Ray Cooper: A life remembered

Ray Cooper: A life remembered

Veteran UK music executive Ray Cooper – who died last July – was recently saluted with memorials in both London and LA just before Christmas. His life was celebrated by family, friends, industry colleagues and artists who toasted Cooper with a mixture of eulogies, speeches, anecdotes, vintage video clips, specially-taped tributes, a live musical performance and the premiere of a short film about Cooper’s early life. The memorials were organised by a team of Cooper’s closest friends from the UK and US music industries including longtime business partner Ashley Newton, Paul Conroy, Phil Quartararo, Jeff Frasco, Mike Watts – and Martin Lewis who MC’ed the events in both cities. Here, Lewis takes us inside the two memorials, and remembers his friend…

Among the many downsides of getting older is the inevitable loss of friends. And it’s much more painful when it's a longstanding pal. I had the joy of friendship with the late Ray Cooper for 46 years. Losing him has been very hard. Because the affliction that took him was so cruel, I have been somewhat comforted by that old cliche – very accurate in this case – that his passing was a merciful release. But that doesn't void the deep ache.

I can swiftly convey the essence of Ray by quoting his reaction to being diagnosed with PPA - Primary Progressive Aphasia  – a very rare and crippling form of dementia that eventually robs the person of all ability to communicate. By bizarre coincidence I have another very old pal – Terry Jones of Monty Python – who is still battling the same neurological condition.

Ray's response to being told the awful news in 2014?  "Just my luck to get a condition that sounds like the name of a really naff prog-rock band from the seventies!"

That was Ray Cooper. A vibrant soul with a wicked sense of humor – even in extreme adversity.

When I give lectures about the Beatles I often talk about the fact that The Beatles took their work of making music seriously. But they never took themselves seriously. So it was with Ray. Doing his best to make artists successful was a serious matter. But he never took himself seriously. Making people laugh – frequently at his own expense – was a Ray Cooper hallmark.

Full details of Ray's incredible 46-year career in the UK and US music industries can be read on the tribute website I've set-up. I encourage you to peruse it here

The headlines are that he started out as a warehouseman in 1972 at the little indie record company where I also worked – Transatlantic Records. I often joke that at that point he knew nothing about the music business – and I knew even less!  Hence our immediate bonding as blood brothers. But the truth is that what he lacked at that time in industry knowledge he more than made up for in passion for music and sheer, undiluted joie de vivre.

In rapid succession he became a salesman, then sales manager with superb results. After a five years apprenticeship at Transatlantic he set sail for other companies including ABC/Anchor, then Don Arden's Jet Records where – among other triumphs – he powered ELO's Discovery to stratospheric success.

In the early 1980s he took over sales at Island Records where – per U2's longtime manager Paul McGuinness – he played a crucial role in breaking U2. Island founder Chris Blackwell spotted Ray's innate promotional skills and made him marketing director with superlative results, e.g. Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Grace Jones and Kid Creole. It was at Island that Ray bonded with the company's A&R director Ashley Newton. Eventually the duo decided to create their own boutique label and in 1987 they launched Circa Records. Huge success with many acts including Neneh Cherry, Massive Attack and Julia Fordham led to their thriving imprint – and them as executives – being acquired and absorbed into Virgin UK's operation in 1992.


Making people laugh – frequently at his own expense – was a Ray Cooper hallmark


As co-managing directors under chairman Paul Conroy they reinvigorated Virgin – finding and breaking artists such as the Spice Girls, The Verve and Daft Punk. After five years of incredible success they were chosen to revitalise Virgin America as co-presidents. And that they did over the next five years with Lenny Kravitz, Janet Jackson, Smashing Pumpkins, N.E.R.D, the Rolling Stones, George Michael, David Bowie et al. That appointment brought Ray to live in Los Angeles in 1997 – which became his home for the last 21 years of his life.

Ray and I had been pals for ten years while we both lived in London. We stayed friends the next fifteen years as I moved first to New York and then L.A., always finding occasions to rendezvous in one of those three cities. The last two decades we were virtual neighbors in Hollywood.

His declining health in recent years was very distressing. The end was inevitable, though still shattering. After his funeral in early August in a beautiful 11th century church on the Surrey-Sussex border I sat with his courageous wife and soulmate Philippa and discussed how we could memorialise Ray. I placed myself at her disposal to help.

We agreed that we should celebrate Ray's life rather than mourn his loss. We chose December as the ideal time as it would be the 70th anniversary of his birth. And we decided that we should salute Ray in the two cities he'd lived and worked – London and L.A.

We were fortunate indeed that Ray had created bonds of friendship with so many wonderful people over the decades. We convened an ad hoc committee of his industry pals to make the memorials happen. It is no exaggeration to say that little could have happened without the Herculean efforts of those friends.

Many of the names will be recognised by readers: Ashley Newton, Paul Conroy, Phil Quartararo, Mike Watts, Jeff Frasco, Jules Higgs, Ashley Forbes, Jane Ventom and Caroline True. We are indebted to them for their care, passion, work and other contributions.

Our committee supported our idea of twin events in L.A. and London. 

In L.A. we were blessed to have the theatre of CAA (Creative Artists Agency) as the venue for our celebration of Ray – courtesy of the generosity of that agency and one of its senior employees, Jeff Frasco, who was a good friend to Ray in his US years.

In London the redoubtable Caroline True and Mike Watts secured us Beaufort House in Chelsea for the first three hours of our celebration of Ray.  And – with the assistance of Ray's friends John Farley and Gary ‘Scanner’ Clark – we managed to get the nearby Chelsea speakeasy The Goat to convert itself into ‘Bar Raymondo’ for the four-hour Ray's After (Life) Party that followed! 

That the twin events were a huge success can be gauged by the large numbers of family, friends, colleagues and artists who attended – nearly 200 in L.A. – over 300 in London. 

Among the high-profile individuals attending in the two cities: Simon Fuller, chairman of XIX Entertainment (with whom Ray worked on the Spice Girls); one of Cooper’s predecessors as co-president of Virgin America – Jeff Ayeroff; musician/producer Don Was, singer-songwriter Julia Fordham (who Ray signed to Circa Records in 1988), high-profile talent manager Craig Fruin (Jeff Lynne/ELO and Lenny Kravitz), Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, U2’s longtime (1978-2013) manager Paul McGuinness, former Warner Bros. Managing director and Virgin Records UK chairman Paul Conroy, Stiff Records founder and Island Records MD during Ray Cooper’s Island tenure Dave Robinson, former George Michael manager Andy Stephens and former director of Performer Affairs for PPL. Keith Harris OBE.

During the planning stages, Ashley Newton and I worked together to fashion a programme that met Philippa's wishes. It was largely the same presentation in both cities – with a couple of minor variations.

For Philippa and I it was a given that the keynote eulogy should be delivered by Ashley. As friends and partners their close relationship had endured in an industry known for bust-ups. Ashley proved to be a witty writer and an orator with canny instincts. He blended a rich mixture of anecdotes and insights into Ray. Aided by a judicious choice of photographs and video clips from the notoriously funny sales conference tapes the duo had made for Circa and Virgin. 


Island founder Chris Blackwell spotted Ray's innate promotional skills and made him marketing director with superlative results


With Ashley as the straight-man, Ray had been a master of comedic performance. Attendees saw vintage clips of Ray in a variety of guises – including a French waiter, Friar Tuck, Alfred Hitchcock and, most memorably, as a lascivious Sofia Coppola in the Circa version of ‘Godfather 3’! I had the fun of scripting some of the many sales conference tapes that Ray and Ashley made in that era. Seeing clips of them again a quarter century later reminded me how most of the laughs came from Ray's performances and his ad libs rather than my jokes.

Attendees in both cities were blessed to hear an eloquent appreciation of Ray’s personal qualities by his step-daughter Liana Massiah-Kellman. 

Ray and Ashley's predecessor as president of Virgin America Phil Quartararo knew Ray from his Island years and his Circa and Virgin UK stints. Phil conveyed to the attendees why Ray was so popular with artists. And in London he also explained how Ray so endeared himself to the US industry.

Underscoring Phil Quartararo's point about the affection for Ray among the artists and industry executives with whom he worked, there were several new video messages extolling Ray's professional qualities. Attendees saw specially-filmed tributes from Peter Gabriel, Janet Jackson, Spice Girls Victoria Beckham and Geri Halliwell/Horner, Neneh Cherry with husband/producer Cameron McVey, the founder/CEO of virtual reality company Magic Leap Rony Abovitz, and Lenny Kravitz. 

In L.A. brief additional eulogies came from Ray's pals Glen Ward (who knew Ray from his roles at UK's Our Price then as CEO of Virgin Megastores USA) and B.J. Lobermann – a stalwart Virgin America executive.

Philippa had initially asked me to deliver a eulogy in both cities but I told her that I feared I'd be too emotional about Ray to get through an oration. So she asked me instead to act as Master of Ceremonies at the events. I was happy to do this – introducing all the speakers and film clips. I was able to throw in some brief samples of Ray's wonderful humor by reading out some of his hysterically-funny emails over the last 20 years and recounting Ray's brilliant evisceration of the right-wing British rags that he so disdained.

But Philippa also suggested a second role for me, which I'm glad she did.

At Ray's funeral I'd re-met two of Ray's pals from his beloved hometown of Sheffield. One of Ray's many qualities was that he took care to maintain his old friendships. This couple were pals with Ray from his early teens. Ray was also very loyal to Sheffield itself, frequently visiting the city even as he rose to giddy heights in the UK and US industries.

I was discussing this with Philippa and suggested to her that we invite one of his hometown pals to write a few words about Ray's pre-industry life in Sheffield to be read out. Philippa took my idea up multiple notches. She reminded me that I “used to be a film producer”. (The "used to be" was a bit of a sting – but I am an old geezer now!) and suggested that I make a little film about Ray's salad days to be shown at the memorials.

I know a good suggestion when I hear one, so with the help of top Sheffield videographer Eve Wood and talented editor Tristram Edwards I produced ‘Ray Cooper: Made In Sheffield’ featuring eye-witness testimony from several of Ray's teenage pals. It transpired that Ray's youthful life in Sheffield was like a cross between Withnail & I and the TV series The Young Ones!

The mini-film played wonderfully at both memorials. Ray's northern roots and his wild sense of humor were fully honored! You can see the film here.


For the finale in L.A. from Day One Philippa and I had wanted there to be some live music. Ray was all about music, so it felt essential to us. To our surprise, we were somewhat alone on this idea! Some seemed to feel that, absent a reunion by all four Beatles, live music would not be a good idea! We respectfully dissented and left our original idea on the table to percolate. 

Much to our surprise and delight, the seed we planted finally sprouted. Phil Quartararo reached out to an artist whose early career had been helped by Ray, and who absolutely adored him.  

So it was that the incredibly talented Ben Harper agreed to sing Ray's all-time favourite song - Dylan's Forever Young.  He performed it acoustically - augmented by violinist Rebecca Schlappich and cellist Danica Pinner of L.A.’s string ensemble Quartet405. It was sparse, poignant and utterly exquisite. It was the grand finale of the L.A. memorial. Ray would have 'kvelled'.

Our London venue didn't lend itself to a live music performance but Philippa had a lovely idea for the closing piece there.  


Ray’s instinct to promote Rochdale Cowboy was the primeval stirrings of the brilliant mind that became so astute at spotting hit artists and records and marketing them to chart and career-long success


We knew that much was going to be said at the memorials about Ray's brilliant sense of the music of the 80s, 90s and 2000s – how Ray was often right on the cutting edge of the zeitgeist, be it Massive Attack, the Chemical Bros or N.E.R.D. etc.

But inevitably, less would be said about some of Ray's other great gifts. His love of the absurd. His passion for British eccentricity. His taste for fun projects that would make those reared at the altar of 'The Face', the world of minimalist (read "illegible") fonts and other Dedicated Followers of Fashion need smelling salts!

Ray loved "silly" humor. He loved everything Northern. The more it would upset the tragically hip – the more it would reduce Ray to delighted giggles.

I recounted to Philippa how, long before Ray wore Armani and excelled in marketing electronica, trip-hop and avant-funk, Ray's first excursion into A&R and spotting hits had come in the summer of 1975.  He came to me one day in the offices of Transatlantic Records where we both worked – him in sales – me in publicity and marketing. He had an idea about a record we should get behind.  I was a bit surprised, Ray was sales manager, not A&R Manager. His job was to flog the vinyl to the retailers just as mine was to pitch it to the media and the masses.  

Transatlantic was not just a label. It was a wide-ranging independent record company. We had our own labels... we had licensed labels that we marketed and distributed... and we had some labels we just distributed. We had no responsibility for that distribution-only product beyond putting it in the stores.

Ray had become aware that one of our distributed labels – Rubber Records out of Newcastle – was going to release a novelty single by a then unknown northern comedian called Mike Harding.  

Now we at Transatlantic had recently had a huge success breaking Billy Connolly nationally – though he was originally considered to be just a regional comic. Ray, myself and our colleague Mike Watts had worked hard to break Billy. It had been a triumphant team effort. 

Ray pitched me that Mike Harding could be another Billy Connolly. The single was called ‘Rochdale Cowboy’ – a paean to the joys of being a lover of the wild west. As in the wild North West of England!

I thought the record was daft, but fun. Ray was savvier than me, he smelled "novelty hit", and he was spot on. We worked together on the release and between us we got the record into the charts and Mike Harding onto Top of the Pops. The start of his long career as a comedian, author and broadcaster.

Ray’s instinct to promote that record was the primeval stirrings of the brilliant mind that became so astute at spotting hit artists and records and marketing them to chart and career-long success.

So we reached out to Mike Harding to attend the London memorial. Alas he was unwell but he sent a glorious affectionate message about how he owed his whole career to Ray. It was a fitting finale to the two memorials that we brought it all the way back to Ray's roots.

A heartfelt salute from the first artist he made into a star... a glorious touch of Ray's love for the north. After Mike’s message we then heard all two minutes and 52 seconds of Rochdale Cowboy.  



Denizens of trendy Chelsea were suitably traumatised, but the unmistakable ambiance in the room at the end of the record was the zen sound of Ray laughing heartily from “oop north”. Very far “oop north”…  Farewell dearest Raymondo.

See the current edition of Music Week for photos from both Ray Cooper memorials

Ray Cooper/Mick Jagger photo supplied courtesy of www.RayCooper.info


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