A few months ago, I went to see Elton John perform his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour at the O2 Arena in London. It was, as you can expect, a memorable evening and one I will never forget.
At one point, during one of my all-time favourite tracks Border Song, a series of photographs appeared on the screen – and I suddenly recognised the face of Tony King. I didn’t know Tony very well, but I knew he was a music industry veteran who lived near me in North London. I soon learnt that he’d written a book, called The Tastemaker, which chronicled his extraordinary six-decade career in the music industry.
Tony has worked with some of the most iconic names in music, including The Ronettes, the Beatles, Phil Spector, The Rolling Stones and Sir Elton John, who is still a close friend. He’s been the man operating under the radar, advising those who are changing the face of the industry. After reading the book, I couldn’t help but notice some parallels between our careers. Like Tony, a good executive search partner knows what drives people, and has an eye for spotting the next big thing. They are commercial, but with integrity, and are completely trusted with confidential insight.
Last week, I had the real privilege of hosting an event with Tony. On a sunny and warm Thursday evening, our MBS team, plus some friends and family, gathered at Camden Arts Centre to hear our discussion. We’ve seen many CVs in our role as search consultants, but few like Tony’s, and it was fascinating to hear him recall his years in the music industry and reflect on the lessons learnt from working alongside the stars.
Tony grew up in Eastbourne in the fifties. He had a simple childhood, he told us, spending most of his time in local libraries reading the plays and poems of Tennessee Williams and the books of Christopher Isherwood. “This was post-war England,” he said, “so we didn’t have a car or a television, but the radio was something of a lifeline for me. I vividly remember hearing Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ for the first time, and knowing that I’d heard something incredibly special that would change my life forever.”
Driven by his love for music and knowing that this was the industry he wanted to work in, Tony turned 16 on a Friday in 1958 and by Monday morning – when it was legal to leave school – he had boarded a train to London to take up his first-ever job as an office boy at Decca Records. His flair for spotting and developing talent was immediately apparent, and he quickly outgrew his office assistant role, becoming the youngest-ever promoter on the music scene.
“I spent that time looking after artists who were household names,” Tony said. “I’d pick Roy Orbison up from the airport, and take Brenda Lee to the cinema. I ran the TV and radio interviews, and was responsible for all the promotion and marketing. There was no ‘press department’ back then – it was just me!”
In the years that followed, Tony swiftly became one of the most influential players in the music industry, acting as general manager at the Beatles’ Apple Records, executive vice president of Elton John’s label Rocket, and creative director at corporate giant RCA Records – with many more roles in between.
“A moment that sticks out for me was the Madison Square Garden show on Thanksgiving 1974,” Tony told us. “A few weeks prior, Elton John had asked me to ask John Lennon if he would join him on stage. John was reluctant but said he would, but only if his new track ‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night’ got to number one. Challenge accepted! I was working with John and I pushed that track until it made it to the top of the charts. So, we arranged for John to come out and play with Elton at Madison Square Garden. I’ll never forget the six-minute standing ovation when John walked out onto that stage… it was the most thrilling show I’ve ever seen.”
“I’ll never forget the six-minute standing ovation when John walked out onto that stage… it was the most thrilling show I’ve ever seen.”
Tony’s book traces the highs and lows of life in ‘showbusiness’ – but its most powerful moments aren’t about the industry, but his experience of New York at the height of the AIDS crisis. Last Thursday, Tony spoke honestly and openly about the health crisis’ devastating impact on the gay community, and the horrors of watching his friends and loved ones die. It was, he said, the darkest period of his life.
In 1984, Mick Jagger asked Tony to help him with his first solo album, a proposition that kickstarted a nearly three-decade professional relationship with the Rolling Stones. Tony toured the world with the Stones and worked on all of the albums they produced in those years. On Thursday, Tony spoke emotionally about his life-long relationship that he built with the band’s drummer Charlie Watts and his wife, Shirley.
A big career change happened in 2011. Tony returned to work with Elton John, first as Creative Director on the Elton John Las Vegas show, before doing the same role for his recent Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour.
Throughout his career, Tony has been in the room where it happened. He was one of the first people to ever hear The Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’, and it was Tony, along with Ringo Star, who convinced Elton John that ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’ would be a hit.
I asked Tony if he could pinpoint why and how his career progressed the way it did. “I just fly by the seat of my pants,” he laughed. “I didn’t have qualifications, but I did have good taste, and I knew what to do with it. I always knew what to do with people, what they’d like, and what was good for them.”
“I didn’t have qualifications, but I did have good taste, and I knew what to do with it. I always knew what to do with people, what they’d like, and what was good for them.”
“Take Charlie Watts, for example. He never liked giving interviews, and had a reputation for refusing to do press. But I knew what made him tick: jazz. So, I found the right journalists, who were interested in jazz, for him to talk to. I remember Mick Jagger saying ‘no way will you get Charlie to talk’… but I did.”
Over the years, Tony has been a talent chaperone, professional advisor, creative visionary and valued confidante. Does he have a working relationship that he’s particularly proud of?
“Definitely John Lennon,” he told us, without missing a beat. “He was so instinctive and inspiring, and he trusted me implicitly. I remember once asking him if he wanted to do a particular interview, and him turning to me to say ‘Tony, please, anything you say I’ll do. You don’t have to ask.’ I rarely give myself a pat on the back, but I’m very proud of my work with John – together we got him back in business as a solo artist.”
The epilogue of Tony’s book ends with an evening, post-Covid in December 2021. It was the memorial of Charlie Watts at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in Soho, London. Tony writes that it was a wonderful evening of memories and music with friends and family. The last act of the evening was the three remaining Rolling Stones members, who played two blues numbers.
Tony shared with Mick Jagger that he had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He writes: Mick gave me a look, then there was that trademark shoulder shrug and smile. “Oh well,” Mick said, “I guess that means we’ll have to have a slow dance”.
As the sun set in north London last week and we all left the Camden Arts Centre, I could not help making a secret wish that long may this slow dance last.