Obituary: Robert Stigwood, music producer

Robert Stigwood, music producer who launched Cream and the Bee Gees. Picture: PA

Robert Stigwood, music producer who launched Cream and the Bee Gees. Picture: PA

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Born: Adelaide, Australia, 16 April 1934. Died: 4 January 2016, aged 81

Robert Stigwood was one of the few late 20th century music moguls worthy of the title, whose impressive and starry range of credits connected many seemingly disparate A-list groups and projects, particularly during the 1960s and 70s.

In short, he was the man who put Cream together, launching Eric Clapton’s career on the big stage; he discovered the Bee Gees and shepherded them through the highest points of their career; and he produced numerous iconic stage and film musicals, including Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease and Saturday Night Fever.

A ground-breaking independent music manager in the early 1960s, most notably for the Joe Meek-produced chart-topper John Leyton, Stigwood’s well-established career really took off later in the decade when he helped Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker form the supergroup which made their names, and took on breaking Australian pop stars the Bee Gees.

He first heard their demos as they sailed to the UK in 1967, saved them from later deportation and masterminded both their first flush of success and their later disco reinvention on the hugely successful Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

Not long after the Bee Gees’ signing, Stigwood made his first foray onto the musical stage, signing up Broadway hit rock musical Hair for its five-year West End run. His reputation in this arena established, he hit a hot streak throughout the 1970s, including the stage and film versions of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), the Who’s rock opera Tommy (1975), Rice and Webber’s Evita (1978), and Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978), the films which launched John Travolta’s career.

During the same era he also managed Clapton’s solo career, promoted artists including Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and David Bowie, and produced Peter Weir’s film drama Gallipoli (1981), the rock musical Times Square (1980), and the less successful sequels to Saturday Night Fever and Grease. Oh! Calcutta!, The Dirtiest Show in Town, Pippin and Sweeney Todd were less successful musicals, while the film of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) was an ambitious flop.

Born Robert Colin Stigwood in Adelaide, South Australia, to parents Gwendolyn and Gordon, he attended the city’s Catholic Sacred Heart College following his parents’ divorce. Despite a youthful interest in the arts, and in heading to university to study them, his father – an electrical engineer – was adamant that he follow in the family profession.

Stigwood, a young man of religious faith and conservative opinion whose belief waned when he hit adulthood and the party lifestyle, got into copywriting instead, and eventually decided to try his luck in the UK.

Founding a London talent agency with a loan from his business partner’s mother, Stigwood befriended one of the young men they had on their books, John Leyton, already a mid-level teen idol for his lead role in Granada’s 1960 Biggles television show. Leyton’s real desire was to be a pop star.

Stigwood not only made the actor’s dream come true, he did it in revolutionarily independent fashion for a British music manager; he oversaw every aspect of Leyton’s career, dealing with his management, the negotiating of his publishing rights, the booking of his tours, and his recorded sound.

Stigwood had further single successes in the early 60s with singers like Mike Sarne (who scored a number one with Come Outside) and Mike Berry (most well-known for his later acting role in Are You Being Served?), and booked roles for his secretary, the actor Wendy Richard.

He was a millionaire while still in his 20s, although his company went bust before he was 30 when he over-stretched himself in the mid-60s with a series of ambitious package concert tours of the UK, notably one starring Chuck Berry.

Yet he made a spectacular comeback in the second half of the decade, becoming the Who’s concert booker and releasing their single Substitute on his Reaction Records, and going into partnership with the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein on the latter’s NEMS Enterprises.

Yet he failed to take control of the final stages of the Beatles’ career after Epstein’s death, given the group’s personal disregard for him.

In the last three decades of his life Stigwood faded from public view, enjoying a quiet life on Bermuda and the Isle of Wight.

He never married.

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