UPDATED: Elliot Roberts, who worked as Neil Young’s manager since 1967 in what may be the longest-lasting manager/client relationship in rock ‘n’ roll, died Friday morning at the age of 76, Young’s publicist confirmed to Variety. No immediate cause of death was given.
Roberts was also instrumental in the early career of Joni Mitchell, whom he managed until 1985. Roberts and Mitchell moved to Los Angeles nearly at the same time after meeting on the Greenwich Village folk scene and they both quickly became key figures in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon rock scene.
He was a close associate of David Geffen, whom he met when he was working in the mail room at the William Morris Agency and Geffen was an agent there. The pair formed the Geffen-Roberts Company and Roberts took on the young Joni Mitchell as his first client. He went on to handle David Crosby, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jackson Browne, America and the Eagles, among others, in tandem with Geffen at the Geffen-Roberts Company. They then founded Asylum Records, where they signed friends and clients like the Eagles, Jackson Browne and others.
“Elliot was a funny, brilliant friend and devoted manager,” Graham Nash said on Friday evening. “His life touched many people, and he brought forth the best in people. He was the glue that kept CSNY together in our early years and I will certainly miss him with sadness in my heart.”
After getting out of the label game and going his own way as a manager, Roberts’ Lookout Management took on the careers of artists including Tom Petty, Talking Heads, Yes, Morrissey, Devo, Tracy Chapman, Bad Religion and Spiritualized. But in later years, especially, it was Young with whom Roberts remained joined at the hip in the eyes of the music business.
Roberts also had a hand in shaping the live entertainment scene on West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip: In 1973, with Geffen, Whisky a Go-Go owner Elmer Valentine and Lou Adler of Ode Records, he opened the Sunset showcase the Roxy, with Young as its inaugural attraction.
Roberts became known for his hang-loose L.A. style, and was known as an inveterate pot smoker. In a 2015 Vanity Fair profile of the ‘60s-‘70s Laurel Canyon scene, in which the manager was a major player, fellow manager and musician Peter Asher noted, “Elliot is brilliant. Hippie chaos, but let’s not forget he’s a brilliant chess player.”
“How did I know Elliot was the one? It was obvious. He was a lotta fun,” Young said in his biography, “Shakey,” written by Jimmy McDonough. “As long as I give Elliot good direction, he does what he has to do to protect me … Elliot’s got soul.”
Born Elliot Rabinowitz in the Bronx borough of New York City on Feb. 22, 1943, he was a two-time college dropout who harbored ambitions as an actor, but moved laterally into band management in the mid-‘60s; his tenure steering a group called Robert’s Rules of Order may have led to his name change, which became legal in 1967.
At William Morris in New York, Roberts came under the tutelage of his hustling contemporary Geffen, who had already gotten a leg up on his internal competition by clandestinely opening mail in the agency mailroom.
In “The Operator,” his biography of Geffen, Tom King observed, “Of all the friends Geffen made in the Morris office, Roberts was the one who saw Geffen’s gift most clearly and who recognized that his own talent, matched with Geffen’s, would make a potent combination.”
Roberts’ career as an agent was short-lived; his fate was sealed when he saw Joni Mitchell, then a relatively unknown singer-songwriter from Canada, at the Café au Go Go in New York in 1966.
“I went up to her after the show and said, ‘I’m a young manager and I’d kill to work with you,’” Roberts recalled to Vanity Fair. “She said she was going on tour, and if I wanted to pay my own expenses, I could go with her. I went with her for a month, and after that, she asked me to manage her.”
Mitchell, her manager Roberts and her agent Geffen all soon moved to L.A., where she took up residence in Laurel Canyon, then the city’s booming music community. The young reps were thrust into the hottest scene in the country. A management company built around their connections seemed a natural.
Roberts would later recall, “One night we were going to a birthday party, and I picked David up at his house on Sunset. When we got to the party, he said, ‘Don’t get out of the car for a second.’ He said he’d been thinking that we should partner up and be Geffen-Roberts. I said I didn’t know. And he said, ‘Elliot, don’t be stupid.’”
In short order, Geffen-Roberts was managing the cream of L.A.’s rising rock talent. Most of Roberts’ associations would last for years, and he took a close and critical role in Young’s career. The biggest loss came in a falling out between the partners and the Eagles, who threw in their hand with a brash younger manager in the company, Irving Azoff.
While Roberts was best-known for his work guiding his superstar clients of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he always kept his ear to the ground, and in later years worked with such acts as Tracy Chapman, Mazzy Star and Spiritualized.
He is survived by his sons Jason, Ethan, Matthew and Zackary, and partner Dana Fineman.