Turkish Baths are supposed to be good for the body and good for the mind, but nobody said anything about business.
Twenty (or so) years ago Lou Dean was a regular visitor to Turkish baths and his fellow perspirer was Al Freedman, the man who for many years ran an accordion shop at Kings Cross. For years Al was asking Lou to go into the business with him but Lou – an accomplished semi-pro musician – was happy managing a branch of Stone's the electrical retailers. Eventually Lou gave in to the challenge, joined Al Freedman Ltd and started a career in musical instrument retailing that was to lead to the well known London chain, Western Music Co.
Lou Dean's life had always been very musical. During WWI his father was a musician in the Merchant Marine and an expert on string instruments like the guitar. Little Lou was brought up in a heavy musical environment, taking violin lessons himself, while his sister became a professional vocalist, his brothers professional musicians.
"But it wasn't the violin I wanted to learn," recalls Lou from his head office and spacious keyboard showroom in Hammersmith's King Street. "I wanted to play the clarinet. My father insisted that I should learn the violin for a year and if I did O.K. on that I could start the clarinet."
Lou's undoubted musical talent quickly exhibited itself and by the time WWII arrived he was playing saxophone in the Army.
By the 1950's he had gained wide experience with most sorts of musical instruments so when he decided to go into partnership with Al he was well equipped to sell not only accordions, but a wide variety of instruments.
Like so many partnerships do, this one was to split up in the late fifties and Lou struck out on his own.
"I settled on Hammersmith because it was an area with a good cross section of people and I felt that there would be a big musical market here." Lou's judgement was quickly confirmed and trade at the little shop at 150 King Street was soon to pick up. "It was very slow in the beginning, however," says Lou. "If it was not for the generosity of my suppliers, I'm sure we wouldn't have lasted a year. They helped me to survive and I don't think the same thing would happen today."
After the skiffle and trad jazz boom of the late fifties, the trade suffered a recession during 1961 and 1962. Groups were less popular than solo singers and it was this decline in trade that led Lou to a decision that would permanently affect the future of Western Music.
"I decided to specialise in electric organs. From accordions we naturally progressed to small reed organs and from there to little electronic models. I thought that there was going to be an explosion in these instruments because of the future of electronics. I was initially trained as an electrician and I had a great interest in electronics. For that reason I was interested in building up the electronic side of our trade and so I started stocking the few organs that were then available.
"At that time there were only three organ dealers in the whole of London so I didn't have that much competition, but then there wasn't that much trade in organs either."
Lou's business really took off with the group boom. 1963 saw the beginning of an almost hysterical trade period, with virtually every type of musical equipment selling like there was no tomorrow. Lou was still supplying all kinds of musical instruments.
"We all worked incredibly hard at that time, helping young people make music. We'd spend night after night in church halls and rehearsal rooms working with bands and getting the right equipment for them. All the guys used to visit us in those days, the Who, Adam Faith, Joe Brown, the list is endless. Sometimes they had money, other times they didn't but we'd always try to help and I think they appreciated that."
In the wake of the group boom, prosperity of the mid-sixties pointed the way for Western Music. Manufacturers were taking the organ market more seriously and organs like Lowrey, Hammond, Vox and Farfisa were becoming sophisticated instruments.
More and more people were buying these instruments for home entertainment and it was in this area that Lou specialised. Another branch of Western Music was opened in Croydon. "We opened that in 1964. It's more like a musical department store than a shop, there are over 5,500 square feet and Gerry Rodley became our first branch manager. Croydon proved itself to be as lucrative an area as Hammersmith and within the next five years Western opened another "mid way" branch at Wimbledon.
Western Music's shops are really more showrooms than shops. Much of the selling of the superb keyboards stocked by the companies is done outside of normal trading hours at the special promotions given by Western at major venues around West London.
In the last ten years the company has regularly hired venues like Hammersmith town hall and in front of an invited audience, top organ stars demonstrate a range of keyboards.
"We arrange the venue, the manufacturer provides the performers and the organs," said Lou. "Our promotions are usually a huge success and they're very important to our trade. Perhaps the most important thing for us is our organ club. This is a social club for people who have bought organs from us and who want to keep in touch not only with us, but with each other. The members have a Midsummer Ball, a monthly news letter, annual dinner and dance and a monthly meeting which keeps the thing very much alive. At Croydon the members meet on the first Monday of the month and here (in Hammersmith) we meet on the second Monday."
Although the clubs were Lou's idea, he admits that he followed the lead of American organ retailing in setting up a facility for home organ users to compare notes and a "keeping up with the Jones's" situation arose.
The main organ lines that Western Music sell today are Lowrey – a well established top professional range of organs, Kimball, a new range about which Lou is very excited, Farfisa "always an excellent seller", Galanti, Gulbransen and Haven.
At Hammersmith the visitor is faced with a staggering array of keyboards but to prove Lou is still very much on the current scene there's 20 or 30 guitars on the walls, a 100 watt Fender amp and a full accessory bar which stocks an incredible selection of strings and bits and pieces.
The Western Music chain has now grown to five shops, Hammersmith, Croydon, Wimbledon, Upper Norwood and Brixton and the continuing success of the operation is a tribute to Lou's intuitive feel for the music industry.