Music Maestro Please: Alan Black and Sound Leisure – Joyce Todd

07/11/2012

The names of Alan Black and Sound Leisure are renowned in the jukebox industry, and rightly so, as both of these names represent reliability, quality and honesty, one could say they are hand in glove and one without the other would not be correct.

How did it all begin, well in 1945 in Leeds, Elsie and Archie Black had a son and named him Alan James Black – apparently all the men in the Black family have the letter ‘J’ in their names, standing for either James or John.  Elsie and Archie ran a post office in South Way Park, Leeds and even today despite the fact that both Elsie and Archie died over 15 years ago it is still referred to as Black’s Parade.  Alan also has a brother Chris and at one time he followed in his parents footsteps also running a post office, but now works for a solicitor.

Alan was educated at Brownhills Primary School, Leeds then Leeds City High School and finally he ended his education days at Leeds College of Technology where he was presented with an award for the most outstanding student of the year.

An inventive mind had always been one of Alan’s strong points and at the age of 18 he started his own company Cavala Electronics repairing TV’s, radio’s, record players and electric goods, it was during this time he invented electronics enabling lights to flash in time to sound – this was known as Sound Light.  Maureen (Alan’s wife) fondly remembers having a mock-up of this at her 21st birthday party in 1967.

The product went on trial throughout the UK with the hope that someone would buy the idea, but it had little success that was until Alan met Albert Levy.  Albert was the owner of Headingley Properties and a shrewd businessman, and he realised this product had huge potential for discotheque’s, and it was following this that Alan went to work for Albert and this led to his introduction to jukeboxes.  Over a number of years Alan helped build the company even with numerous takeovers, and the company eventually becoming Chrysalis.

1978 was a huge turning point in Alan and Maureen’s lives, by this time they had two sons, Chris and Michael, and Alan came home from MAM Innplay (a later manifestation of Headingley Properties) having handed in his notice and company car.  Maureen was obviously worried about the situation, and she had some savings of around £60 in the bank, and lo and behold Alan’s solution to the situation was to spend much of this £60 on a oscilloscope and a meter and go to work for Eddie Moss of Tic-Tac-Toe repairing and refurbishing second hand juke boxes.

Archie (Alan’s dad) lent him some money and he purchased a Fiat 127 car, which Maureen fondly referred to as blue and rust coloured, more rust than blue!!  Despite the rust, this served as the family car for many years, until Chris who was 8 years old at the time threw a tantrum, due to the fact that an invalid car overtook them in Leeds!!

The company was originally going to be named Sound Investments but when Alan went to register the company he discovered another company already existed with this name, and on the spur of the moment he chose the name Sound Leisure. At that time their premises were a small room at the back of Tic-Tac-Toe’s building in Stafford Street, Leeds, Maureen said it had many similarities to Fagin’s attic in the story of Oliver, it came complete with creaking floorboards with big holes in them, these were covered over with 8 x 4 sheets of 16 gauge steel and completing the décor were hundreds of cobwebs.

Bernard Hart was a fully qualified electrician and he became Sound Leisure’s first employee in September 1978, in December 1978 Phil Paterson (he’s still at Sound Leisure today) a fully qualified draughtsman joined the company, followed by Paul Bucktrout a fully qualified electrician and Charley Stubly a fully qualified telecommunications engineer in April and May of 1979, and finally in July 1979 Mark Kirby a school leaver joined the team.

All had pivotal roles within the company Alan was responsible for the running of the company and was also very hands on with electronic repairs and design of ancillary equipment, Bernard’s responsibility was the refurbishment of second hand machines and electronic repairs, Phil’s was to carry out any engineering work required in the refurbishment and conversions of old machines also he made ancillary products for the jukebox industry.  Paul assisted Bernard, Charley organised the stores and goods in and out and Mark’s role was to assist everyone as and when required.  Being a small unit it was vital that they all helped each other, even down to Grandma McTiegue (Maureen’s mum) who was a trained tailoress and she made cash bags on her Singer sewing machine as they couldn’t find a supplier anywhere else.

Eddie Moss had backed Alan when he decided he wanted to manufacture a British jukebox, and Alan approached Eddie when he heard that the German company Harting wanted to pull out of jukebox manufacturing to concentrate on their cigarette vending market.  Eddie posed the question to Alan that did he in all honesty believe he could build a successful jukebox, bearing in mind that this would be a first in the UK as it had never been done before, Alan of course was convinced he could do it.  August 1979 saw Alan and Phil at the Harting Company with the intention of purchasing the mechanism, complete with tools and patents, Alan rang Eddie and informed him he was happy with what he had seen, and Eddie told Alan to go ahead and make Harting an offer.

After a short management discussion Harting decided to accept their offer so Eddie duly wrote out a cheque and the purchase was signed.  This was when Eddie became a partner in Sound Leisure, and Alan and Eddie agreed everything would be on a 50/50 basis, with Eddie offering financial stability and business guidance and Alan was responsible for product design and marketing.  Both of these 2 men had and still have great respect for each other’s abilities, and there’s never to this day been a cross word between them.  Alan and Eddie are more like brothers, and Chris and Michael look on Eddie as an uncle, such is the affinity between the Black and the Moss families, besides working together they even take their holidays together, now that really is true kinship.

October 1979 Phil and Charley spent a week in Germany loading all the tools and spares into a 40ft container and shipped it back to the UK, and for the next 3 months following their day to day routine of work all stayed behind and burned the midnight oil to develop Sound Leisure’s first Regency Wallbox and Hideaway jukebox.  This was exhibited at ATE in January 1980 and on the production line from March 1980, manufacturing 8 in March, 10 in April, 15 in May, 25 in June and July and by August 1980 they were steadily manufacturing 6 each week.

Amongst their first customer’s were Chalwest, A.F.M and John Smiths.

Barcelona 1981 was Sound Leisure’s first overseas exhibition and Alan, Maureen, Chris and Michael travelled there in their old Volvo, with Chris and Michael stuffed in the back seat with a couple of jukeboxes in the middle of them, another jukebox in the boot and a Hideaway cabinet on the roof, goodness knows what they did with their luggage!!  This journey is still remembered today as it was quite an eventful one, taking days to get there as the car repeatedly broke down, Alan was arrested by a Spanish motor cycle policeman, his crime was that he had allegedly crossed an unbroken line on a side road, and to this day Alan swears that he did not cross the line.  Thinking that nothing else could go wrong they arrived at the hotel and Alan went to park the car in the hotel underground car park, the Hideaway cabinet on the roof of the car caught on the entrance to the car park, and smashed into pieces.

One of their earliest overseas customer’s was F. Szechenyl of Vienna and they purchased vinyl models in 1985.

Besides trade exhibitions to market their products they had word of mouth and another avenue in their favour was that they had already dealt with a large part of the industry through repairs and refurbishment, so each time an invoice went out a product leaflet accompanied it, they also used trade magazines to advertise too.

Time passed and Sound Leisure bought an old paper mill next door to Tic-Tac-Toe and these could be classed as Sound Leisure’s first real premises, these were originally built as a pickle factory, with the downstairs floor sloping from the walls to a central drain hole with a drop of over 12 inches.  Needless to say the drain was blocked, the floor sectioned with shutters so they could be filled in with hard core and topped off with liquid cement.  The day Alan, 4 men and a boy filled the floor with hard core the cement wagon was ordered to come and pump liquid cement into the building, they were told it would be well over and hour before they could go on site.

Alan being Alan sent the 4 men to the local pub a quarter of a mile away for a pint and after around 20 minutes the boy came racing into the pub stating that the concrete mixer had arrived.  They hurried back to the factory which was just as well, as they found Alan in the centre of the concrete with shovel in hand and the concrete just starting to flow over the top of his wellingtons.  2 of the men grabbed an arm each and pulled Alan clear, leaving behind his wellingtons slowly sinking in the concrete, talk about a near miss if ever there was one.

Over the years Sound Leisure have had six factories all owned outright by them, 5 based within 10 miles of their original building and the 6th a unit in Nottingham housing their research and development team.  From their first premises in 1979 in Tic Tac Toe’s building which comprised of roughly 2000 sq feet and 6 employees to today’s building which has 100,000 sq feet and 103 employees, Sound Leisure has certainly grown and has become an important employer in the area.

Producing at least 2 new models yearly, although at times they have been known to produce 3 or 4 new models in a year, and they count the Wallbox and Hideaway units both produced in vinyl and C.D. versions amongst, their most successful models together with the free standing Route 66/Royal, and their longest running range has been Nostalgia that has run in it’s similar and familiar reproduction style since l983.

Today’s estimated numbers of their jukeboxes in locations worldwide is 100,000 with agents based in Australia, Channel Islands, Denmark, Dubai, Finland, France, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia and Switzerland, this is a far cry from the early days of the l980’s.

Background Music Systems (tapes) allied to the pub market was another product they developed, but Alan being Alan wanted to try something other than music based products and he came up with the idea of kiddie games.  This proved to be a lucrative and successful product line for them especially in the Far East, but due to the Pacific Rim crash 12/15 years ago with most countries devalued, this made Sound Leisure’s kiddie games too expensive to purchase, thus resulting in a much reduced games section.

The past 7 years have seen Sound Leisure evolve tremendously, mainly due to their core market of pubs and clubs reducing in numbers, so in addition to their traditional base they now find themselves supplying  banks, NHS, supermarkets, casinos, coffee bars, prisons, councils, schools and attractions etc.  Even the likes of Harrods and Selfridges are part of their portfolio selling their range of Classic Jukeboxes which are hand built in their Leeds factory. Let’s face it with this type of store their clientele come from all walks of life including some very famous names, and who knows even Buckingham Palace might house a Sound Leisure jukebox!!

Part Two next month

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