In memory of Robert Stigwood – impresario extraordinaire

robertstigwoodRobert Stigwood (16 April 1934–4 January 2016): Impresario Extraordinaire who promoted The Bee Gees, John Travolta and Lloyd Webber musicals.

Impresario Robert Stigwood, who has died aged 81, was a unique example of a businessman with his own vision that saw him achieving success in many forms of public entertainment. Not one to stick to just a single part of the music scene, he diversified his interests to cover not only the signing and managing of popular singers and musicians, but he also ventured into concert promotion and music publishing, and theatre and film production. Apart from a few glitches which cost him a lot of money, he for the most part made his millions through a shrewd choice of what he thought would appeal to large audiences. Just to mention a few of his successes – The Bee Gees, Cream, Mike Berry, Mike Sarne, Long John Baldry, The Moody Blues, John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and Grease, the musicals Hair and Tommy, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita – demonstrates the scale of Stigwood’s success.

Born in Port Pirie in South Australia, the son of an electrical engineer and his nurse wife, Stigwood began his career as a copywriter in an advertising agency. Finding life too dull, he moved from Australia to the UK in 1955, eventually securing a job in a home for wayward boys in East Anglia, a depressing job that he soon tired of. Moving on to work in a theatre in Portsmouth, he met businessman Stephen Komlosy with whom he formed a partnership, Robert Stigwood Associates, which took on actors as clients, among whom was John Leyton, a young actor and singer.

Working with independent record producer Joe Meek during the early 1960s, Stigwood released Leyton’s record of ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’. Later on Leyton was cast in the television series Harpers West One, about a London department store. When Leyton got to sing ‘Johnny Remember Me’ on the TV programme, it became a hit, went to No. 1 in the charts and stayed there for some 15 weeks. More songs were released by Leyton, Meek and Stigwood, although Meek eventually dropped out of the partnership. When Leyton’s music career started to wane, he began making headway as an actor on TV in the Biggles series and in films such as The Great Escape, Von Ryan’s Express, Guns at Batasi and Krakatoa – East of Java.

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Robert Stigwood, Hal Prince and Andrew Lloyd Webber on the opening night of Evita in 1980

By then Stigwood had made a deal with EMI to release Leyton’s records and those by other artists in the Stigwood stable on their HMV label. However, although Stigwood did not make a great deal of profit from this arrangement, he had succeeded in changing the way that pop records were produced and marketed. When he tried to muscle in and poach another producer’s clients, Stigwood received personal threats to his well-being, and he also had his flops, most notably a tour with Chuck Berry, The Five Dimensions, Simon Scott, The Graham Bond Organisation and The Moody Blues among others.

Still, he managed to keep his creditors at bay while he concentrated on other schemes. He took over as booking agent for The Who and put them on his own Reaction record label and developed a newly-formed band, Cream with Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. In 1967 when Brian Epstein of NEMS found managing The Beatles too arduous, he offered to work with the Stigwood Agency but The Beatles vetoed the idea of a collaboration. Epstein died shortly afterwards in 1967 and Stigwood set up his own Robert Stigwood Organisation and subsequently signed up with Polydor Records.

He fared badly trying to promote a singer called Oscar, whose real name was Paul Beuselinck. Although he released several singles under the name Oscar and also as Paul Dean, true success eluded him. Later on Oscar/Dean re-emerged as Paul Nicholas and was eventually to appear in Stigwood’s 1968 production of Hair, followed by Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), Grease and the film of The Who’s Tommy. During his time with NEMS Stigwood signed the Australian group The Bee Gees and when he left NEMS after 11 months took the group with him. They were to become one of Stigwood’s greatest successes, along with such high players as Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Eric Clapton.

Stigwood also acquired an interest in Associated London Scripts in order to sell the formats of British TV sitcoms such as Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son to US television. And that was not all, for RSO also moved into film soundtrack albums for the likes of Grease and The Empire Strikes Back.

Not content with working in music and films, Stigwood then became involved in theatre production. He achieved outstanding success with Hair, Oh! Calcutta, Jesus Christ Superstar, Pippin, Sweeney Todd and Evita among others. They were followed by stage versions of his successful films starring John Travolta, Grease and Saturday Night Fever. However, his film of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a flop despite its roster of famous personnel (The Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, Paul Nicholas, Aerosmith, Steve Martin, Alice Cooper, Earth Wind and Fire plus George Burns and Frankie Howerd, no less, alongside The Beatles’ song catalogue) but other films such as The Fan, Grease 2, Gallipoli and Evita performed reasonably well, the last winning a Golden Globe Award for Madonna as Best Actress.

Remaining unmarried throughout his life, in later years Stigwood retired to the Isle of Wight, although he kept in touch with his musical and theatre interests. What began as an unpromising career in Australia had blossomed into a life that achieved much for Stigwood personally and also changed the course of the UK record industry by his introduction of independent music producers feeding the record companies with the pop talents of the time. He was for the most part a shrewd businessman who had the ability to locate the sweet smell of success and, although he was misguided at times, for the most part he was undoubtedly an impresario extraordinaire. Without him we may not have enjoyed the music of The Bee Gees, the film career of John Travolta, and some of Lloyd Webber & Rice’s most lucrative musicals. Just think about that…

Michael Darvell

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