The Velvet Mafia“They’re not only dealing with the stigma of being homosexual but they’re also dealing with rampant anti-Semitism.”

As heard on arena

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The Swinging Sixties conjures up images of bowl cuts, Brylcreem and backcombed bouffants and, most notably, the advent of the Rock Star, as we know it today. And the story of the men behind these stars is the tale Darryl W Bullock sets out to tell, the men he calls The Velvet Mafia.

On Monday night’s Arena, Seán Rocks chatted with Bullock about his new book, The Velvet Mafia: The Gay Men Who Ran the Swinging Sixties. Bullock’s last publication, the brilliantly-titled David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music, celebrated trailblazing LGBT musicians. His latest offering, however, tells the tale of the forward-thinking gay men who were instrumental in creating rock culture as we know it today, turning what could have been a passing fad into a global industry. These were the men behind David Bowie, The Beatles, The Yardbirds, The Bee Gees and many, many more.

For Bullock, it all started with Larry Parnes who had Tommy Steele and Marty Wilde in his stable of stars.

“I think Larry modelled his own self, his own business if you like, on the only superstar manager anyone’d ever head of at that point, who was Elvis’s manager, Col Tom Parker. But everybody who came after Larry modelled their selves on Larry, to an extent.”     

One of these avid acolytes was Brian Epstein, who like Parnes, had a background working in retail, and like Parnes, originally had his eye on the stage.  

“[Parnes] always had a passion to perform. He’d wanted to be a singer. He wanted to be an actor. But he wasn’t really cut out for either of those roles.”

And so Parnes gravitated towards management, investing in theatre in London. This in turn lead him to the Soho coffee shops in 50s where he discovered his first big stars, Tommy Steele and Marty Wilde.

Something else Parnes and Epstein had in common, along with many of the major players in the scene like Lionel Bart and lawyer David Jacobs, was thier Jewish heritage.

“It was kind of ingrained into them by their family that they had to be successful. They’re not only dealing with the stigma of being homosexual, but they’re also dealing with rampant anti-Semitism which was occurring in Britain throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s.”

So, their homosexuality and thier Jewishness marked them as ‘outsiders’ twice over, arguably giving them twice the drive to rise above these ingrained prejudices of the Britain of the time. Also linked to the anti-Semitism was the practice of name changing – an early act of Public Relations and Spin:

“Larry was convinced that you couldn’t be a star if you were called Joe Bloggs. You had to have a name. And he like to give his artists names that had a kind of element of danger with Wilde and Fury […] but also had something that was quite comfortable and approachable like Marty or like Billy”. 

Nothing too overwhelmingly masculine for the young girls, but a little frisson of danger that might entice the Teddy Boys. Here Bullock opines on what gave his Velvet Mafia such a keen eye for what would sell to their essential teen market:  

“If you as a gay man fancy a young man, the chances are that girls will fancy him as well, you know? I mean, that’s a horrible stereotype but you get the drift of what I’m talking about.

The Velvet Mafia could see the market; they could Svengali their clients, make them marketable and build the brand, to use modern parlance. Brian Epstein, Larry Parnes, Robert Stigwood et al, really understood retail and how to sell.

“They might not have had great schooling, they might have not done well in school or at university, actually most of them didn’t go to university, but they really had their finger on the pulse, they understood trends.”

Darryl W Bullock went on to discuss the challenges being gay in the 60s posed and the business models these media moguls created to cultivate safe spaces to be themselves. Seán and Darryl also touched on the dearth of women in music management at the time and you can hear the full conversation by going here.

Gemma Craddock

© The Listener 2021

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