Thursday 22 August 2019

Obituary: Elliot Roberts

Rock manager who nurtured the career of Neil Young and many other stars

TOUGH CAT: Elliot Roberts with Joni Mitchell before her Carnegie Hall show in 1969
TOUGH CAT: Elliot Roberts with Joni Mitchell before her Carnegie Hall show in 1969

Elliot Roberts, who has died aged 76, was a rock manager who boasted a stellar roster of clients that included Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles and Jackson Browne; he became a pivotal figure in the Los Angeles singer-songwriter scene that figured so largely in 1960s and 1970s rock and pop.

Roberts also co-founded the Asylum label, managed Tom Petty, helped launch the careers of Tracy Chapman and The Cars, and his Lookout Management took on Talking Heads, Devo, Morrissey, Spiritualized, Yes, Bad Religion, Mazzy Star, Devendra Banhart, and more.

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He was born Elliot Rabinowitz in the Bronx on February 25, 1943, into a Jewish family who had fled the Nazis. A member of a gang, the Fordham Daggers, in his teens, he won a basketball scholarship to university but dropped out. He tried his hand at stand-up comedy and acting, then took a job in the postroom at the William Morris talent agency.

He rose rapidly, and found a mentor at the agency in the future record mogul, David Geffen, who had already got a leg up on his internal competition by clandestinely opening mail in the agency mailroom.

Roberts was soon looking after comedians and musicians, including Buffy Sainte-Marie who gave him a tape of Joni Mitchell. He went to see her at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village. "I went up to her after the show and said, 'I'm a young manager and I'd kill to work with you,'"

Roberts later recalled. "She said she was going on tour, and if I wanted to pay my own expenses, I could go with her. I went with her for a month, and after that, she asked me to manage her."

He secured a deal for her with the Reprise label and the pair decamped to LA, where she recorded her first album. Buffalo Springfield were in the studio next door, and Joni Mitchell introduced Roberts to her fellow-Canadian, guitarist Neil Young.

His relationship with Young got off to a rocky start; Young needed Roberts to find him a doctor but Roberts was at a golf driving range and uncontactable. The two fell out, but when Young quit Buffalo Springfield he took another chance on Roberts, and a lifelong partnership began.

Young joined the band Crosby, Stills and Nash, who were taken on by Roberts and the company he had formed, Lookout Management. Roberts teamed up with his former mentor to found the Geffen-Roberts Company, and in 1971 helped Geffen set up Asylum Records, which became one of the key labels in the West Coast sound, with artists like America, Linda Ronstadt, Tom Waits, Judee Sill and, for two albums, Bob Dylan.

They also managed many Asylum acts, such as the Eagles and Browne. Roberts was ruthless on behalf of his clients, most of whom nominally eschewed the "breadhead" culture, while appearing personally to embody the hippie zeitgeist. David Crosby described him in a Rolling Stone interview as "a cat like us".

Roberts was known for his hang-loose LA style. In a 2015 Vanity Fair profile of the 1960s Laurel Canyon scene, in which he was a major player, fellow manager and musician Peter Asher noted, "Elliot is brilliant. Hippie chaos, but let's not forget he's a brilliant chess player".

Roberts was Joni Mitchell's manager until 1985, and Young's manager until his death. "Because I tend to avoid the confrontations and delivering bad news, I am not good at doing any of that," Young wrote. "Elliot is. He knows how to communicate…"

Roberts himself said: "I think I'm tough. Have you ever met a guy in my position who thought he was a pussy? Fairness comes into the equation sometimes, but when I deal with Neil for Neil, I don't care what's fair - I only care what Neil wants."

In the 1980s Roberts teamed up Dylan with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers; he also renegotiated the deal between Petty and the rest of the band, giving Petty 50pc and the other four the rest. "It was something that, as Tom's manager, I had to do." In 1995, Roberts launched Vapor Records with Young; their list of musicians included Jonathan Richman, Catatonia and Young's then wife, Pegi Young.

Elliot Roberts, who died on June 21, is survived by his partner, photographer Dana Fineman, and by four sons from a previous relationship.

Sunday Independent

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