The Sunderland firm ‘saved’ by the death of Elvis

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AN appeal for memories of a Wearside record firm “saved” by the death of Elvis has been launched.

Author Karl Whitney is hoping to trace people who worked at the Washington-based RCA record plant in the 1970s, to add some colour to an article he is writing about the area.

RECORD BOSSES: Rocco Laginestra (left), executive vice-president of RCA Records, with Mr V. Gowland, manager of the Washington factory, at the opening in May 1970.

RECORD BOSSES: Rocco Laginestra (left), executive vice-president of RCA Records, with Mr V. Gowland, manager of the Washington factory, at the opening in May 1970.

“I’m currently working on a piece about the development of Washington as a new town, and I want to make the factory a central part of the feature - as it really interests me,” he said.

“However, I’m finding it hard to find out much about it, and I’d very much like to chat with someone with knowledge or memories of the place. Sadly, it seems almost forgotten now.”

Sandie Shaw was at No.1 with Puppet on a String as work on constructing the £1.8million RCA plant - the “world’s most modern record pressing factory” - began in May 1967.

By the time the Armstrong Road-based firm opened on May 7, 1970, Norman Greenbaum had stormed to the top of the charts with Spirit in the Sky - and hopes for success were riding high too.

“The factory is the most modern in the world and the first American record-producing plant in this country,” reported the Echo. “It will provide 300 jobs and is computer-controlled.”

Norman Racusin, president of Radio Corporation of America (RCA), travelled from the US to Wearside to open the factory - accompanied by RCA executive vice-president Rocco Laginestra.

A visit to Washington Old Hall followed the opening ceremony, where Mr Laginestra presented a memento featuring George Washington’s signature to Washington councillors.

Copies of a specially-pressed record, featuring “pop” tracks from Elvis and other singers on one side and classical tunes on the other, were also handed out to 200 managers and staff.

“Officials of RCA are confident that the factory will be rapidly expanded in the near future,” added the Echo. “The operation will challenge the biggest of British major music firms.”

Hundreds of factory staff produced over 18,000,000 records a year - featuring everyone from David Bowie and Sweet to Elvis and classical performers - during the early 1970s.

But, by the middle of the decade, sales of vinyl had started to fall as music fans rushed out to buy new cassettes instead. The changing face of the industry soon took its toll on RCA.

Plans to close the Washington plant were first mooted in 1976 and, in July 1977, it was announced 94 staff were to lose their jobs - with the others to be put on short-time working.

As negotiations between unions and management hotted up, so closure seemed a sure bet - until news of Elvis’s death shocked fans worldwide...and brought the factory a reprieve.

“His death on August 16, at the age of just 42, sparked new interest in Elvis’s music. People rushed out to buy up copies of every record The King had ever made,” said Karl.

“Elvis had always been a great seller for RCA, but now plants around the world were told to step up production. Washington, as the most modern, was at the forefront of this process.

“Twelve-hour shifts were introduced, as Elvis’s records were effectively sold before they were pressed. The factory went from near closure to 24-hour working, seven days a week.”

The death of The King helped keep RCA Washington open for the next three years but, in 1981, the plant once hailed as “a veritable showpiece of modern technology” finally shut.

Europe’s biggest DIY complex was later built on the site by Dickens, and today the area is home to B&Q. Only memories, however, remain of the world’s best record-pressing plant.

“I’d very much like to talk to anyone who worked there, to find out more about the place. Did they get free samples, who was their favourite artist - that sort of thing,” said Karl.

•Anyone who is able to help Karl can contact him via email at karl.whitney@gmail.com or by phone on 07826 666539.