Forties bandleader who went on to promote the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Victor Borge
Monday 13 September 2010
Tito Burns was an accordionist and bandleader who found success in the 1940s and then became a noted agent, manager and impresario with Cliff Richard, the Searchers, the Zombies, Victor Borge and Sacha Distel among his clients. His attitude was to "take it while you can as it might not be there tomorrow" and his wheeling and dealing was filmed in 1965 by DA Pennebaker for the Bob Dylan documentary Don't Look Back. He was satirised as "Tito Bums" by the Goodies.
Tito Burns was born Nathan Bernstein, the son of two Polish immigrants, in the east end of London in 1921. He started playing the piano accordion when he was 12, and four years later he was the only white member of Don Marino Barreto and his Rumba Band, which had residencies in London. His soubriquet of Tito ("the little one") stuck although he became six foot tall.
During the war, Burns served as a gunner in the RAF, but after VJ Day he worked on forces radio with McDonald Hobley and David Jacobs. The noted BBC producer, Charles Chilton played guitar in Burns' band and after the war, persuaded the Corporation to showcase Burns in Accordion Club, which ran from 1947 to 1955. Among the musicians with Burns were Johnny Dankworth, Ronnie Scott, Tony Crombie and the vocalist Ray Ellington.
Although the band had regular work, Burns had to cope with problems in his ranks. The saxophonists Benny Green and Harry Klein determined to reduce their workload by playing alternate bars rather than together. Burns told them, "If you're only going to play every other bar, I'll only be paying you every other week."
Burns brought the female vocalist, Terry Devon, into the band and they performed playful duets including "Lullaby In Rhythm" and "Be-bop Spoken Here". "Terry was an excellent singer," Burns told me in 2002, "and the big joke in the business was that I couldn't afford her so we married and I got her on the cheap. She was with the band until we had our first child and then she retired."
In 1954, Burns added comedy to his performance and played the halls with Dorothy Squires and Jimmy Wheeler, as well as supporting Sarah Vaughan at the Royal Albert Hall. In 1955, he launched a West End agency and managed Tubby Hayes' modern jazz band, and Janie Marden, who sang with the BBC Showband. Then rock'n'roll came along.
"I absolutely hated rock'n'roll," Burns told me. "About 15 per cent of it was all right, but the rest of it was rubbish. I managed the organist Cherry Wainer, who told me that Cliff Richard was having a dispute with his manager and she recommended me. I saw Cliff's parents and took over his management. He was a good singer – I tried him on some standards and he could do key changes without any problems. I wanted to turn him into what they called 'an all-round entertainer'. I put him on the London Palladium with Vera Lynn and had him doing comedy with David Kossoff. He'd made a film that was rubbish called Serious Charge, and I got him into something much better, Expresso Bongo, which was written by Wolf Mankowitz."
Burns represented Janette Scott, Jackie Rae, Al Saxon and the Allisons, but his associations did not usually last long as something would always happen. In 1960, Derek Johnson, an editor at New Musical Express, booked Cliff Richard and the Shadows for a concert in Bexhill. Burns apparently told them it was for charity and they would receive expenses. Johnson told them that it was a commercial event for which he'd paid a full fee and this led to the group changing their management.
In 1963, Burns co-promoted the Beatles' 1963 UK tour with Roy Orbison. "Pop was full of pretty boys and I thought it better if Roy didn't appear on TV until the tour was under way," he said. "Brian wanted the Beatles to be on just before him and everyone was screaming, but as soon as Roy started singing they quietened down. I wouldn't have believed he could have followed the Beatles by just standing there. I don't think it bothered him at all."
Burns managed another Liverpool act, the Searchers. When their singer Tony Jackson left, he claimed Burns owed him money. According to Jackson, Burns said, most urbanely but with a degree of menace, "Would you like a visit from the boys?", and Jackson backed off. Burns recalled it differently. "Certainly I remember Tony coming to see me and screaming for his royalties. I simply told him I didn't have the money. It was the record company that should be paying him. There was a big row and he left."
As well as bringing over American acts including Bobby Vee, Del Shannon, Dionne Warwick, Otis Redding and the Isley Brothers, Burns managed the Zombies, but once again there were disputes over fees.
He also represented Dusty Springfield: "She was the greatest singer that we have ever produced but she was insecure. She would make excuses and I would have to break them down. She told me once that she had a sore throat and couldn't do a concert. I said, 'OK, I've got Lulu standing by'. She didn't like that at all and made a speedy recovery."
On a visit to the Bitter End in New York, Burns saw Woody Allen, Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan and determined to bring them all to the UK. "We put Bob Dylan on at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965. The box office was due to open on Saturday at 10am. I was at home with my kids and at noon, I thought I would see how the box office was doing. The manager told me that they just sold the last tickets and they'd been bought by lots of weird people in sandals and denims."
When DA Pennebaker was making a documentary film about Dylan's UK tour, he shot Burns negotiating a TV concert. Burns was horrified when he saw it on screen in 1967. "I wasn't doing anything unusual. All agents play the bouncing act. I was playing the BBC against Granada, but I didn't like seeing it on film. I thought that none of the TV producers would speak to me again."
Burns also promoted Jimi Hendrix, who soaked a guitar in petrol so it would burst into flames, a remarkable but highly hazardous spectacle. Hendrix's manager, Chas Chandler recalled, "I can remember Tito Burns shaking his fist at me and saying, 'You can't get away with this. This wasn't an accident. I'll have you prosecuted.' He took the charred guitar away with him as evidence."
When Burns was offered the post of Head of Variety Programming at London Weekend Television in 1969 he sold his agency to avoid a conflict of interest, but he was only in the job for two years. In later years, he handled UK appearances for Tony Bennett, Sacha Distel and Victor Borge, and he supported his daughters, both of whom were also involved in the media.
Burns recalled, "My younger daughter was working for Channel 4 when they had Clive Anderson and he wanted Victor Borge as a guest. I hated the way that Clive Anderson took the piss out of his guests and I told them Victor was not going to be his straight man. Someone went into my daughter's office and said that she had had a terrible telling-off from this horrible man, and of course it was me. I don't like to embarrass my daughters but I couldn't have done that to Victor."
Surely, however, Borge could have held his own against Clive Anderson? "Of course he could, but then he would have said to me, 'Why have you put me on with this man? I don't want to defend myself against an onslaught of insults.'"
In his later years, Burns was once asked if he could again secure the services of the Searchers. He contacted their manager to be told that the line-up had changed. "I don't care who's in the line-up," he said pragmatically, "so long as they sing 'Needles And Pins'."
Nathan Bernstein (Tito Burns), impresario: born London 7 February 1921; married 1948 Terry Debenham (Terry Devon) (two daughters); died 23 August 2010 London.
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