Barbara Charone tells Tanya Sweeney about her friendship with Keith Richards and how she helped make Madonna a pop icon
As a redoubtable PR, she has worked closely with a whole raft of huge names, among them Foo Fighters, REM, Elton John, Prince, Elvis Costello and Mark Ronson.
Her name is synonymous with the surreal, dizzying phenomenon that was Madonna’s career in the 80s and 90s. She briefly managed Rufus Wainwright, counts Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant as a pal and helped Keith Richards write his memoir.
So when it was announced that Barbara Charone was writing a memoir about her own half-century in rock ’n’ roll, the salivating started almost immediately.
A few months ago, one British newspaper described the resulting book, Access All Areas, as an “explosive tell-all” that had the biggest names in the business quaking in their boots.
“There is some panic out there — this book is going to be full of revelations and will certainly get people talking,” a source reportedly told a newspaper in December. “Imagine having a woman who has looked after so many A-list stars then deciding to write a book. It is going to be very interesting.”
Yet it speaks to Charone’s consummate professionalism as a celebrity PR that the resulting memoir is perhaps lower in smut, juice and salaciousness than some quarters might have anticipated.
“The only person I really spilled the beans about is myself,” Charone says on a call from her office in St John’s Wood, London. “The only people’s drug habits or drink habits I really talk about was my own. Of course, I had to assure lots of managers that work with me that [what the papers wrote] couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Be that as it may, Charone still very much offers the reader a dazzling ringside seat to the circus that has been rock ’n’ roll.
Growing up in a Chicago suburb as the daughter of a lawyer, she fell madly in love with music from an early age and any plans for a ‘sensible’ career promptly fell by the wayside. After graduating from Northwestern University, she got on the first plane possible to London; a city that she had fallen for from afar.
“From a [music] perspective, everything is pretty much London-centric,” Charone says. “If something in football, government or music happens, it makes a national impression straight away, right? I had a romantic vision of England from The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and Help, and all other sorts of British bands. I got here and saw the taxis and the double decker red buses and I was absolutely enthralled.”
Initially landing work as a correspondent for the Chicago Sun Times and Cream magazine, Charone quickly made inroads into the scene as a music journalist. That she was a genuine, die-hard music fan bolstered her career. At the time, she was one of a handful of women in a very male-centred world.
“I do remember trying to get backstage to see The Who at Madison Square Garden and telling the guy on the door that I was on the guest list and he was like ‘yeah, sure’. I had to be really insistent and adamant before he even looked at the list,” Charone says. “I think the artists [took me seriously] because I was a genuine fan — they appreciate that and it shone through.”
In one fortuitous moment in 1977, she was in Toronto when Keith Richards was arrested with intent to traffic heroin. After coming to his aid, the two became pals and Charone moved into his house for three years and wrote his memoir alongside him. Her affection and regard for ‘Keef’ runs through her own book, and she still counts him as a good pal.
“We got on because a lot of the journalists who were covering him at the time were kind of smitten with his bad-boy reputation, where I was just smitten with the music,” Charone says. “You know, the frontman of any group is the one people usually gravitate to and when I first interviewed Keith, he walked into the room, and it’s like rock ’n’ roll walked in right after him. It made a really big impression on me.”
A few years later, the poacher then turned gamekeeper and was offered a job in the PR department of Warner Music. After a bit of a false start — she was initially too shy to pick up the phone to newspapers to promote Geoff Deane — a young woman from Detroit soon walked in the door and changed everything.
“Her look was eye-catching: crucifix earrings, black top, black skirt, leggings, the hair, the lipstick, the birthmark, the bare navel, the midriff, the whole nine yards,” Charone writes in her book of Madonna.
“She was electric and danced like Bob Fosse himself was pulling the strings.”
Charone says Madonna was ambitious, hard-working and focused. “From the start, Madonna grasped the value of publicity and I suspect, even in those early days, realised she wouldn’t have to do all this promo for much longer. She saw where this was going.”
Despite her glittering roster of clients, Charone’s name is most strongly linked with Madonna and, alongside her legendary US PR Liz Rosenberg, has been overseeing her career since the very beginning.
“When you’re in the middle of the storm or the fulcrum or whatever you want to call it, you know, it’s very exciting,” Charone says of the sheer force of Madonna’s pop career.
“It’s just amazing when people you work with become one of the biggest stars in the whole world. We went from playing the [tiny] Camden Palace, and then the next UK show was Wembley Stadium. That will never, ever happen again. She never played those in-between places.”
Of Madonna, Charone adds: “She completely knew what she wanted. She was smart. I think the best artists have a really good sense of themselves.”
Yet being young, beautiful, ambitious and exacting could be seen as a problematic combination sometimes back then.
“For anyone that’s been making consistently great music and playing consistently great live shows for as long as she has, it’s all irrelevant,” Charone says of any ‘diva’ accusations lobbied at the star.
Elsewhere in her book, Charone offers a compelling look at the changing record label and media landscape, and considers herself a complete “newspaper junkie” (“I must be the only person in Britain who gets The Guardian and The Sun delivered to my house every day”).
She recalls a press trip to Las Vegas with Boris Johnson and his daughter to see Elton John’s show. “I never, ever imagined for one minute that this rather shambolic journalist would one day become British prime minister,” Charone writes. “Back in the summer of 2004, he was just another entertaining politician with very floppy hair who wrote for GQ.”
Ever the diplomat, Charone won’t be drawn into expanding on this observation. “I mean, with the floppy hair and the dishevelled kind of thing, I would never have bet on [him becoming PM],” is all she’ll say on that.
Ultimately, Access All Areas is a gushing love letter to rock ’n’ roll, and Charone would be the first to tell you she was simply a music fan who got very lucky in life. She still evidently pinches herself that she gets paid to listen to music and work closely alongside artists she loves, all day long.
I ask her if, after a half-century in the business, she is as much of a fan of music now as she was in her younger years. “It’s not the same because you’re not the same,” she says. “That said, I love the new Father John Misty album. That’s been a great discovery. I only started working with the Foo Fighters a few years ago and now that I’ve seen 30 shows, I’ve become a massive fan.
“During lockdown, when we had a lot more time at home and while I was writing the book, I really fell in love with my record collection all over again — Bob Dylan one day, Simon & Garfunkel the next,” she says. “To get to do that was pretty amazing.”
‘Access All Areas: A Backstage Pass Through 50 Years Of Music And Culture’ by Barbara Charone is out now via White Rabbit books.