Bob Mercer: Music industry executive who signed Kate Bush and masterminded the Now! series of compilation albums
Saturday 22 May 2010
The music industry executive Bob Mercer played an important part in the success of EMI Records throughout the 1970s.
During his time with the company, first as marketing director and then as managing director, he oversaw the signings of big-selling acts such as Queen, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel and Olivia Newton-John, and survived the fiasco of the Sex Pistols' controversial episode with the label. Most famously, he signed Kate Bush, arguably the most distinctive female singer-songwriter to come out of the British Isles.
On first-name terms with John Lennon as well as Paul McCartney, whom he managed for a short time in the mid-'80s, Mercer ensured that the former members of the Beatles stayed with EMI. In the mid-1970s he renewed a long-term agreement with Pink Floyd, even if the group secured a separate deal with Columbia for the US only after The Dark Side of the Moon album, and brought The Rolling Stones' own label and recordings under the EMI umbrella for eight years, starting with the Some Girls album in 1978.
A consummate music and marketing man, he masterminded the release of The Beach Boys' 20 Golden Greats, a TV-advertised compilation issued at the beginning of the long hot summer of 1976, which spent 10 weeks at No 1, over 18 months on the British charts and sold a million copies. After moving to Nashville in the early 1990s he helped Jimmy Buffett set up Margaritaville Records.
He subsequently relocated to Los Angeles, where, with the Universal Music Group, he launched New Door Records and issued albums by Motown veterans the Temptations and Smokey Robinson, and the country-folk artists Todd Snider and Nanci Griffith. In the late '90s he became chief executive of the Now That's What I Call Music! hit-single compilation series – a joint venture between EMI, Universal and latterly Sony – and matched the resounding success of the British-originated concept with sales of over 75 million albums in the US over the last 12 years.
Fittingly for someone associated with the glory days of EMI, and who had once lived in a company flat near Abbey Road Studios in London, his Los Angeles office was on the top floor of the legendary Capitol Records Tower, with a view of the Hollywood sign. He had recently been developing a Now... show for US television with the American Idol creator Simon Fuller.
Born in Preston, Lancashire in 1944, he was schooled by Jesuits and spent some time in Liverpool. He graduated from the University of Manchester with a business degree in statistics. In the late 1960s he became product manager at General Foods in Britain, but his long hair didn't quite fit in and he was happy to be headhunted by EMI in 1972, "forsaking snap and crackle for pop", as he remarked.
In July 1975 Mercer dropped in at Abbey Road to check on the Pink Floyd sessions for what would become the Wish You Were Here album. The Floyd guitarist David Gilmour played him the three-song demo tape he had made with Bush at AIR Studios. Mercer was particularly taken with "The Man with the Child in His Eyes" and "The Saxophone Song", which would both be included on The Kick Inside, the singer's 1978 debut album.
Mercer put the then 17-year-old singer under contract, but also suggested she take time to develop further artistically. "On meeting her, I realised how young she was mentally. We gave her some money to grow up with," he said. "EMI was like another family to her. She was the company's daughter for a few years."
When, during a fraught meeting, Bush burst into tears and insisted the company issue "Wuthering Heights" rather than "James and the Cold Gun" as her first single, and also demanded a change of picture bag which delayed its release until January 1978, Mercer gave in.
"It went to No 1 and stayed there for four weeks," he said. "I had told her not to worry, that it would take at least three albums and she should be patient. To her credit, she never reminded me of the incident." The notoriously elusive Bush held him in high regard and kept in touch after he moved to the US. In the 1980s he worked for EMI Films, and had a spell managing Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, which culminated in the momentous and monumental staging of The Wall in Berlin in 1990.
Straightforward and generous to a fault with artists and colleagues, Mercer, who died of lung cancer, was a great raconteur and a connoisseur of fine wines. He mentored many of the music industry's movers and shakers such as Roger Ames, currently CEO, International at Ticketmaster. His son Jackson works at the Concord Music Group in Los Angeles.
Robert Mercer, music industry executive: born Preston, Lancashire 17 October 1944; married 1979 Margie (one son); died Los Angeles 5 May 2010.
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