Tony Stratton Smith: rebel with a clue

Dan Carrier talks to Chris Groom, whose new book about the charismatic music impresario shines a light on a long-lost world of excess

Friday, 20th August 2021 — By Dan Carrier

Tony Stratton Smith after a win at the races

Tony Stratton Smith after a win at the races

THE UK’s leading industry paper, Music Week, holds an annual award that is given to someone who has a “lifetime’s worth of enterprise and achievement in the business of music”.

But as author Chris Groom explains in his new book chronicling the world of journalist and music impresario Tony Stratton Smith, the award is not known as “The Epstein” or “The Blackwell”, names whose impact on British culture is indisputable.

No – instead the award is known as “The Strat”, after a man who made a special contribution to late-20th century music.
Stratton Smith, a journalist, author, band manager and record label founder, is described as “a quietly spoken, true English eccentric with something of a rebellious streak”. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1987 aged 53.

Strat, as he was known, started his working life as a sports reporter and author books, before entering the music industry as a publisher. In the mid-1960s, he established The Famous Charisma Label, and among the performers he would bring to the publics attention were bands Lindisfarne, Van der Graaf Generator, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Genesis. He recorded John Betjeman reading poetry and the Monty Python team. He put shows on at the Lyceum, featuring Led Zeppelin, The Plastic Ono Band, Procol Harum and Pink Floyd, though their £750 fee meant the night did not break even. In the 1980s, he showed his savvy and open-minded approach, releasing music by New York hip-hop artists Afrikan Bambaata.

His work reflected the new horizons in art created by the 1960s – rock fused with jazz, lyrics fused with poetry, and all packaged together on vinyl boasting far-out art work.

Chris notes that Tony had mentioned writing his story, but was always having too much fun to do so. Having once attempted to find work designing album covers for the label, Chris had long admired Strat – and decided his story needed to be told.

“Essentially a very private person, Tony had undertaken so many adventures, met so many fascinating people, witnessed so many landmark events, all of which he kept stored away in the deeper recesses of his brain but sadly never put down on paper,” writes Chris.

What emerges reveals a Soho world where Strat hung out with Francis Bacon and Jeffrey Bernard, and enjoyed lunches that lasted until the early hours of the following day. Strat’s exotic story takes him from his birthplace in 1933 – a hostel for unmarried mothers in Birmingham – to taking tea with the Queen of Denmark, selling millions of records worldwide, owning race-winning horses, turning down the chance to sign Queen and Paul Simon, all lubricated by gallons of champagne. Other stories that emerge remain unproven but fit: was he attacked while tracking down Nazi war criminals in South America? Should he have been on the Manchester United plane that crashed on the way home from Belgrade?

Tony Stratton Smith with Mercy Ray. Photo: hollyfogg

Strat spent the first 12 years of his life in care. His childhood was full of sport: he lived near the Shirley racecourse, and as a child loved horse racing.

He learned shorthand and typing and joined the Birmingham Gazette. He covered cricket, recalling hours spent sitting in the sun with a packet of sandwiches and a flask of tea, enjoying the fact he was being paid to watch a game he adored. He entered Fleet Street aged 21, and as a columnist of the Daily Sketch, believed football should be written about in the same way as music, theatre, poetry or literature.

“So it was that he connected the Tottenham Hotspur captain Danny Blanchflower with the American F Scott Fitzgerald, and used a quote by WB Yeats to introduce a football annual for boys,” adds Chris.

Strat was a fan of Matt Busby and his Babes and covered the team’s progress. “He would tell people that he had been chosen to report on the United game in Belgrade, but fate intervened. Phil Collins is one of many who recalls Tony saying he overslept and missed the plane.” It meant he narrowly escaped the Munich air disaster.

Meeting Beatles manager Brian Epstein in 1964 gave him the idea he too could make it in the music industry.

Epstein asked Tony to pen his biography, but Tony was working on a book about Mother Maria Skobtsova, known as The Rebel Nun, who worked among the Parisian poor and fought the Nazis. Epstein didn’t take kindly to being usurped by a dead nun and the book was never commissioned. But his brush with Brian did inspire him when he became a band manager. He saw the role as being creative, finding a way to give musicians the setting they needed to thrive.

Tony’s first sojourn into the music industry was buying songs from musicians haunting the cafés of Denmark Street.

“I proceeded to be robbed blind by every out of work writer. Every time they were skint, they’d flog me copyrights for £25 each. The Gioconda Crowd was a coffee bar in Denmark Street where all the out of work song writers would sit around having egg and chips, wondering who they were going to hit next. I was always the favourite. They knew they could rely on me for a healthy advance on a nothing song.”

He would turn from publishing to band managing, and when he realised his charges were being given a poor deal by record execs, he decided to set up his own label.

Strat’s story brings back to life a London that was bubbling with creativity, with fortunes made and spent, of Soho pubs where business was sealed with a handshake and a another round.

His best friend, Jack Barrie, was the owner of the Soho club La Chasse, and how they met casts a light. He woke up one morning on Jack’s sofa, with neither of them recalling why.

“Do you take milk and sugar in your coffee?,” asked Jack, as Strat stirred.

“I prefer brandy in mine. By the way, who are you?” came the sleepy reply.

Strat! The Charismatic Life and Times of Tony Stratton Smith. By Chris Groom, Wymer Publishing, £16.99

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