The driving force behind the UK’s influential Top of the Pops (aka TOTP) TV program during its mid-1960s heyday, Stanley Dorfman relocated to the U.S. where he directed In Concert and made a ton of famous friends, including John and Yoko, Harry Nilsson, Ringo Starr, Randy Newman, Blondie and Keith Moon, among many others. PKM’s Amy Haben recently talked to Stanley Dorfman at his home in the shadows of the Hollywood sign about his adventures at the heart of pop culture.
Thank god for the inventive creators out there in the real world who have, behind the scenes, propelled the musicians we love to stardom. You might not recognize them when they walk down the street, but they were the ones with the foresight and taste to push, promote and encourage the artists we all know can have their heads in the clouds.
Cue Stanley Dorfman: the creator, producer, and director of the U.K.’s long-running, hit rock & roll television show, Top of the Pops. Every up and coming band was eager to land a spot on the beloved ’60s pop culture phenomenon. Back then—as Stanley Dorfman explains—TV sold records in the U.K. while radio sold records in the U.S. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, the Moody Blues, the Hollies, Simon and Garfunkel, the Kinks, the Beach Boys — everyone passed through the BBC doors under Stanley’s request. As the name explains, the group with the hit song that week, would be brought on the show to play. If a song entered the top 10 and the band wasn’t in town (or the U.K, in the case of some American bands), Dorfman filmed local kids dancing to the track for Top of the Pops. Later, they had segments with professional, female dancers.
Dorfman also produced a TV variety show called A Happening For Lulu (1968-69), which featured the straight-laced singer and actress (To Sir, With Love) Lulu, as well as her guests. On one episode, in January 1969, Jimi Hendrix was the guest, leading to a legendary rock & roll moment. Lulu was so straight that her husband, Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees, had to hide his hash stash from her disapproving eyes. Before going on the show, Hendrix and his band got incredibly high, largely because Hendrix was nervous about having to duet with Lulu. The result was Stanley pulling his hair out as the Jimi Hendrix Experience ran way too long on live TV. The talking segment and the duet with Lulu were left completely out while Jimi wailed away on his guitar unaware.
By 1974, Dorfman was living in Los Angeles and directing the In Concert series, produced by Dick Clark. When he came on board, the show’s format highlighted a number of musical acts, but he simplified it to one singer/ songwriter at a time. Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman were early guest stars on the show, a more serious departure from the teen beat madness of Top of the Pops. (It wasn’t always lame before Dorfman got there: The very first In Concert episode, in 1972, featured Alice Cooper and Bo Diddley).
Stanley became close pals with Harry Nilsson, so you know he could handle his alcohol back then. Yoko Ono, another creative weirdo, bonded with Stanley and solicited him to weed through miles of video footage shot by John Lennon. The result was a handful of music videos, one featuring the unreleased track, “Grow Old With Me.” John and Yoko glided around Central Park happily in love in these celluloid images caught during a beautiful period of their relationship. Yoko and John were selective about who they let into their lives, so you know they felt good vibrations radiating off Stanley.
The South African-born Dorfman spent his early years putting on concerts for his jazz musician friends in his native land. He ignored the racist, segregation laws and allowed blacks and whites to mix on stage as well as in the audience, which was unheard of in the 1950s. After receiving a tip that the authorities were hunting him, Stanley escaped political persecution by immediately moving to Europe. Eventually settling in St. Ives, England, he concentrated on painting, joining fellow artists Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson in their studies of abstract and modern art. He found himself most drawn to Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, known for his abstract, geometric style. You can distinctly see the influence in Dorfman’s 1954 painting, Across The Bay, which features hard-edged waves. He received a proper artistic foundation in studio art at Ecole des Beaux Arts and Academie Julian in Paris. Without understanding a lick of French, he made fast friends in Paris while adding prestige to his resume.
What I love is that he’s so casual about knowing and working with all of these fabulous people. I mean this guy become bro’s with David Bowie, and refers to him as, “A very good painter.” The Starman requested the eye of Mr. Dorfman for a few of his music videos, “Heroes” being among them. The two men bonded over their love of painting and Bowie’s affinity for Klimt under the Parisian stars during a month many people would give up their life savings to have experienced.
Multiple turquoise and silver cuff braclets dangled off his wrist while he relaxed in his cozy Los Angeles house which sits seemingly right below the Hollywood sign. His paintings surrounded him from all angles in his bohemian, yet tidily adult living room. He loves watching his favorite comedy series on TV, The Big Bang Theory, and phoning up his longtime girlfriend in New York, Barbara Flood. Miss Flood was a model and actress during the 1960s and 1970s. She even modeled with Peggy Moffitt, sans top. Today, she sells her gorgeous vintage fashions online. My friend Rachel Fleit created a beautiful documentary film called Barbara and Stanley: A Modern Romance, which is how I was introduced to both of these attractive characters.
Stanley chatted with me about his numerous television shows, music videos, artwork, and his long wait for Van Morrison to pay him back.
Stanley Dorfman: I was doing this series called In Concert, which was about songwriting. Graham Nash and the other three (David Crosby, Steven Stills, and Neil Young) were visiting England and there was a musician’s union strike. It was going between the British musicians and the American musicians about what was going on. The Musician’s Union said, “You can only have folk music, you can’t have rock & roll.” Meaning imported to England. So I booked Crosby, Stills, and Nash as a folk act. I did a show with Gram and David Crosby and a single with Neil Young, and a single with Stephen Stills. So I got four shows out of one booking. If you go to Youtube, the only one I’ve found is the Neil Young, type in ‘Neil Young, BBC In Concert.’
PKM: I’ve seen that one before. It’s a classic! Which makes you more proud? Creating Top of the Pops or the In Concert series?
SD: Well, Top of the Pops was exciting. I did that with Tony Stewart. He left after a couple years, but the show went on. The show was taped 52 weeks a year, there was no break. Back then, in the BBC, you were the producer and director, you did both jobs. I did one week and he would do the next, so we would alternate. It was exciting because music in the Sixties is where it all started. There were all these great bands. The Beatles had already been established but the Stones, The Who, the Kinks and the Beach Boys were coming on and it was exciting. My passion was really for singer/ songwriters. The first tv show of singer/ songwriters I made was with Leonard Cohen. He was coming from Greece to England and I pursued him to do a show. I called it Leonard Cohen sings Leonard Cohen. So my boss said this is not a bad idea, let’s do a series of songwriters, but he wanted to go forth with a similar title, as in Randy Newman sings Randy Newman, and so forth. I called it In Concert from an idea I got from the paper announcing songs of Beethoven live in concert at Festival Hall. The first In Concert show was Randy Newman, then Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Cat Stevens… You can find Joni’s and Cat’s on Youtube.
PKM: What years did the Top of the Pops series exist?
SD: Top of the Pops lasted from 1964 to just two years ago. This year they are doing the 50th anniversary concert show. I did the show from 1964 to 1970 and then I executive-produced it for a few more years after that. I started In Concert in 1968 and when I left in 1974, it was over. That was when I came to the States. When Top of the Pops started, it was like a kid’s show. It went on at six o’clock in the evening. It was filmed in the north, in Manchester, at this little church hall. It was only in black and white. When color started, they moved us down to London to a proper studio. It was great. The first show that I remember was that band, Them. You know it?
PKM: Yes, of course.
SD: They were from Northern Ireland and had to take a boat over to do the show. We all went to a pub together after the show. The lead singer…
PKM: Van Morrison.
SD: Yes. He said, “We spent all our money, we can’t get back to Ireland.” So I lent them twenty pounds. At that time, twenty pounds was like two hundred dollars.
PKM: Oh wow!
SD: And he never paid me back…haha! One day I’m going to find him and say, “Where’s my twenty pounds?!”
PKM: Other than that, did you like those guys?
SD: Oh yeah, they were great. There were a lot of British bands like the Hollies, the Spencer Davis Group, and Herman’s Hermits and all those strange bands. At that time in America, radio sold records because there were very few rock & roll television shows. In England, television sold records. Top of the Pops was started like a game show in a way. It dealt with the Top 30 in the charts. The charts were made up of the BBC’s own charts, New Musical Express, and about four other music papers. They were all factored in to figure who was on top. We had a rule that we could only feature bands that were static on the charts or going up. If they fell, they were out. Like if the Beatles fell from number one to number two and they were available to play the show, we’d say, “Sorry, we can’t do it.” We were very strict about that. It was exciting because nobody had heard of these bands before. Rock & roll started in the Sixties in England, where in America, it started in the Fifties.
PKM: Did you only have British bands in the beginning on Top of the Pops or did you fly bands in?
SD: It started with just British bands, but American musicians and managers quickly realized just how important our show was at selling records. We also had a thing called, “Tip for the top” where we would say, “I think the Supremes are going to be at the top of the charts,” and even if they weren’t, we would put them on. We had another thing called, ‘A new release,’ this segment involved established bands like the Rolling Stones, if they had a new release, they would automatically get on to the show. So the Americans said, “Wow, we have to do this show,” and they started coming over. There was another commercial show on the BBC called, Ready, Steady, Go, and we were sort of enemies, you know?
SD: Because if we brought over an act, we wouldn’t tell them they were coming, because we didn’t want them to also book them.
PKM: So you had bands like the Byrds and the Turtles on the show?
SD: Everybody came on. The only one that never did our show was Bob Dylan. I truly can’t think of any other band that didn’t play our show. We had the Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, the Supremes, everyone…
PKM: In the late Seventies, I noticed that they had kids dancing in the audience, did you start that trend?
SD: Yes. We had people dancing from the beginning. The talent coordinator of the show would drop off free tickets to the show to the kids at the local rock clubs. Sometimes, they would send a bunch of free tickets to the nursing residence to get the young nurses in. We began to have a professional dance troupe called Pan’s People. They were six female dancers. When an American band’s record got very big and they weren’t available, we had to play their songs anyway, so we got Pan’s People to dance to it. I remember we had the dance troupe dance to the Beach Boys record one week because we assumed it would be at number one and two days before the show aired, the charts came out and they weren’t, so they had to scrap the whole routine and start over with the top song.
PKM: Top of the Pops and the British music scene in general sort of set the standard. I think most American’s looked to England for what was cool back then and eventually, shows like Soul Train came about on our side of the pond.
SD: Yes, exactly.
PKM: Did you get along with the host of the show?
SD: Well there were four hosts. A guy called Jimmy Saville who was the most popular, he had long, blond hair.
PKM: Yes, who got in trouble in later years.
SD: More than trouble; he was an absolute pervert and nobody knew about it. Then there was David Jacobs, who was very straight, and then two other guys, Pete Murray and I can’t remember the last one but the four of them alternated.
PKM: Did you have input on who hosted?
SD: Yeah, we hired everyone and did it all. Then we had a girl who we called, ‘the record girl’ named Samantha Just and she faked playing records.
PKM: A fake DJ who was cute?
SD: Exactly, a fake DJ. She subsequently married Mickey Dolenz. The Monkees came to visit the show and she disappeared for about two weeks.
PKM: Haha! The show was lip-synced, correct?
SD: In the beginning, it was purely mime only with the singing and music. When it moved to London, the Musician’s Union said we could make our own tracks if we could get the bands to go into the studio and make a track. The musicians would mime to the track and the vocalist would sing live. The Musician’s Union shut their eyes when we had the musicians bring their own tracks. I remember Aretha Franklin played piano when she came in. Incredible pianist and she did that live. For the most part, though, the instruments were mimed.
SD: In all that time, we had very few problems with these kids because they were just getting started in music.
PKM: The ego wasn’t inflated yet.
PKM: Were there any difficult people you had on the show?
SD: Yes. Simon and Garfunkel were coming over from America. We had a really good studio band on the show in London and the director was called Johnny Pearson. The Americans that came over were stunned by the quality of this band. They were just fantastic. So Simon and Grafunkel came one afternoon (long sigh) and they started complaining at the musicians. Eventually I said to them, “If you don’t like the band, you can go home.” They said, “What do you mean?” I said, “We’ve had no complaints with the band with any other Americans that have come over. They all love it. So if you don’t like the band, you don’t have to sing.” We got all these phone calls from the record company and the manager, “The boys are sorry. They were jet-lagged. They didn’t know what to expect. Can they please come back?” So we had them back.
PKM: Haha! It was nice of you to stick up for the house band.
SD: So I got to fire Simon and Garfunkel. Paul Simon, particularly, was really unpleasant.
PKM: I’m surprised they didn’t apologize right away when you threatened to take them off the show because it was such a big opportunity.
SD: They were so astounded. I really wanted them out. The only other unpleasant person was this folk singer, Melanie, who was on In Concert. Her husband was her manager and she was an hour late for rehearsal and she was barefoot and her feet weren’t very clean.
SD: She was an hour late again for the taping of the show. She started singing and her husband was sitting behind me in the booth and started saying, “Do a close up of her face!” He was telling me what to do. I told him to stop doing my job and to go away, but he kept at it. So that’s when I said, “I’m done. You guys can finish the taping, but I’m leaving.” I went to the World Championship Boxing match with Cassius Clay.
PKM: Oh wow, cool.
SD: At the boxing match I met up with my boss, Bill Coffey. He said, “What are you doing here?”
PKM: Haha! Did you get in trouble?
SD: I told him what happened and he said, “It’s okay, let’s have a good time.” It wasn’t a show anymore. I just stopped recording Melanie.
PKM: How was the boxing match?
SD: Cassius Clay won. I can’t remember the name of the British heavyweight that he fought.
PKM: Cool! So let’s go back to the beginning. You are from South Africa?
SD: Yes. I was born there and lived there until I was nineteen and started college. I started architecture, but I realized that I couldn’t deal with the math of it. I went and got a job at an architecture firm to see what that was all about. I didn’t like that so I went back to college and got a scholarship for an arts school in Paris. I lived there for six years and got married during that time.
PKM: So you knew French fluently?
SD: I didn’t know French at all.
There were a lot of Americans in Paris then. This was just after the war, this was 1946. They had the G.I. Bill of Rights, which let veterans go to school for free wherever they wanted. So they swarmed all over Europe.
PKM: Who were your influences back then when you first got into school?
SD: First were the impressionists, Cezanne, and Van Gogh. Later, when I went to England, I lived in a little town called St. Ives, (at the bottom of England) it was a bit of an art colony. I went to work for a wonderful sculptor named Barbara Hepworth. This is 1954. Basically straight-edged things, space… So Mondrian was my big influence.
PKM: You made that painting in 1954?
SD: Yes. More recently, I’ve been doing portraits and getting commissions.
PKM: Did you always draw? Even as a child?
SD: Yes. I went to architecture school because I wanted an artistic job that paid some sort of money. For forty years I didn’t touch a brush, nothing. I started painting once I started to direct. This portrait is one of a news producer on ABC TV in New York. He commissioned that portrait.
PKM: It’s very Picasso-esque.
SD: Very much. This one is Barbara.
PKM: Beautiful. After you went to Paris for Art School, did you go back to South Africa?
SD: My parents wanted to meet my wife and kids, so they sent us tickets to South Africa. When we went there it was still the apartheid days. My wife was half Irish and half French so she had sort of a Latin complexion. Sitting on the boat she got pretty brown and when we arrived in Capetown our child was screaming. The customs said, “We have to see your wife.” I said, “What for?” They made her walk up and down because at that time it was illegal for a white and a black to marry. I thought, “What the fuck are we doing back here?” I was there for a year trying to get money to get out. The system was utterly disgusting. It was 1954 when we left.
PKM: Didn’t you play music there?
SD: I can’t play a tune. I produced a stage show for the African Musician’s Union. Miriam Makeba was a fantastic singer that got out and came here to become successful. We held this great jazz show at the University Hall which became popular, so we moved it to the City Hall. We had a mixed audience, which wasn’t done back then. Blacks had to sit in the back. The police were picking people out of the audience and after that I started getting raided by the police. They would bang on the door saying they were looking for subversive literature. Then I got a phone call where they told me that I had to bring my passport to the police station for perusal. I had a friend who was in the Congress party, he was a friend of Nelson Mandela and a lawyer. He called and told me I had to leave because they had a thing called, ‘the 90-day arrest.’ They could arrest you for 90 days without a trial and at the end of those 90 days, they would do it again, and so on. It would go on like that for years. So I left my wife and kids and went to England. I stayed with another South African friend and went to work for the BBC as a designer. I was trying to make enough money to get my family out. It took a year before I brought them to England.
PKM: Do your children live in England still?
SD: One lives in England and the other in Paris. One is a city planner and the one that lives in Paris is a professor of environmental science. He lives with a girl he met when we were in Saint-Tropez.
PKM: Very logical jobs for them to have since your whole life has been a wave of different creative work. When did you decide to move to Los Angeles?
SD: What happened was Dick Clark came to England. He wanted me to show him some things. So he borrowed me from the BBC because he was starting an American In Concert, but his show had several artists, not just one. He wanted me to direct the first few. So I came over and I was here for six weeks and I enjoyed it. At that time, America was a mess. I was involved in a five-year contract at the BBC, and they wanted me to sign for another five because my contract had come to an end. So I came to Los Angeles in 1974, to see what this place was about.
PKM: Did you make a lot of friends when you first arrived in the U.S.?
SD: I knew a lot of artists. Harry Nilsson was a good friend and little Paul Williams, the songwriter. He wrote songs for the Carpenters and others. Randy Newman became a friend and Guy Parks.
PKM: Was 1974 a crazy time as far as the drug scene?
SD: You’d go to visit with a lawyer and he’d put out a line of coke for you. Another guy I knew, who was also a lawyer, had a round table with a huge bowl of coke with straws around it in the entrance way of his house along with flowers. Just so blatant.
PKM: I heard Tiffany made a gold coke straw back then. Which shows how normal it was.
SD: It was wild. A lot of booze as well.
PKM: Tell me about the music videos that you directed for David Bowie.
SD: I did a big show in Fort Worth, TX for him and his band for a record company. We became friends, so he asked me to come to Paris with him to shoot videos. We had this big studio which was all white everywhere. My friend said they recently made an avatar Bowie and they put it in the video which I had made, which was for the song, “Heroes.” I was blown away. You could see the pores on his skin. It was him. So he’s making a documentary on Bowie and he is asking me to interview the avatar. Haha!
PKM: You worked on Woodstock?
SD: I was one of the directors of the last two Woodstock movies. One in 1994 and 1999. In the last one we had a hologram of Jimi Hendrix. It was absolutely astounding. After that, I did a series with Dusty Springfield and a few other acts. A series in England is six shows. I did a series with Bobbie Gentry. Dusty had Tom Jones, among others. It was a variety show. Lulu performed with Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees on my show. They got married and eventually divorced.
PKM: Did you ever fall in love with any of these performers?
SD: I tried not to. I did a show with Frank Sinatra at the Festival Hall for the BBC. Grace Kelly introduced him. It was a fantastic show and they ran it recently on PBS, Channel 13, but they cut my credit off at the end. So I called and complained and the channel said they received the tape like that. So I called the BBC, but I realized I didn’t know anyone there and they directed me to Lionsgate. I just want to know who is responsible for it and who I can sue. Haha!! They destroyed the show completely with three, ten-minute pledge breaks. Then to cut my credit. I’ll find out.
PKM: You were friends with Ringo?
SD: Yeah, I knew him in London but just as one of the Beatles. But he moved here and he was good friends with Harry Nilsson as I was, so we became close. Keith Moon was a great friend of mine too. He was great until he got too drunk. Keith once drove his Rolls-Royce into his own swimming pool while drunk here in L.A. When he was sober, he was the sweetest man, just so lovely.
PKM: Did you work with Blondie?
SD: On one of their music videos for MTV. I directed the video for the song, “Heart Of Glass.” It was filmed here in L.A. They are lovely as a band and as people too.
SD: In 1968, we had Leonard Cohen on my show In Concert but he was a bit strange and not very friendly. He was much more affable the next time I worked with him when he joined Judy on my variety show series.
PKM: What was the highest rated Top Of The Pops episode you worked on?
SD: That was the John Lennon “Instant Karma” show. My assistant turned to me that day as we were shooting the live show and said, “I wouldn’t get in for a close up on Yoko.” She had this big, maxi pad blindfold over her eyes. Haha! So we kept at a long shot.
PKM: Haha! Did you guys get in trouble for that?
SD: No. I became quite good friends with Yoko when I moved here. John had been an avid home filmmaker with those first black and white home video cameras. He would shoot everything, so she wanted to do an album with five songs and apply John’s footage. We would go to her apartment every day and work on these videos which were great fun. He would shoot her, his kids, and his friends. I think it all ran on MTV. Yoko would read tarot cards every morning to determine how she behaved. So one day it would be, “Hello darling,” with kisses and hugs and the next day she would walk right past you.
SD: She’s very sweet, but strange. I made a music video with their son Sean when he was eight. It was one of Yoko’s songs. Sean was well brought up and she had to do it mostly on her own. I also worked with his brother Julian on a big TV show in Canada once as well. I heard Yoko’s not doing so well. I’ll have to give her a call.
PKM: I heard you and David Bowie have the same taste in art.
SD: Most of all he loved the German painter, Gustav Klimt.
PKM: He’s my favorite too. Did he like Egon Schiele?
SD: Yes. He would try to style his own paintings after those two artists. He was very talented.