Nat Joseph was a colourful, wilful pioneer of the British record industry, who ran one of the country's first significant indie labels, helping to launch a whole range of careers, from Billy Connolly's to Ralph McTell's. Running Transatlantic Records with a mixture of romantic whimsy and missionary zeal, he made famous early signings in Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, the Dubliners and Richard Digance, but his free-spirited approach, love of comedy and an incorrigible sense of adventure led him to promote any number of apparently uncommercial acts with no apparent business logic beyond idiosyncratic personal appeal.
His maverick successes ranged from Sheila Hancock's comedic single "My Last Cigarette" to the Brighouse & Rastrick Band's brass version of "Floral Dance" to the ragtime pianist Joshua Rifkin's popularising Scott Joplin and, most bizarrely of all, hit albums by an orchestra with the unusual gimmick of being totally incompetent, the Portsmouth Sinfonia. The corporate world finally caught up with him and swallowed the label up, but, when it did, Joseph showed again his instinctive resourcefulness by building an alternative, but equally rewarding career as an agent, producer and writer utilising his other great passion, the theatre.
An only child born in Birmingham in 1939, Nathan Joseph was the son of a scrap-metal dealer - who died when Nat was still a boy - and was educated at King Edward's Grammar School, Birmingham. He graduated in English from King's College, Cambridge, in 1961 and worked for a year as a teacher before a trip travelling around the US listening to music on the burgeoning folk and blues movement triggered the idea of importing American records to sell in the UK.
He quickly realised that to make real headway he needed to release his own records, and, in typically unorthodox Joseph style, he used a spoken-word sex-education record by the therapist Dr Keith Cammeron (a pseudonym for Dr Eustace Chesser) to launch the new venture. It worked. Three Dr Cammeron albums caused shock and not a little outrage, got huge publicity and sold 100,000 copies between them. "I needed cash for future productions and I thought about the three things which appealed to the British public - royalty, money and sex," said Joseph. "I couldn't get the Queen and money seemed too dull for a record, so sex was the answer."
His other early releases reflected his personal passions - the actor Tony Britton mixing poetry and song with the traditional singer Isla Cameron, poetry LPs by Adrian Mitchell and Christopher Logue, the blues of Alexis Korner's band and the jazz singer Annie Ross. However, the label's lasting legacy came from the nascent British folk-club scene, which engaged Joseph as a result of his friendship with the folk-record producer Bill Leader.
He modelled Transatlantic on Moe Asch's Folkways label, whose catalogue of great American folk and blues artists Joseph had been importing for UK release, and established a broad canon of artists prominently involved in the British folk revival, notably the Ian Campbell Folk Group, who had a minor hit with "The Times They Are A-Changin' ", the first British cover of a Dylan song. Many other influential folk acts got their break via the label, including the Dubliners, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, Ralph McTell and Hamish Imlach, but there was always a liberal assortment of left-field artists emphasising the eccentric quality of the label.
The Pasadena Roof Orchestra, John Bird's satirical take on Idi Amin and the "medieval" rockers Gryphon all found a home on the label while Mike Oldfield of Tubular Bells fame made his first record as a nervous young guitarist accompanying his sister Sally on Transatlantic with the group Sallyangie. Victor Jara, the great Chilean folk singer murdered by Pinochet's military junta in 1973, was largely heard in Britain for the first time with the label's release of the compilation album Manifiesto, emphasising a strong political thread that ran through the catalogue. Topic was the only other independent label operating in remotely similar territory at the time.
Joseph's commercial instincts may have been random - he followed his heart rather than his head - but he only ever wanted to release records of character and distinction, and, with paternal benevolence and an open-door philosophy, encouraged his staff to follow his example. The label consequently fostered a family atmosphere - there was a low staff turnover - with the sharp-witted, highly intelligent Joseph regarded with deep affection as its patriarch. His shrewdest judgement of all may have been recognising the comic genius of Billy Connolly when most others regarded him as the makeweight in the Humblebums duo with Gerry Rafferty and took the decision to release the live Solo Concert double album, which triggered the Big Yin to household-name status.
Despite apparently healthy sales, Transatlantic hit a cash-flow crisis during the mid-Seventies, with large amounts of money owed by record retailers, and Joseph sought outside investment. It ended up with the Granada Group buying 75 per cent of the company's equity with Joseph still pulling the strings. However, the combination of the instinctive maverick with the corporate machine was a marriage made in hell and by 1978 the Transatlantic dream was in disarray - Granada sold it to Logo Records and Nat Joseph bailed out.
He decided to transform his father's old scrap-metal business into a lucrative waste transfer plant and then sold it to finance a brand new adventure in the world of theatre, as producer and agent.
On the sleeve notes to The Transatlantic Story box set in 1998, Joseph recalled,
I put out what I liked and what I wanted. Sometimes we were right and sometimes horribly wrong . . . it was a magical yet frightening time.
On leaving Transatlantic in 1978, Nat Joseph concentrated on his passion for theatre, writes Mike Watts.
Thus Freeshooter Productions was born. Joseph's first major production was Brian Clark's anti-war play The Petition (1986), directed by Sir Peter Hall and starring Rosemary Harris and Sir John Mills. In its Broadway transfer, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn both received Tony nominations for their performances. Joseph was particularly adept at securing transfers of his shows to the United States and in 1993 he assisted in setting up the transfer of Soho Theatre's production of Diane Samuels's award-winning play Kindertransport. Other productions included one-man shows featuring Alec McCowen (most notably as Rudyard Kipling, in 1984) and Peter Barkworth (as Siegfried Sassoon) and Freddie Jones (as the poet John Clare).
But it was Joseph's productions for young children, featuring television performers such as Brian Cant, Toni Arthur and Jonathan Cohen, that were to prove the most popular, with Brian Cant's FunBook touring the UK non-stop for over three years in the early Eighties. Joseph also continued to put his music production skills to good use, producing the cast album of Simon Callow's highly successful 1991 Old Vic revival of Carmen Jones.
Through his talent agency NJ Enterprises, Joseph represented writers and performers, and noted clients included Arnold Wesker, whom he represented for more than a decade. Joseph's representation of directors and stage and lighting designers, however, was to be his most significant and lasting contribution to the theatrical world.
He frequently took on new designers straight out of art school, and had a reputation for seeking out the most innovative talent and for meticulously and paternalistically nurturing his clients' careers, travelling far and wide to see their work in performance and to tell theatrical managements of their worth. He continually lobbied for better terms for his clients and in so doing raised the value and status of designers and directors throughout the industry, paving the way for many young agents that came after him.
Early clients included the stage designers Robert Jones and Ruari Murchison and the lighting designer Jason Taylor, all at the very beginning of their careers when he first spotted their work. Joseph introduced Murchison's work to Bill Alexander at Birmingham Repertory Company with the result that Murchison has designed many of the company's productions over the past decade. Similarly, he was instrumental in bringing Robert Jones's work to the attention of Michael Attenborough at the RSC, for whom Jones has subsequently designed many productions including the current "Gunpowder Season".
When he took early retirement in 2000, Joseph had 25 agency clients, including the notable stage and opera designers Pamela Howard, Michael Holt and Kevin Knight, the leading directors Jonathan Church and Mark Clements, and the award-winning lighting designers Tim Mitchell and Jon Linstrum.
Nat Joseph was a council member of the Theatrical Management Association, 1991-93, and Chairman of the Theatre Design Trust.