The Celebrity Impresario.
Voodoo Interview with David English (November 2003)
© By Stephanie Thorburn.
When David English finally resolved to put pen to paper and script in written form a version of his life history, the content somewhat defied the reader's expectations of natural law. Originally the active force behind RSO records, as President he was a godfather to Robert Stigwood's enterprise, executing from scratch the process of nurturing Eric Clapton and the Bee Gees during the heyday of their careers in the 1970's, towards RSO's ultimate climax as the worlds most successful independent record company.
His diversity and tenacity undoubtedly existed in parallel to that of Stigwood, in turn also seeing English engage with the world of film, mixing with the likes of Robert Redford and Anthony Hopkins, achieving a memorable role in A Bridge Too Far! Finally, he set about revolutionalising the quintessentially British sport of cricket as organiser of the illustrious Bunburys Cricket Club, a charity project founded in 1987 with Eric Clapton and a cross section of music, media and sport stars from Viv Richards to Bill Wyman.
After raising some £8 million for charity, English was crowned in June 2003 with his due accolade of an MBE. He has now finally caught the attention of world media over the past couple of years with a beautifully romantic autobiography on his life, 'Mad Dogs and The Englishman', where he documents in the vernacular a diversity of multifaceted achievements, which should by rights be beyond the reach of most in a single lifespan. English is gloriously in tune both with himself and intuitively with the current penchants of the media, his personal maxims propelling an upward spiral of success, resembling closely the teaching of twentieth century self-help therapy culture in the most durable sense. The very basis of his philosophies lies within the individual isolation of the human condition, valuing spontaneity and orientation towards the present.
Such preoccupations resonate with my habit of often pondering the content of psychology books while simultaneously reading a good biography. The integration here is perfect, by the close of page one of 'Mad Dogs', I can see in a more concrete sense the explosive drive and compulsive conscientiousness of a man who has lived and worked through the ultimate rock and roll circus since the 1960's.
Originally residing as Press Officer at Decca records, David English inherited a degree of intimate knowledge of The Stones repertoire, in turn also becoming familiar with Dionne Warwick and Al Green. Having studied the nuances of the industry inside out, he graduated into the vibrancy of Robert Stigwood's office as President of RSO as a twenty-seven year old. Inevitably there were some initial teething problems, with his first albums releases, The Bee Gees Life In A Tin Can, Derek and The Dominos In Concert
and live Joseph
, being pre-recorded material. From this foundation of plausible success, he went on to actualise and coordinate a catalogue of releases that have simply defined the parameters of contemporary music.
It was a true pleasure to have the opportunity of interviewing David for Voodoo
. After knowing him for many years, I was finally able to explore all areas of curiosity on my personal favourite periods in EC's career, from 461 Ocean Boulevard
, to the Bee Gee's soundtrack from Saturday Night Fever
. In return I was party to a stream of clear and lucid anecdotes as he recalled some remarkable direct observation of genius, from Eric's emotionally charged pen conceiving 'Wonderful Tonight', to the rickety bridge crossing in Miami that inspired 'Jive Talkin'. As David English speaks, his words fill the room with the presence of a wealth of his closest friends and companions drawn from a bottomless contacts book, inviting dialogue with all forms of life beyond EC and Ian Botham, to the Sultan of Brunei. This man is surely an enigmatic and indefinable sorcerer, often content to fool us mortals behind the illusion of his apparent perpetual motion and chaos.
The Bee Gees- 'Saturday Night Fever':
From 'Massachusetts' to 'Tragedy'.
Your time at RSO must have spanned a good ten years at a key time in musical history.
What were your aspirations when you began working for Stigwood?
There were a few teething problems as you mention in the book with your first three albums being pre-recorded material. (Derek and The Dominos ln Concert, The Bee Gees Life In A Tin Can and live Joseph).
Barry and David friends for life © Keith Curtis
The first thing was the miracle of working for him in the first place, because I never knew how it came about. I was press officer at Decca records in Great Marlborough Street and got a 'phone call to say that Mr Stigwood would like to see you. So I got in there and he said, 'You're the one for me,' and thought he was taking about someone else in the room. He was sitting behind a glass table supported by four stone lions; he said he was going to start his own record label and 'you're going to start it for me'. I said: 'Well that's great Robert thank you.' He replied: 'Now if you're going to have a logo what will it be?' I had read in the Evening Standard on the way there that it was the year of the red cow, which is lucky in Japan, the Beatles had an apple and he just said 'fine, fine'.
So the miracle was how I ever got called in, it was possibly through the MD at Polydor who had distributed Robert's stuff, Polydor before RSO distributed the Bee Gees and Eric. He said 'have whatever you like and start the company', so my aspirations were from square one, but as you read in the book no one was at that time working. Eric wasn't well and the Bee Gees had sibling rivalry; so we had a massive big office in Brook Street with chandeliers, secretaries and marketing managers, but no product!
The first thing I did was to release 'How Much Is That Doggie In The Window' backwards, because Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber came into the office and we recorded it and put it out as Rover, it sold eight copies and we sent every producer a dog bowl. So it started from nothing and then I got the Bee Gees into my office, they came in with their wives and they weren't really talking, then they started having a laugh. The thing with the Bee Gees is that their career has been like a roller coaster ride, during their renaissance periods there was 'Got To Get A Message To You' and 'Massachusetts', then it levelled off. So, we sent them off to Miami to work with Arif Mardin who had recorded with Aretha Franklin, he took them to Criteria Studios and I went out there with them. The story arising from this about The Sunny Isles Bridge in Miami is that as we were coming back over the bridge, the car wheels made a real 'chuu' noise from which they wrote 'Jive Talkin'! The Bee Gees are all very family orientated and with Andy and Maurice now gone it's like half the cake is missing..
Another significant turning point was when we were doing Pittsburgh radio interviews and were all in the back of the car when the Stylistics song came on, 'You Make Me Feel Brand New' and Barry started singing along with a falsetto, so we said 'that's great' and suddenly we had a different voice like another instrument which we used in 'Jive Talkin'. Then we took them out on tour to Ohio, Louisiana, Kansas City, it was a holiday inn tour because we didn't have much money and by the time we got to Central Park, Diana Ross was the opening act and the Bee Gees performed; 'Jive Talkin' was number one and we continued the spell with 'Nights On Broadway'..
The reason for the significance of 461 Ocean Boulevard
is that when Eric had just come off drugs he lived in that house and developed a real clarity, 461
was probably his best album of all time and he said if you ever come to Miami you're welcome to stay there. So, that's how it all started really.. My experiences were indeed quite animated and it is still all clear to me as it happened. I always think that life is like a blank page, you have twenty-four hours to fill it, and you can't get it back again. So when you do start a record company from day one and start to get some successes, it's great to see it happen. It was huge hard work and full of fear, which is a great aphrodisiac, I was suddenly a record boss chief at twenty-five, and I have always been good with people, whereas Robert was quite shy. It was great fun and live music then was without computers and you would record a whole album live in a pub, rather than sometimes spending a whole week on the bass or drum track.Voodoo: Please reflect on Maurice Gibbs abilities, as he is no longer with us.English:
Maurice was important to the Bee Gees in that he was the best musician as the middle man. Barry would start strumming, Maurice picked up on the vibe, individually they are brilliant but the three together was magic. Maurice was brilliant, he was like a court jester on stage, like Ringo in that sense and his input was especially on the musical side. The telepathy between the brothers was fantastic, not only the Bee Gees songs but with those who they wrote for, Barbra Streisand asked for six songs, they wrote twelve and she used them all. We were very lucky to have great artists like Barbara Dickson, Paul Nicolas and The Staples singers who I saw in Apollo theatre Harlem. With Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Al Green, I was the only white man walking around there.. It was just like a club, dancing in the isles, knitting, kids playing around; terrific life.Voodoo: Saturday Night Fever represented Robert Stigwood's talent for integrating the worlds of music, film and theatre and was part of RSO's period of 'conquering America'. Tell me a bit more about the soundtrack.English:
Unbeknown to a lot of people the Bee Gees had already written 'Night Fever', 'Staying Alive' and 'How Deep Is Your Love' for the next album, and recorded them in what Elton John calls the 'Honky Chateau' in the middle of nowhere outside Paris. It's haunted, there are no distractions and we recorded them in about thirty-six hours.
Stigwood did Evita
and Jesus Christ Superstar
with Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Now Saturday Night Fever is a theatre show. Unfortunately Robert isn't so well nowadays. He was twenty-four hours a day a prolific, he has enjoyed his life. What was great about Stigwood was his giving young people a chance, all those shows Joseph, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair
, he was very good at that and worked with some very young people. He had great intuition and was not very often let down and he was also good at picking singles with the Bee Gees, he was well loved, just like The Beatles loved Brian Epstein. The Bee Gees were his boys and Eric respected him, he was Mr Showbiz, great at parties and very generous. He was day to day marvellous at management.
Eric Clapton. Renaissance Man- 461 Ocean Boulevard,Voodoo:
Please tell me about the origins of your relationship in management with Eric Clapton and your experiences of the Cream years?English:
Rainbow Concert to Money and Cigarettes.
Robert sent Cream out to America to do sixty one night stands and it got to the point they loathed each other so much that one night Jack was on the right, Eric on the left and Ginger knocked Jack with a cricket bat into the audience! Before Led Zeppelin they were kind of heavy high-powered music and the electricity was fantastic, they played against each other and were exhausted, they were the greatest rock and roll band in the world, but the American tours exhausted them. Ginger was feisty and Jack powerful, playing against each other, trying to be competitive and outdo one another. Ginger started Cream because they were the Graham Bond Organisation and Eric had been playing with John Mayall, hence the 'Beano' album, Ginger was the driver and wanted to get Eric in, Ginger was a leader.
They used to rehearse opposite The Welsh Harp in Neasden in a little house. During rehearsals they used to rehearse and called themselves 'Cream' because they thought they were the Cream like the magnificent seven; Eric was the quieter one. Three masters on the stage; the farewell concert I was there at, it was fantastic and emotional. I used to leg into the artist's door at the Albert Hall and walk on with a towel, I got quite well known for that..Voodoo: The RSO years were significant to Eric's musical identity. His first two RSO releases were Rainbow Concert ('73) and 461 Ocean Boulevard ('74), which marked a real musical renaissance for him; indeed the setting for the album also influenced the Bee Gees. Please speak a little about the albums
David enjoying himself © Oliver Bertschinger
The Rainbow album was after Eric had had his problem with heroin and Dr Meg Patterson had cured him through using acupuncture, so we then needed to get him back to playing because he hadn't played for two or three years. Pete Townshend had also been influential here and was a strong character and we arranged a concert at Rainbow theatre with Rick Grech, they were a really good band for him at the time. He was late, and arrived with Alice Ormsby- Gore; the lateness was due to the fact that his trousers were too tight. He said 'Arthur, thanks for all the letters and T-shirts you sent me and stay with me, and let's face this together'. He shook my hands putting on his trousers and out he went and recorded that album and it was one of the first we released.
The first album we released was Derek and the Dominos Live
and I had to start repackaging Life In A Tin Can
and The Best Of Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton
, because whilst I was getting the artists to work we had to have some product; they all did quite well. The Rainbow Concert
did well and then Eric went to Miami and did 461, it was really fresh with 'Motherless Children' and reggae with 'Willie and the Hand Jive'. It was almost like an inner consciousness with clarity in his voice like a sparkling stream, once again a renaissance from a dark period, and he had his hair shorter with a nice album cover, an acoustic guitar and the house behind him.
The thing about Eric is that he is a survivor, he is a practical joker and whatever, but he has a tremendous strength to go through what he has been through. In a way he has abused himself but has come through all his tragedies like Conor, he is remarkable and it has been highlighted in his music, his writing. You can't sing about the blues if you are comfortable with your pipe and slippers, with everything going well.
When Eric wrote 'Wonderful Tonight' I was there, he had Pattie upstairs and she was taking ages and he wrote a wonderful love song whilst he was fuming. He was crazy about her and Pattie was saying, 'come on Arthur keep him amused!' It didn't take long to write and he wrote it in his ornate style, like with the Bee Gees they would go to their writing room in Middle Ear studios in Miami at two o'clock and would do two or three songs in an afternoon between two and five, very prolific.Voodoo: RSO grew concerned about a lack of guitar solos on EC's albums between '73/5 before his US tour. The period also reflected objectively some of his best work including the album Slowhand, featuring 'Cocaine', 'Wonderful Tonight' and 'Lay Down Sally'. What are your thoughts on this time?English:
Going back to 461 Ocean Boulevard we brought in Tom Dowd and it was his biggest selling album of all time. EC was twenty-nine, and we had Jamie Oldaker, Dick Sims, George Terry and Yvonne Elliman; this had seen a new inner consciousness for Eric. Heavy metal, head bangers, punks and the new depression had dragged everyone down and there was a rejuvenation and optimism on Slowhand
, great guitar playing on Blackie his favourite guitar, this album was produced by Glyn Johns. This was a great time, EC was very prolific, the other thing is that Eric is very stubborn and won't do what people tell him to do.
By 1982 he was sober and never wanted to be a leader, he rather gained respect from the band for what he was, he liked to be an aside man. Money and Cigarettes
was recorded at Compass Point Bahamas and then he hibernated in Wales in a cottage with Tom Dowd sober, but the musicians were playing too much tennis! Another Ticket
lacked a certain blues feeling said the critics, and Tom Dowd who produced Otis, Aretha, knew all about the 'blues feeling'. Eric then fired Henry Spinetti, Dave Markee and Gary Brooker and kept Albert Lee. His soberness made him fire the band and be assertive, he now had Ry Cooder, Duck Dunn, Roger Hawkins on drums and Albert Lee, so from the drink album there was a renaissance and Money and Cigarettes
was a great success. Indeed, Eric does change his appearance and styles a lot, he is an Arian, he always moves in different directions and is a chameleon; I met Gianni Versace with Eric in Milan.Voodoo: As a manager what advice would you give to others looking to succeed in this area? You talk about studying the industry, artists and simple hard work as central values.English:
Well as 'Arthur' to Eric and Barry's best friend and 'the loon' to Ian Botham, I have always been the court jester. If I see something I go for it, and it has been a lot of fun, if chaotic I manage to organise things. I couldn't play guitar like Eric or bat like Botham, but if you can get the best out of them to see them fulfil their promise, it's a wonderful thing. Robert was always quite shy and a very good businessman. I love working with the artists because I am basically a fan, touring, being in the studio, I could be there all day. I wrote the songs on a Bunbury album, Eric was in a little studio in Surrey. I did a song also with Elton John too, he arrived at two o'clock, had bottle of Mouton Cadet with a funny hat on and we gave him a back track. He was straight on to the piano and started to sing it, and like all professionals, he was on another level.
In terms of management if I found an Alicia Keys or a Norah Jones, a singer songwriter who writes their own material, I would do like Robert. If you for example were a singer, I would work with you personally to see you fulfil things, it's got to be hands on. My advice to anyone is that you have to either totally believe it or not, and take risks. Find the artist, believe in them 100% and get them a publishing deal, cultivate them; I think it's lost some of its dignity and class now. In America it's slightly better, people like Neil Young, Van Morrison, have such longevity- indeed if you can get a young Dylan! I think David Gray is very talented, if you can work with someone like that on a very personal basis it's just like a marriage.
The Bunburys Pro-Celebrity Cricket Club.
Your early matches saw the RSO office transposed onto the cricket field in form of Eric Clapton and Roger Forrester.
How did you get such a cross section of people involved?
I'll tell you how it all started in Eric's garden, he had been watching Ian Botham on television and we had a game in the garden and I suggested getting an Eric Clapton eleven together. So I phoned up all the famous people I knew, people who I know socially, some who are familiar with cricket, Gary Mason, Dennis Waterman, David Essex, Bill Wyman. We all started off in July 1987 at Ripley Court School and at our first game 4,000 people were there. Phil Collins as wicket keeper, Eric Clapton and Bill Wyman as first and second slip. Chris Cowdrey said at an early match in Kent, Tunbridge Wells, 'it looks like we've got 4,000 people coming to see some quite famous nutters!'
We went around the country and did rather well, it is all just me phoning people up and persuading them to play cricket. Then Eric of course had his accident when he was stung with a bumble bee after he hit his hand playing. That was Eric again because he goes through these fads, football West Bromwich Albion, owning the race horse, then the fishing and cricket; I was the one who got him to play cricket. He still played sometimes but basically moved off and it became The Bunburys. Clapton liked Botham and they became great friends, he likes the whole persona of self-belief.
In 1986 they had the England's school festival and they realised that without raising some money the festival would have stopped, Gooch and Gower had come through that route as had Botham. The entire England cricket team at the moment came through the festival, which is now called the Bunbury England School Cricket Festival after we raised enough money for it. The people who come and play at the Bunburys cricket meet Eric Clapton and Viv Richards to Ansley Harriot, so it is the integration of people and skills; it's a very multi talented dichotomy. We raised £40,000 for Milly Dowler the other day, altogether we now have 8 million in total for charity, it's a labour of love and a game I love with a passion. It's hard work, but very rewarding I can tell you.
About two years ago I decided to put more time into this and realised that the project is only as good as what you put into it. I have to get people there personally, two or three years ago I stepped up the gas on it, it's also a question of when best to contact people. I used to talk to Peter Scudamore for example when he was on his horse in the early morning! No one ever gets grand in the dressing room, I can tell you; it's a great leveller. It is a bit surreal, John Major met Donny Osmond, Eric met Ian and for different reasons people get together and it's special like a brotherhood, it's romantic in a way.
George Harrison used to come and watch us. He was good fun and had a great sense of humour, like The Bee Gees and Eric, who was a real court jester though you wouldn't think so. Ringo Starr came down to see us this year, and said 'still doing the Bunburys then Dave?' We get all these superstars in some far flung field and at the end of the day a chunk of money goes to charity which gives me a warm feeling.Voodoo: This year you went back to the site of your first match in Ripley School, Surrey for a nostalgic game with Eric Clapton's XI which is where the Bunburys began in '87. The afternoon was quite surreal at 100 degrees! What were the highlights of the day for you?English:
It was the hottest day of the summer exactly where we started in July '87 and we had forty two test cricketers plus Bill Wyman, Eric Clapton, Jamie Theakston, fifty stars all stuck in a little shed like something from 'It Ain't Half Hot Mam', in a parched field. During the day we had between three and four thousand people and we raised £20,000 for NSPCC and the Crossroads Clinic Antigua, it couldn't have been better.
On a personal note to get changed in the school dressing room with Viv Richards, Jack Russell, Mike Gatting with the banter was incredible. Forty- two players came from all over the country and the forty- third from Australia, Darwin. It is quite overwhelming how people come and do it for nothing and have a hell of a laugh. Eric did well and said, 'I know what you bastards are trying to do, keeping me out here all day in 100 degrees!' Imagine what that little field was like on Monday morning the day after we played?Voodoo: Surely this won't be the last EC XI? Could you let me in on any future directions and projects please..?English:
Next year we are doing twenty Bunbury games and it will be my eighteenth Bunbury Schools festival. We will be doing one for the Deaf Association, one for the blind cricket team and Adam Hollioake. I did one for Malcolm Marshall's son Mali which has been the biggest one I did when Malcolm passed away, and we had fifty test cricketers in the middle of London. Every year I try to do one that's a bit special, Blenheim Palace was special, Windsor Castle, and we are going to Majorca tomorrow. This year it will be a five-day thank you to the boys and a bit of a knees up! The Mark Butcher Band, he and Eric are friends; music is of course another strand to the Bunburys and he will be doing more too.
I'm sure Eric and I will do another one, it's a bit like Sinatra and his farewells. Perhaps the ultimate EC all time X1 from those that have played from the world of music would have to be Clapton, Bill Wyman, Ringo Starr, Donny Osmond, John Keeble, David Essex, Kenny Jones, Phil Collins, Paul Young, Hugh Cornwall...
To be a member of a rock group is like a cricket team, to go on tour and at the end of the day go on stage rather than go on a field is a different form of show business. You draw on each others' strengths, each member bringing something to the end result, be it a bowler or bass player and the end result is a team performance!Copyright © Stephanie Thorburn 2003.