Robert Stigwood, the former music manager who produced the highest-grossing film musical in Hollywood history — Grease — along with Saturday Night Fever, Tommy and Broadway shows including Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, has died. He was 81. Stigwood managed the Bee Gees during their heyday, and Robin Gibb’s son confirmed the news on Facebook. He called Stigwood “a creative genius with a very quick and dry wit.”
Born on April 16, 1934 in Adelaide, Stigwood relocated to England in the 1950s and launched a theatrical management agency. By the mid-’60s, he was focusing on music. He managed Cream, the supergroup featuring Eric Clapton, through their years of international stardom and also repped the Bee Gees, who scored multiple U.S. and UK hits from 1967-72. Clapton and the Brothers Gibb both saw career declines in the early 1970s, and Stigwood turned his attention to Broadway. He produced the 1971 hit Jesus Christ Superstar, the first Main Stem show from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Stigwood also produced the 1973 film version.
Also in 1973, Stigwood launched RSO Records, which would become one of the most successful labels of the decade. By 1975, Stigwood and RSO had revived the careers of Clapton, whose classic 461 Ocean Boulevard topped the LP charts for a month, and the Bee Gees, who had reinvented themselves as disco kings with a slew of hit singles. That year, Stigwood also produced Tommy, Ken Russell’s take on the Who’s rock opera album. The film starred Who singer Roger Daltrey along with Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed and a gaggle of music stars including Elton John, Tina Turner, Keith Moon and Clapton.
But all that was a warmup for Stigwood’s Biggest Year.
After more RSO success with the Bee Gees’ 1976 hit album Main Course, Stigwood persuaded the group to deliver several songs for the soundtrack of his next project. The result was Saturday Night Fever, a time capsule of the disco era based on a 1976 New York magazine cover story about the local fame of an outer-borough dance-hall legend (the story later was revealed as fiction). The film made a movie star of Welcome Back Kotter actor John Travolta and turned the Bee Gees into global megastars. If the movie was a hit, its RSO soundtrack album was a monster. The double LP singlehandedly entrenched disco as the music of the era, spending nearly six months at No. 1 in the U.S. alone and spawning a slew of smash singles including four chart-toppers. It remains among the 15 best-selling albums of all time Stateside.
Stigwood followed that with another mega-success. Also starring Travolta, Grease hit theaters in June 1978 and quickly became a multimedia phenomenon. This time, the film was a smash, eventually becoming the top-grossing movie musical ever with nearly $189 million. The RSO soundtrack album also was huge, spending three months at No. 1.
Stigwood’s next film project likely was one he’d have wished to forget. Trying to recapture the Tommy magic, he lined up a bevy of pop stars for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Also released in 1978, the rock opera-style take on the Beatles album (also clipping songs from the band’s Abbey Road) landed with a thud in critical circles. Despite starring some of the biggest musical acts of the day — the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Steve Martin, Billy Preston and others — the film stiffed. The soundtrack went platinum but had nowhere near the cultural impact of its predecessors.
Undeterred, Stigwood soon returned to the theater, collaborating again with Rice and Lloyd Webber to produce the London and Broadway smash hit Evita. It won five Tonys including Best Musical and Best Featured Actor in a Musical for the young Mandy Patinkin. Stigwood’s final film credit was the 1996 big-screen take on Evita starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas. The film went on to win a Golden Globe for best motion picture musical/comedy.
Back on the big screen, Stigwood produced Times Square (1980), The Fan (1981) and Gallipoli (1981). But his next two films were creative, commercial and critical stumbles with the sequels Grease 2 (1982) and Staying Alive (1983). Not even Travolta reprising his Tony Manero character from Saturday Night Fever could rescue the latter. Stigwood also produced 1984’s Young Lust. RSO did have success during this period however, releasing the top 10 soundtrack albums for The Empire Strikes Back and Fame, both in 1980.
By the mid-1980s, RSO Records had closed and its catalog sold (at one point in 1978, the label’s acts held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for a combined 21 consecutive weeks with six different songs). But in the meantime, Stigwood had enjoyed more success on Broadway, producing Rice and Lloyd Webber’s Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which ran for nearly 20 months and scored a Best Musical Tony nom. He also produced the 1999 musical version of Saturday Night Fever on the Main Stem, and Grease was revived in 2007.
As the news of Stigwood’s death became known, his longtime collaborators Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice paid tribute to him on Twitter.