Music, maestro, please!

Music, maestro, please!

Gubbay for JC May 29 2021

If it is not a truth universally acknowledged, then it certainly should be — that Britain’s three most prominent music impresarios in the last 50 years have been Jewish. Harvey Goldsmith, the late Victor Hochhauser, and Raymond Gubbay make up a glittering music and performing arts trio, responsible for bringing hundreds of music makers and dance stars to the country’s stages and stadiums, great and small.

Now Raymond Gubbay, whose cheerful persona undoubtedly belies the sharp-witted and hard-headed businessman he became, has produced an entertaining account of his career, wonderfully entitled “Lowering The Tone And Raising The Roof”. Lowering the tone, a title suggested by his ex-wife, with whom he remains on good terms, because Gubbay is acutely aware that all too many in the business —mistakenly —looked down on him, dismissing his hugely popular events as “just another Gubbay gig”.

He has certainly had the last laugh. When we last met, 20 years ago, he was living in a rather nice flat a stone’s throw from Selfridge’s, cutting out, he joked, the need to cook (although he can). Today, having disposed of his flat in Paris and his house in Provence, he is living in a penthouse apartment of considerable grandeur, with an outside deck which affords the most spectacular views of London, from Battersea Power Station to the London Eye. I freely admit I toyed with the idea of chucking Gubbay over the balcony and moving in — but the truth is, he’s not someone who invites violence. He’s more of a Paddington Bear kind of man.

Five years ago, with a CBE to his name (which he proudly shows me, but only when asked), Gubbay sold his business. The name still appears as the promoter of concerts, but it is no longer the man himself, but a company which bought him out, and plainly trades on the goodwill it paid for.

He is amused when asked to speculate as to why he, Goldsmith and Victor Hochhauser had so much success as impresarios. “Perhaps it is our Jewish nous? Or maybe the thrill of being a showman? Perhaps we are just all market traders at heart, selling our wares.”

Gubbay certainly has more insight than most into what made Victor Hochhauser tick, as he went to work for him when he was 18, fresh from having rejected his father’s profession of accountancy. As Gubbay recounts in his book, working for Hochhauser — star of several hilarious anecdotes — lasted precisely “10 months, 28 days and 12 hours”, before the still-teenage Gubbay decided he had had enough and struck out on his own.

He comes from an agreeably mixed marriage: his maternal grandfather, a furrier, was born in East Prussia, and was in fact Lutheran, but married to a Jewish woman. Gubbay’s mother spent time living and working in Berlin in the 1920s before returning to London in 1931 to celebrate her parents’ silver wedding — and her father refused, with great foresight, to let her return to Germany.

She and Gubbay’s father, who was born in Calcutta, married in London at Bevis Marks, where Gubbay himself was barmitzvah. The family lived a comfortable life in Golders Green, where Gubbay learned to love music through his parents — his mother was an accomplished pianist, and had taught music in Berlin, while his father played the violin. Our hero, however, failed grade one piano, but plainly developed a musical ear and a strong sense of what would work and attract an audience.

He was also helped by regular trips, with his paternal grandmother, to Golders Green Hippodrome, when he was growing up. Grandma Gubbay’s taste was wide-ranging and eclectic, from Gilbert and Sullivan to popular musicals, all of which the young Gubbay inhaled and used — successfully — when judging popular taste.

Gubbay’s on-and-off gentle running feud with Victor Hochhauser famously began at his original interview when Hochhauser asked him just three questions: “Are you a Jewish boy? Where did you go to school? Can you start on Monday?”

He was plunged in at the deep end having to take a touring group of Russians, the Red Navy Choir, around Britain — difficult enough at the best of times, without being just 19 and not speaking any Russian. But Gubbay’s highly developed sense of mischief led him to tease his employer, pretending there was trouble on the tour. “I could not resist,” he writes, “when we were near the start of our journey, which I knew would take 10 hours, ringing Mr Hochhauser and when the familiar voice answered, putting in the coin [in a public phone box] and pretending I could not hear him. To make matters worse, I kept muttering that I had something terribly important to tell him and that the phone system was rotten…” Having wound up his employer to frenzy, Gubbay casually waited “after a leisurely bath and dinner” to call Hochhauser, by this time at shrieking point, to reassure him that all was well.

Victor Hochhauser’s determination to save money had some comic results, with his instructions to Gubbay to buy a big basket of fruit to be presented to the Russian singers on stage at the end of each performance. Unfortunately, Gubbay records, the basket had to go on tour and last for nine weeks; by the end of the tour he was holding the basket at arm’s length and nobody wanted to go near it.

Once he was out on his own, Gubbay benefited hugely from the appointment of Jennie Lee as Britain’s first Arts Minister. Between 1964 and 1970, “she was inspirational in getting local authorities to take responsibility for putting on entertainment”. There were shoals of halls and theatres, big and small, all over the country, which needed product — and Raymond Gubbay provided it.

When things went well for him on a grander scale, he became irrevocably associated with two main venues — the Barbican and the Royal Albert Hall. “I was in at the start with the Barbican”, he says, “went round with a tin hat on with Henry Wrong, the first director — and I thought, nothing like this is ever going to be built in my lifetime again, I must do something here. So I took dates immediately for Easter 1982, a month after it opened, and it was a huge success. Very thrilling, to be doing something new and pioneering. I will always have a lot of affection for the Barbican” — and he praises the facilities, with its many bars and parking, which he judges very important when trying to attract an audience.

“With the Albert Hall, I had known that since I was 18 —well, before— and it is just the most marvellous place. I loved it, the scale of what you can do there is bigger than the Barbican. I staged ballet and opera and all kinds of concert in the Albert Hall, in different configurations — it’s very flexible”.

However, if pressed, Gubbay reckons the best hall in Britain is Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, which he suggests in his book would have solved all London’s orchestral problems if it could have been towed down the motorway.

And, perhaps unfairly, I ask for his favourite artists — because Gubbay is clear that his career was rarely star-driven. Nevertheless, he names two —“both Jewish” — Yehudi Menuhin and Victor Borge. Violinist Menuhin’s is perhaps the more familiar name, but Gubbay was great friends with the Danish pianist who made audiences laugh uncontrollably with comic monologues and deliberately poor piano-playing.

Even 20 years ago Gubbay was clear that it would be difficult to launch a career like his, a one-man band, not least because he was acutely aware of changes of taste in “more sophisticated” audiences. Today, he says, it’s not certain what effect the pandemic will have on concert-going. “Nothing stands still: we’ve seen how streaming has taken over [at the moment]. It’s not going to be an alternative to live concerts, but I suspect it will be more important in the future, and it will remain to be seen whether everything goes back to what it was”.

The real tragedy, he says, “will be that a lot of people will be lost to the professions, singers, musicians, actors — because they have simply had to move on. They need to put bread on the table for the families. I think a lot of talented people will have gone, and that makes me very sad”.
It used, he says, “to surprise and upset some people that this little oik” — pointing to himself — “could put on all these concerts, and making money. But for me it was never about the money. It was about enjoying myself.”

To mark the 150th anniversary of the Albert Hall, Gubbay’s friends had proposed a celebration concert in his honour, due to have taken place in May this year. It’s now been postponed to May 2022, and he couldn’t be happier. “That was the catalyst for writing the book. I’ve dedicated it to my grandchildren.” Not quite seriously, he tells his six grandchildren:“Please all find proper jobs and soon’t ever consider following in Grandad’s footsteps”. And he laughs, and with a reminiscent chuckle, adds: “My God, it was fun”.

  • 7 June, 2021