Remembering one of music’s big behind-the-scenes movers and shakers today. Robert Stigwood was born in southern Australia this day in 1934. Don’t know his name? Well, that’s why we refer to him as “behind-the-scenes”. But if you danced to Saturday Night Fever, saw Jesus Christ Superstar or even perhaps were bummed out by the breakup of the Beatles, Robert was a part of the story.
Stigwood went to college in Australia and got a job when young as a writer for an ad agency, but that wasn’t his thing. So he went to Asia and traveled, eventually winding up in London around the mid-’50s. He loved theatre, and started a small theatre agency there, representing actors. One was John Leyton, a stage actor with aspirations of becoming a singer. He helped his career along, and to help out, learned record production. Leyton had one decent-sized hit in Britain, and Stigwood was hooked on music. As Broadway mogul Tim Rice put it, “Robert never thought big. He thought massive!” Soon Stigwood was promoting tours in the UK for artists like Chuck Berry and The Who, and had started his own record company, Reaction. Their prime signee, Cream. Although they didn’t last long, his association with Eric Clapton did, and Stigwood helped “Slowhand’s” formation of Blind Faith and then his solo career in the ’70s. He was a socialite and he was said to have been the one who introduced Clapton to George Harrison at a party.
That wasn’t his only tie to the Beatles. In 1966 he became friends with Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager. He merged their two’s companies, but Epstein’s death cut short that relationship. Technically, he could have stayed on to manage the Beatles… but the Fab Four hated him. Paul McCartney apparently told Epstein not long before his death “if you do this (bring Stigwood in to help run their career) we can promise you one thing – we will from now on record ‘God Save the Queen’ for every single record we make…and we’ll sing out of tune!” Stigwood read the writing on the wall and gave the business back to the Beatles… for a nice profit. The end results of that are debatable. The void of management upon Epstein’s death led to in-house disputes between the four Beatles and eventually to John Lennon bringing in the seemingly corrupt Allen Klein to run the business end of the band.
Stigwood did make friends with some fellow, displaced-Aussies – the Bee Gees. He signed them and promoted them to stardom…then super-stardom. Along the way he was busy in theatre, producing London plays of shows like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, and running a publishing company that had British TV shows in its nest including Til Death Do Us Part...which quickly was adapted in the U.S. to All in The Family. All the while, the Bee Gees were taking off on the RSO (Robert Stigwood Organization) label with hits like “Massachusetts” and “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?” . Their career stumbled a bit in the early-’70s, until Robert’s other major musician client, Clapton, moved to Florida and made the hit 461 Ocean Blvd. record, which was a smash. Clapton suggested the Bee Gees follow his lead and move to the land of palms, white-sand beaches and white-sand cocaine. They did, and made Main Course, which kicked off the second part of their career, with their first smash dance tune, “Jive Talkin’”. Around the same time, Stigwood was moving to New York City and taking in that city’s liberal ways and party scene. It was a barely-concealed secret that he was gay, and the Big Apple was no doubt more conducive to a happy life for him then than ‘Swingin’ London”.
One fortuitous day in New York, Stigwood read an article entitled “tribal rites of a new Saturday night” in a local publication. An inspiration hit him, and he bought rights from the writer … and turned it into Saturday Night Fever. The movie was a hit, and the record soundtrack – on his label and mostly created by his act the Bee Gees – set records… for record sales back then. He got the Bee Gees kid brother Andy Gibb on his roster and, after turning Grease into a smash movie and record was as the Guardian would later say, “the entertainment industry’s most powerful tycoon.” Although his big idea of a film version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs Band didn’t help his bottom line nor the careers of the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton or others involved, it didn’t sink his company and he went on to stage several more successful theatre productions including Evita, although his role in music began to take a backseat.
Stigwood passed away in 2016 at age 81 in London; sadly despite being lauded as one of the biggest “moguls” in the business, little appeared to be known about his personal life or who he left behind.