A man who won't be labelled
Top rock bands sprang from his Chrysalis. Now the music maestro is banging the drum for sport. Paul Farrelly reports
Sunday 11 August 1996
Last Monday, a month after buying into the rugby club Wasps, he clinched control of Queen's Park Rangers, the London football club he fell in love with a quarter of a century ago. By Thursday, he had swapped his west London penthouse office, decked out with Andy Warhol prints and eccentric sculptures, for a Majorca hotel and a celebration break with Chelle, his American wife of 24 years' standing.
Not any old hotel. But Majorca's La Residencia, a 65-room mansion in Deya, an exclusive west coast resort, in a serene mountain and olive tree setting, a far cry from the roar at Loftus Road, home of QPR, or the lager louts down the road at Magaluf. And owned by Richard Branson, that other hippy-looking music type with whom he has long been compared.
The parallels still invite. Both sold their music labels to Thorn EMI a few years ago. Freed from legal shackles, both are now setting up again. For Wright's Chrysalis baby, now read Echo; for Branson's Virgin Music, read V2. Do the comparisons irk?
"I'll ask Richard. I'm just about to have dinner with him," Wright says. "Fifteen years ago, we were neck and neck, but now I reckon he's edged ahead." Friends? "We still regard ourselves as being extremely competitive. He's starting his new label, and after 25 years what does he do? Take my A&R man from Echo."
A grudge? No it's business and if Wright has lost Chrysalis, the label, he is still firmly in charge of Chrysalis, the company. He still owns 43 per cent of it, which makes him worth nearly pounds 60m in shares alone.
Wright, a farmer's son, was brought up in Lincolnshire and at the age of the three developed his first passion: for Grimsby Town football club. He headed for Manchester University, attracted by another great football team (first he supported United, then City). Here, music took over. As social secretary of the students' union in 1964 he was booking bands while running a blues venue, the J&J, and studying for a history degree.
"One night a week in an old Irish working men's club, we packed it to the rafters. I was doing very well. At the last minute, an agency there gave me a 'phone and a desk. I just drifted into it and after a while stopped trying to get a proper job," Wright says.
Dr Crock and the Crackpots was the first band to ask for the Wright treatment. Not even to psychedelic blues what Grimsby Town was to football, they disappeared without trace. A more successful outfit, Ten Years After, followed, and in 1967 Wright teamed up with Terry Ellis, who had promoted bands at Newcastle University. From a bedsit in west London, Chrysalis (Chris-Ellis) was born, signing and making stars of Jethro Tull and Procul Harum.
Wright has been responsible for a multitude of career launches including Genesis, Debbie Harry, Spandau Ballet and Ultravox. His songs go from Procul Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" in the early days to "Nothing compares 2U", Sinead O'Connor's haunting 1990 million-seller.
"Every time you break a new artist, it's a real high. But the early days were the most important," he says. "Some of the later artists got so successful, but they didn't really want it. They try to destroy themselves. Sinead O'Connor's band would have split up in two days if they hadn't had us to manage them."
If the 1960s and 1970s were good to Wright, the late 1980s were less so. An ill-judged expansion into the US plunged Chrysalis into losses and Wright's less than far-sighted bankers forced the sale of Chrysalis in stages to EMI for pounds 68m.
In the meantime, he had split from Ellis, floated on the stock exchange, and quickly regretted the short-sighted City treadmill. An early attempt to buy the company back (another parallel with Branson) was blocked by star US producer David Geffen.
"He'd bought 10 per cent of the company to force me to sell, but Chrysalis went to EMI instead. To be bloody minded, he wouldn't let the privatisation go through," Wright recollects. "But over the last couple of years I've learned to cope with the City. I'm more comfortable with it now."
To the banks the pounds 68m price looked big then, yet it shaded whiter than pale against the amounts pocketed by Branson, Island and Motown, independent labels that sold out later.
But White is not bitter; he freely admits that mishandling the US was the big mistake of his career. "Huey Lewis and the News had a clause in their contract that said if I reduced the size of the US company, they could go," he says. "I should have bitten the bullet earlier, downscaled and lost Huey Lewis. But you can't blame anyone else, just yourself at the end of the day."
Colleagues say Wright is cautious, a very private person and difficult to get to know. But he has the knack of picking good people and letting them run the show.
"When he's thinking through a decision, he talks to a lot of people to get all the possible angles," one colleague says. "But at the end of the day, it's very much a case of strong individuals running their own business. Chris is the unifying element."
Those businesses today include Heart FM and Galaxy regional radio, the new Echo label and a clutch of TV production companies that make Chrysalis the second largest independent programme-maker after Pearson, the old Thames TV.
Wright's love of sport played a key part in the reshaping. He is keen on tennis, playing at least three times a week, and owns a string of racehorses. His Culture Vulture was the first filly to win the French 1,000 Guineas. "I've also recently built up a fair collection of Post-Impressionist paintings," he says, as if to emphasise the "culture" bit.
Chrysalis first brought Indy Car racing and live Italian league football to British screens and is talking to BSkyB about basketball, featuring the team he owns, the Sheffield Sharks, which have just finished top of the UK league.
Chelle, who was doing the lighting at a rock'n'roll show in Sacramento when they met in 1969, has her own interests. But Tim, at 23 the eldest of the three children, has just finished producing an NBA basketball contract for Chrysalis in the US.
Wright gave up on poor old Grimsby Town when he moved south to London. He flirted with Chelsea before finally settling on their neighbours QPR in the playing days of Stan Bowles and Gerry Francis.
Wright has great plans for Ray Wilkins' current side, who were relegated to the First Division last season. Ambition, though, is tempered by the reality of the vast sums sloshing around football's highest reaches these days. And Wright remains a businessman first and foremost.
"Wasps can be the top rugby club in England and the world. The sky's the limit, but realistically it's lower for QPR," he says. "With the right attitude we can get back to the Premiership. If, for the sake of the fans, we can win the FA Cup one year, or the Coca-Cola Cup, or reach Europe, I would say we'd achieved something."
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