Charles Levison

Music industry enabler


Charles John Cuthbertson Levison, solicitor and businessman: born Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire 6 November 1941; partner, Harbottle & Lewis 1967-74, consultant 1994-2006; Chairman, ICA 1990-96; Chairman, Lowry Centre 2004-06; deputy chairman, Chrysalis Group 1996-2006; married 1971 Caroline Clifton-Mogg (two daughters); died London 7 July 2006.

In the burgeoning of small media, communications and music companies that Britain has seen since the 1960s, the one essential, and under-appreciated, figure has been the enabler - the lawyer, entrepreneur, investor and non-executive director who sees the idea to market and makes sure it keeps its head above water in the rough seas of commerce.

Charles Levison was all of these things and more - the City lawyer and adviser to the music industry whose clients ranged from Bob Marley to Madonna and Barry Manilow, a moving force in Virgin Broadcasting, deputy chairman of the Chrysalis Group, as well as being a pioneer of the environmental movement, a chairman of the ICA and a director of the Wasps rugby club.

Part of his warmth and his delight in bringing on creative talent he may have owed to his Jewish background. His grandfather had come to Edinburgh from Galilee, where he converted to the Church of Scotland, in 1900 and founded the Hebrew Christian Alliance (a relation of Charles is now Chaplain to the Queen in Scotland). Levison's warm and eclectic approach to business may have also owed something to Cambridge University, that forger of closely knit friendships and sporting extroversion.

But most of his success he owed to an extraordinary combination of infectious enthusiasm and hard practicality. For a man who loved to do things, who claimed in an interview in The Independent that he would have liked to have been a conductor if he had not been a businessman, he had an unusual capacity to listen and - what is not always so apparent in businessmen - to "hear".

His financial rigour he put down to an education in sciences, which he studied alongside law at Trinity College, Cambridge. His good fortune was to come down to practise law and join the small West End firm of solicitors Harbottle & Lewis, just as the Sixties started to swing. He took to the music industry as clients with glee, developing the largest music industry law practice in the country at the same time as championing conservation as a founder member of the Solicitors Environmental law Group and, in 1974, chairing the future Friends of the Earth.

Nobody at that time (and indeed today) could work in the music industry without working in the United States and in 1974 Charles Levison upped sticks with his young journalist wife and family to set himself up in New York and the Caribbean to act as a consultant for European companies, including Virgin Records, setting up in America. New York, he said later, taught him that the sky was the limit to possibilities, the Caribbean that you could make money and still live a full life and have some fun.

Returning to London, he was made managing director of Arista Records in 1978 and moved to Warners in 1981, which took him - via Warner Home Video - into television production and working with Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones. The TV experience also led to what he regarded as a particularly fruitful relationship with Richard Branson, who made him managing director of Virgin Broadcasting, where he helped launch Kiss FM and Virgin Radio.

Over the last decade he had become man of many parts and directorships, always a contentious role in a country which has never quite understood or developed the position of the non-executive director. His most public position was as deputy chairman of the Chrysalis Group from 1996. But he also chaired and took directorships in an extensive range of small companies, including Result Venture Knowledge International, a marketing consultancy, Worldpop, the online entertainment website, the BV Group, a communications agency, Sci Group, the computer games company, and Dagenham Motors, as well as Allied Leisure Group and Theatreshare.

He also became a consultant to his old firm Harbottle & Lewis, while, on the arts front, he served as chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1990-96, and was made chairman of the Lowry Centre in Salford in 2004. Together with Greg Dyke and Sabrina Guinness, he was a founder director of the Young People's Community Training Foundation.

Levison had his ups and downs. The Music Channel, renamed Superchannel, which he formed in 1983 as a joint venture between Virgin, Yorkshire Television and Thorn EMI to conquer the European market in satellite and cable TV, ended in failure and had to be sold. In 1996 he braved the worst and best of sport when Chrysalis acquired Queens Park Rangers Football Club and Wasps Rugby Club. QPR went into administration but Wasps flourished.

Charles Levison was never going to retire. His heart attack at 64 came out of the blue and - despite the fervent attendance of his family and friends each day at his bedside in St Mary's Hospital, Paddington - he died three months later. Above his bed his wife had pinned an enlarged photograph of her husband, raising his glass to companionship and pleasure.

Adrian Hamilton

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