Bowie’s first manager was an old school, former publicist for Sinatra, Ellington, Jerry Lee Lewis and Manfred Mann, but he was also a gentleman who provided his protégé a wide canvas on which to later create Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke and other incarnations.
There is the artist, and then there is the canvas. I feel very much David Bowie was an artist, but his first manager Kenneth Pitt (1922-2019) was very much his canvas. The fascinating aspect of the artist-manager relationship is that it is a business, but there is always room for eros as well in the role of someone overseeing an artist’s career. Come to think of it, I think it’s impossible to separate the two. Brian Epstein, Kit Lambert, Andrew Loog Oldham, Danny Fields, Malcolm McLaren, the list of legendary managers is as long as the famous artists and bands.
This is the first in a series called “Architects of Stardom”.
Kenneth Pitt, who died last month at age 96, was a hardcore figure in the British music business before The Beatles made their mark on the 20th century. In the 1950s, he was the UK publicist for Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, and Jerry Lee Lewis. His first success as a “rock n’ roll” manager is with Paul Jones-era Manfred Mann. He convinced Paul Jones and company to record “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy,” and also managed the singer Crispian St. Peters and all-female American rock band Goldie and the Gingerbreads.
In 1965, Pitt met David Jones, who in turn became David Bowie. Some managers can move fast in the music world. I think Bowie/Ziggy’s Tony Defries was a hustler, who moved fast in the murky world of show business and corporate rock & roll. But Pitt was an old school gentleman, who truly believed that one had to throw seeds around the creative landscape of his time so something will grow. Bowie was that seed. And it took a decade for that seed to become “Ziggy Stardust.”
Pitt managed Bowie from 1965 to 1970, but beyond “Space Oddity” they never had a huge commercial hit product.
Still, with Pitt’s support, Bowie explored cinema and theater in an effort to become an “all round entertainer” in the mold of Anthony Newley, with whom Bowie was very impressed. He was drawn to Newley not only for his being an entertainer who wrote, acted, and produced, but also—and this may be even more important—Newley did not hide his cockney accent, even when he sang. Years later, Bowie would mention the importance of Newley as well as Syd Barrett to him, as singers who empathized their British accent while singing.
Anthony Newley performs “Who Can I Turn To” from the his hit Broadway show The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd (1965) on the Ed Sullivan Show:
By the time Tony Defries became his manager, Bowie knew exactly what he wanted to do and how to obtain success. But he couldn’t do that until he had spent his five years with Pitt, exploring the realms of showbiz and the world within that culture.
If nothing else, Bowie was a dutiful student, with Pitt as his guide into a world that Bowie otherwise had no access to. For instance, one of the greatest gifts Pitt gave him was the unreleased (at the time) Velvet Underground album. Legend has it that Bowie was also influenced by his half-brother Terry, who introduced him to the world of the Beats and jazz. On that score, Pitt supplied Bowie with books to read, as well as entree to the Andy Warhol world.
Though Pitt was abandoned by Bowie in 1970, the pair maintained a connection throughout both of their lives. It has been reported that Bowie, up to his passing, would buy first editions and send them to Pitt. Let’s not forget that, all those years earlier, they had lived together, an older man teaching his young acolyte. This was an invaluable time for Bowie, giving him the attention he needed as well as the encouragement.
It was not an easy road to success for our hero. When one thinks of David Bowie, they should realize that it’s not all on one figure. Bowie is really a collection of things floating in the world—gay culture, the visual arts, avant-garde music, theater—and everyone he worked with became part of his canvas. Pitt supplied him with names and books that were put on the canvas, and the genius of Bowie was how he edited what he wanted and dismissed what he didn’t need for his career/art.
I remember being slightly confused by listening to Bowie’s 1967 debut album, David Bowie (Deram), for the first time in the era of Ziggy Stardust. I had noticed the jump from Hunky Dory to Ziggy, but I wasn’t prepared for the difference of aesthetics and style of the recordings from the Summer of Love 1967, which even then, is so different from the Sgt. Pepper world.
David Bowie and Sgt. Pepper share the same release date. One was a contemporary take on the world (Sgt. Pepper), but Bowie’s album seemed to reflect a previous generation’s issues. It was out of step and out of time, more of the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society (an album I have to imagine Bowie admired) than Magical Mystery Tour.
In other words, Bowie was not under the influence of the Fab Four; rather, he was shaped by Kenneth Pitt, and his age and time. Pitt was, in 1967, 45 years old and very much directing Bowie’s career, but doing so from the experience of an older gentleman of a different time, one who actually lived through the Great Depression and World War II.
Bowie was a post-war figure, but very much influenced by the past, especially Pitt’s social history. Cutting edge to Pitt was Anthony Newley rather than Lou Reed, but still, he acknowledged the new that was coming around the corner. But, like me, he lived in the past for inspiration.
Pitt built Bowie a foundation on which to grow, but he could not complete the job of making him a star. Pitt worked in detail, but it was time for Bowie, with Defries’ assistance, to make a broad paintbrush streak upon the culture at hand. However, without the detailed work by Pitt (and Bowie), there wouldn’t be Ziggy or the Thin White Duke and all the rest of the manifestations we now know and love.
All hail the architect of “David Jones” who turned David into Bowie! We won’t forget Kenneth Pitt.