Tony Prince on Elvis, the risks people took to listen and ending up in Bray
PUBLISHED: 11:31 13 March 2017 | UPDATED: 11:37 13 March 2017
Jan Raycroft catches up with a man she couldn't do without in her teen years - The Prince of the airwaves
It’s a stormy Sunday evening in the Seventies and across the country us teenagers are standing on our beds, turning transistor radios round in all directions to get the best signal without all the woosh-woosh-woosh sound that often interferes with what we are desperate to hear. Downstairs, parents are demanding that we stop jumping about on the bri-nylon bedspreads and either get on with our homework or come downstairs to watch TV together like a proper family.
But Radio Luxembourg is far more important and at 9pm it’s time for the Star Chart and Top 30 UK Singles with Tony Prince. So you can imagine my delight to discover that Tony now lives in Bray and has published a book. Of course there’s all the stuff about his adventures with Radio Caroline and then Radio Luxembourg, interviewing Elvis, introducing The Beatles to his home town of Oldham, and anecdotes of his times with other rock superstars. He’s sung with Paul McCartney, partied with Led Zeppelin and even appeared in Coronation Street.
And to think he started out as an apprentice jockey, sharing digs with Willie Carson. They met up recently after 40 years of racing in different directions. He also survived the ignominy of being thrown out of The Musicians Union because he played discs when they had a ‘Keep Music Live’ rule.
But this is also a poignant story because it’s an unusual ‘double autobiography’, shared with Jan Sestak, a man who was to become the first licensed DJ behind the Iron Curtain which separated the West from the Communist world beyond. While we here were worrying that the radio batteries would give out even if we kept the signal, most of us were totally unaware of an audience with far greater fears.
Jan, a railway worker, was one of thousands of youngsters who illegally tuned in to Luxembourg on hidden radios in the knowledge that the Czechoslovak Secret Police who prowled his land would send him to prison if he were discovered. Their Gestapo predecessors had even imposed the death sentence on anyone caught listening to Western radio stations.
The book, Royal Ruler & the Railway DJ: The Autobiographies of Tony Prince and Jan Sestak, reveals this story. At home we simply booed when Radio Caroline and pirate stations were shut down – then later cheered when the sheer power of stations such as Luxembourg led to a huge shake-up of the official broadcasters.
Meanwhile, among the 100 million trans-European listeners every night were people who risked losing their freedom for years. Eventually Jan and Tony would meet when ‘The Prince’ became the only DJ to perform inside the Iron Curtain not long after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. Some 30 years later they met again when Tony returned to the Bav club in Brno for a reunion. The two DJs decided to write about their extraordinary and extremely different lives.
“It’s incredible to think that people took such risks just to listen to us having fun and playing the latest sounds,” says Tony. “Jan actually listened on a mains radio without an earplug, which was very dangerous. He wanted to learn English and translate the lyrics for groups in Czechoslovakia.”
But while all this was happening The Prince went on to become programme controller at Luxembourg for seven years in the 70’s and ended up running the Elvis fan club and The Osmonds official fan club.
It’s an extraordinary story that deserves telling, but I also want to know how he and wife Christine (they have a son, Daniel, and daughter Gabrielle), who’ve travelled the world, ended up in Bray. “We’ve been a bit like gipsies all round here for years,” he reveals. “First we rented a place in Stoke Poges, went on to Dorney Common, Farnham Royal, Burnham and Cookham before ending up in Bray.”
He loves the village but sometimes thinks it’s a bit too near the M4 as he can hear the traffic. Similar to the ocean then, I tell him, like that woosh-woosh-woosh sound we all suffered when the atmospherics hit the Luxembourg signal.
We talk about what Tony describes as “the dearth of personality DJs” these days and how many radio stations now work to a very tight playlist. “How would someone like Kenny Everett get started today?” he wonders.
And then there’s Elvis, and Tony witnessed The King’s generosity first hand as the first DJ in the world to interview him in his Las Vegas Hilton Hotel dressing room on two occasions. “I got to meet musicians who after playing at an Elvis concert would receive envelopes with cheques in from Elvis which were for twice what they’d already been paid,” he says, and he is keen to dismiss the idea that Elvis’s manager, ‘Colonel Tom’ Parker, ruled over everything in the star’s life.
“When it came to musical control, Elvis was totally in charge. Speaking to the musicians you would discover that Elvis had been mulling over their work together the day before and would be in absolute control of taking things in a new direction in the studio.”
As well as introducing Elvis on stage, Tony appeared in the film ‘That’s the Way It Is’. When Elvis died he simply pumped out The King’s songs across the airwaves round the clock. A photo of him standing next to Elvis remains on the wall of the Trophy Room in Graceland.
In 1983, inspired by the DJ mash-ups, Tony left his radio career behind to launch DMC, (The Disco Mix Club), a DJ record subscription club, after obtaining the world’s first ever licence from the music industry to permit mixing music and sales to DJs and club managers. The club provided free record promotion and for the DJs, ready made mixes in a day and age when many had yet to learn the art. With his experience as a columnist for Fab 208 magazine and various Luxembourg publications, Tony decided to launch and edited MIXMAG which became the world’s first club culture magazine, sold in 1997 to EMAP in a bidding war with IPC. The magazine remains the clubber’s bible today and is now challenged online by DMC’s own magazine edited by Daniel Prince.
The company hired the Royal Albert Hall to launch the World DJ Championship which DMC still promotes today. Many great names walked on stage to accept their DMC AWARDS, not least James Brown.
Tony concludes: “I’ve never quite understood the concept of retiring. I suppose it makes sense if you have a terrible job in a factory or something, but when you’re doing what you love, well, what’s the point?”
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