Obituary: Bob Herbert

Pierre Perrone
Thursday 12 August 1999 23:02

THERE ARE untold riches to be made in artist management - provided your act signs a cast-iron contract. The accountant-turned- band manager Bob Herbert missed out when the pop groups Bros and the Spice Girls opted for the services of other impresarios just as they were about to hit the big time. However, Herbert persevered and put together the boy band Five, which has recently created a sensation among teenage girls.

Born in 1942, Herbert qualified as an accountant and first got involved in the music industry in 1985. He took a liking to Matt and Luke Goss, twin friends of his son Chris when they were pupils together at Collingwood School in Camberley, Surrey. Although the twins were only 15, they had formed their own pop group called Gloss with the bassist Craig Logan. Realising the blond looks of Matt and Luke could be exploited to market a group that could be the Eighties' answer to the Bay City Rollers, Herbert offered Gloss advice and provided rehearsal space for them in his summer house. He introduced them to songwriters, financed their early demo tapes and plotted their route to success.

However, they couldn't sign a legally binding management contract until they were 18. When that time came, the pop Svengali Tom Watkins moved in, took over their management and signed them to Columbia Records. Renamed Bros, the trio scored hits in 1988 with "When Will I Be Famous" and "I Owe You Nothing", but were soon out of favour with the fickle teenage market and nearly out of money.

Undeterred, Herbert joined in a management venture with his son Chris and the entrepreneur Chic Murphy to launch a boy band to rival Take That, who had taken the British charts by storm in 1993. However, Chris had a better idea: why not create a girl group reflecting the cultural diversity of Britain? They began handing out flyers around UK cities before eventually placing an ad in the show-business trade journal The Stage. The aim was to attract female performers who were "18-23 with the ability to sing/dance, streetwise, outgoing, ambitious and dedicated".

By mid-1994, the Herberts and Murphy had auditioned 600 applicants, and whittled the line-up down to Melanie Brown (who became Scary Spice) from Leeds, Geri Halliwell (Ginger) from Watford, Melanie Chisholm (Sporty) from Liverpool, Victoria Adams (Posh) from the Home Counties and Michelle Stephenson, quickly replaced by Emma Bunton (Baby) from London.

Originally called Touch but subsequently renamed the Spice Girls after an early song called "Sugar and Spice", the five lodged together, took singing lessons, rehearsed dance routines and honed the "girl power" attitude that would eventually help them take control of their own careers.

Unfortunately for Bob and Chris Herbert, a showcase in December 1994 attracted not only the interest of Virgin Records but also the attention of a rival manager, Simon Fuller. Fuller ousted the Herberts and offered them a five-figure settlement. Signed to Virgin for a pounds 500,000 advance and launched in the autumn of 1995, the Spice Girls broke all records, becoming the most successful female pop group of all time, with combined sales of their two albums reaching the 35 million mark.

In 1997, the Herberts reverted to their original boy-band masterplan. "We decided to put an ad in The Stage newspaper, as we had done when we were auditioning for the Spice Girls," recalled Bob Herbert in Five: The Official Book (1998). "Up until then, no-one knew that we'd put the Spice Girls together and suddenly, it hit the press: the media went crazy for the auditions. The headlines read: `Spice Boys Wanted, Boy Power!' We were being talked about on every TV and radio station. Thousands of lads turned up. It was madness."

The pressure was on because they had already secured a deal for the potential project with RCA Records. "We knew what we were looking for," said Herbert. "But there was no guarantee that we were going to find it. It was more a case of the right guys finding us. And we got lucky. Very lucky."

The Herberts switched from the planned foursome to a five-piece comprising Sean Conlon, Scott Robinson, Richard Neville, Richard "Abs" Green and Jason "J" Brown. Called Five, the boy band shared a house and were launched in a blaze of publicity at the Smash Hits Poll Winners' Party in November 1997, appearing on 23 UK magazine covers in the space of a year. They have since scored six Top Ten singles in the UK and made inroads into the American charts. Bob Herbert also negotiated a sponsorship deal with Pepsi which saw Five follow in the footsteps of Boyzone and the Spice Girls.

Pierre Perrone

Robert Herbert, band manager and accountant; born Brentford, Essex 4 February 1942; married (one son, one daughter); died Windsor, Berkshire 9 August 1999.

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