Explanation of the Word "Decca"

For many years, Decca was the official record label of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. In the 78rpm era, the Company had recorded with HMV. But, after the war, D'Oyly Carte signed a new deal with British Decca. The first few recordings came out in 1949 (Trial By Jury being the first), and the relationship remained in place for thirty years, ending with Company's last recording in 1979, The Yeomen of the Guard.

In the United States, Decca's G&S recordings have generally been issued on the London label, apparently because "London" is a much easier name to market in America than "Decca", which conveys nothing in particular. However, Charles Schlotter tells me that there there was a trademark split that prevented the U.K. Decca company from using the name in America.

A while back, I asked on Savoynet where the name "Decca" came from, and I received two interesting replies.

Dan Kravetz wrote:

According to The Guiness Book of Recorded Sound by Robert and Celia Dearling (1984), the "Decca" trade name was first used in 1914 for a portable gramophone manufactured by Barnett Samuel & Sons Ltd. The machine was called the Decca "Dulcephone" and many of them were used in the trenches by British soldiers in World War I. The origins of the word "Decca" are described as "lost." The Decca Record Company began producing recordings in England in 1929. The American Decca label dates from 1934. Edward Lewis, who bought Barnett Samuel in 1929, was chairman of British Decca until his death in 1980.

Chris Webster wrote:

I have a lengthy article by Brian Rust (a well known discographer) published in the March-April, 1981, issue of a specialist magazine called Sounds Vintage. I will loosely quote the from opening paragraph:

"Half a century ago, there was a programme broadcast every Sunday afternoon from Radio Paris preceded by a call sign played on tubular bells or vibraphone—a five note phrase on the notes D, E, C, C and A, in that order. There followed a show involving sixteen of the latest records isued by the newest arrival in the British gramophone industry, the Decca record company."

This would tie in with the original Decca logo, which was a musical stave with a treble clef and the notes D, E, C, C and A written in crotchets with the letters underneath to spell that magic word, followed by another treble clef. This is interesting but does not help to find were the word came from (unless the fanfare was behind the invention of the word, but I think the fanfare came from the already thought up name). But, I now quote from the last paragraph of Rust's article revealing all that he knows of the origination of the word:

"To this day, no-one seems to know what the word Decca means, if anything. We might well shrug and ask, 'What's in a name?' In the case of Decca, the answer seems to be, 'As a word, nothing; as a record label, quite a lot'"

However, I received an e-mail from Edgar Samuel (perhaps a descendant of the inventor) that seems to clear up the matter definitively:

The trademark DECCA was made up by Wilfred S. Samuel of Barnett Samuel & Sons, in 1914, when he patented the newly invented portable gramaphone. He told me that he wanted a word for exports, which be could easily recognised by illiterates and which would have the same pronounciation in all languages. It seems to have been a merger of MECCA with the intial D of their logo "Dulcet" or their trademark "Dulcephone."

Li Yi-Peng added:

I thought I might just give you a little bit of information on why Decca was known as London until Seagram's takeover of Polygram and the merger of Polygram and Universal.

Decca was originally a company that started off distributing musical instruments and manufacturing watches and steel pens. Several times they tried getting into the record business (which even included the launch of a portable gramophone called Decca), but the year 1928 saw the record company getting its feet off the ground. Some years after this, the American division of the label was founded by a man named Jack Kapp, but the only difference was that the American Decca label was more pop-based than its parent. Its artists throughout the years included Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Danny Kaye (the American comedian and singer who recorded a transatlantic version of the Lord Chancellor's nightmare song in Iolanthe) and the Andrews Sisters (who inspired the "Three little maids" sequence in the Hot Mikado spin-off on the most popular G&S opera.)

Back in Britain the original Decca label concentrated more on classical recordings despite some pop forays, with a golden age of recordings coming after the introduction of stereo. (This was the time of fruitful contracts with Pavarotti, Solti, Sutherland and of course D'Oyly Carte.) The American division of Decca, however, dissolved itself in 1973 after it was purchased by MCA Communications Group. This incorporated the Decca recordings into the MCA catalogue. During this time, the British Decca recordings were distributed by London Records, and it continued like this through the 20 fruitful Polygram years (with DG and Philips, and other illustrious pop and jazz labels, not to mention other entertainment sources) up to the 1998 merger with Universal. The 1998 merger with Universal enabled Decca once again to use its trademark worldwide because MCA was under Universal.

And lastly, commenter D. Fisher addeed:

I can't give you chapter and verse on this but I believe that the American Decca was transferred to American ownership early in the second World War, along with the American arms of many British companies as part of what we had to give up to get American war equipment. (They weren't helping us for nothing). Usually, companies that helped in this way were looked on favourably by HMG afterwards.