Ray Cooper, former Virgin Records America Co-President with Ashley Newton — given credit for the worldwide success of the Spice Girls — died on Saturday, July 28, in Guildford, Surrey, England. He was 69 and had been suffering from a rare neurological condition, Progressive Primary Aphasia (PPA), which also affected Monty Python’s Terry Jones, causing loss of speech.
Virgin Records founder Richard Branson called him “an extraordinary delightful individual and an incredible talent, Virgin Records would never have grown into the music force it became without him.”
Cooper was originally named to the post with Newton in September 1997, after the departure of Virgin President/CEO Phil Quartararo, who left to join Warner Bros. Records. The two came over from Virgin U.K., which they led to the third-largest music group in Britain.
Cooper was one of the first of a wave of U.K. execs who made their way to the U.S., including current music group chiefs for Universal Music Group (Lucian Grainge), Sony Music (Rob Stringer) and Warner Music Group (Max Lousada).
He started his career in 1972 as a sales rep for Nat Joseph’s eclectic Transatlantic Records, rising through the ranks to become sales manager. In the late ‘70s, he worked for Ian Ralfini’s Anchor Records and then Don Arden’s Jet Records, helping break Electric Light Orchestra worldwide. Cooper became a sales director for Island Records in 1980, then Marketing Director, responsible for a world-class roster that included Bob Marley, U2 and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. It was there he first met and formed a successful working partnership with the label’s A&R Director Ashley Newton.
Capitol Music Group President Ashley Newton praised his longtime partner: “I had the wild good fortune to be both a close friend and business ally with this vibrant, fearless, talented and kind man. Together, across several decades and labels, Ray and I were blessed to be consistently in the orbit of immensely important music – but like everyone around him, I was forever surrendering to his ridiculously sharp and eccentric sense of humor. We literally laughed through the ages and I will miss him more than words can express.”
Cooper and Newton launched Circa Records in the U.K. in 1986, home to the likes of Massive Attack and Neneh Cherry, before the indie label was acquired by Virgin in 1995, adding the two founders as Co-Managing Directors of the U.K. company, where they famously broke the Spice Girls, Daft Punk and the Verve. The two were subsequently named Co-Presidents of the U.S. label by then-EMI Recorded Music head Ken Berry, where they joined his wife Nancy Berry as the ruling troika. With Newton in charge of A&R and Cooper handling marketing, the team took the label to new heights, with hit acts like Janet Jackson, Smashing Pumpkins, Lenny Kravitz, N.E.R.D., the Rolling Stones and David Bowie.
Cooper remained at Virgin Records until 2002, when he formed his own Venice, CA-based management/ consulting company Zama Media Management and worked for the environmental organization Future Forests. He was also part of a team that helped bring the Chinese group the Twelve Girls Band to North America in 2004, and founded D(icon)struct a company that linked artists with Milan designers to develop fashion lines for clients such as Massive Attack.
“Having worked in the industry for nearly three decades, I wanted to continue to learn and evolve,” Cooper told Billboard in 2004. “So the idea of representing talent and creative ideas across environment, music, fashion, new technology, art, film and TV seemed to have a strong thread to it. All of those areas tend to co-exist together in media and marketing and ultimately, hopefully, to the consumer.”
Said veteran publicist Laura Cohen Gutin, who worked with Ray at Virgin: “He was a warm-hearted, whip-smart gentleman with a great sense of humor, who truly cared about the people who worked for him. When I first went indie, he helped connect me with several of my first clients. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from him.”
Ray is survived by partner Philippa, sister Pam, daughter Becky, grandsons James and Jack, step-daughter Liana and son Christopher-Robin.
Celebrations marking what would have been his 70th birthday in December will be held in London and Los Angeles, where he had worked since 1998.
Tributes from the music industry poured in following news of his death.
“I am saddened to hear of the passing of Ray Cooper. Ray’s guidance, support, creative and marketing ideas from the very beginning were invaluable to the success of The Spice Girls. It was obvious to all who spent time with Ray that he was not only a favourite to his team, but also a favourite to artists and their managers. Ray had passion for life and his work and it showed in his many successes. I will be forever grateful to Ray Cooper. Ray – Rest In Peace.” — Victoria Beckham
“When U2 were signed to Island Records in 1980 every label but Island had passed. It was hard to get attention for U2 at first but we had some staunch supporters at Island — including Ray Cooper in Sales and then Marketing. The first two U2 albums, ‘Boy’ and ‘October’ didn’t have much success but ‘War’ went to No 1 in 1983 which became the norm for U2 from then on. Ray was a delight to work with, ingenious and energetic. His subsequent career with his buddy Ashley Newton at their own label Circa and then Virgin was always interesting to observe. Sorry to lose such a smart music man.” — Paul McGuinness, U2 manager (1978-2013)
“I had the wild good fortune to be both a close friend and business ally with this vibrant, fearless, talented and kind man. Together, across several decades and labels, Ray and I were blessed to be consistently in the orbit of immensely important music — but like everyone around him, I was forever surrendering to his ridiculously sharp and eccentric sense of humor.” — Ashley Newton, President of Capitol Music Group
“Ray and I had been friends for many years before we had the opportunity to work together at Virgin. He was a larger-than-life character who lit up a room. He had a passion for music and the artistes he worked with. The years we worked together were very special and I miss him already.” — Paul Conroy, former President Virgin Records UK
“Ray and I first met in 1973 when we worked together at Transatlantic Records. We were babes in the music industry woods. He knew nothing about the business. And I knew even less! We immediately bonded as blood brothers and stayed close over the next 45 years. Over the decades, I watched with pride as my friend grew in skill, smarts, insight, creativity and perseverance until he towered over the industry like a benevolent marketing Colossus. And although he reached the very peak of the music world he still retained his cheeky, cheerful, caring, loving, punning, laughing soul. He was – and will always be – a Ray of eternal sunshine in our lives…” — Martin Lewis, co-creator/producer the “Secret Policeman’s Ball”