When it comes to all the music that we love, people often tend to forget that it would never get to us if it wasn’t for the managers. Sure, we may dislike that whole side of the machine we call music industry, but there’s way more to it than just artists expressing themselves through music. In the end, somebody has to help those guys out and help bring the music to the masses. One of those guys was Don Arden, often referred to as the “Godfather of Rock,” “Mr. Big,” and “Al Capone of pop.” Besides building careers of some of the biggest names in rock ‘n’ roll, Arden was regarded as one of the meanest and most feared men in the industry.
His story begins in Manchester, England in January 1926. Born into a Jewish family, his original name was Harry Levy. She showed interest in the entertainment business at his early age as he started performing as a singer at 13, and eventually becoming a stand-up comedian. In 1944 he changed his name to a more powerful sounding one – Don Arden. Little did he know at the time that this was going to become one of the most feared names in the industry. After the end of World War 2, Don continued with his music and comedian career. Besides all the mobster impersonation that he did (that probably suited him well), he released his first recording. It was “Blue Suede Shoes” where he gave his best to imitate Elvis Presley. However, he quickly realized that he can become way more successful and rich as an agent.
His first breakthrough in the business came in 1960 when he signed American singer Gene Vincent and became his manager. However, as Vincent had serious issues with alcohol, this relationship ended rather quickly. Throughout the 1960s, Arden continued to build his career as a manager. In 1965 came another breakthrough when he signed Small Faces. According to Arden’s words, he “thought it was the best band in the world.” This quickly became one of the most fruitful collaborations in rock ‘n’ roll of the era.
However, it was also one of the first examples of Don Arden’s uncompromised and ruthless methods. Not only were the members of Small Faces complaining that he wasn’t paying them what he was supposed to, but he also had a group of “well-muscled friends” that he used for intimidation. As the story goes, impresario and music entrepreneur Robert Stigwood shown some interest in becoming Small Faces’ new manager. After hearing this, Don came to Stigwood’s apartment with his friends, lifted him from his chair, and dangled him from the fourth-floor balcony. Needless to say, Stigwood never considered doing anything with Small Faces again.
Jimmy Page was also the one to get a taste of Don Arden’s wrath. Back in the pre-Led Zeppelin days when Page and Keith Moon were forming their own band, Small Faces’ singer Steve Marriott caught their attention and they considered hiring him. After hearing this, Arden sent a brief but effective message: “How would you like to play in a band with broken fingers?” They decided to look for another singer.
After giving one last try to become a singer himself in the late ’60s, Arden once again realized that his true potential lies in being a manager. Another story about Don’s methods comes from this era. The legend goes that Arden squashed a cigar into Fleetwood Mac manager Clifford Davis’ head. The reason behind this was Davis’ interest in managing The Move after Don Already became their manager.
Another story of his controversial business methods comes from his time cooperating with English singer and songwriter Lynsey de Paul. Besides the regular talks of late payments, he once threatened investigative reporter Roger Cook who started getting into Don’s way of work. During the visit to Cook’s show, Arden commented:
In addition to these nice words, Arden also made more threats, stating that he will break the neck of anyone who decides to talk to Cook in his on-air show.
After The Move broke up Don signed the two new bands of the ex-members – Electric Light Orchestra and Wizzard. Sometime in 1974 he started his own record label Jet Records and started managing Birmingham heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath. Despite this cooperation, Sabbath guys were never signed to his label. In 1979 the band decided to get rid of Ozzy Osbourne due to his heavy alcohol and drug addiction problems. Being an experienced businessman, Don saw this as an opportunity to manage two bands at the same time. The singer signed with Jet Records but Don’s daughter Sharon seized the chance and became Ozzy’s manager. Needless to say, Don was enraged. So enraged that, according to some sources, he sent his pet dogs to attack her the next time she came to visit his home. The story also states that she was pregnant at that time and that she lost her child. This was never officially confirmed, but it is well known that Sharon had a strained relationship with her father for about two decades.
Despite this, Ozzy was still signed to Don Arden’s Jet Records label. After a few years into his solo career, Sharon and Ozzy got married. But to take this relationship to a whole new level, they also got into a legal battle with Jet Records. Eventually, they parted ways with the old label, and Ozzy went to Epic Records in 1983.
But the story of his daughter and her husband haunted Don for years. In one detailed interview, bassist Bob Daisley revealed that Arden wanted to join in on the legal battle against Ozzy and Sharon, who was suing the couple for not paying him the royalties for the songs he wrote. He shared this story:
“Don Arden found out that I was suing Sharon. And she still wasn’t talking to him. And I talked to him on the phone and he said, ‘Come and meet me.’ He was in London and fortunately I was going to London around that time anyway. So Lee Kerslake and I met up with Don in London and he said, ‘I’ll help you.’
“Once Sharon found out that her father was gonna help us she made up with him. [Laughs] She hasn’t spoken to him in 18 years and she told her children that their grandfather was dead. They didn’t even know they had a grandfather.
“Don was brokenhearted and he cried on the phone to me. Once she found out that he was gonna help us, she made up with him.
“So I phoned up Don and said, ‘Look, I know you can’t help us anymore. You made up with Sharon. Good luck to you, I hope you get the joy out of it, see your grandchildren and all of the rest of it.’
“What we didn’t know was a couple of weeks later we had an affidavit signed by Don saying that we bribed him and offered him money to be our witness. And that shot down the case so there you go.”
Meanwhile, Don Arden was still managing Black Sabbath. He was one of the people responsible for bringing Ronnie James Dio to the fold and essentially saving the band. But after Dio left the group, Tony Iommi tried to make new projects and work on his solo career. However, it was always Don Arden and who managed to persuade him to release albums under the Black Sabbath moniker. He was also the one to suggest Ian Gillan as a new Black Sabbath singer which resulted in one of the weirdest albums and lineup combinations in the history of heavy metal. Another brilliant thing he did was the whole Stonehenge incident along with some other bizarre stage ideas. According to Geezer Butler, Arden wrote down dimensions of the Stonehenge replica in feet but the guys who made it read it in meters. Sabbath ended up with 45 feet tall stone replicas that couldn’t fit most of the stages on the tour.
Arden also used this whole “Born Again” album thing to insult Ozzy Osbourne and his children. As the Sabbath album had one of the most horrific covers ever seen, depicting a demonic baby, Don commented how the image resembles Ozzy’s children. The thing wouldn’t be so crazy if some of Ozzy’s children weren’t also Don’s grandchildren.
Throughout the late ’80s and ’90s, Arden continued his career only with some other minor incidents, none of them coming close to the stuff he did back in his early days. As the years passed by, Sharon finally decided to bury the hatchet and reconnect with her father. According to her, it was Ozzy who initiated the idea, although stories like the one by Bob Daisley mentioned above show some different motives behind this decision. Whatever the case, they were once again back together. Sharon didn’t have to lie to her children that their grandfather is dead, and Aimee, Kelly, and Jack finally got the opportunity to meet Don Arden.
In 2004, it was revealed that Don is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and that Sharon paying for his care. Shortly after the release of his biography “Mr Big,” Don passed away on July 21, 2007, at the age of 81.
No matter what you think of Mr. Arden and his controversial business methods, he is certainly one of the people who changed the history of rock ‘n’ roll. As already mentioned, people might dislike the business side of rock music, but if it wasn’t for the managers, we wouldn’t have all the legendary musical acts we know of today.