Building on rapid technological advances throughout World War I, such as the pleated and varnished paper diaphragm speaker which replaced the horn, more durable cylinders and discs which also facilitated longer and better quality recordings, Decca invented a way of installing a tone arm mount for the stylus in a box lid, making the first truly portable ‘talking’ machine: the Dulcephone.
Hundreds of portable “Deccas” were sent to the British front lines to comfort the battered soldiers in the trenches, post-war Decca sales literature portrayed the machines as war heroes:
WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE GREAT WAR--'DECCA'?
I was 'Mirth-Maker-in-Chief to His Majesty's Forces'; my role being to give our Soldiers and our Sailors music wherever they should be. In that capacity I saw service on every Front--France, Belgium, Egypt, Palestine, Italy and the Dardenelles; right in the Front Line and away back in Camps and Hospitals. All told, there were 100,000 “Deccas" on Active Service from start to finish of the War.
And now that the War is over, I still pursue my calling but under pleasanter conditions...
But where did the name come from?
As with many products, the story of its origin has many friends. One story, remembered by Brian Rust (a well known discographer) published in a 1981 issue of specialist magazine Sounds Vintage, describes 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 presenting sixteen records by the newest arrival in the British gramophone industry, the Decca record company.
At first glance 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 however the truth is less mythical, as Edgar Samuel, a descendant of the inventor explains:
“The trademark DECCA was made up by Wilfred S. Samuel of Barnett Samuel & Sons, in 1914, when he patented the newly invented portable gramophone. He told me that he wanted a word for exports, which could be easily recognised by illiterates and which would have the same pronunciation in all languages. It seems to have been a merger of MECCA with the initial D of their logo "Dulcet" or their trademark "Dulcephone."
Transition to the recording industry
Post World War 1 Decca (Barnett Samuel) was a company with many faucets, including the distribution of musical instruments and the manufacture of watches and steel pens. Several times they tried getting into the record business, but it took them until 1928/29, when Barnett Samuel was purchased by Edward Lewis, to form the Decca Record Company in England. He served as chairman of British Decca until his death in 1980. Although concentrating more on the classical side of things they were partly responsible for the early success of Disney’s musical efforts, opening up a huge market in England in 1936 and 36 when they released "Old King Cole" and "Meet Mickey Mouse.
As a slight aside, it was British Decca executive Dick Rowe (or rather his assistant) that famously turned down the Beatles in 1961 (only to redeem himself by signing the Rolling Stones shortly thereafter).
The more pop-based American Decca label, founded by Jack Kapp, was formed in 1934. and over the years released hits from such luminaries as Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and the Andrews Sisters (who inspired the "Three little maids" sequence in the Hot Mikado spin-off on the most popular Gilbert and Sullivan opera.) though was dissolved in 1973 by MCA after it was purchased in 1962 for the controlling interest they had in Universal Pictures.
From then British Decca recordings were distributed by London Records, and it continued like this through the 18 fruitful years of Polygram ownership (1980 -1998) up to their merger with Universal. This enabled Decca once again to use its trademark worldwide (MCA was under Universal), which was cemented by the 1999 Decca and Philips merger to form Decca Music Group.