When Bob Marley performed at the One Love Peace Concert in Kingston, Jamaica, in April 1978, forcing together the hands of the island's leading politicians, popular music finally seemed to bridge social and economic quandaries. The image of Marley flanked by the Prime Minister Michael Manley and the opposition leader Edward Seaga flashed around the world, transmogrifying the Jamaican singer into an iconic figure more akin to Che Guevara than a musician.
The legendary success of the event as a media exercise – and the transmission of that picture – was due largely to the orchestrations of Rob Partridge, head of press and publicity at Island Records, a company he had joined only the year before, and where he would remain for the next 13 years.
In his time at Island, Partridge revealed himself to be a sardonic but kindly man who genuinely loved great music and delighted in helping bring it to the ears of the world. As well as discovering U2 and eventually personally making the phone-calls that announced the death of Marley in May 1981, he helped create the fascinating images of some of the world's top talents, including Tom Waits, Grace Jones, Robert Palmer, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Steve Winwood, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Marianne Faithfull, Salif Keita, Courtney Pine, and latterly, in a management role, The Streets.
After leaving Island Records, in 1991 Partridge founded Coalition, a public relations and management company, which, by the time of his death (after a two-year battle with bowel and liver cancer, the progress of which he observed with wry humour), he had turned into a business with a seven-figure turnover. "Not bad for a boy from a secondary modern who decided there was an opportunity for himself," said David May, a friend – and later Sunday Times news editor – who shared a desk with Partridge at primary school in Plymouth and recalled how he introduced him to both the writing of Marshall McLuhan and the music of Miles Davis when they were 16.
That early knock-back of failing his 11-plus exam seems to have acted as a springboard. Gaining admission to a grammar school – where he blossomed – when he was 13, Partridge fell in love with what seemed an unlikely combination of the media and pop culture. Still at school, a stylish mod who would hitchhike to London to buy new trousers, he had a weekly column in the Plymouth-based Sunday Independent. His first piece was an article about the writer Tom Wolfe.
Leaving secondary school, he became the only non-graduate on the 1967 IPC trainee scheme, a coveted beginning to a career in journalism. Working on the Torquay Times, he undertook a short-hand course on which he encountered the 18-year-old Tina Lilavwala. They were first formally introduced at an Alexis Korner gig, Partridge's greeting displaying a rather brash young man. "Hello, darling," he said. "Want an orange?" Then he asked Tina if she would like to go backstage and meet the star, hardly the last time in his life he would make such an offer. They married in 1970, remaining together for the rest of his life – later he confessed to having been wary of the temptations of the world in which he moved, and steadfastly refused to fall for its glamorous allure.
Moving to London, he took a job as a reporter on Record Mirror. Soon he moved to its sister publication, Music Week, the music business trade paper, and became news editor.
When Melody Maker, the leading music publication, offered Partridge a similar post, he took it immediately. "Because Rob had worked on Music Week, he knew all the players and they trusted him," said Michael Watts, a colleague on that paper. "But all his life he was very good at keeping secrets – at Island he would never give you more than precisely what he wanted you to say. As a news editor sometimes he'd sit on a hot story because he was aware that down the line that might lead to an even bigger story."
Partridge had long admired Chris Blackwell, the Jamaican founder of Island Records. And the feeling was reciprocated: "He was one of the most honourable men I have met in my life," Blackwell said of him. During the late 1970s Island was enjoying a golden era: thanks to punk, reggae's popularity was exploding. A long-time fan of Queens Park Rangers, Partridge loved setting up football teams for Marley and his crew to play against.
Partridge was expert at surfing the cultural zeitgeist; working with Marley and later with U2, he was adept at creating modern legends: when Marley played at the Zimbabwean independence celebrations in 1980, he ensured that the world heard about the request made in Harare by Prince Charles for a meeting with Bob Marley ("Why should I go to him? Tell him to come to me," said the Jamaican king.).
After Marley played his last UK concert, at Crystal Palace in July 1980, Partridge took Chris Blackwell to a pub in south London to watch U2, a new group he had found. ("He not only had an eye for upcoming talent," said Bono, "he was a nurturer: a person who would educate you about the kind of obstacles you were going to meet and how to get over them".)
Sniffing the wind in 1986, Partridge sensed the time was right for a big-selling British jazz artist. By astutely manipulating the quality press, he watched the sales of Journey to the Urge Within, the first release by the UK saxophonist Courtney Pine, gradually escalate until the album was Number One in the country, the only time this has happened for a jazz record. "Many said it could not be done," said Pine, "but Rob's constant enthusiasm proved all those doubters wrong. Over the years his passion for jazz changed the way that the UK looked at the music."
In July 1989 Blackwell sold Island to Polygram. Partridge remained with Island but left at the end of the following year, to set up his own company. Accustomed to the demands of the Marley estate, Partridge took on similar legacies, adding the archives of Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix and Roy Orbison, re-branding and re-marketing them. He was also an instigator of the Mercury music prize; and he continued to work with old friends like Tom Waits and Marianne Faithfull, as well as Billy Bragg and demanding new acts like the Libertines, Kings of Leon and the Charlatans.
A dedicated hypochondriac, Partridge was a follower of fad diets and exercise regimes. During a strategy meeting in 2003 for Joe Strummer's posthumous Streetcore album, Partridge suffered a heart attack. Afterwards he revealed, with some pride, that his arteries had been 95 per cent clogged up, a result of his 30-a-day cigarette habit. When diagnosed two years ago with cancer, he took great pleasure in the experimental nature of his science-lab treatment, delighted that he would be the first UK patient to be treated by what he described as the cancer cells being "nuked", a process employing nuclear radiation. Late last year he was told that this would give him a 50-50 chance of survival.
As time progressed, it became evident that the method was not having the expected results. "I'm not putting anything in my diary after November," he told me during the summer.
Rob and Tina Partridge did not have children of their own, but Rob was certainly responsible for the creation of both of mine, writes Nick Coleman.
In 1992 he hired a new and very pretty PR junior. Jane's first assignment was to get press coverage for an exhibition of Gered Mankowitz's early-Sixties photography of the Rolling Stones. Despite her first-job nerves, Jane managed to secure a hefty preview of the exhibition in the London listings magazine Time Out – a considerable testament to her nascent PR skills.
The following month the same journalist's name cropped up again in an unexpected place in another of Jane's schedules. "Hang on," said Rob, cocking both eyebrows in the manner of Jack Nicholson. "Why is the music editor of Time Out on the list to attend a preview of Shakespeare's Animated Tales? I reckon he fancies you. Tell you what, Jane, if you can get him out on a date, I'll give you 25 quid."
"I'll see what I can do," said Jane. "But show us the colour of your money first."
"I am strictly a cash on delivery man," said Rob.
Unbeknown to Rob, Jane and the Time Out guy had been discussing Sixties photography ever since the opening night of the exhibition. And we have now been happily married for 13 years. Our children have been brought up to think of Rob and Tina with real love. Mind you, Jane never did get her £25.
Robert John Partridge, journalist, public relations executive and band manager: born Plymouth, Devon 2 June 1948; married 1970 Tina Lilavwala; died London 26 November 2008.Reuse content