Maurice Oberstein

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Maurice Louis Oberstein, record company executive: born New York 26 September 1928; died London 13 August 2001.

Murice Oberstein was a flamboyant character who helped CBS Records develop and establish British talent on the international stage. Under his stewardship, the UK arm of the company scored 44 No 1 singles in the domestic market and signed world-class acts like the Clash, Wham! and Sade.

Famous for his forthright views and his constantly changing headgear, "Obie" often infuriated guests at awards ceremonies by turning up with one of his beloved dogs. During conferences and meetings, he would pretend to listen to advice from the animals named Charlie, Eric or Jimmy after other record company executives he admired. His other favourite trick to signal his impatience during contractual negotiations would be to leave his Homburg, Tam o' Shanter, tricorn, turban or sailor's cap behind with the ensuing quip: "Talk to the hat. You're making no sense."

An only son born in New York in 1928, Oberstein came from a music-business family. In the Forties, his father, Eli, was in charge of signing new talent such as the crooner Perry Como to RCA Victor. Having studied chemical engineering and law, "Obie" joined Rondor, the budget label launched by his father.

In 1963, three years after his father died, Oberstein showed he had inherited his quick thinking and business acumen. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Oberstein got permission from the President's estate and rush-released an album of speeches entitled The John Kennedy Memorial Album. This collection sold over four million copies in less than a month, earning an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for the world's fastest-selling LP.

Two years later, Oberstein joined CBS Records in New York. Soon he was despatched to London to help launch the label as a stand-alone company in the UK. Over the course of the next 20 years, he rose through the executive ranks, eventually becoming chairman of CBS Records UK. Anglophile and eccentric to the last, "Obie" would eat fish and chips in the back of his Rolls-Royce before checking out the Clash in a club.

Paul Russell, now chairman of Sony/ATV Music Publishing but Oberstein's colleague at the time, recalls:

In 1977 everybody wanted to sign the Clash. They had a contract from another label with them. Obie said, "Why don't we cross their name out and write CBS at the top? We'll just pay a bit more and you can sign this one." I always say Obie had 10 ideas a day: nine were insane but one would be brilliant. He managed to get the UK charts published earlier in the week to facilitate the processing of orders from shops.

In 1982, Oberstein, Matt Johnson of The The fame and manager Stevo tried to outdo the Sex Pistols' infamous A&M contract-signing in front of Buckingham Palace photo opportunity in 1977 by inking a deal on top of a lion in Trafalgar Square at midnight.

Oberstein had a real knack for homing in on British talent and then launching post-punk acts such as the Only Ones, the Psychedelic Furs and Adam & the Ants on the world stage. In 1978, he engineered the unlikely success of Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds, a concept album loosely based on the H.G. Wells novel.

Shakin' Stevens and the Nolans' success didn't quite cross the Channel or the Atlantic but, by the mid-Eighties, Sade, Alison Moyet, Wham! and subsequently George Michael were topping charts all around the world. During his tenure as Chairman of the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) between 1983 and 1985, Oberstein convinced the British government of the huge contribution made by the UK music industry's overseas profits to the exchequer. He was also on the Band Aid committee.

In 1985, he tried to outsmart the CBS chief Walter Yetnikoff by saying he would join Polygram unless he was offered a bigger job. Yetnikoff called his bluff by announcing Oberstein's retirement at a conference in Hawaii. However, Oberstein got his revenge and was subsequently appointed managing director of Polygram Music. In 1993, after another two-year stint heading the BPI and having supervised the lucrative purchase of Abba's catalogue and masterminded the acquisitions of the A&M and Island repertoires by Polygram, he was honoured with the Music Industry Trust Award. He retired but was soon appointed "Professor of Pop" at the music faculty of Miami University.

A keen horseman and football fan, it was Maurice Oberstein's last wish for half his ashes to be scattered on Cheltenham Race Course with the rest at QPR's Loftus Road ground. At a time when the UK music industry is struggling to recapture market share in the US and the rest of Europe, his drive and vision should act as a reminder of the heights British talent can reach.

Pierre Perrone