went on, I recognised I could handle more of the business side of things, which allowed the artists to devote all their time to their craft. It was exciting to do and meant I could positively impact an artist's career with the decisions I made.'

Almost 50 years after those tentative first steps into the business, Terry acknowledges just how much the music industry has changed. 'Over the last 30 years, record companies became very powerful, sales soared and the dominant thing in the industry was record sales,' he says.

'From my point of view, the music industry is about artists getting on stage and performing. Record sales are a lot smaller these days, so musicians focus on becoming great performers, as that's how they make their living. As the emphasis is now on live performance, there are many more opportunities for people.'

In spite of all his achievements throughout his career, Terry still recalls his first foray into the music business during his student days.

'I remember I booked Jimmy Powell and the 5 Dimensions, whose harmonica player was Rod Stewart,' he says. 'Then I booked The Graham Bond Organisation, which included Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, who later formed Cream with Eric Clapton.'

'I looked for what I thought were quality bands within budget. Agents would call and try to sell you what they had, but I always listened to the radio, looked at what records were out and tried to book groups who would go on to be successful – but always at a good price. I had exposure to some really great musicians at Newcastle!'

Terry Ellis visits the Students' Union where it all began.

published on: 13 November 2015