Elliot Roberts, who managed the careers of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Tom Petty and many classic-rock legends, died Friday at the age of 76. A cause of death has not been revealed.
“It is with a heavy heart that we can confirm the passing of Elliot Roberts. No further details are available at this time,” a rep for Young wrote in a statement on behalf of Roberts’ Lookout Management. “Roberts, among the most respected and beloved music industry figures of all time, leaves an indelible footprint as a pioneer and leader in the business of artist representation. His uncanny intellect, unmatched, sharp wit, larger-than-life charisma along with his keen understanding of the music industry will remain unparalleled. Truly one of a kind, he will be missed always and by many.”
With his former colleague David Geffen, Roberts was one of the pivotal figures in the rise of the Southern California and Laurel Canyon music scenes of the Sixties and Seventies. Known equally for his business savvy and sense of humor, Roberts landed record deals for Young and Mitchell, co-managed Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, conceived the idea of Petty and the Heartbreakers backing Bob Dylan in the 1980s and helped launch the careers of Tracy Chapman and the Cars.
Young called Roberts “the greatest manager of all time” in a tribute he penned Saturday. “Never one to think of himself, he puts everyone else first. That’s what he did for me for over fifty years of friendship, love and laughter, managing my life, protecting our art in the business of music. That’s what he did,” Young wrote. “When it came to our business, Elliot guided me through every move. We talked every day. Often I would call him multiple times in a day, arguing, discussing, planning and sharing. He was there for me and protected my music with a fierceness.”
“Elliot was a funny, brilliant friend and devoted manager,” Graham Nash said in a statement. “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.”
In a statement to Rolling Stone, Stephen Stills said Roberts was “probably the kindest, gentlest, and far and away the funniest man I ever worked with in Show Business.” “He was also tough as a barbed wire fence, fiercely loyal and keenly observant; guarding the best interests of his clients with uncommon tenacity and skill. But his greatest gift was his soulful, open heart,” Stills wrote.
Roberts was long known as one of the fiercest protectors of his clients. “I think I’m tough,” he told Young biographer Jimmy McDonough in 2002’s Shakey. “Have you ever met a guy in my position who thought he was a pussy? I’m tough, but I’m fair… No, I think I’m way tough, and I don’t think I’m fair at all. Fairness comes into the equation sometimes, but when I deal with Neil for Neil, I don’t care what’s fair — I only care what Neil wants. Not what’s fair.”
The tenacious manager also negotiated Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s massive 1974 stadium tour and, later that decade, reorganized the deal between Petty and the Heartbreakers, giving Petty 50 percent and the other four musicians the remaining amount. “As I told them, this will keep us together; otherwise, this band will not stay together,’” he told Petty biographer Warren Zanes last year. “It was something that, as Tom’s manager, I had to do.”
Born Elliot Rabinowitz on February 25th, 1943, Roberts was raised in the Bronx, ran with gangs and, after flirting with the idea of becoming an athlete given his basketball chops, opted for show business. He wound up in the mail room at the William Morris Agency, where he would meet fellow would-be mover and shaker David Geffen.
After he and Geffen rose up the ladder, Roberts heard a tape of Mitchell and soon became her manager, forming Lookout Management. At Mitchell’s urging, Roberts, then only 23, also began managing Young (following the breakup of Buffalo Springfield) and, soon after, Crosby, Stills & Nash. While trying to land the trio a record deal, Roberts realized he needed someone with more record company contacts. Alongside Geffen, he formed the powerful Geffen-Roberts Company. The management firm soon came to represent not just Mitchell (until 1985) but Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, America and many others. When Geffen started Asylum Records, its acts, including the Eagles and Jackson Browne, were also managed by Geffen-Roberts.
Roberts’ working relationship with Young, which began in 1969 and continued through Roberts’ death, was one of the most enduring artist-manager relationships in rock history. The two often butted heads but remained close and forged a bond that got them through the peaks and valleys of Young’s career. “Because I tend to avoid the confrontations and delivering bad news, I am not good at doing any of that,” Young wrote in his first memoir, Waging Heavy Peace. “Elliot is. He knows how to communicate where I don’t … Just as I wake up every day with a new idea, he wakes up every day with a new approach to solving the problems that arise with the projects I am already immersed in. There are a lot of them. This is our pattern.”
As Roberts told McDonough in Shakey, “I couldn’t write all those great fuckin’ albums for Neil, or have the pain that he has so he could get those emotions out. I can protect him, I can showcase him, I can make sure when it’s special, everyone knows.”