A multi-media mogul before the term ever truly existed, Robert Stigwood was a record, film and theatrical producer, a music promoter and a manager who oversaw some of the biggest successes in 20th century pop culture - from rock groups Cream and the Bee Gees to the features "Saturday Night Fever" (1977) and "Grease" (1978) to the stage hits "Hair," "Pippin" and "Sweeney Todd. " Stigwood was among the first entrepreneurs to understand that by maintaining a hand in as many aspects of his clients' careers as possible, from management to songwriting and record production/distribution, he could not only maintain direct control on their images, but reap maximum financial gain from their efforts. From the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, Stigwood's clients were at the top of the entertainment business, from Eric Clapton's 461 Ocean Boulevard album to "Saturday Night Fever," which helped to reinvent the Bee Gees as the kings of disco. Stigwood's unerring touch began to run dry in the late 1970s following a string of movie flops, including the ghastly "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1978), though he continued to oversee some of the biggest stage hits of the 1980s, including "Evita" (1980). Though occasionally pilloried for his excesses, there was no question about Stigwood's track record, which remained incredibly accomplished in not one but four different art forms.
Born in Adelaide, Australia in 1934, Robert Colin Stigwood's early life remained something of a mystery. The son of an electrical engineer, he was educated at Sacred Heart College before taking a job as a copywriter in an advertising agency. In 1955, Stigwood left Australia and hitchhiked his way across Europe, eventually making his way to England. There, he worked briefly as the nightshift supervisor at "an institution for backwards teenaged boys," which may have been a euphemism for a youth correctional facility. Stigwood soon moved on to the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth before meeting businessman Stephen Komlosy. The pair set up a theatrical agency, which eventually netted a young British actor on the rise named John Leyton. Stigwood persuaded Leyton to record a cover of Ray Peterson's "Tell Laura I Love Her" for eccentric producer Joe Meek of "Telstar" fame. The single was a flop, but its follow-up, "Johnny Remember Me," became a No. 1 hit thanks in part to exposure on Leyton's new television series, "Harpers West One" (ATV, 1961-63). Realizing that his percentage from music sales as agent and manager was miniscule when compared to the producer's fee, Stigwood soon assumed that mantle on Leyton's subsequent releases, seven of which would reach the Top 50 between 1961 and 1963. The decision would mark the beginning of Stigwood's trademark all-encompassing control over an artist's career.
The success of Leyton's music career made Stigwood wealthy, but he also had extravagant tastes and spending habits, which quickly depleted his fortune. He moved into promoting summer seaside concerts to tourists, but the notoriously unpredictable English weather often torpedoed these efforts. A 1965 package tour featuring Chuck Berry also ran aground after supporting act The Moody Blues, which had just scored a No. 1 hit with "Go Now," abruptly left the lineup. Stigwood also stumbled mightily in over-promoting Anglo-Indian singer Simon Scott by sending plaster busts of the performer to the press, which were viewed with ridicule. He was soon bankrupt, but by 1966, had rebounded after taking on banker David Shaw as a partner, who provided Stigwood with the funds necessary to keep his agency open. That same year, he became the Who's booking agent before luring them away from Brunswick Records to record their single "Substitute" for his new label, Reaction Records. But his most significant business decision during this period was signing on as manager for Cream, a new group comprised of Eric Clapton and ex-Graham Bond Organization members Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. He arranged for the group to open for the Who on a nine-day stint at the RKO Theater in New York in 1967, which provided them with a high-profile showcase for the American press. Stigwood's new recording deal with Polydor also gave him the financial support needed for the group to record their debut album in America with Atlantic Records' house producer Tom Dowd.
That same year also saw Stigwood strike a deal with Beatles manager Brian Epstein to merge their agencies. Epstein was reportedly keen to step away from many of his responsibilities with his company, NEMS Enterprises, including management of the Beatles, which he considered handing over to Stigwood. The group reacted with hostility to the notion, citing Stigwood's previous missteps as a manager, and Epstein himself soon became disenchanted with his new partner's spending habits, especially in regard to an English sibling act called the Bee Gees, which had found some early success in Australia. Stigwood had signed the group to a five-year deal in February 1967 and shelled out a fortune to promote their first single, "Spicks and Specks," but the single flopped everywhere but in Australia. Undeterred, he launched an expensive promotional campaign to woo television producers and disc jockeys. His efforts finally paid off with the group's second single, "New York Mining Disaster 1941," which rose to No. 12 on the British singles chart. When Brian Epstein died of a drug overdose in August 1967, Stigwood decided to sever ties with NEMS and establish his own company, The Robert Stigwood Organisation.
By 1968, Stigwood's two main acts, Cream and the Bee Gees, were among the most popular pop acts in the world, which granted him the financial freedom to explore other venues. He decided to try his hand at theatre production, scoring a massive hit with his initial effort, the London production of the hit Broadway musical "Hair." A string of popular stage musicals, including "Oh! Calcutta" (1969), "Pippin" (1973) and the original British production of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" (1973) soon followed. By 1970, film and television production had become his main focus. Cream had broken up in 1968, and Eric Clapton's subsequent efforts, including the supergroup Blind Faith and his epic Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, had expired upon arrival. He soon descended into heroin addiction that left him unable to play music for several years. The Bee Gees had also fallen on hard times, briefly breaking up due to internal strife between the brothers. Stigwood soon moved into feature film production, making his debut with Norman Jewison's screen version of "Jesus Christ Superstar" in 1973. He returned to music the following year, shepherding Clapton's comeback with the chart-topping 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974). The Bee Gees also roared back to prominence by reinventing themselves as funk-disco artists, scoring a major hit with "Jive Talkin'" in 1975. That same year, Stigwood scored mightily with Ken Russell's surreal take on the Who's rock opera "Tommy" (1975), which also generated a highly successful soundtrack album.
Stigwood provided the Bee Gees with one of their greatest vehicles in the "Saturday Night Fever" (1977) soundtrack. In addition to producing the film, which transformed television idol John Travolta into a bona fide movie star, Stigwood oversaw the Grammy-winning double-LP soundtrack album, which resided at the top of the album charts for over six months, eventually becoming the best-selling soundtrack release in history. The album was also notable for being one of the first examples of cross-media marketing; its lead single, "Night Fever," helped to promote the film prior to its release, while the picture helped to generate considerable sales for the entire album. The following year, Stigwood produced the film version of "Grease," which became his second major hit feature to generate a chart-topping soundtrack. Both pictures would later become cultural touchstones for the 1970s, as well as enduring favorites for generations of young moviegoers. Additionally, Stigwood - who enjoyed a very close relationship with "his boys" the Bee Gees - took on their baby brother Andy Gibb and managed his very successful recording career as a solo artist in the late 1970s.
Stigwood's later film projects did not fare as well as "Fever" or "Grease." He immediately followed the latter movie with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1978), an elaborate fantasy based on the music of the Beatles and featuring an all-star cast led by the Bee Gees and fellow pop sensation Peter Frampton. Intended as a tribute to the great studio musicals of the past, the picture mutated into a garish campfest that did irreparable harm to the Bee Gees' already waning career due to an overall disco backlash. A reunion with Travolta for the romantic drama "Moment By Moment" (1978) also tanked, as did its follow-ups, including Allan Moyle's "Times Square" (1980), the slasher film "The Fan" (1980), "Grease 2" (1982) and "Staying Alive" (1983), director Sylvester Stallone's ill-fated sequel to "Saturday Night Fever." The sole exception during this period was the war drama "Gallipoli" (1981), which helped to launch Mel Gibson's acting career.
However, Stigwood continued to reap box office hits on Broadway with the multiple Tony-winning "Sweeney Todd" (1979) and "Evita" (1980), and as a soundtrack producer for "Fame" (1980) and "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980). Following a costly lawsuit by the Bee Gees over allegations of mismanagement, Stigwood shuttered the RSO record label and moved primarily into television broadcasting and theater production, most notably the Tony-winning Broadway run of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" in 1983. He returned to the spotlight in 1997 as producer of Alan Parker's film version of "Evita," which featured Madonna in her Golden Globe-winning turn as Argentine first lady Eva Peron. In 1998, he collaborated on a successful stage musical based on "Saturday Night Fever," which ran for two years in London before moving to Broadway in 2000.
By Paul Gaita