The Story of Supersound (1952 - 1974) Part 1 by Mary Wootton
Supersound Electronic Products was formed by Alan and Mary Wootton in 1952 from very humble circumstances.
When we started we rented a small bedroom in a terrace house in Northumberland Heath, Erith, Kent and Alan still had the use of his mother's garage in her garden just down the road.
Alan was working then for Associated Ciné Equipments (ACE) as an electronic engineer, repairing, building and designing tape recorders and sound equipment. ACE also had a photographic shop in Northumberland Heath and in order to make a little extra money we used to develop the films that were brought in each day. We worked in the garage, over a little oil stove, and brought the prints back to our room (usually in the early hours of the morning), laid them out to dry and then first thing in the morning we had to deckle edge them and pack them up ready for Alan to drop in the shop on his way to work (by bicycle in those days).
Also to help our income, which was rather low, I went to work as a part-time secretary at a big master bakery in Northumberland Heath.
Alan taught me about electronics and how to wire chassis, and in the evenings we used to work over at the garage making little amplifiers or things, and then we bought the Exchange & Mart and foraged through to see if anybody wanted an amplifier in exchange for things we wanted like a typewriter, stencil duplicator, etc.
Once we had a typewriter we were away and used to write to firms to get details of components, but of course it wasn't long before we had our first visit from a Rep, and when he saw that we were only in a terrace house he said they couldn't possibly do business with us. We realised that we would have to find other premises and started looking around. By now we had thought up the name Supersound Electronic Products and had some notepaper printed (dark green letters on a pale green paper, and I used a green ribbon in the typewriter). Alan wanted to put a label on all our products, and this is where I made my first practical contribution by suggesting that instead of just putting the words “A Supersound Product”, why not put “Another Supersound Product”. Alan thought that was a marvellous idea and we kept that throughout our business life.
When we noticed in the local paper that a lease was available on premises that could be used for business purposes, we went for it and subsequently moved into Hawley Grange, Wilmington, near Dartford on a seven-year lease. I was not working at the time so in order to pay the first quarter's rent I went on an agency's books and worked for six weeks as a temporary worker.
Hawley Grange was a large country house with two very big rooms which made into one by a sliding partition, a small living room, kitchen and scullery at the back, and upstairs were four bedrooms and a bathroom. Our idea was that we could run Supersound properly from here and I was going to start a typing agency. However, a few weeks after we moved in I discovered that I was pregnant, so the agency idea went out of the window and I settled down to just being a secretary and mother.
By now Alan had changed his job, and now worked for Tom Jennings (Jennings Musical Industries) at Dartford who had started designing and making the Univox keyboard and organs. Alan was on repairs and mostly had to work around the London area, so Tom Jennings arranged for him to learn to drive and then he had the use of a small van. Jennings also opened a music shop in Charing Cross Road and Alan Billington was put in charge of that. At dinner times, Alan used to go round there and meet up with many of the well-known musicians who used to congregate there.
We used the two big front rooms of Hawley Grange as a workshop and Alan gradually collected quite a few orders for custom built equipment like record players, radiograms, amplifiers etc. After some time Alan was asked to design an amplifier for Vox, which he did, and Tom promised him a dividend off sales, but this last promise did not come about. After Alan kept coming home really fed up for a few weeks I suggested that as we had about eight weeks private work on hand, which he was having to do late evenings working well into the nights, I would be agreeable to him packing up at Jennings and going all out to get new orders of his own.
This he did and we were really in it for real.
He started touting around and said he would like one of the lads who worked with him at Jennings to join us. When this boy came to see us he said he would love to work for Alan but would only come if his two friends could come as well, so we took on all three - Ron Hopkins, Dave Pankhurst and Bob Kilgour.
This was a major step (our first employees) but with the aid of Alan's Wolf electric drill which he had had for Christmas and a few hand tools, he set to work to start making guitar amplifiers to his own design and we were off. As was to be expected Tom Jennings didn't like that very much and asked Alan to design an amplifier for him as well and make them for him. This Alan did and the first batch were OK, but then “Uncle Tom” as we always called him started not paying for his goods, and so we broke with him altogether.
We sold amplifiers where we could and personal recommendations started to bring work in from professional musicians. The name of Supersound was starting to get well known in the music industry and some of the people who used our amps were Bob Rogers, Teddy Wadmore, Ike Isaacs, Ted Taylor, The Malcolm Mitchell Trio, Wout Steenhuis, Billy Bell, Adam Faith, Ivor Mairants, Harmonica Aces, The Gherkins, Judd Proctor, John Barry, Sam Gelsey, Arthur Golding and many others. We always had the radio on and could usually tell when one of our amps was being used.
I believe Adam Faith recommended Cliff Richard to come to us and get the Shadows fixed up with custom-made gear, but this didn't come to fruition. We did though do a private job for Adam Faith, building a radiogram inside an antique cabinet which he supplied, and he was very pleased with the result.
One day Wout Steenhuis rang up and asked to come down to have his guitar set up with electronics. When Wout handed Alan a very expensive guitar, Alan said, “I can't drill holes in that to fit the pick-ups!”, but Wout insisted and with much trepidation Alan did the work. Phew!
One Sunday, Alan's friend Ken Mansfield took us in his car to a Jazz Concert (somewhere in Surrey I think – I can't remember the exact theatre now) and just before the show was due to start there was an announcement over the PA “…was there a Mr Alan Wootton in the audience? If so would he please go backstage”. We wondered what on earth for, but Alan went, only to find the famous American guitarist Barney Kessel in trouble with his amplifier, and wondered if Alan could repair it for him before he went on. Alan wasn't able to do this, but said he could dash back home and bring one of ours up for the second half. So Ken had to take Alan home and come back with the Amp whilst I stayed and watched the first half on my own.
They set Barney up with our amp and I'm pleased to say it worked perfectly and he was very impressed, but of course he couldn't take the matter any further because we weren't geared up to make equipment to suit the American market. But nevertheless, it was an experience and something for us to be proud of, as Alan had always admired Barney Kessel and liked his music.
Guitars, “Supersound Records”, & Jim Burns…
All the while Alan was thinking up new ideas for things to make and trying out prototypes. The worst of it was he spent a lot of time experimenting to get perfect sounds out of our guitar amplifiers and then someone thought of using distortion as a gimmick and to our disgust we had to follow the trend and invent wah-wah foot pedals and things. For a time we even had a very good guitarist friend from Essex staying with us so that he could sit all day just testing the amps with his guitar to make sure they were all right.
In 1957 we were able to buy-in the machine heads, and Alan designed and made the tail plates, fingerboards and scratch plates. We had our own fret wire made, but of course had to buy a large quantity as it was specially drawn to our specification. Finally, we needed strings, which were non-standard so found a manufacturer to make these. Come to think of it, I believe Jimmy Burns used to make these and we asked Ike Isaacs if he would endorse them and let us use his name, which he agreed to. He used to come down to test the samples, which were sent to us, and then Jimmy Burns started sending them direct to Ike and somewhere along the line he started producing his own range of strings to rival ours. Needless to say, our relationship with Jimmy Burns ended on a somewhat sour note.
Alan then decided to make the guitars himself and we invested in a few more woodworking tools and machinery.
At that time we were still very interested in tape recorders and used to produce our own model. We also started doing recordings and had a “Supersound” record label printed.
We had a few commissions; one was a lady contralto from Bromley, who Alan thought was quite good and said he would try and get her records taken up by somebody and if she was successful he would be her agent. We had a friend, Eddie Thompson (former European Accordion Champion), who worked for the BBC so Alan sent him a copy of her record and although they thought she was very good the only thing against her was her age - if she had been much younger they would have snapped her up and we would have been on a good thing.
Another recording Alan had to do was a choral society doing The Merry Widow, so we sold many copies there. We also did some recordings of Ike Isaacs on guitar accompanied by Johnny Hawksworth on bass. (Johnny was a very famous bass player on the jazz circuit at that time.)
We had a friend who did all our advertising for us – Dave LeGoode – and so we did all our own publicity, but as we worked mostly from recommendation, we didn't have to spend much on advertising. We were very self-contained.
By now, we had quite a range of products going. We made twin turntables for disc jockeys, by buying in the turntables and making up the cases with amplifiers incorporated.
Then Alan designed an echo box, which was all the rage then. We called it the EchoVoice and it was very successful. So much so that a firm in America wrote and ordered a hundred. We made these up specially and they were shipped to the USA. However, then came our first business upset – they didn't pay for the goods. They left them in bonded warehouse and we learned later that it was a ruse to get goods on the cheap because they thought we wouldn't go to the trouble to taking them back all the way from America and they could then offer a much lower price and we would accept.
However, we were a bit green anyway, and were so annoyed over it that we stuck out and eventually had the consignment shipped back and had to pay the bonding fees. We were satisfied we hadn't fallen for that old trick and were determined not to let anything like that happen again.
(When we started making the twin turntables, Alan sent to Luxembourg for some literature on some very ingenious turntables, and he would very much have liked to use them only they were rather expensive. Then we had a shock when the firm rang us up and asked if we would be their UK Agent. We didn't know what to say because we visualised the bosses of this internationally famous firm turning up on our doorstep only to find that we were only a tiny firm working from the front room of a large country Grange. So we politely turned down the offer.)