The Managers That Built Prog: Charisma's Tony Stratton-Smith
He was the founder of Charisma Records, nurtured Genesis’ talent and was described by Peter Hammill as “extraordinary.” Although only a band manager for seven years, his influence on prog was
Tony Stratton-Smith was more like an old actor-manager such as Henry Irving in the way he looked after his acts and his label, Charisma, as opposed to what we think of as a classic rock manager like Don Arden or Peter Grant. Drifting into the music business in the early 60s, by the middle of the decade he’d worked with both Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog Oldham.
His first major acts, The Nice and The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, set out his stall perfectly – one of eccentric, trailblazing individuality. As Johnny Rogan wrote in his book about rock management, Starmakers And Svengalis, “Most of the record label’s distinctive charm came from Stratton-Smith’s proud paternal interest in all the artistes under his charge.”
A fervent and passionate supporter of the good life and horse racing, aside from the Charisma offices on Old Compton Street, Stratton-Smith operated out of three venues in London’s Soho: the Ship pub, the Marquee and La Chasse, just further down on Wardour Street.
Born in Birmingham in 1933, Stratton-Smith trained as a reporter. He made his name as a sports journalist on the Birmingham Gazette, and while working at The Daily Sketch, became the youngest sports editor in Fleet Street. His first publication in 1963, The Brazil Book Of Football, was packed with first-hand interviews with players such as Pelé from the previous year’s World Cup. As well as several books on football coaching, he also wrote The Rebel Nun about Mother Maria Skobtsova, who had been killed at Ravensbrück for her role in the French Resistance during the Second World War. There was clearly some depth and vision to the man.
An encounter with Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim while Stratton-Smith was covering the World Cup in Chile led to an interest in music publishing. His reputation was such that he was asked to ghostwrite Brian Epstein’s biography, A Cellarful Of Noise. Although Derek Taylor got the gig, his time with Epstein proved inspirational, and by 1965 Stratton-Smith was managing his first act, Paddy, Klaus & Gibson (featuring Beatles’ confidante Klaus Voorman), followed by singer Beryl Marsden. Hugely popular in France and admired by the cognoscenti, sadly Marsden didn’t enjoy huge mainstream success, partially due to what Stratton-Smith was later to call “a kind of Liverpudlian bloody-mindedness”.
His next acts were the hugely influential The Creation and the largely unsuccessful The Koobas. Stratton-Smith was on the verge of quitting music when he encountered The Nice. Signed to Immediate, the group were disenchanted with their manager and label owner Andrew Loog Oldham. Their keyboard player Keith Emerson asked Stratton-Smith to look after their affairs.
The Nice wanted to play bigger venues, something Stratton-Smith assisted with. However, one of the first shows he secured was the infamous Albert Hall concert in June 1968 – at the height of the Vietnam War – when Emerson burnt the US flag. Immediately, a lucrative US tour was thrown into doubt, and Stratton-Smith had to use all of his considerable charm to get the group over the water. During the group’s first show at Fillmore East, Emerson repeated the stunt, much to the consternation of the audience and promoter Bill Graham.
Impressed by his handling of The Nice, Vivian Stanshall approached Stratton-Smith to take over management of his group The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band from Gerry Bron. It was a perfect marriage between people who took their work, if not themselves, seriously: Bonzos drummer ‘Legs’ Larry Smith wrote in 1993, “The eloquence of this man – the generosity – the breathlessness – those deep brown eyes – glazed with the tears of helpless, hopeless, hysterical laughter – tears that would run down Wardour Street and then flow up three flights of stairs into the La Chasse most nights.”
Stratton-Smith enjoyed a great year or so with the group, but plans were afoot to launch his own record label to complement his management career. With The Nice and the Bonzos, he had been so disenchanted dealing with labels that he wanted to run his own, based on the Motown model. With a team of trusted lieutenants such as label manager Gail Colson and her brother Glen, who would handle PR, as well as tour manager Fred Munt, and with the expertise of Terry King and Paul Conroy at the Terry King Agency to book tours, the ‘Famous Charisma Label’ was born.