Pete Waterman: He should be so lucky

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Television can produce pop stars and pop idols. But your pop svengalis are not so easily mass-produced. That's one part of the music business you can't audition for. And 54-year-old Waterman, who concludes his season as a judge on ITV's Pop Idol this evening, certainly doesn't follow any traditional pattern.

It's not just that most pop svengalis don't always manage 19 number ones and 500 million sales, as he accumulated with his song-writing and producing Hit Factory partners Mike Stock and Matt Aitken for Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Bananarama and others in the Eighties, and later on his own with Steps and Westlife. It's more that multi-millionaire pop svengalis generally can do joined-up writing quite easily. Waterman, who left school semi-literate, and only mastered reading and writing in his late 30s, still has difficulties.

Most pop svengalis watch their pet Premiership football team from a private box. But Waterman is passionate about lower league Walsall – "because it reminds me of the Fifties, a pint and a cup of tea at half time" – and has voiced his passion from the touch line. He was twice warned by the referee last season.

And while he is not the first pop music figure to have been a gravedigger, he must be the only one to have fitted in grave digging, coal-mining, being a shop steward at 19 and working on the railways. Maybe his lifelong passion for trains has given him the look that Pop Idol viewers know. With his white hair and Harry Potter glasses he looks, and behaves, a little like a signalman manque. One poor girl, aged 16, confided that she had defied her parents by skipping work to attend the Pop Idol auditions. Waterman told her to "go home, apologise to your father and tell him I'll come round and watch him give you a thick ear".

His own young daughters, Charlie, nine, and Toni Tuesday, 11, would testify to his strictness. They were not even allowed to take time off school to see him receive an honorary doctorate from Coventry University. He was accompanied by his sons from previous marriages, Paul, 30, and Peter, 20, both of whom work for him. As for Charlie and Toni Tuesday, he said: "I want them to win a degree in the regular way, not be given one for working in the music business for the past 30 years."

Toni Tuesday? One of Pete's little jokes, that. The joke being that he was so busy he only got to spend the night with his wife Denise on Tuesdays. But that's one more night than now. He is divorced from Denise, though they still share a house in Cheshire that was once owned by Lewis Carroll, with Waterman only there at weekends. He was also divorced from his first two wives, just as – after a seven-year court case – he is divorced from his Hit Factory partners Mike Stock and Matt Aitken.

Waterman knows that it's not all been fun and Ferraris (he bought 18 in one day). That's why he called his autobiography two years ago I Wish I Was Me. For years, people used to come up to him, mention the cars, the money and the stars, and sigh: "I wish I was you." He would invariably reply: "I wish I was me too."

But, he does have a most curious ability to take the rough and the smooth in his life seamlessly. He told one interviewer recently about how one of his sons was injured four years ago with 70 per cent burns in a car crash, and went into a coma. The hospital called him to say they were going to wake his son: "I'm standing outside the hospital when my mobile phone rings and I'm told that 'Tragedy' by Steps has gone to number one. Then I go in and my son opens his eyes for the first time. There you go! The two greatest things in my life have happened. My son has lived and I've got a number one."

Pete Waterman was born in 1947 into a bomb-ravaged and food-rationed Coventry. The family was poor; Pete's mother never turned the electricity on until she saw her husband coming home from work. With 63 kids in the class of his local school, it was barely noticed when the young Waterman skived off to go train-spotting, or earn money from the neighbours by bringing them coal from the tip. Homework took a distant second place to earning a bit more money playing records at friends' parties.

In the best traditions of pop, the turning point of his youth came when he saw The Beatles play at the local ballroom. He still remembers the look of apoplexy on the face of the policeman on duty when, instead of playing the National Anthem, the group went into "Twist And Shout".

After jobs working on the railways and grave-digging, he joined the General Electric Company where he became senior shop steward, "a right militant bastard" as he tells it, though actually in making his colleagues work harder, rather than bringing them out on strike. It was at GEC he met his first wife, and booked the Rolling Stones for the social club. The evenings were spent as the only live DJ in Coventry. He claims he and Jimmy Savile were the only live DJs in Britain. Maybe, though more than one friend will admit that Pete has always known how to exaggerate.

Soon he opened his own club; but even though the hippy era was in full swing, Pete was always a pop man at heart. "One night," he recalls, "I played 'Leap Up And Down And Wave Your Knickers In The Air' three times on the run at a Pink Floyd gig, just to annoy the punters." And the Pop Idol contestants think they have had it rough.

Building up a network of connections and DJing every night, his first marriage was a quick casualty. Waterman now admits he was selfish. He walked out on his wife and baby son Paul because he feared they might hold him back. "The worst thing I could imagine would be that my son would get to 15 and I'd still be at GEC, and I'd blame him for me not having been able to make the most of my life."

In the early Seventies he was introduced to the head of Magnet records, Michael Levy, whose biggest asset then was Alvin Stardust. Levy was later to become Lord Levy and one of Tony Blair's close friends. Levy, Waterman was told by record company contacts, was "fantastic, a diamond geezer" and he did indeed come up trumps, making Pete a key executive, despite his telling Levy that most of the records on his label were "crap".

Pete's parents kept his feet on the ground. He wasn't allowed to nail his first gold disc on the wall in case he became big-headed. One star wasn't allowed to park his Rolls Royce outside their house in case the neighbours thought it was the tally man come to repossess the furniture.

By 1977 Waterman too began to worry about "groaning under the wealth". He also realised he had no real friends; and so to the amazement of Levy, he jacked it all in and became for one summer a coal miner. This was also the time of another wife, Julie, another brief marriage, and a second son, Peter.

But at the start of the Eighties, if he still couldn't make his personal life work, his professional life was about to rocket. He met and was impressed by two musicians, Mike Stock and Matt Aitken, both younger than him and almost penniless at the time, and the three formed a partnership with, usually, Mike being the songwriter, Matt the musician and Pete the producer. Waterman was insistent on a high energy, heavily produced sound.

The bank manager was delighted as he filled out the forms for Pete, who didn't master his illiteracy until 1986. Somehow he had coped until then, with squiggles and hieroglyphics. Once, in the studio, Mel and Kim picked up a piece of paper with these childlike markings on and assumed it was a fan letter from a five-year-old. Waterman awkwardly admitted it was lyrics he had been working on for their next song. In typical Waterman style, he now says: "I adore Dickens although, being a writer myself, once I'd read about seven of his books I could have written all the others for him in about five minutes."

As with Pop Idol years later, Waterman never shirked from telling his artists what he thought. Siobhan from Bananarama refused to sing the line "Strike it rich" in a song she thought too capitalist. When she married Dave Stewart in a lavish wedding in the south of France, Waterman said to her: "That's a bit gauche for a socialist, isn't it?" He didn't go to the wedding.

Waterman had never even heard of Neighbours when he signed the 18-year-old Kylie Minogue, but was prescient enough about the future of the "completely innocent little girl who used to sit in the studio with her mother, basket weaving" to form his own record label, PWL. However, Kylie was to turn her back on Waterman, believing he was not allowing her to develop in the way she wanted. Rick Astley and Jason Donovan also sought other management. Waterman has been bewildered by such behaviour. But it is a fact that a number of his biggest protégés no longer talk to him.

Soon Stock and Aitken stopped too. As Waterman attempted to sell half the company to Warner Music Group, Stock and Aitken sent him a solicitor's letter saying it wasn't his to sell. The friendship was over. But it gave him more time to devote to his railways, buying 35 locomotives and coaches, and developing a model railway museum. And he eventually won the court case.

The image of the blunt but genuine bonhomie is accurate. But, like his autobiography, it isn't the whole story. In his 300-page book, dedicated to his four children, his wives get barely a mention. Waterman admits: "I walked out on two young families, which caused many people pain." He also clearly felt pain himself at the end of the court case, realising that Stock and Aitken "didn't believe in me like I believed in them."

One close associate, a very senior record company executive, says: "Pete is fantastically dogmatic and not terribly good with the womenfolk. He is a steam train person. If you do steam trains, you don't always do women that well."

He does, though, do pop protégés well. No doubt he will give tonight's winner the advice he has given his other stars over the years. "It ain't rocket science, so just enjoy the ride and it'll be over by Christmas. Or, if you're lucky, next Christmas."

Life story

Born: Peter Alan Waterman; Coventry, 15 January 1947

Parents: Son of John Waterman, an aircraft factory worker, and Stella Waterman

Family: First marriage to Elizabeth Reynolds in 1970, dissolved 1974, one son; second to Julie Reeves in 1980 (dissolved 1984), one son; third to Denise Gyngell in 1991 (dissolved1999), two daughters

Education: Frederick Bird Secondary School, Coventry; left school semi-literate, he learned to read properly at the age of 38

Non-music career; gravedigger, coal miner, apprentice and trade union official at GEC

Music Career: Disc jockey at local pubs and Mecca dance hall, 1961-83; arts and repertoire for various record companies since 1973. Partner of Stock, Aitken and Waterman 1984-93; Chairman of PWL Empire since 1983. Presented cult TV series "Hit man & Her" with Michaela Strachan. Judge on "Pop Idol". Responsible for 22 No 1 hits

Protégés: Musical Youth; Nik Kershaw; Bananarama; Rick Astley; Kylie Minogue; Jason Donovan; Mel & Kim; Sonia; Loveland; B*Witched; Steps; Westlife; Cleopatra

Awards: BPI Best Producer Award 1988; Music Week Top Producers Award 1987,1988,1989; Ivor Novello Award 1987;1988;1989. The Music Week Strat Award 1999

Autobiography: "I Wish I Was Me"

Hobbies: Railways (models and the real thing); his car collection, especially Ferraris. For a time was co-owner of the Flying Scotsman. The Waterman Railway Trust was formed in 1994

He says: "Everything I touch turns to gold"; "If you don't like it don't listen".

They call him: Pete Slaughterman