Robert Stigwood, whose stable of acts included the Bee Gees and Cream, and gave the world the huge movie hits “Grease,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Saturday Night Fever,” died Jan. 4 at age 81, it was announced by his office today. “The world lost a pioneer in the entertainment industry today. Robert Stigwood passed away this morning. He died of a heart attack at home this morning with his loved ones at his side.”
He started as a theatrical agent, managing a young British vocalist named John Leyton. Leyton, who also played Willie “Tunnel King” in the 1963 movie “The Great Escape,” also starred in a 1964 music film called “Seaside Swingers” with Freddie and the Dreamers. The film got him to be pushed as a teen idol. Stigwood’s associate, Joe Meek, later became known as one of England’s top independent record producers for his work with the Tornadoes, the Honeycombs and Screaming Lord Sutch.
In 1965, he promoted a British tour by Chuck Berry, but lost a lot of money when the tour fell apart. But things began to look up. In 1966, he managed to convince the Who to record their song “Substitute” for his label Reaction Records. He also signed a new group called Cream with Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.
He almost achieved his wish of managing the Beatles if the group themselves hadn’t objected. He tried to strike a deal to merge with Brian Epstein and take on his company, NEMS Enterprises, including the Beatles. But the Fab Four objected vehemently. “We not going to be sold,” Paul McCartney told Epstein as quoted by author Debbie Geller in her book “In My Life: The Brian Epstein Story.” “In fact, if you do, if you somehow manage to pull this off, we can promise you one thing. We will record ‘God Save the Queen’ for every record we make from now on and we’ll sing it out of tune. That’s a promise.” Stigwood didn’t get the Beatles, but he did take on the rest of the company.
But it was shortly after he landed with NEMS that his luck really turned for the better when he discovered the Bee Gees, an Australian group with a Beatles similarity. Their second single, “Massachusetts,” was a top 5 hit in both the U.S. and UK, and began a long career of hits.
Stigwood left NEMS in 1967 to form the Robert Stigwood Organization, branching out to manage rock acts and theatrical productions. His theater shows amounted to one hit after another – “Hair,” “Oh Calcutta!,” “John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita” were just a few of them. Some of them are still on world stages today. His musical films included “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Grease,” “Tommy” and “Saturday Night Fever,” all mega successes. An exception was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” with Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees, which was ravaged by critics.
Tributes to Stigwood were posted online today. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote, “Farewell beloved Robert, the great showman who taught me so much. With love, ALW.” His musical partner, Sir Tim Rice, tweeted, “Farewell to the extraordinary innovative generous #RobertStigwood. A vital part of my life (& @OfficialALW’s). Thanks for so much, Robert.”
Spencer Gibb, son of Bee Gee Robin Gibb, said, “I would like to share the sad news with you all, that my godfather, and the longtime manager of my family, Robert Stigwood, has passed away. A creative genius with a very quick and dry wit, Robert was the driving force behind The Bee Gees career, as well as having discovered Cream, and subsequently managing Eric Clapton.
“He was also of course, the creator of the movies ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and ‘Grease,’ and many Broadway musicals with Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. RSO Records pretty much defined the late 70’s. Of course, his biography is very extensive and can easily be found online…..I would like to thank Robert for his kindness to me over the years as well as his mentorship to my family. ‘Stiggy’, you will be missed.”
Graham Bonnet, formerly of the Marbles (“Only One Woman”), said, “I just found out that our former manager, Robert Stigwood has passed away. I remember like it was yesterday…… sitting at his flat in London with the Gibb brothers playing acoustic guitar and singing. He recognized that day that we had “something.” If it weren’t for his support and faith in the Marbles, my career may have looked very different. R.I.P. Robert.”