The Greatest Showman In The World: Bee Gees’ Manager Robert Stigwood Dies Aged 81

The Bee Gees with Robert Stigwood, Brit Awards, 1997.

There are so many grand stories, some admittedly more myth than reality, about Robert Stigwood. The man who launched careers as stratospheric as Cream and the Bee Gees has died in England of a heart attack aged 81. As a manager, producer and one of the 20th century’s most brilliant music moguls, Stigwood was also responsible for bringing the stage musicals Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar to the masses, for turning Grease into movie and for converting a New York Magazine feature article into the era-defining Saturday Night Fever. As for his record label RSO, it’s arguable no music label has ever dominated the US top 10 like the Robert Stigwood Organisation did in the late 70s.

“The greatest showman in the world,” was how Bee Gee Barry Gibb described the Australian-born Stigwood when the brothers Gibb were recipients of the Brit Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. Refusing to accept the honour unless their former manager joined them onstage too, the then 63 year old Stigwood appeared emotional and somewhat older than his years as he came to the stage. Delivering a short impromptu speech, Stigwood’s love for his “boys” was clear and I’ll never forget his impassioned cry for young artists to “be like the Bee Gees and never give up.”

In 1997 Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb were marking 30 years of international fame with their best selling studio album since 1979, the five million selling Still Waters. They’d never given up. 30 years, then album sales of 120 million, songwriters of 21 different US or UK #1 hits, but a career that was never plain sailing. The masters of the comeback almost as much as the masters of melody, Stigwood’s presence alongside the three lads he’d nurtured back in 1967 was poignant.

Those early days of how Stigwood made the world notice the Bee Gees are as legendary as they are wonderfully ostentatious. Reportedly spending more than 50,000 pounds in 1967 alone on promotion of the group (approximately 830,000 pounds in today’s money), I love the tale of how Stigwood sent out copies of the brothers’ first international single New York Mining Disaster 1941 with a blank label. He deliberately misled influential figures in the industry into thinking the haunting song about a fictitious tragedy was by the Beatles. When it was revealed it was another group beginning with the letter ‘b’, Stigwood proudly advertised them with no concern of hyperbole as “the most significant new talent of 1967.”

Robin, Maurice & Barry Gibb with Robert Stigwood, 1979.

And I’m sure he believed it; he’d instantly signed the Bee Gees to a five-year deal said to be one of the biggest in the business for a new group ever – as much as US $50,000 just for the Atlantic distribution in the States – today worth over US $350,000. Millionaires before twins Robin and Maurice were out of their teens, the Bee Gees’ career was also in a precarious state as early as their mid-20s.

The year was 1973 and six years after the initial contract, Stigwood rejected an entire Bee Gees LP as being too uncommercial, the heavily bootlegged and still-unreleased A Kick In The Head Is Worth Eight In The Pants. A shame – not least for the most spectacular album title that never was – but because the LP contained some works of real beauty, namely Elisa and King And Country, that rank amongst the brothers most beguiling early 70s songs.

While still enormously popular in Australasia, South East Asia, Japan and Canada (a point almost always overlooked by biographers of the Bee Gees as well as the band themselves when negatively appraising their early 70s period), Robert Stigwood was right to give his boys a kick up the backside (if not the head or pants). A band who’d once been US and UK top 10 regulars had by 1974 gone two years without even a solitary top 40 hit in either of those territories.

With the brothers pushed to relocate to Miami and write in a distinctively more commercial, R&B vein, Stigwood saw an opportunity to repeat his New York Mining Disaster trick again in 1975. Typecast as balladeers (paradoxically foreshadowing how one day they’d be typecast as “disco”), Stigwood sent the 45″ of funky new single Jive Talkin’ to radio stations in a plain white label. The song was irresistible, but would it have been played if DJs and programmers had known it was the Bee Gees?

Proving the absurdity of radio programmers preferring image over output – an affliction that would reach its American Gibb nadir in 1987 when You Win Again hit UK #1 but only US #75 because of radio stations refusing to listen to it, let alone play it – the rest was soon multi-platinum history. Jive Talkin’ became the second of nine US Bee Gees chart-toppers for the decade (the most by any act) and as songwriters they placed a scarcely believable 13 songs at US #1 between 1975-79.

The Bee Gees had parted ways with Stigwood by the time of the You Win Again comeback (the biggest hit in Europe for all of 1987) and there had even been a brief, bitter and long-since forgiven and forgotten exchange of lawsuits between the mentor and proteges in the early 80s. I often wish Stigwood had been around in ’87 to advise the issuing of the barnstorming You Win Again in a plain white label, completing the trifecta.

Ultimately it didn’t matter. His boys made him proud beyond his wildest dreams and in return they never forgot the doors he opened. Stigwood was a genius and this lifelong Bee Gees fan is forever grateful. In remembrance, here is a song from the most glorious of the Stigwood glory days, Sprits Having Flown, the title-track of the mega-selling 1979 album of the same name. Most frequently the Gibb song I cite as my all-time favourite, the stunning final 90 second instrumental is always especially affecting in times of loss. But before listening to it, here’s what Barry Gibb read out loud before asking Stigwood to the stage at those Brit Awards in 1997. Naturally, the crowd initially believed Barry was talking about himself:

“I left Australia in the 60s. I came to this country; I wanted to make something of myself. In time I discovered I had a gift: the gift of inspiring others to go beyond what their abilities are – I could do that.  And then I met three kids who’d also left Australia with their own dream of making it and I became their manager when nobody believed in them. And somehow they rose beyond their abilities. They called themselves the Bee Gees and 30 years later to this month they still say I was their mentor. My name is Robert Stigwood.”

From that point, Barry switches to the first person and speaking also for his smiling, clearly moved brothers Robin and Maurice, says the following:

“…and Robert, as the greatest showman in the world, if you don’t accept this award alongside us tonight then we will not accept it either. We love you, thank you.” Amen and RIP – that clip (also featuring Ben Elton and Sir Tim Rice) is below the song.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. sally_anne says:

    Brilliant tribute. Thanks

  2. Anonymous says:

    Emotional article. Someone who knows well of the Bee Gees' trajectory.
    Thank you.

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