Sandy Roberton was one of the music industry’s most significant unsung, behind-the-scenes heroes. During a career that spanned more than sixty years, he changed the lives of many artists, engineers, mixers, and producers, and of music lovers in general. Without him, the music world today would look very different.
As a producer, artist manager, and record company owner, Roberton played a central part in the birth of the British folk movement. As a publisher he helped shape some of the most seminal albums ever made. And more than forty years ago, he was the first person to set up a major producer management company.
With Worlds End Management, Roberton changed the way the contracts and the careers of engineers, mixers and producers are shaped. For example, Roberton was the first to negotiate points. He masterminded long-term careers for a large number of top studio professionals, including Tim Palmer, Don Was, David Sardy, Nick Launay, Tim Palmer, Larry Klein, Stephen Hague, and Stephen Lipson.
Sandy Roberton passed away on July 25th this year, at the age of 80. Lipson commented in Billboard magazine that Roberton was, “the best sounding board, the voice of reason, and above all the most honourable and loyal man I’ve ever had the honour of working with, never greedy, always fair. His funeral should be at the Royal Albert Hall – it would be standing room only.”
Alexander William Roberton was born in Edinburg in Scotland in 1942, and moved to Kenya with his parents when he was just six years old. He began his long road to changing the world of music in Africa, where he joined a local beat group called Les Ombres.
Roberton returned to London in 1963, when he was 21, intent on a career in music. He formed a duo called Rick & Sandy. They found a manager in Tom Springfield, the brother of Dusty Springfield, who got them signed to Fontana, for which they record several singles.
The duo then moved to Decca, and enjoyed some success with the single “I Lost My Girl,” which was produced by Les Reed. Roberton also released two singles as a solo artist, a cover of Neil Diamond’s Solitary Man, on Columbia, under the name Sandy, and under the name Lucien Alexander a cover of the Bob Dylan song “Baby, You’ve Been On My Mind,” on Polydor.
Despite TV and radio appearances, Rick & Sandy and Roberton’s solo singles failed to get much traction, and he decided to get involved in the business side of the music industry. He went to work for Arc Music, which was Chess Records’ London operation, as well as Regent Music, Jewel Music, and Lowery Music. The writers he was representing included legends like John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and many others.
Roberton’s job consisted mostly of convincing UK artists to record songs from the catalogues of these companies. Georgie Fame’s cover of Billy Stewart’s “Sitting In The Park” was one of Roberton’s main achievements, as were several covers on John Mayall’s seminal album Blues’ Breakers With Eric Clapton (1966), aka The Beano Album. The latter resulted in a life-long connection between Roberton and producer Mike Vernon. Vernon set up Blue Horizon Records, where Roberton also worked.
Towards the end of the sixties, Sandy started producing, working with acts like the Chocolate Watch Band, Liverpool Scene and the Ian Anderson Country Blues Band. He formed his own company, September Productions, and via RCA released albums by Shelagh McDonald, Keith Christmas and Liverpool Scene.
Roberton had a keen interest in the bourgeoning folk-rock scene in the UK, and discovered Steeleye Span, which featured folk stalwarts like Ashley Hutchings, Tim Hart, Maddy Prior, and later Martin Carthy. Roberton produced the first three Steeleye Span records, Hark! The Village Wait, (1970), Please to See the King and Ten Man Mop, or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again (both 1971), which are now regarded as classics.
By the early seventies, Roberton had become one of the leading producers of the British folk-rock scene. He co-produced the famous debut album of the Albion Country Band and Shirley Collins, No Roses (1971), and produced the highly-rated debut album by the band Plainsong, In Search of Amelia Erhart (1972). Plainsong was founded by Iain Matthews, who had been in Fairport Convention and Andy Roberts, who came from The Liverpool Scene.
Roberton formed long-standing working relationships with Matthews and Roberts, and he produced many solo albums by both artists. These include six solo albums by Roberts, starting with Home Grown (1970), and several of Matthew’s solo albums, starting with Journey from Gospel Oak (1972). Roberton also produced albums by Decameron, Shirley Collins, Clogs, Marc Ellington, John Martyn, and many more.
John Martyn’s album Well Kept Secret (1982) marked Roberton’s final and fifty-fifth production effort. By the mid-seventies he had moved into artist management, looking after Decameron, and Gay and Terry Woods, and together with Matthews he set up Rockburgh Records, on which they released records by the artists managed by Robertson, as well as by Iain Matthews, Allan Taylor, The Woods Band, Wilco Johnson, and others.
By 1980, the British folk-rock movement had passed its peak, and was declining in popularity, and the music industry was beginning to shift its rhythm from acts releasing an album once a year, to every few years.
Roberton remarked in an interview around this time, “I was getting a lot of work offered that involved artists that even I had never heard of. I’d get three-quarters of my way through a record into which I was putting a lot of love and then I’d suddenly realise that after the record company had sent out the promotional discs, nothing else was going to be heard of that record again. In the end, things just didn’t seem worth it. And though I was getting well-paid, I just got more and more depressed and felt that I was becoming the backroom boys’ backroom boy.’”
These factors also forced Roberton to look for other opportunities. In an interview in 2004, he recalled, “I was working with artists I signed to my production company because I believed in them and trying to get them a deal. At the end there were a couple of records I didn’t manage to place and it makes you think when you are stuck with all the studio bills.”
“The last record I produced was a John Martyn record, Well Kept Secret. Phil Thornalley was an engineer and I asked him what he was doing next and he said he didn’t know. This is a guy who worked with the Thompson Twins and Duran Duran! So I said, ‘let me find you a project.’ I got him a job and I thought, ‘there’s a business here.’”
The result was that Roberton set up Worlds End Producer Management in 1980, together with Paul Brown. The name was a reference to the World’s End district of Chelsea, London, where the company was based, and the aim was to improve the contracts, working conditions, and careers of engineers and producers.
Worlds End called itself “probably the first full-service company to ever solely represent producers, mixers and engineers,” and one of its early clients was Tim Palmer, in the early eighties an assistant engineer at Utopia Studios in London. Working together with Roberton, Palmer went on to produce albums for Robert Plant, David Bowie, and U2. In a recent Facebook post, Palmer recalled,
“Sandy changed the landscape for producers and especially mixers. In the same way that Jimmy Hill got soccer players the money they deserved, Sandy pushed for better deals and royalties for his producers and succeeded in getting them …even for mixers which was pretty unknown at that time. He basically created the genre of producer management.”
In 1985, Robertson moved Worlds End to Los Angeles, and became sole owner of the company. Worlds End quickly became the leading producer management company in the world, managing at one point a roster of 75 engineers, mixers and producers, helped by a staff of half a dozen or more. As Palmer recalled, “Sandy was running the biggest and best producer management company of that time.”
In an interview in 2004, with Richard James Burgess, Roberton explained, “As producer managers, we always have to come up with new ideas. The days of sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring are over. It’s not like the late 70s and early 80s when the labels were making hundreds of records.”
“I spend my time traveling from London, to New York, to Los Angeles. I’m constantly out there networking with A&R people and with artist managers. If you’re a record company and you’ve got a new act, it’s hard to come up with someone off the top of your head. And if you do come up with someone, there’s always the question of who represents the guy and how to get a hold of them. I think producer managers’ main role is to educate and keep people informed about their clients.”
Roberton was a visionary throughout his life, who eagerly used the latest studio technology in his producer days, and who also was quick to adapt to the latest developments in the music industry. He pushed record companies to get up to speed with the download and streaming technologies that came with the Internet, and he very early on recognized that this also changed the role of producers.
Already in the beginning of this century, Roberton encouraged his clients to sign acts and form their own production companies, because he had spotted that, in his words in 2004, “Urban producers were in control of acts long before the rock producers were. The producers were signing acts, making deals and writing songs. It’s very producer-driven.”
In 2005, Roberton and Worlds End founded the Beverly Martel label, which released music by acts like The Philistines Jr, Amelia Carey, Tom Forest, The Wild State, April Ivy, Apropos, The High Divers, Rowan, Mozella, Liquid Monk, Josh Difford, Courtesy Tier, Curt Castle, and Lions in the Street.
In 2007, he set up Iamsound with his daughter, Niki Roberton. The company describes itself as “a hub of music, art, culture and marketing, a hybrid creative studio, record label and visual artist management firm—a new model for a new hybrid era,” and has released recordings by Florence & The Machine, Lord Huron, Nikki Lane, Charli XCX, and many others.
Robertson kept working until days before his passing. Tim Palmer recalled how Roberton, from his hospital bed in London, was trying to arrange for him to mix an Andrea Bocelli record. “Instead of trying to get well, he was still calling labels and looking for projects for his clients!”
Robertson also managed The Matrix production team, which worked with Rihanna, Shakira, and Avril Lavigne. They wrote after Robertson’s passing, “Sandy’s passion for music and his endless hours of working connections and wheeling deals for his clients is unparalleled in the industry. The Matrix owes much of its success to him. He has been a pioneering champion for so many people who have written and produced many of the best songs of the past four decades. Thank you, Sandy, for your love of music and the people who create it. Godspeed.”