Giorgio Gomelsky helped launch the careers of the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds and became the catalyst for the emergence of acts like Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & the Trinity in the late 1960s. Based in Paris-for most of the '70s, Gomelsky set up an alternative touring circuit in France that not only benefitted Gong, the ever-changing, multi-national collective set up by Daevid Allen, but also established Magma, the unique French group operating at the crossroads of jazz-fusion, progressive and avant-rock.
"Music is a journey, not something mapped out by a lawyer," said Gomelsky, whose occasionally cavalier attitude towards licensing rights, master tapes and major labels could get him into trouble and which accounts for the raft of early releases by the Yardbirds and the vagaries of the Gong and Magma catalogue of reissues. "Human expression is when you make real what you feel. It's about the discovery of reality behind appearances."
Born in what is now Georgia in 1934, he was the son of a French milliner and a Russian doctor who took the family back to Switzerland, where he had trained and practised during the Second World War. He learned English from Melody Maker, which his mother would send from London after she divorced his father.
He eventually joined her there after completing his education at the Benedictine school in Ancona, Italy, and at l'Ecole d'Humanité near Bern. A jazz buff and a bohemian appalled at the lack of nightlife in London in the mid-1950s, he opened a coffee bar off the King's Road and fell in with Chris Barber and John Dankworth, two of the British jazzers he captured on film before he switched his focus to the emerging rhythm and blues scene.
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In 1963 he launched the Crawdaddy Club, named after Bo Diddley's "Doing The Craw-Daddy", in a back room at the Station Hotel pub in Richmond-upon-Thames. When Dave Hunt couldn't make the regular Sunday night engagement, Gomelsky called upon the Rolling Stones, the group recently formed by Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Keith Richards, who he had met at Soho's Marquee Club. Their "Rhythm and Bulse" – there was a misprint on the flyers – drew only a handful, but within three months, and thanks to articles in the Richmond & Twickenham Times and the Daily Mirror, the Beatles dropped by and the Stones signed a three-year management contract with Andrew Loog Oldham and Eric Easton.
"I felt tremendously let down," said Gomelsky who had been in Switzerland making arrangements for his father's funeral. "I thought we had a verbal understanding but Brian was determined to be a star at any price."
Magnanimous, after the Crawdaddy moved to a bar at the Richmond Athletic Ground, he still occasionally booked the Stones and turned towards potential replacements, including the Paramounts – later Procol Harum – the Animals and the Yardbirds. He gave guitarist Eric Clapton his "Slowhand" nickname, in reference to his prowess and the time he took to change strings when they broke in the heat.
Gomelsky sent the Yardbirds out on tour backing Sonny Boy Williamson, resulting in a joint live album recorded at the Crawdaddy in December 1963. The following year he signed the Yardbirds to EMI's Columbia label and produced their Five Live Yardbirds debut, recorded at the Marquee. Following the relative flop of the blues standards "I Wish You Would" and "Good Morning School Girl", he suggested they record "For Your Love", the Graham Gouldman song, which became a Top 3 hit in 1965.
However, this commercial move precipitated the departure of the blues purist, Clapton. Replacing him with Jeff Beck, Gomelsky co-produced a brace of Gouldman compositions – "Heart Full Of Soul", "Evil Hearted You" – and "Shapes Of Things", which was co-written by the Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, singer Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty, before finding himself replaced as manager by Simon Napier-Bell in 1967.
With the backing of Polydor, Gomelsky launched the Marmalade label and scored a pan-European smash with "This Wheel's On Fire", the Bob Dylan song adapted by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & the Trinity (in 1990, a re-recording by Driscoll and Adrian Edmondson became the theme song for Absolutely Fabulous). He also issued Extrapolation, the 1969 debut by the jazz-rock virtuoso John McLaughlin, and singles by Gouldman, Lol Creme and Kevin Godley, who later joined forces in 10CC.
Moving to Paris in 1970, Gomelsky was interviewed by the French music monthly Rock & Folk, and was played a tape of Magma's eponymous debut. He fell under the spell of the group, who blended the bebop and hard bop of John Coltrane and the classical incantations of Carl Orff, and pointed towards the more unexpected avenues Public Image Ltd and Sonic Youth would later explore. "I had never heard anything like it," he said. "This was not run-of-the-mill stuff. It also wasn't commercial by any stretch of the imagination. But I'm a sucker for underdogs, so I was tempted to take on the challenge."
They were not an easy sell, until Gomelsky found 120 Maisons des Jeunes et de la Culture – youth clubs – spread across France; their potential to stage underground concerts by emerging bands was untapped. Within three years Magma were a word-of-mouth sensation, signed to A&M and able to record their groundbreaking concept album Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh at Richard Branson's Manor studios in Oxfordshire. The 1975 double set Live/Hhaï sold 150,000 copies in France alone. Generous to a fault, Gomelsky let the alternative circuit he developed be used by German groups like Can, Amon Düül II and Agitation Free, and British bands such as Caravan, Henry Cow and Hatfield and the North.
In 1978, he moved to New York to run the short-lived Utopia imprint. He discovered bassist-producer Bill Laswell, who he teamed up with rapper Futura 2000 and Labelle vocalist Nona Hendryx on the seminal avant-funk of "Bustin' Out" as Material in 1981. He seemed to discover new talent wherever he went, whether he wanted to or not: the club he ran in a Chelsea loft in the 1990s saw early performances by Jeff Buckley. No wonder he didn't find time to complete his memoir.
Giorgio Sergio Alessandro Gomelsky, entre-preneur: born Tiflis, Georgia 28 February 1934; married Brigitte Guichard (marriage dissolved; two daughters, one son); died New York 13 January 2016.
- More about:
- Julie Driscoll
- Graham Gouldman
- Brian Auger
- Eric Clapton
- Daevid Allen
- Bill Laswell
- Nona Hendryx
- Jeff Buckley
- Bo Diddley
- Marquee Club
- Dave Hunt
- John McLaughlin
- Sonny Boy Williamson
- Melody Maker
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- Giorgio Sergio Alessandro Gomelsky