Robert Stigwood Helped Turn Rock Into Big Business



robertstigwoodI wanted to say a few words about Robert Stigwood, whose passing got lost in the recent rash of Rock casualties. His story is a fascinating one for anyone who loves Rock history, in part because of all the great artists who came into his orbit.

Robert Stigwood was a Rock pioneer who was instrumental in transforming quaint early Rock & Roll business practices into the multi-billion dollar industry that it later became. He was at once a tyrant, a Svengali, an impresario, and a visionary, who impacted not just Rock but the entertainment industry as a whole.

While he is most often cited for his blockbuster successes of the 1970s, perhaps his most enduring innovation came in the early 1960s, when he partnered with the eccentric genius producer Joe Meek. Meek had turned the world on its ear with the new electronic sound of Telstar, and had actually constructed a full recording studio in his own apartment building.

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Stigwood realized that with Meek’s studio in his back pocket, he wasn’t beholden to the British recording industry monopoly, and its byzantine layers of management and publishing control over musical artists. In essence, Stigwood gave birth to the indie rock movement, combining agency, management, production, publishing and concert promotion under one roof for the first time.

Stigwood parted ways with Meek and began to seek a stable of “next big things” for his own management company. His methods were ruthless and cut-throat — in a famous incident he was held dangling out his 4th storey office window by some hitmen hired by the manager of the Small Faces, who was angry that Stigwood was trying to poach his clients.

Still, artists saw that Stigwood got things done and were drawn to him. The Who signed him as their concert promoter in 1965, and in 1966 he signed a management contract with the new supergroup Cream. Both artists exploded in the U.S. after Stigwood booked them on a 9-day series of New York City concerts put on by Murray The K in early 1967.

Stigwood’s most famous protégés were fellow native Australians the Bee Gees. The confirmed bachelor took the young band under his wing upon their arrival from Down Under, and under his autocratic direction they became an international sensation with a string of top ten hits between 1966 and 1969.

In 1967, Stigwood merged his business with Brian Epstein’s NEMS, and he deliberated taking over the management of the Beatles. But the Beatles hated him, and Paul McCartney threatened that they would release a Beatle album consisting only of off-key versions of “God Save The Queen” if Stigwood ever became their manager.

It was clear Stigwood had lost his account with Cream when Ginger Baker came to his house waving a loaded handgun. But Eric Clapton remained a client, and Stigwood’s influence was critical in reviving Clapton’s career in the early 1970s with the album 461 Ocean Boulevard. The Robert Stigwood Organization (RSO) also promoted artists such as Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and David Bowie.

But the Rock management business is a fickle beast, and Stigwood realized he needed to diversify, and not put all his eggs in the Rock basket. By 1968 he was already talking about a “multimedia entertainment empire”, as he mounted the British stage productions of Rock musicals Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. The Beatles had created Apple to also be a “multimedia entertainment empire”, but they couldn’t pull it off. Stigwood could, and did.

By the early 1970s Stigwood turned to film, producing the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 and The Who’s Tommy in 1975. Having pushed the faltering Bee Gees in 1975 to pursue a more rhythmic sound, Stigwood hit paydirt with Saturday Night Fever in 1977, and then Grease in 1978, turning RSO into one of the biggest entertainment corporations on the planet at the time.

That was to be the pinnacle of his career. He followed up those two movies with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is widely cited as one of the worst musicals, or worst movies of any kind, to be made. And so it went. Stigwood would liquidate RSO in 1984 and live mostly as a recluse until his recent passing.

But he had made his mark. He was one of the first businessmen to realize that Rock was not just some passing fad for the under-30 crowd, and that instead it was going to be a very lucrative business for a very long time. Not even Brian Epstein believed that in 1967. Stigwood had the savvy and the vision to actually help make it happen.

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