Concert promoter Raymond Gubbay got his first taste of the performing arts as a child when his grandmother started taking him to the local theatre on Saturday afternoons. ‘Every week there was a different show. We used to sit in the gods for half a crown’, he says.
Gubbay also got an early introduction to classical music at home although he did not appreciate it much at the time. ‘My mother was a very good pianist and my dad played the violin so there was always music in the house, he says. ‘I failed miserably at Piano Grade One and I tended to think it was all rather boring. But clearly, it rubbed off on me a bit.’
Brought up in Golders Green, north London, he left school at 16 to be an articled clerk in his father’s accountancy firm. But he soon realized it was not for him. ‘It was a complete disaster, he says. ‘I was just not interested in it. After eight months I was six months behind with the correspondence course. I had to leave because I couldn’t stand it.
His father helped him to get a job at Pathé Newsreel, but he did not excel at that either. So his father introduced him to Victor Hochhauser, a concert promoter who specialized in putting on performances by Russian folk dance and ballet companies. After an interview that consisted of just three questions – one of which was, ‘Can you start on Monday?’ – Gubbay was given the job of taking folk-dancing companies on concert tours around the country.
After 10 months, however, he decided he had learned enough to become a concert promoter himself. He had no money apart from £50 his father lent him, but he formed a group of three freelance singers and a pianist and wrote to dozens of theatres and concert halls across the country trying to get bookings for them.
Fortunately, Gubbay’s timing was spot on. The government had recently appointed its first arts minister who was encouraging local authorities to promote the arts and build concert halls. So virtually every town was looking to put on some form of municipal entertainment.
It was a big success and he was soon putting together other groups of singers and booking them on tours around the country. By the age of 20, he had 150 bookings a year. There was, however, the occasional mishap. When one of his groups was supposed to be performing in Nottingham the dates got mixed up. He says: ‘I had this phone call at seven o’clock in the evening saying where you are? But we were in London. About three hundred people had to be given their money back.’
As interest grew, Gubbay formed the London Concert Orchestra from a group of freelance musicians and started putting on concerts in London’s newly opened Festival Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall. But the real turning point came when the Barbican Concert Hall opened in London in 1982. Gubbay says: ‘That was a big milestone. Virtually every performance was sold out because people wanted to go and see the Barbican and to hear the kind of vocal and orchestral concerts I was putting on.
It was wonderful.’ In the first year of opening Gubbay held 50 concerts there, and by the second year that had risen to 130 dates and he was credited with helping to save the Barbican during its difficult early years. Gubbay also started putting on exhibitions at the Barbican in collaboration with the organizer of an antique fair.
By 1988, however, the business climate had become a lot tougher, so he decided to sell his entire company to Emap for several hundred thousand pounds, staying on as managing director. Emap decided to stage the opera Turandot at Wembley but while it was a success with the critics, the public stayed away
He says: ‘Although I had no idea of selling the company and the offer came as a complete surprise, it was a deal I couldn’t refuse. My Mum and Dad would have been very pleased to see how far their original £50 had gone to help me.’