Bob Houston was the rumbustious, energetic and fearless production editor of Melody Maker who helped the magazine meet new challenges during the Sixties, an era dominated by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. A fiery Scot with great energy and enthusiasm, he brought newspaper experience to bear when in 1963 he redesigned the long established weekly music title in a bold tabloid style. He also ensured that the constantly evolving MM remained committed to covering the best in jazz and pop. While his own tastes encompassed the avant-garde artists Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp, he also championed The Who, Cream and the Mothers of Invention.
More importantly, Houston encouraged the development of serious rock and pop journalism. Behind his ferocious black beard and aggressive demeanour lay a desire to bring out the best in the new breed of contributors. Among those he encouraged were the photographers Valerie Wilmer and Barrie Wentzell and the writers Richard Williams and Charles Shaar Murray. He was never afraid to offer blunt criticism, a novel experience for many. "Why have you stopped writing?" he would shout. Or, "Why don't you take any good pictures any more?" It was all intended to bring out the creative fire in those he thought were slacking.
Throughout his life, he was able to satisfy his passions for music, sport and journalism with a flair that invariably ensured success. As well as being a major force in the rejuvenation of Melody Maker, Houston later became editor of the trade-union paper The Miner, launched his own magazine, Royalty, and was a sports writer for The Observer and The Independent .
Bob Houston was born in Bailleston, Glasgow, in 1939, one of two children of William Houston, a steelworker, and his wife Margaret. Bob went to Coatbridge High School and his mother hoped he would go into the Civil Service. However, he gave up plans to go to university and left school at 15. He took a job at the Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser as a trainee journalist. Bob's sister Jean recalls:
Bob loved his job at the Advertiser because he had a chance to do everything from court reporting to writing about football, which was his passion. He left for a while to do National Service in the RAF but returned to the Advertiser for a couple of years. At the age of 21 he became their youngest ever editor.
In 1963 Bob Houston left the Advertiser to move to London, where he joined Melody Maker as assistant to the editor Jack Hutton. He became part of a legendary team that included Max Jones, Bob Dawbarn and Ray Coleman. His imaginative use of bold headlines - for instance, "Dylan Digs Donovan!" - encapsulated the mood and events, while Mick Jagger was shown handcuffed and under arrest. Houston also helped produce a monthly colour MM supplement called Music Maker and wrote pungent album and concert reviews.
An unabashed bon viveur, he enjoyed spending his nights at Ronnie Scott's club, where he met and interviewed most of the visiting jazz giants. Brian Blain, of Jazz UK magazine, first met Bob Houston in 1964. "I was writing jazz reviews for the Morning Star when he invited me to do work for Melody Maker," Blain says:
I think his contribution to the success of the MM was enormous. Thanks to his technical ability as a designer, he made Melody Maker look like an up-to-date magazine. He worked really well with Jack Hutton in modernising the MM. He understood the Beatles phenomenon, but still kept space for radical jazz in the paper, which was quite amazing. He put the Rolling Stones and The Who on the front page but inside you'd find stories about Albert Ayler and John Coltrane.
Blain says that Houston introduced Richard Williams to the MM. Williams was then a "stringer" in Nottingham who would go on become MM editor as well as presenter of BBC TV's Old Grey Whistle Test and writer for The Independent, The Times and The Guardian. When the fashion photographer Barrie Wentzell offered the MM pictures of Diana Ross, Houston was impressed; Wentzell became the MM's chief photographer for the next 10 years.
In 1970 Jack Hutton left the MM to launch the new music title Sounds, leaving a vacancy for a new editor. Houston threatened to "throw his hat in the ring" but the job went to Ray Coleman. At celebration drinks at the Wig & Pen in Fleet Street, Houston was seen pinning the wincing editor against the wall and telling him, "You've got a tiger by the tail and you can't let go!"
After leaving Melody Maker in 1970, Houston diversified his interests. He edited The Miner during the era of the NUM leader Joe Gormley. As a result of his brash revamp, the magazine became known as The Melody Miner. He also worked as a sports sub-editor on The Observer but he retained his interest in rock music and founded the pioneering indie magazine Cream that featured NME's Charles Shaar Murray among its chief contributors.
However, Bob Houston's greatest success as a publisher came with the launch of Royalty magazine during the 1980s. It was considered ironic that the left-wing Glaswegian son of a steelworker should become so enamoured of the Royal Family, but Bob always had a twinkle in his eye, even when fulminating against the Establishment.