Obituary: Giorgio Gomelsky, manager of the Rolling Stones

Giorgio Gomelsky (far left), impresario discovered and managed the Rolling Stones pictured with the Yardbirds. Picture: Getty Images
Giorgio Gomelsky (far left), impresario discovered and managed the Rolling Stones pictured with the Yardbirds. Picture: Getty Images
Have your say

Born: 28 February 1934, at sea between Ukraine and Italy. Died: 13 January 2016 in New York City.

In early 1960s west London, budding impresario Giorgio Gomelsky, a 28-year-old Georgian immigrant whose family had fled Stalin’s Soviet rule, discovered a scruffy young wannabe group calling themselves The Rolling Stones.

He went on to launch their career in his now-legendary Crawdaddy Club opposite the railway station in Richmond upon Thames. He also gave the first break to the Yardbirds, including the guitarists Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, and went on to manage both bands and produce the Yardbirds’ breakthrough albums. He became known as “the mad genius” who helped introduce Europeans to rhythm-and-blues, imported from black artists in the US. He himself coined the term BR&B (British Rhythm and Blues).

Gomelsky, pictured on the left with the Yardbirds, also helped out a later guitarist in the group, Jimmy Page, by booking his new band Led Zeppelin into the Crawdaddy Club, at the rear of the old Station Hotel in Richmond which is now a gastropub known by its address, One Kew Road. To this day, Stones fans from around the world show up to see the historic venue. As the Stones and Yardbirds picked up local fans in west London and beyond, Gomelsky moved the club a few hundred yards away to a large bar area beneath the grandstand of Richmond Athletic Ground, a small stadium which at the turn of the 19th century hosted full England-Scotland football and rugby matches but is now home to London Scottish (rugby) FC. It was Gomelsky who gave Clapton the nickname “Slowhand,” which stuck. “In actual fact, Eric’s hands were so fast, and his strings so fine, that he would break one or two at every gig. As he put on a new one, the crowd would always slow-hand-clap him but when he played again, they erupted. That’s when I called him Slowhand as a joke,” Gomelsky recalled.

In opening the Crawdaddy (which he named after a Bo Diddley song played by the Stones), Gomelsky had wanted a club “as far away from Soho as possible.” And he realized the importance of a regular house band, hence his “signing” - it was never formal - of the previously-unknown Stones. He was once offered £200 for management of the Stones, which he turned down saying “these lads are going to be the biggest group in the world.” But the Stones’ Brian Jones, reportedly in return for a custom-made suit, dumped Gomelsky for Andrew Loog-Oldham and the rest became history.

Gomelsky recalled only three people attending the Stones’ first gig and admitted that a board he had handwritten outside the club saying “Rhythm and Bulse” (English was not his mother tongue) had not helped their cause.

By the mid-1960s, Gomelsky had moved on from both the Stones and the Yardbirds, both of whom appreciated his artistic integrity but less so his prowess on the money-making side. From the mid-Sixties, he managed or produced tracks by several other bands including Steampacket (featuring Rod Stewart.

In the late 1960s, Gomelsky founded his own record label Marmalade (no connection with the Glasgow-founded band of that name), featuring artists such as guitarist John McLaughlin, whose first album Extrapolation Gomelsky produced, propelling the guitarist to global fame. Renowned jazz bandleader Chris Barber, an old friend of Gomelsky, recorded for Marmalade as a gesture of solidarity towards the Georgian. Also on the label were a group called Lol Creme, which would metamorphose into 10cc and help beget one of the finest pop songs of all time, I’m Not in Love (... so don’t forget it, it’s just a silly phase I’m going through).

At the end of the Swinging Sixties which he had helped create Gomelsky became disillusioned with the money-before-art direction of music in Britain. “By then the Brits had blown it,” he said. “They had been seduced by the American dream of making a lot of money playing music in incredibly bad conditions like stadiums.” He moved to France at the turn of the 1970s.

In Paris, he managed French progressive rockers Magma and in so doing was instrumental in developing French underground/alternative rock which spread throughout Europe.

After a visit to New York City in the mid-1970s, Gomelsky “found the home I’d been looking for since I was a kid.” Moving to a loft in the Chelsea area of Manhattan which he first named the Green Door but later the Red Door, he attracted “Avant-Rockers”. He lived there but encouraged musicians to rehearse and jam down below. Most of them did not know his background but that loft became a gathering point for musicians from around the U.S. and beyond, one of them the American Jeff Buckley to whom Gomelsky was something of a mentor.

Giorgio Sergio Alessando Gomelsky’s parents were from Tiflis (now Tbilisi) Georgia, at the time a satellite state of Stalin’s Soviet Union. His parents decided to flee communism to Switzerland, where Giorgio’s father, a leading medical doctor had trained. Giorgio was born on 28 February 1934, on a ship travelling from Ukraine to Italy. The family got stuck in Italy before and during the Second World War, when their village was largely controlled by the Nazis and Mussolini’s pro-Nazi forces. It was during the 4pm Nazi curfew that Giorgio began listening to jazz records. When American troops liberated his Italian village, he was introduced to both jazz and, from black American soldiers, the blues. His life was forever changed. His family first made it to Ascona, in the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino, and settled in the neutral country where he went to a Benedictine school.

His father would later work for the famous casinos of his wife’s hometown, Monte Carlo, at the time a favourite haunt of wealthy British. After a divorce, Giorgio’s mother, an anglophile and milliner, moved to London and made hats for the British Royal family and the aristocracy for such events as Royal Ascot. Giorgio, who had rambled in the post-war years, joined her in London in 1955.

Giorgio Gomelsky died of cancer in New York City. He is survived by his longtime partner Janice Daley, a son Sergio and daughters Alexandra and Donatella.