When Saturday Night Fever became a global epidemic in the late seventies it gave fat office workers, thin shop assistants, in fact wage slaves the world over a path to stardom in their own heads. White flares were their flight path to fantasy. Bouffant and blow drys were their halos of self-confidence. Couples pranced to the beat like ridiculous Lipizzaner horses owning the world if only for a night. And Travolta was King. The story of Tony Manero, the boy from a Brooklyn paint store made Divine by the flashing chequerboard of the neon dance floor, at last gave a dramatic thrust to the frustration of millions of blue collar workers whose window of freedom lasted only from six on Friday to clocking on again on Monday. Dancing was the elixir of lives lived only at the weekend. Disco was the Ecstasy of the Seventies. And before anyone else realised it, the producer Robert Stigwood did. He understood people who lived to blow it all on a Saturday night, because that’s how he lived. Only he did it every day.
In June 1976 he had read an article published by New York magazine, by Nik Cohn called “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” about the disco craze that had started in black gay clubs in New York and filtered through to mass consumption by the Latinos in the Bronx, West Indians on Staten Island and the Italians in Brooklyn. The magazine came out on Monday. His lawyer and subsequent President of his company in America, Freddie Gershon, says “Robert rang me from his car on Friday evening on the way to The Hampton’s and said ‘Freddie, get me the rights. This is a $100m movie’.” Like all the stories about Stigwood, it’s just a little too perfect. But like many of them, it’s true. By the following Monday, according to Nik Cohn, Stigwood had optioned the story for $10,000. “I seriously believed that disco would sweep the world. I am lucky. I just have a gut instinct with things,” he says with a wave of the hand. According to Variety, the movie has now taken $139.5million and is the 69th biggest grossing film of all time. Maybe he was right about his gut.
By 1978 Stigwood had become the world’s most successful impresario. On stage he had produced Hair, Oh Calcutta, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. He managed the careers of Rice and Lloyd Webber, The Bee Gees, Eric Clapton and Cream. He had John Travolta and Mel Gibson under contract each for a three-picture deal. In the second week of March of that year, with the films of Saturday Night Fever, Tommy and Grease under his belt, the Stigwood Organisation had 5 singles in America’s Top Ten – unheard of for any record label.
But by the early eighties he was in danger of burning out. The Bee Gees and he had sued and counter sued each other for a ridiculous total of £206m and parted company – although they have subsequently settled and become friends again. Lloyd Webber had set up his own company. Clapton was managed by one of Stigwood’s previous employees. So he scaled down his companies, semi-retired to Bermuda where he lived a Gatsby life of great excess and hospitality. One friend says protectively “he had never seen anyone dole out such a staggering degree of punishment to their body in the pursuit of such an astonishing degree of fun”. Lloyd Webber says he’s “a survivor against the odds.” But adds discreetly “I’m sure you understand what I’m saying”. Well you could be more specific. But yes, we probably do. I guess everybody in rock and roll overdid the risks and undervalued the consequences in the Seventies. And Stigwood seems to have trumped most people in spades.
But after more than a decade away he is back. Or so he hopes. In May his production of the stage show of Saturday Night Fever will premiere in the West End. The question is whether he still has his legendary touch, whether Night Fever can be more than just a flash in The Seventies’ second fifteen minutes of fame.
“I’m going to interview you now” Stigwood drawls in a voice that wavers bucolically between Sir Les Patterson without the spittle to English squire – encompassing a little camp on the way. He’s flushed with the Fernet Branca he has been happily chucking down all afternoon. “I’ve had bronchitis you know”. Which he has. But it’s an unconvincing excuse. He just likes to drink.
He has appeared at the side of the pool in his house, Barton Manor the sister house to Osborne, looking older than his 63 years. He plonks down a mobile phone to mock my tape recorder and a pad on which he writes down the few details that he has extracted from me in the three hours I have been on the Isle of Wight. His butler, Paula, brings in a bottle of Louis Roederer Crystal. “You can write down that I support women’s lib. I’ve got a lady butler”.
“Parents – army,” he scribbles. “Sex life. Food. Radio.” The list becomes a little wobbly. He is setting a pattern. Every time I get personal, he turns it on me. I try and make a bargain with him that everything he asks me a question about, I can ask him one about. I realise that I am flirting, that I have been drawn into his orbit of charm, which is a very reassuring place to be. Stigwood may play the game of being an old lush but he knows what he’s up to. In the end he will divulge very little about his inner self. The moral of which is never try and make a deal with him because he plays a better game of chess. Our conversation through the afternoon has been interwoven with The Cheltenham God Cup. He keeps on apologising about watching it rather than talking to me. As a host he is very solicitous. He calls the chef in and invites me to chose the following days lunch.
On the main race he lost more than £1750, including £250 he had insisted placing for me, despite the fact that in my total ignorance I had chosen some nag who I thought looked nice but fulfilled its complete lack of promise by hobbling in fifth. Stigwood was unmoved by the loss, but then it’s barely a gnat’s bite of his estimated fortune of £160m. And he’s lost money before. This is a man who was a millionaire at 28, went bust at 31 but got it back by 34. And if you ask him what drives him he finally admits to “novelty”.
Stigwood was born in Adelaide to a well to do South Australia family, one of the original Squatocracy, as they are known. They were some of the first shareholders in the South Australia Company. But one of his relatives a few generations back gambled it all away. “My great Uncle got drunk and fell under a train”, he says. His Mother is now on her 5th marriage. “She is totally wonderful and wonderfully insane”, he says. “She refused recently to allow me to give her an 80th birthday party”. From the cuttings you can work out that she’s 83. “Well yes, but I didn’t tell you that.” He clearly adores her. “From her I learnt love and compassion. From my father, truth.” His father died eight years ago and what he feels about him hangs in the air. “No I didn’t like him. I wasn’t an engineer and he was a rather brilliant one. He didn’t like me. I was too artistic. I wasn’t allowed to go to University. I was given a choice ‘you do engineering…’ “ He trails away. “I wanted to do arts of course. But he wasn’t keen on the arts.” He looks out from the gazebo in the garden over the large pond and says, “I’m telling you some extraordinary things. I don’t do interviews normally. This is just to promote Saturday Night Fever. I want it to appear in your article at least twenty times.”
His parents got divorced when he was 13 and so they sent him and his brother, with an unconscious stroke of irony, to a Catholic college, where Stigwood converted. Here he showed signs of his future cosmic sized ambition and Conservative politics. Aged 15 he founded a religious lay group. “It was called the Holy Rosary Society and its object was to convert Russia from communism. The rule was you had to do a decade of the Rosary every day and we would convert Russia by prayer. I think we had about 1500 members”. When the Berlin Wall finally did come down an old wag school friend rang up and said ”‘Well you’ve finally done it, so what’s next?” It would be nothing religious because Stigwood lost his faith when he was about 19. Why? A very long pause and then a cop out. “I was probably having a good time in nightclubs.” Guffaw. Although it’s not such an evasive answer because ever since he’s worshipped the God of the Good Time. His friends queue up with the anecdotes.
Richard Taylor his interior designer remembers a party for 200 in Bermuda on the Wreck Hill Estate for which the invitations were scrolls inserted into antique bottles and delivered by men on horseback dressed in eighteenth century gear. Freddie Gershon remembers once going to stay at Barton Manor. “Robert suggested a stroll before lunch. He and I and my wife set off through the woods to the beach and in a clearing we came across a picnic table and chairs, carved out of tree trunks. There was a sign “Have some more wine said the March Hare in an encouraging tone.” And laid out on a linen table cloth with crystal and porcelain and flowers was lunch for three. There was no sign of any staff. We ate and then continued to the beach. When we came back the table had been cleared and re-laid for coffee and pudding. There was still no sign of servants. It was as if the elves had been.”
Gershon also remembers a time when he had a huge list of very important decisions that Stigwood and he needed to take. “Robert asked me over. When I arrived at his apartment, which was on the top of the San Remo building on Central Park West, he got into a limo and flew me to Bermuda for lunch. I said ‘Robert you’re fucking with my head’. But he said to me we’ll eat and drink, you’ll be away from the front line and we can think properly. And we did. We sat on the edge of a cliff in the howling wind; with the trees bending and he said ‘OK let’s get to work’. We went through every permutation of every problem. He told me to look at all of them from above. Let’s play God. And for months afterwards we were prepared for anything that they threw at us.”
Great times, huge success, wonderful parties. Hasn’t anybody got a bad word to say for Stigwood, apart from the fact that he over indulges himself and his friends and can’t quite describe a straight line for most of the day? The only person to call him “a ruthless bastard” was he himself. And he clearly is when it comes to business – but the which millionaire isn’t? Digging for dirt was getting desperate. I was hitting the wall until a call to Variety put me onto a new track. “Stigwood?” said the researcher, “What an appalling man. A director friend of mine worked with him and all his hair fell out.” The bald director turned out to be Alan Moyle; the film a cultish flop, starring Tim Curry, called Times Square. But Moyle just says now “the whole Stigwood organisation was partying pretty hard by that time. Everybody was so out of it. So you could never actually talk to anybody. Stigwood was a reasonable and gentle kind of guy but he was just a real combination of weak and strong. You felt he was living some kind of lie. I think he was living in a certain amount of shame with himself.” And then he signs off in California-speak. “Hey tell him if you see him, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”
Money is clearly not Stigwood’s guiding light never mind how much he obviously like to spend it. You wonder what is. “I’m a perfectionist. I’d rather not do something than not do it properly. I never do anything to be defeated”. Yet he does not have the air of a decisive man. He is physically shambolic. His clothes, which are inevitably bought from all the best names, look like they’re in a pile on the floor even when he’s wearing them. He is what the French call a vieux garcon. You can bet that when he plays with children they won’t be able to place his age. He appears the dotty uncle figure as he wanders round his garden, yet Barry Gibb says of him “the minute you think Robert doesn’t know what’s going on here, he does. He just gives the impression that he isn’t listening. He’s a brilliant man who appears flawed, when he isn’t.” Even at one in the morning the wrong side of what felt like several buckets of Armagnac, his eyes still had a snake charmer quality. He is a shark in a shawl. A wolf playing at being a granny.
It’s this quality which has made him such a legendary negotiator and secured the deal which elicits unanimous admiration from his peers in show business. Awestruck, three of them said. ‘When Robert Stigwood made Saturday Night Fever you know he secured 45% of the gross profits from Paramount Pictures’. Their admiration stems from the fact that this deal means that he gets 45% of every single cent that goes into Paramount’s bank account from the movie, with no deductions by the studio. This is unheard of in the world of film financing. “I picked Paramount because it was doing badly at the time. They needed movies.” is all he says now of how he got the deal. To add to the Studio’s discomfort Fever also had a lots of “fucks and sucks” in it. Paramount wanted them removed. Stigwood refused. “It was a street movie and I told them no kid going to see it would believe it, if it was full of ‘goddams’. Anyway Norman Wexler’s script was brilliant. So I said to Barry Diller, who was the studio head, right at the end of a very tense meeting, that I would ‘consider’ taking out five fucks if they gave me another 3%. They said yes”. And Diller admits these days that his Head of Business Affairs at Paramount had said after that: ‘Never let Diller loose with Stigwood again.’ “
Stigwood had learnt the money game the hard way. He had arrived in England in 1959, with what he variously claims was £1, £3 or £5 in his pocket. Showmen need such myths. “I came from quite a middle class family but my mother did have to work to send us boys to school. And when I arrived in England there was a letter form my mother saying ‘I’ve put up with your nonsense, now you can stand on your own two feet’”. Constant scepticism about this Dick Whittington story merely had him verbally stamping his foot, smiling and saying “Look I wasn’t spoilt. OK.”
He started working for a rather staid outfit called The Joan Underwood agency, whose big earner was touring a musical called Lilac Time. Quickly Stigwood saw an opening in another part of the business. Commercial TV was just starting. “I began to put up our actors for advertisements. Soon I was casting about 40% of all the ads on TV”. Then he came across an actor, John Leyton, who wanted to be a pop star. Stigwood, an outsider from the big three labels EMI, Pye and Decca, gambled and financed Leyton on his own. He recorded the single independently and leased the tape back to the record company. Johnny Remember Me went to number one in August 1961.”It was the breakthrough for me”. By the mid sixties, aged 29, he was a millionaire. “By this time I was very grand,” he says amused at himself, “I had a chauffeur and everything. But then I had my downfall”. He overreached with tours of Chuck Berry and PJ Proby and in 1965 his company went into voluntary liquidation for £30,000. “My image was bigger than my money. I remember walking down the street and seeing the Evening Standard headline “Top Impresario Bust”. And I thought ‘top?’ That can’t be me.”
It was a blow. “I thought I’d failed. And then I realised that 30 is a depressing age anyway. I always advise people that if they haven’t got their career on track by 30, not to worry because they can always turn the corner.” He turned it by starting a new agency with new clients. He signed the band that became known as Cream, once Stigwood had added one of his solo artists, Eric Clapton. And then the group with whom he will always be most associated, The Bee Gees. By the age of 34 he was a millionaire again.
Stigwood’s style from then on was daring, as Cameron Mackintosh says, “Extraordinary is a very good word. He is a great gambler and a genuine entrepreneur. He‘s not a producer like me, interfering every step of the way. He has an instinct for something that he’ll think will work and then he gets other people to carry it through.” And Mackintosh, who made his millions form Miss Saigon and Les Miserables, has reason to pay tribute. Stigwood was the first to understand how to take a musical and duplicate it around the world. And he did it with Jesus Christ Superstar. He kept an iron fist on what are called the grand rights thus retaining total control over it. This might not matter much to you or I, but if you’re in entertainment, this is the business that has made the shows over the last twenty years. It is what has made Cats the global theatrical equivalent of Macdonald’s. “I get terribly annoyed when people say it was Cameron or me who invented the global approach to musicals”, says Lloyd-Webber. “It wasn’t. Robert taught us all how to do it.” And the instinct that drove that entrepreneurial ability is what Tim Rice calls “a genuine love of what’s popular. He doesn’t have to pretend that he likes what’s commercial. If he likes it, it’ll be commercial.” And this isn’t empty fawning. You only have to look at what Stigwood did with The Bee Gees.
Their wind tunnel hair and unfeasible helium inspired falsetto was always the musical equivalent of a lounge with a leather sofa and a button-backed bar. They were terminally naff writers of brilliant tunes. But Stigwood says bluntly of Barry Gibb “He is one of the great composers of all time.” However in 1970 they hit what Barry Gibb calls “the years of nothingness”. According to Gershon Stigwood couldn’t book them out anywhere in the States at all. Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records remembers telling Stigwood to drop them. So, long before the world saw Queen’s career rescued by Live Aid, Stigwood rented the 20,000-seater Madison Square Gardens and invited the Police Athletic League to bring 10,000 inner city school kids. According to Freddie Gershon he made the league “a donation” of $50,000 to smooth the arrangements. They gave and sold the remainder of the tickets away and the Bee Gees played to an audience most of whom had never been to a live gig before. They would have lapped up clowns. They loved the Bee Gees. Stigwood took ads in the entertainment press congratulating The Bee Gees on standing room only. As Gershun says “With smoke and mirrors he re-invented them.”
In a curious, but not quite libidinous way, Stigwood seems to be in love with all his acts. “Passion is the key to life,” we agree late on into the evening. “You don’t just make a film for the sake of fucking money, it’s belief”. He is vulnerable to his stars, as he calls them. The slightest rejection and he’s hurt. On a whim I suggested getting Barry Gibb on the line from Florida. It turned out that he was in the studio. “I was at the microphone”, he told me later, ” but with Robert you never know what it might be about.” Clearly miffed at the time though he became what Stigwood described afterwards as “antsy”. And as Stigwood listened to his telling off, his face flashed with a silent childish rage. But it didn’t last. He was keener to show off his new discovery, the stage John Travolta, and a 23-year-old actor called Adam Garcia. “I always knew I was going to cast him, but we had open auditions because you have to let the creative team chip in.”
And there on the tape, between Cheltenham races, was young Adam on the National Lottery swivelling his hips in French cut trousers and pouting effectively. And there he was again with Brucie on his 70th birthday TV celebration. The young pup and the old dog. Stigwood had engineered flattery by association, a blessing from the Light Entertainment Pope on the latest Stigwood epic and its star. Garcia has the right combination of swagger and vulnerability in his performance. He has the puppy sob in his voice that betrays Italian. And unlike Travolta, who did his dancing with edits and never sang, this boy has to dance and sing all the way through the show. And all conversations lead to him. “Isn’t he fantastic? He’s going to be a great star” I was told until it became boring. “I’m a real producer, you know. I don’t do interviews and I’m only doing this for my show and my new star. And if you don’t put him on the cover I shall ring Rupert.” Murdoch and he are both from Adelaide, they have known each other for most of their adult lives and even produced a film, Gallipoli together. Not that they seem to like each other much. It didn’t seem a serious threat. Made much more just for the fun of it. But you look at Stigwood’s eyes and you just never know. It was slightly unpleasant.
So we sit in the elegance of the drawing room at Barton Manor and listen to the new Garcia version of the title song, Night Fever, very loud on the stereo. And there is something rather odd about what we’re doing. We’re listening to Disco. We’re boogying – what else do you do to disco – on the sofa. They are still great tunes. And I‘m wondering if the 63 year old opposite, whose now got the excited beatific smile of a thrilled Buddha spreading across his face, can sell this again to a new generation? Is Stigwood really back in town?
Stigwood shouts across the music “Clubs are going to go mad for this. The album is going to be all hits.” And you realise that there is no bull about the man and no cynicism. He really loves it. He may live like a potentate and as Barry Gibb says, “If there is re-incarnation Robert will come back as Louis XVI”. But somehow he’s still got his feet on the ground and his finger on the pulse. The movie of Saturday Night Fever created Stigwood’s glory days. And it wasn’t just a movie, it was a whole decade summed up. That won’t happen again. But Saturday Night Fever can hardly avoid being a success. It looks like flares might be coming back to the suburbs. And Stigwood has got the rights.