He was best known for managing Eric Clapton, Cream, The Who, and the Bee Gees, and his theatrical productions like “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” and film productions including the hugely successful “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever.” His personal fortune was believed to total more than £200 million. Stigwood never married and left no children. Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote in a tweet: “Farewell beloved Robert, the great showman who taught me so much.” Robin Gibb’s son also shared the sad news on Facebook and thanked him for giving the Bee Gees their break, as he revealed the impresario was his godfather, writing: “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. 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.”
Stigwood was the son of Gwendolyn (Burrows) and Robert Stigwood Sr., and worked as a copywriter at an ad agency in Adelaide before immigrating to the UK in 1955. His first job in England was as an orderly in an “institution for backward teenage boys” in East Anglia. He soon left for a backstage job at a theatre in Portsmouth and knew at once that his future lay in show business. When the theatre closed, Stigwood teamed up with a business partner called Stephen Komlosy to set up Robert Stigwood Associates Ltd., an agency for actors and models.
One client, television actor John Leyton, earned a recording contract. He teamed up with record producer Joe Meek after casting Leyton as a pop singer on the television series “Harpers, West One,” for the song “Johnny Remember Me” which Leyton sang on the show, and it shot to #1 on the British charts in 1961 where it remained for 15 weeks. Thereafter, Stigwood began to focus on music clients.
Stigwood quickly signed up other chart-topping acts and negotiated a manufacturing and distribution deal with Sir Joseph Lockwood, the then all-powerful head of EMI, which transformed the industry. But margins were thin and cash flow was poor and, by the mid-1960s, Stigwood was in debt. He entered into a merger with NEMS Enterprises, the artist management company founded by Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein.
Initially working as a promoter for the crème de la crème, including Mick Jagger and David Bowie, he moved forward with assured authority into management and soon latched onto his two main clients, Eric Clapton (then with the band Cream) and the Bee Gees (also Australian immigrants). Both became very successful in the late 1960s with Stigwood taking production credits on their early records. He produced Cream’s self-titled debut and later signed a distribution deal with Polydor that brought producer Felix Pappalardi on board in time for the band’s celebrated “Disraeli Gears” LP. Following Epstein’s unfortunate death, Robert decided to form his own company, RSO Records (short for Robert Stigwood Organization) in 1967 to which he signed Clapton ( and Blind Faith) as well as the Bee Gees, managing to resuscitate the careers of both artists.
This remarkable turnaround was not achieved by playing nice. Poaching talent was a sure-fire way of getting ahead and Stigwood was notoriously unscrupulous. Enemies described him as “sly” and “ruthless” and friends had to admit he was “tough”. But Stigwood met his match one day in 1965 after crossing a man called Don Arden, the father of Sharon Osbourne and then manager of an up-and-coming Mod group called The Small Faces. Arden took exception to Stigwood’s attempt to poach his potential goldmine and turned up at his office in the company of four heavies.
Arden later told an interviewer: “I pretended to go berserk, dragged him on to the balcony and held him so he was looking down to the pavement four floors below. I asked my friends if I should drop him or forgive him. In unison they shouted, ‘Drop him.’ He went rigid with shock. Immediately, I dragged him back into the room and warned him never to interfere with my groups again.”
Stigwood also had confrontations over money. The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards recalled venting his anger after one such dispute: “He got the knee, one for every grand he owed us… 16 of them.”
Stigwood also proved himself in the West End by staging the pioneering rock musical “Hair” in 1968 after seeing it in New York. The show ran for five years and Stigwood followed it up with the controversial nude revue “Oh! Calcutta” and “Pippin.”
By the early ’70s, the Bee Gees had fallen into disfavor and Clapton was inactive due to drug use. Stigwood turned to film work, producing the 1973 movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s concept album-turned-musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Stigwood’s style was lavish. For the opening of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” he flew in two hundred guests from England and ten family members from Australia.
By that time, Clapton had kicked his heroin habit and recorded “461 Ocean Boulevard” which topped the charts along with the single, “I Shot the Sheriff” in 1974. The Bee Gees enjoyed renewed success with the #1 R&B hit “Jive Talkin'” in 1975. The same year, Stigwood produced a movie version of the Who’s rock opera “Tommy” (with the newly formed RSO films), and cast largely with rock stars, notably Clapton, Elton John, and Tina Turner; it was a box office hit, and the soundtrack album just missed topping the charts.
Stigwood’s next project was the most successful of his career. In the fall of 1977, he produced a film based on a New York magazine article by the British rock journalist Nik Cohn called “Tribal Rites Of The New Saturday Night,” convincing the Bee Gees to contribute several songs and filling the rest of a double-LP soundtrack with disco material. “Saturday Night Fever) made a film star out of TV actor John Travolta, and The Bee Gees scored three #1 hits from the album, which sold over ten million copies in the US with worldwide sales estimated at 25 million. Stigwood quickly followed in the summer of 1978 with “Grease,” a movie version of the Broadway musical starring Travolta and Australian pop singer Olivia Newton-John. It was another smash at the box office with a #1 multi-platinum soundtrack album that threw off a number of major hits, among them the title song, sung by Frankie Valli, which had been written for the film by the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb. Stigwood attempted a hat trick by following within months with a film inspired by the Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees.
Though the soundtrack album was a million-seller that threw off a few hit singles, the film flopped at the box office, presaging a period when subsequent Stigwood films with a heavy music content, the new wave-oriented “Times Square” (1980), “Grease 2” (1982), and “Staying Alive” (1983) (a sequel to “Saturday Night Fever”) also would be unsuccessful.
Conflict continued to dog him too. Even the Bee Gees turned on him at one point, suing him for £140 million in 1980 alleging that he had swindled them out of royalties. He counter-sued for defamation and breach of contract but the dispute was settled out of court and they publicly reconciled. Always a sociable man, he counted Sarah, the Duchess of York, as a friend.
By the mid-1980s, RSO had folded and its catalog had been sold off, while Stigwood was giving his attention to television broadcasting, much less visible than he had been in the 1970s. He became more active in the second half of the 1990s, producing the long-awaited film version of another Lloyd Webber/Rice concept album-turned-stage musical “Evita” (1996), and was involved with the stage version of “Saturday Night Fever” (1999).