A frank reminiscence of Tony Stratton Smith and Charisma Records written exclusively for this website by the founder of String Driven Thing
I first met Strat in the summer of ’72, when he came to a gig in Glasgow to check out the band. Maggie Bell was there that night, and they knew each other well, so what should have been an audition became a session, with the drink flowing and the two of them trading rock tales. This was typical Strat, for as an ex sports writer, the pub was his natural habitat, but even in this setting, he had a certain gravitas, for at another level, he was a man apart, a rock visionary who could spot the seeds of talent and provide the soil in which it might grow and flower. In fact, it struck me then that he personified the quality that he sought in all of his artists, an indefinable something that made them unique…to wit, charisma.
That evening, he told me how he had based his label on Berry Gordy’s Motown, with management, agency and A&R all under one roof, allowing him to shape his artists’ career. At the time, I was impressed by his logic, but anyone familiar with the story of Marvin Gaye might have felt a slight frisson of anxiety. A womanising coke fiend, Gaye married Gordy’s sister, then inevitably fell foul of his brother in law/label boss/manager/agent. End result…a decade in the wilderness, epitomised by a long stint in the Belgian seaside resort of Ostende. Now obviously Strat had designed his tetra headed company for the best of reasons, but nowadays, this kind of arrangement is illegal, because record labels do fall out with their artists and an independent manager is vital to protect their interests. A classic example is Peter Grant, who went through the roof when he discovered that Atlantic were about to release a single by his band, Led Zeppelin. His ‘no singles’ policy broke every rule in the record industry bible, and most managers would have given in, but Grant got his way, because he knew it was crucial in creating the ‘otherness’ of the Zeppelin myth.