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Reading Festival founder Harold Pendleton passes

Harold Pendleton, the legendary British live music business figure, has passed away aged 93. The news was announced by production firm Entec Sound & Light, which Pendleton set up with his wife, Barbara, and Pat Chapman in 1968.

Pendleton, a music journalist, concert promoter, venue owner and festival organiser best known as the founder of Reading Festival and London’s Marquee Club, died on 22 September after a short illness, the company said.

Throughout his 60-year career, Pendleton created platforms to showcase emerging talent, as a promoter, manager, club owner, publisher, festival owner and innovator.

Arriving in London in 1948, Pendleton began a lifelong friendship with renowned jazz musician Chris Barber and was instrumental in establishing the genre as a profession.

“Up until then, the jazz world was populated by enthusiastic amateurs with day jobs,” he once said. “There wasn’t any recognisable business foundation but I could see there was a lot of potential for the better musicians to forge a genuine career out of their talent.”

Throughout the 1950s, he successfully fought cliques and prejudice to bring jazz music into the mainstream. His drive and organising talent saw him become president of the National Jazz Federation (which he shortened to NJF), manage the Chris Barber Jazz Band to worldwide success, and promote a legendary series of concerts at the Royal Festival Hall.

Working in partnership with Barber, he also fought to bring American blues greats including Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to the UK for the first time.

By 1958, Pendleton had launched the Jazz News publication and was promoting around 200 concerts a year for the NJF.

MMarquee club entrance, 1980

Marquee club entrance, 1980

Looking for a new regular London venue for NJF events, Pendleton seized the opportunity to host jazz nights in the basement of the Academy Cinema at 165 Oxford Street. The Marquee Club was born here on 19 April 1958, with the first ‘Jazz at the Marquee’ event.

Sandwiched between the traditional jazz-focused 100 Club and the Flamingo, the modern jazz equivalent, Pendleton decided to break through this “musical apartheid” and embrace all musical styles.

The Marquee’s status amongst rock audiences, however, owes much to its relocation in March 1964 to Wardour Street, where The Yardbirds recorded their début album on the opening night and The Who began their career-defining Tuesday night ‘Maximum R&B’ residency.

Over the following 10 years, the club would host era-defining events including some of the earliest performances by Pink Floyd, Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, Rod Stewart and Yes, and TV specials by the Stones and the Faces. It was also here that David Jones appeared as David Bowie for the first time and, in 1973, gave his final ‘Ziggy Stardust’ performance.

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the Marquee continued to adapt and reflect in-vogue styles, and also host a number of special appearances and famous ‘secret’ gigs by Marillion, Genesis, The Jam and many others. The Sex Pistols were banned on their Marquee début, their first gig at an established music venue, and R.E.M., Metallica and Guns N’Roses all played their first UK/European gigs at the club. In 1985, Wham! chose the Marquee as the location for their ‘I’m Your Man’ pop video.

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones are shown during their farewell performance at London’s Marquee Club, Wardour Street, England, March 26, 1971. The band members are, from left, Mick Jagger, vocals; Mick Taylor, guitar; Keith Richards, guitar; and Charlie Watts, drums. The musician in background is unidentified. (AP Photo)

Outdoor festival innovation

As the music scene expanded in the late 50s with the huge wave of newly-formed touring bands, Pendleton hit upon the idea of bringing many of them together in a festival environment.

He gained his first experience of outdoor events in 1956, when Lord Edward Montegu invited him to organise the UK’s first open-air jazz festival at his estate in Beaulieu, Hampshire. Fired up by its success, Pendleton persuaded the owners of the Richmond Athletic Association to allow him to hold the UK’s first annual National Jazz Festival (NJF) on its grounds on August 26th-27th 1961, with his new wife Barbara looking after the administration.

Using the Marquee Club as a barometer for rising talent, the festival played a crucial role in the support and development of jazz, blues, R&B and rock music in the UK, as well as introducing festival culture to the masses. After five successful years, the festival moved to Windsor where, in 1966, supergroup Cream made their official live début, headlining a bill that also featured Small Faces, The Who, Spencer Davis Group and Bluesology, whose pianist and singer was Reg Dwight – the embryonic Elton John.

Two years later, Kempton Park Racecourse in Sunbury saw psychedelia begin to divide into folk, heavy blues and progressive rock. For this 1968 edition of the festival, Pat Chapman, who had been lighting events under the name of Crab Nebula Lights, approached Harold with the suggestion of using his services to lend a new, exciting edge to the festival stage. Pendleton set Chapman up with a workshop in the Marquee Club’s basement that became the basis of a new business: Entertainment Technicians Ltd, later abbreviated as Entec, the UK’s oldest sound and lighting production company.

The festival eventually settled at the classic Richfield Avenue site in Reading in 1971, when the line-up included Arthur Brown, Lindisfarne, Wishbone Ash, Rory Gallagher and a relatively new act called Genesis. Soon, the National Jazz, Blues & Rock Festival became known as ‘Reading Rock’.

As well as attracting the biggest names in the world, Reading was a hub of invention. Behind the scenes, Harold and his festival team were creating new standards such as backstage showers, flushing portable toilets, trackway and security wristbands that were inspired by the NHS hospital patient ID system – aspects that the industry now takes for granted.

FOH Reading Festival, 1982

FOH Reading Festival, 1982

Another innovation was the introduction in 1972 of twin stages. Built side by side, this shrewd move enabled the crew to prepare an act on one stage while the other stage was active. “As well as helping us to stay within the curfew, it also prevented the audience from getting bored between each band,” explained Harold, whose festivals were also the first to introduce video screens.

But this was not the only festival to be blessed with the Pendleton touch. When The Police headlined the NJF/Marquee organisation’s first Rock At The Bowl concert at Milton Keynes Bowl in 1980, it was the site’s first major foray into live summer events. In 1982, when Peter Gabriel and the company behind WOMAD faced financial ruin from the high costs of its first festival that July, Harold and Barbara agreed to promote him and the remaining members of Genesis for a single show that rescued the enterprise and made it possible for further WOMAD events to take place, brokering a deal that saw WOMAD find a home in Reading for 18 years.

In 1987, Pendleton sold the Marquee Club to artist manager Billy Gaff, although Entec continued to service the venue when it relocated to Charing Cross Road. Five years later, the Mean Fiddler Group took over sole control at Reading, but not before Harold’s Marquee Group made history with a final festival featuring Nirvana’s legendary 1992 performance – the band’s last in the UK. The world’s longest running rock music festival, it is now 56 years young.

Pendleton’s achievements were celebrated in 2003 when he and Barbara were presented with TPi magazine’s prestigious Lifetime Contribution Award by Paul Jones and Tom McGuinness, former members of Manfred Mann, the band who played the Marquee Club more times than any other act. Chris Barber was also present.

As well as his wife Barbara, Harold Pendleton is survived by son Nick, who continues his father’s legacy as chairman of Entec Sound & Light. Friends, colleagues, and family will gather at his funeral today.

The Pendleton family welcomes donations to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, a charity that was close to Pendleton’s heart.