The Life and Times of Music Entrepreneur Robert Stigwood

Written by Cameron K
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Robert Stigwood was born in 1934 in Adelaide, South Australia and was educated at Sacred Heart College. He began his career as a copywriter for a local advertising agency but in 1955, aged 21 he moved to England. At first, he took odd jobs including working as an assistant in the institution for "teenage boys" in East Anglia.

There he became friends with Stephen Komlosy and they decided to start a small theatrical agency. One of their first clients was a handsome young actor called John Leyton. Stigwood spotted his potential as a pop singer but after Leyton had been turned down by a number of recording companies, Stigwood took him to meet Joe Meek. Meek was an independent record producer who had his own small recording and company, RGM Sound Ltd. He used a small roster of artists and wrote, produced and recorded their works before offering the completed tape to established record companies to manufacture and distribute. Leyton’s first couple of singles, a cover of ‘Tell Laura I love her’; and ‘Girl on the Floor Above’ were released in 1960 but met with no interest.

John Leyton

John Leyton

As John Leyton’s agent, Stigwood managed to get him cast in the role of a pop star, Johnny St. Cyr ("sincere") in a new TV soap called, Harper's West One. The role called for Leyton’s character to perform a song on the show. The single, ‘Johnny Remember me’ became an instant Number One hit in the UK. Encouraged by initial success Stigwood became more involved in record production. Other artists like Mike Sarne and Mike Berry soon joined the Stigwood stables. The Stigwood/Meek success set a new pattern for the industry and within a couple of years over half the hits in the UK were independent productions. Despite this success, Robert Stigwood became increasingly dissatisfied with Joe Meek's erratic behaviour. Eventually, they parted company and Stigwood took on the role of record producer and made a deal with Sir Joseph Lockwood, (managing director of EMI) in 1961. Now agent, manager and independent producer, he continued to thrive as a music publisher and pop concert promoter.

Keen to encourage greater success for his UK acts, the entrepreneur reversed the normal process for UK acts by regularly visiting America to acquire potential songs to rush release UK covers before the originals hit the American charts. His business rapidly expanded and Stigwood bathed in excess with success. His management style was abrupt and was not always popular. By the mid-60s his business was in serious financial trouble although Stigwood managed to avoid complete disaster he went bankrupt but kept his creditors at bay as he re-established himself. Within two years, he was back on top. The music business is aggressive and highly competitive and a common practice for agents then, was to try and ‘pouch’ acts from other agencies. This often met with violent repercussions and it is alleged, Don Arden reacted menacingly to Stigwood when he made advances to The Small Faces to switch to his agency.

the small faces

The Small Faces

Stigwood took on a new business partner, David Shaw, to strengthen his financial position. The Robert Stigwood Agency (RSA) remained intact as he worked to rebuild his career as a manager and independent producer. In 1966, Robert Stigwood became The Who's booking agent and eventually lured the band to join his Reaction Records and record, "Substitute". Cream, consisting of Eric Clapton (John Mayall's Bluesbreakers), bassist Jack Bruce, and drummer Ginger Baker (The Graham Bond Organisation) were also an aspiring act in the UK but the trio had never appeared in the US. Stigwood arranged for them to debut at a 9-day gig in New York for the Who in 1967.

To finance this venture he released capital by moving his recording activities to Polydor Records in a lucrative deal. The band went on to record at Atlantic Records with producer-engineer Tom Dowd. In the same year, the Australian entrepreneur signed a career-making deal with his friend and colleague Brian Epstein to merge their two companies. Brian Epstein remained manager of The Beatles but Stigwood was now in control of most of NEMS other acts and soon the friends found themselves at odds. The move effectively placed Stigwood at the pinnacle of the British pop industry. Why Epstein decided to merge with Stigwood remains uncertain and it was generally considered an unpopular decision as Stigwood had a reputation of being a ruthless and a cavalier style that upset many people. Epstein would soon regret the partnership. The next big break came only weeks after the merger with the arrival of The Bee Gees. Straight from Australia with hopes of making it in the UK, Stigwood signed them to a five-year deal while still at NEMS. Later when he left the company he took their contract with him and signed them to Polydor. Their first single flopped despite heavy hype, but undeterred, and with NEMS' resources behind him, he embarked on a concerted campaign to break the Bee Gees in the UK. Their second single, New York Mining Disaster 1941, was a major UK hit and was followed by Massachusetts, which went Top 5 in both England and the USA.

the bee gees

The Bee Gees in 1967 

After the death of Brian Epstein. Robert Stigwood left NEMS to form his own company, The Robert Stigwood Organisation. By the end of the sixties, Stigwood was enjoying huge success with his music ventures. Cream and The Bee Gees were the biggest attractions in the world and Stigwood took production credits on their early works. He moved into theatre production in 1968 after he saw the Broadway production of Hair. He decided to stage it in London and it was a huge success and followed this with a series of other successful productions: Oh! Calcutta!, The Dirtiest Show in Town, Pippin, Sweeney Todd, Sing a Rude Song, John, Paul, Ringo and Bert, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar.

By the beginning of the 70s, Stigwood's companies had expanded into almost every field of entertainment, including both film and TV production. Stigwood had purchased a controlling interest in Associated London Scripts, an independent writers' agency co-founded in the 1950s by Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes, which subsequently developed the hit series All in the Family and Sanford and Son in the USA, which was adapted from the popular British TV shows Til Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son, respectively. In 1973 Stigwood moved into film and produced Jesus Christ Superstar as a motion picture in association with its director, Norman Jewison. He followed this with the acclaimed film version of The Who's Tommy, directed by Ken Russell.

RSO Films then produced Saturday Night Fever with a soundtrack by the Bee Gees. This became the largest-selling soundtrack album ever released, and one of the biggest-selling albums in recording history. Stigwood followed this with another huge success, Grease, which became one of the most successful film musicals ever released. His company produced the cult 'gangster' movie for kids, Bugsy Malone, as well as Peter Weir's Gallipoli

jesus christ superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar

Not all the musical movies were a great success and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, starring Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees, bombed at the box office. He has continued with mixed fortunes in the film industry. By the mid-80s, the RSO catalogue was sold off. RSO teamed up with Bob Banner Associates in 1975 to produce a stunt game show, Almost Anything Goes (ABC) which lasted four seasons. He became more active in the second half of the 1990s, producing the long-awaited film version of another Lloyd Webber/Rice concept album-turned-stage musical, Evita (1996), and being involved with the stage version of Saturday Night Fever (1999). Robert Stigwood died in 2016 aged 81

Worth a listen
John Leyton
Johnny Remember me (1961 )
The Who
Substitute (1966)
I’m a boy (1966)
Happy Jack (1966)
Pictures of Lily (1966)
I can see for miles (1967)
Magic Bus (1968)
Pinball Wizzard (1969)
The Cream
Strange Brew (1967)
Spoonful (1967)
Sunshine of your love (1968)
White Room (1968)
Crossroads (1969)
Badge (1969)
The Bee Gees
New York Mining Disaster 1941 (1967)
Jive talkin’ (1975)
Staying Alive (1977)
Night Fever (1978)


Read 3384 times Last modified on Tuesday, 25 February 2020 08:08
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Cameron K

Cameron K

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