A maverick manager with a formidable reputation, a knack for spotting and developing talent and a peerless understanding of the idiosyncrasies of the US market, Jazz Summers was one of the last great characters of the British music industry, a gift to journalists in an increasingly dull and corporate environment, as illustrated by the rave reviews for his unputdownable 2013 autobiography, Big Life.
In 1985, in partnership with Simon Napier-Bell, he famously took Wham! to China, a first for any Western pop act, and the final push needed to seal the duo’s superstar status and serve as the launch pad for George Michael’s subsequent career. In 2000, when it would have been easier to take the most lucrative contract offer from the 14 on the table, he advised Badly Drawn Boy to choose XL Recordings, resulting in the singer-songwriter’s debut The Hour Of Bewilderbeast winning the Mercury Music Prize and selling 500,000 copies in the UK.
In 2001, on the strength of a demo of their catchy song “Run”, Summers bankrolled an indie band on a losing streak, Snow Patrol, and turned them into festival headliners. “If someone really doesn’t see what I see for my artists, I do everything in my power to make them see it,” he said. “I don’t think I’m the best diplomat in the world, but everyone who’s ever dealt with me knows that I tell you how it is. I don’t compromise if I believe in something. Why would I? My whole life has been about belief.”
Despite his forceful nature and admirable sense of loyalty, several of his clients, including Snow Patrol, were poached by bigger management companies, and he more than met his match in 1997 when negotiating with the notorious Allen Klein, the former manager of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Summers needed to clear a sample of an orchestral version of the Stones’ “The Last Time”, whose copyright is controlled by Klein’s publishing company, and had been fashioned into the hook for the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”. Klein agreed to a 50-50 split, which Summers took to mean 50 per cent for Jagger/ Richards and 50 per cent for The Verve.
But when the paperwork arrived it stated 50 per cent Jagger, 50 per cent Richards, and Klein wouldn’t budge. The Verve receive no publishing income from their signature song, whose eventual Grammy nomination bore the Jagger/Richards credits. “It felt like winning the lottery but losing the ticket,” said Summers.
But he made his mark across a variety of genres, ranging from the ebullient dance pop of Yazz & The Plastic Population, fronted by his third wife – who topped the UK charts with her irresistible cover of “The Only Way Is Up” in 1988 – baggy crossover group the Soup Dragons, whose cover of the Stones’ “I’m Free”, featuring the reggae vocalist Junior Reid, made the Top 5 in 1990, and the groundbreaking ambient pioneers Alex Patterson and The Orb, including their seminal 1991 debut album The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld and their chart-topping 1992 follow-up U F Orb, as well as the epochal single “Little Fluffy Clouds”.
All these were issued on Big Life, the label Summers launched in 1987, which scored further successes with Coldcut and Lisa Stansfield, Blue Pearl, De La Soul, A Man Called Adam and Killing Joke, but went into receivership in 1999. Over the three decades he headed Big Life and its associated companies, he also worked with D:Ream, Boy George, Soul II Soul and Scissor Sisters. A champion of new music who kept his finger on the pulse with the help of his on the ball team, he helped develop and establish Klaxons, La Roux and London Grammar.
As he admitted, his headstrong personality was shaped by the fact that his father, a military man, made him follow in his footsteps. When he was 12 he was sent to Gordon Boys military school in Woking, and served in the Army for more than a decade, stocking up a resentment for authority that always bubbled under the surface, especially as he repeatedly failed to get kicked out and sent home.
His time as an Army radiographer in Hong Kong and Malaysia enabled him to secure hospital work on his return to London, where he resumed his sidelines as session drummer and music entrepreneur. He cut an unlikely figure as the bad-tempered manager for the comedian and folk singer Richard Digance, arguing with the good-natured staff of Transatlantic Records and causing a scene at the Cambridge Folk Festival, before the advent of punk helped channel his energies. He promoted concerts and fell in with Gothic rock group the Danse Society and New Romantic outfit Blue Zoo.
In 1983 he teamed up with Napier-Bell, sophisticated ex-manager of the Yardbirds, Marc Bolan and Japan, to convince Wham! that they should take over the duo’s affairs. Michael and his sidekick Andrew Ridgeley had signed an exploitative deal with the small Innervision label, and despite charting with “Wham Rap! (Enjoy what You Do)”, “Young Guns (Go For It)”, “Bad Boys” and “Club Tropicana”, and their Fantastic debut album, they were broke.
Summers and Napier-Bell came to the rescue and sued Innervision. The label rush-released a “Club Fantastic Megamix” but quickly caved in. Michael and Ridgeley signed to Epic/CBS and never looked back as Summers masterminded Wham! mania in the UK and beyond. He banged the desks in front of male CBS executives who failed to understand Wham!’s sex appeal. “There wasn’t one woman there. It was testosterone hell,” he recalled.
Targeting of the US cities where MTV had established a foothold for his charges, Summers got “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” and Michael’s timeless “Careless Whisper” to No 1. “At Hollywood Park, all we could hear was 60,000 teenage fanatics roaring, at the height of a young band’s fame,” he recalled. “It was a big, frightening sound, and we made it happen.”
Summers campaigned on a host of copyright issues, served as chairman of the Music Managers’ Forum and helped set up the Featured Artists’ Coalition. Looking back following a diagnosis of lung cancer, he was keen to set the record straight. “I’ve never been violent,” he said. “I took a vow of non-violence in the late 1970s. I haven’t been violent for 35 years, and I was never really violent with anyone in the music industry. Years ago, I was a drunken, drug-taking, screaming loony. Today, I’m much more Zen... Maybe I do have the power or charisma you need to be able to say ‘Oi!’ to a record label now and again.”
Gordon Summers, music manager: born 15 March 1944; four times married (three daughters); died 14 August 2015.Reuse content