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Stigwood: the last tycoon

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He was the Flo Ziegfeld of the disco era, the Richard D'Oyly Carte of rock operas and the Brian Epstein figure to some of the biggest names in popular music, including the Bee Gees, Eric Clapton, Cream, The Who, Rod Stewart and David Bowie.

The New York Times once described him, “a combination of P.T. Barnum, Mike Todd and Jay Gatsby”, an impresario with the Midas touch and more than a bit of the cheerful huckster about him: a self-made man with a glittering self-invented public persona.

His business acumen was such that one rival said trying to get the better of him on a deal was as futile an undertaking as attempting to fight a Great White Shark sporting tungsten dentures.

Robert Stigwood was certainly all of these things.

But he was also an extraordinarily kind, cultured and thoughtful individual. As is often the case with people who live their lives in the public eye, the veneer of glitz and glamour hid an extremely private and sometimes painfully shy man.

Additionally, as former Premier Sir John Swan said when Stigwood died on Monday at the age of 81, he was one of Bermuda's most high-profile and tireless champions in recent times.

“Robert lived here for many years and, as those who crossed his path know, he was a huge supporter of Bermuda and Bermudians,” he said. “He was a friend, a genuine friend, to people from all walks of life during the time he spent here.

“Obviously he was a pivotal figure in the international entertainment industry in the 1970s and 1980s, and when he was travelling abroad he was also an exemplary ambassador for the Island. He encouraged a lot of influential individuals to visit here and a lot of major companies to do business in Bermuda.”

His list of credits was as prodigious as it was impressive. Stigwood was the producer of Saturday Night Fever and the film adaptation of Grease, along with the stage and screen versions of Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar. He was the man who helped to launch and guide the careers of countless pop acts and actors, including John Travolta, the musical theatre writing team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and it was he who repackaged the Britcoms Til Death Do Us Part and Steptoe & Son for American audiences as All In The Family and Sanford & Son. He was the unlikely Australian-born, British-based tastemaker who transformed the four-on-the-floor beat of disco from a dying mid-Seventies musical fad into a worldwide pop culture phenomenon.

He first came to Bermuda in 1976. At the time, he was in the midst of consolidating his transition from Sixties pop music magnate into a major international power player in stage, movie and television production.

The pressures of running a burgeoning global entertainment empire necessitated that Stigwood travel constantly between London, New York and Los Angeles. So Bermuda became both a convenient stopover point for him as well as a business-savvy jurisdiction where his increasingly complex international deals and tax obligations could be co-ordinated by the emerging offshore financial services sector.

When he first arrived here, he was planning a slate of new films, including a low-budget street musical of sorts based on a magazine article he read about the American disco subculture.

The magazine piece chronicled how Brooklyn teenagers increasingly were spending their weekends at gaudy discotheques to find temporary release on the dancefloors from their dead-end existences and sterile surroundings.

Journalist Nik Cohn's article had been called Tribal Rites Of The New Saturday Night. The film script was, mercifully, retitled Saturday Night Fever by the searingly brilliant screenwriter Norman Wexler after a Bermuda confab with Stigwood.

Stigwood had long managed the career of the Bee Gees, British-born, Australian-raised brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb. Known for their seraphic harmonies and solid songwriting, in the mid-Seventies the group were increasingly flavouring their music with R&B/disco inflections and danceable beats.

So Stigwood commissioned the trio to provide songs for the soundtrack of his disco opus while they were visiting him in Bermuda that summer.

“Give me eight minutes — eight minutes, three moods,” he said when describing his concept for the title track to the group. “I want frenzy at the beginning. Then I want some passion. “And then I want some w-i-i-i-ld frenzy.”

The Bee Gees immediately obliged. They retired to a quiet a corner of Stigwood's rented Palm Grove estate in Devonshire and wrote the bulk of what was to be titled Stayin' Alive, a song that later came to be described as “the national anthem of the Seventies”.

All of the other Bee Gees songs on the film's soundtrack were sketched out here as well (for good measure, Bee Gees de facto leader Barry Gibb and youngest brother Andy, who was honeymooning in Bermuda and just signed as a solo act on Stigwood's RSO record label, also wrote the two songs that would go on to be his first international chart-toppers at Palm Grove that summer).

When it was released, Saturday Night Fever was less a film than a global cultural event, inspiring trends not just in music but in fields such as fashion, hairstyling and jewellery as well.

Its influence was unavoidable in the late 1970s and its presence was everywhere.

Even the notoriously hard-to-please, high-brow film and cultural critic Pauline Kael was enchanted. And she went on to explain the almost gravitational attraction the movie and soundtrack exerted on audiences around the world as well as anyone.

“These are among the most hypnotically beautiful pop dance scenes ever filmed,” she said in a New Yorker review. “At its best, Saturday Night Fever gets at something deeply romantic: the need to move, to dance, and the need to be who you'd like to be.

“Nirvana is the dance; when the music stops, you return to being ordinary.”

Stigwood had tapped into something primal and almost fundamental in the collective psyche of a generation while developing his idea for a little disco film in Bermuda during the summer of 1976.

As lyricist Tim Rice said, the film's success epitomised Stigwood's largely unerring ability to both anticipate and guide public taste. He had “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”.

His reputation as an entertainment industry colossus was firmly cemented by the film and its soundtrack album, which sold 40 million copies, as was his fortune.

Now wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of British tax collectors, he decided to move to Bermuda on a semi-permanent basis.

The year after Saturday Night Fever's release, Stigwood sailed down the Thames on his elegantly appointed yacht, Sarina, and into tax exile in Bermuda, remaining here for the next 14 years.

Bermuda was not just an advantageous tax jurisdiction for Robert Stigwood, but a mid-Atlantic base of operations for his international dealmaking and power-broking.

The Island was also very much his home, perhaps the first real home he had since leaving Australia as a young advertising copywriter in the 1950s to seek his fortune (or, if the usual odds had applied, his almost certain ruin) in the British entertainment industry.

He bought and lovingly restored the sprawling but entirely dilapidated Wreck House estate in Sandys parish.

The refurbished house assumed a grandeur it had never known, even during its Georgian heyday and immediately became one of Bermuda's premiere showpiece properties.

“I'm a perfectionist,” Stigwood said. “I'd rather not do something than not do it poperly. I never do anything to be defeated.”

Also after moving Bermuda, he supervised the two-year, multimillion-dollar overhaul of a second classic motor yacht, Jezebel, launched in 1929, which he purchased from Loel Guinness, the British politician and business magnate.

The result was what The New York Times called “a floating fantasy”, produced with the same finesse and cool elegance that characterised Stigwood's theatre and movie projects. Lavishly furnished in English country style with fabrics from London, antiques from France, marble from Italy, oriental rugs, priceless works of art and a mahogany grand piano (bolted down, of course), the 271-foot vessel — a throwback to an age of grace and luxury that had seemed gone for ever — became a regular sight in Bermuda waters.

Frequently moored alongside the Flagpole on Front Street, the parties that Stigwood hosted aboard Jezebel have become the stuff of Bermuda legend.

If Robert Stigwood gave us glamour, celebrity and more than a touch of international showbusiness élan during his time in Bermuda, we provided him with tranquility and soul-soothing respites from the high-octane, high-pressure world of entertainment.

For this most public of men in the 1970s and 1980s, Bermuda allowed Robert Stigwood to enjoy something very close to a normal private life — or at least as normal as a jet-setting multimillionaire's private life can ever be.

Here he was left largely unmolested by the armies of wannabes, hangers-on and assorted lickspittle toadies who plague the great, the good and the not so good of the entertainment field in most communities.

Stigwood really did walk with kings — members of the Royal Family were guests at his West End home, along with showbusiness royalty. But he not only retained the common touch, he revelled in it. Always very much engaged in the Bermuda community, he never stood apart from the people of his adopted home — all of the people. His choice in friends was every bit as much democratic as his choice in the musical styles he chose to champion.

He was as comfortable at black-tie dinners where the cuisine and wine were as top-drawer as the guest lists as he was sitting at the kitchen table of a modest Bermuda home, sipping coffee and listening with genuine interest to advice from gardeners on how best to get his citrus trees to produce more fruit.

A quiet but unfailingly generous benefactor to any number of local cultural organisations, charities and individuals, this flamboyant one-man global industry wasn't just a good corporate citizen of Bermuda, he was a good citizen, period.

Stigwood's eventual departure for the Isle of Wight in 1992 marked the end of a glorious period both for him and Bermuda, one never to be revisited.

In failing health in his final years after a botched hip replacement operation, he eventually left the Isle of Wight and divided his time between a property near London and a home in France.

“Passion is the key to life,” he once said. “You don't just make a film or promote a musician or back a stage production for the sake of money; it's belief.”

And as those who knew him in Bermuda can attest, he brought this unflagging passion, this belief, to everything he did.

“He was such an enthusiastic person,” Sir John Swan said. “He loved people; he was a people person. He was just a down-to-earth, highly approachable individual.”

The former Premier added: “Robert was a very good friend, not only to me but to Bermuda as a whole.”

– TIM HODGSON

Ahoy there! Robert Stigwood pictured on his boat close to his Wreck House estate in Sandys. The photo was published in Home Magazine in 1987. (Photograph by William Strode)
Home, sweet home: Stigwood lived at the luxurious Wreck House estate in Sandys for most of his time Bermuda. He moved to the island in 1976 and spent 14 years here, living first at Palm Grove in Devonshire before purchasing Wreck House(Photo by Scott Stallard)

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Published January 07, 2016 at 8:00 am (Updated January 07, 2016 at 6:02 pm)

Stigwood: the last tycoon

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