Obituary: Tony Calder, music industry executive and publicist

Tony Calder, music executive and publicist. Born: 27 June 1943, Surbiton, London. Died: 2 January 2018, Chelsea, London, aged 74.

Tony Calder, right, and  Andrew Loog Oldham in 1965.  (Photo by William H. Alden/Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Tony Calder, right, and Andrew Loog Oldham in 1965. (Photo by William H. Alden/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Tony Calder was one of the busiest agents on the music scene of the 1960s working with the likes of The Beatles, Marianne Faithfull, Black Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones, and, with their manager Andrew Loog Oldham, went on to co-found Immediate Records, one of the first independent labels.

With his sharp suits, a dark Caesar haircut and sporting glasses with outsized frames, Calder was a hustler, brash, precocious and, together with Oldham, ready to take on the “straights” of the music establishment – Decca, EMI, Parlophone and Philips – “old men, who were sad… Our attitude to the business was f*** ’em all.”

Their gung-ho approach saw the pair enjoy success while spending money frivolously and leaving huge debts in their wake. According to Oldham, they “changed the rules of engagement”.

Oldham was ostentatious and unpredictable while ­Calder was more hard-nosed and pragmatic; in an era when things were done in a certain manner, Calder had a flair for talent-spotting, as well as being a master of the buccaneering practices on which the record industry of the era flourished – spin-doctoring, hype-generating and chart-fixing.

In a career spanning five ­decades, Calder was instrumental in promoting a diverse number of hit songs in the UK Singles Chart, from the Stones and the Small Faces to Eddy Grant and Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers.

Although successful, ­Calder’s sharp practices left him open to criticism from many within the industry. Former employee and music PR man Andy Wickham ­likened Calder to “a dog-track bookie who only seemed to think in terms of deals and reeked of danger,” while George Gallacher of the Poets, an unsuccessful ­Glaswegian band signed by Calder, described him as “the ultimate bastard of bastards”.

Born in Surbiton, Surrey, in 1943, Tony Calder was the son of Scottish parents, Jed and Peggy, who later moved to Southampton to run a pub. A keen follower of music from an early age, dressed as a ­teddy boy, aged 13, Calder witnessed Bill Haley’s Comets disembarking at Southampton docks at the start of their historic 1957 UK tour.

After leaving grammar school in the early 1960s, he returned to London and began working in Decca Records’ marketing and sales department. In the evenings, he worked as Jimmy Savile’s assistant and bag carrier while later moonlighting as a DJ. “Jimmy Savile taught me how to DJ at the first dances that didn’t use live bands,” he recalled, “at what were then called off-the-record sessions in Mecca Ballrooms up and down the country.’’

After a few months and flushed with the arrogance of youth, Calder decided to go freelance, shrewdly procuring a copy of Decca’s master press list. In 1962, he met Brian Epstein, who tasked him with promoting unknown band The Beatles’ first single, Love Me Do, which was getting no airtime in the first week of its release.

Sending 100 free copies to all the Mecca and Top Rank clubs around the country with a note declaring it was a guaranteed floor-filler, Calder is also said to have given the record its first public performance while DJ-ing at the Lyceum theatre in London. “We mailed it on the Monday. By Wednesday, they were all playing it,” Calder recalled. Consequently, the song reached number 17 in the UK singles chart.

Calder and Oldham met in 1963 and shortly after merged their clientele to establish Image, the UK’s first independent PR-pop company; for a year or two, Image’s office in a Marylebone penthouse was an epicentre of life in young London. It provided the blueprint for other independent labels of the 1960s and 1970s.They promoted the Beach Boys, Freddie & the Dreamers and handled the management for the Stones, cementing the group’s reputation as the bad boys of British rock.

“In those days you couldn’t get pop stars on the front page of a national paper,” Calder recalled about looking after the Stones. “It took a report of Mick urinating on the wall of a petrol station to do that, when actually it was Bill Wyman. Andrew and I sold that story. We got 10 quid each for it.”

In November 1964, Oldham insisted on releasing the Stones’ Little Red Rooster, the group’s fifth single which, Calder remembered, “I hated.” He believed it had no chance of commercial success but bowed to his partner. He demonstrated his mastery of “chart-influencing”; armed with a list of the shops whose sale figures were used to ­compile the charts, Calder despatched teams to buy up every copy. It went straight to No 1. Calder was staggered.

The pair’s next project was the creation in 1965 of the Immediate label, set up to record trendy new acts and whose roster included the Small Faces, Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac and the German model Nico. In a rare excursion into the studio, ­Calder stepped in for Oldham to produce Marianne Faithfull’s Come and Stay With Me and This Little Bird, which reached No 4 (the highest position of her career) and No 6 in the charts respectively.

However, Calder’s contract with Faithfull was symptomatic of his “deal-making”: he awarded himself 30 per cent of her earnings. She subsequently sacked him, later ­saying, “Tony wasn’t a bad guy, but a bit sleazy – in the nicest ­possible way.”

Immediate soon began to run into difficulty. According to Owen Adams, a music journalist, a typical day consisted of Calder and Oldham “arriving for work in separate limos at 4pm, quickly perusing the mounting bills, dismissing them with a threat to break someone’s legs, then being whisked off to the next party”.

The label folded in 1970 after losing millions of pounds, and the founders were embroiled for many years in legal disputes with a number of their artists over unpaid royalties.

By now Oldham was in America but Calder continued in the industry. In 1971, he signed Black Sabbath and ­later the Bay City Rollers, whom he had seen live in Edinburgh.

“They were atrocious,” he recalled in an interview with the Herald in 1995, “but there were police outside holding back lines of screaming kids and Tam Paton [the band’s manager] was running my kind of a scam, so I thought I’d grab a stake in some of that.’’ The contract was soon sold on.

He later managed Eddy Grant, whose international record career took off, and was involved in the launch of Grant’s label, Ice. He was instrumental in the success of I Don’t Wanna Dance (1982), and was still managing Grant late in his career.

The 1980s saw the rise of sampled dance music and Calder found further success, promoting three consecutive No 1 singles for Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers. Oldham and Calder reunited unsuccessfully in the 1990s to try to relaunch Immediate. Calder also co-authored a biography of Abba with Oldham. He established a publishing company, Marylebone Music.

Calder married twice, firstly to Jennifer, one of the office secretaries at Immediate, and secondly, in 1980, to model Karen Richardson; both marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by three children from his second marriage.

Martin Childs