I was saddened to hear of the death last month of Ken Pitt, best known as the manager of David Bowie from 1965 until 1969. Ken and I got to know one another in 1985 when Omnibus Press published a paperback edition of his book Bowie: The Pitt Report, an account of the period when he managed David during which, for a short while, they shared a flat near Manchester Square in central London.
Ken was a courteous and cultured man, a veteran of the music industry who did his best not to sound aggrieved by the fact that David Bowie had abandoned him for the indelicate and far more scheming Tony Defries, or Deep Freeze as we were inclined to call him on Melody Maker in the early seventies. Defries put Bowie on the map but at considerable cost as the two would eventually fall out over money matters in circumstances best described as fraught.
Nevertheless, Bowie had much to thank Ken Pitt for. It was Ken who turned David onto the first album by the Velvet Underground, whose music so influenced his own, and encouraged him to broaden his skills by branching out into acting, theatre and mime. Recognising that David was more than simply a rock’n’roll singer, he booked him to appear on European song festivals and saw nothing wrong when the songs he wrote and recorded leaned more towards mannered ballads than the pop mainstream. Ken was still managing Bowie at the time of his first hit ‘Space Oddity’ in the autumn of 1969 but they parted company soon afterwards.
Born in 1922, Ken was well versed in the machinations of the music industry by the time he encountered Bowie. He first worked in music as a publicist, promoting tours by visiting US jazz and folk performers, including Duke Ellington and Bob Dylan’s earliest UK tours, and he also managed Manfred Mann at the start of their career, along with Crispian St Peters and Goldie & The Gingerbreads.
Having befriended Ken through publishing the re-issue of his book, we stayed in touch and, indeed, for many years I acted as a conduit for him since anyone seeking to find him – usually writers – made me, as his publisher, their first port of call. He lived in Spain for much of the year until he retired to a senior community in Hertfordshire where I knew his phone number and address. Ken swore me to secrecy and, though some of those wanting to interview him – usually TV people or reporters from downmarket tabloid newspapers – were quite indignant when I refused to reveal his contact details, I never betrayed his whereabouts. I would pass on requests, usually by enclosing them in a letter as he eschewed e-mails, and leave it up to him to respond or not. Invariably he didn’t. For many years we exchanged Christmas cards and Ken once told me that from the Let’s Dance era onwards David always sent him a Christmas present, usually a small ceramic ornament.
One interview request to which he did respond was my own when in 2003 Q magazine commissioned me to write about Bowie’s relationship with the press for a DB special edition. Here’s a transcription of the phone conversation we had.
CC: Why is it that David has such a good rapport with the media and knows how to manipulate it so well?
KP: When I started he knew nothing about it. He’s got to take the credit because he had a lot of natural charm. One lady who fell for him was Penny Valentine and also George Tremlett. It got around amongst journalists that he was a very bright boy, a lot of fun to interview.
CC: Did you tutor him in dealing with the media?
KP: He would always listen to me when I was on the phone when I was taking about PR and giving advice to people. Also, he was very nosy… inquisitive, always looking at papers on my desk. That’s how I discovered his Anthony Newley fixation... he saw a poster for Stop The World I Want To Get Off and asked me about it. I certainly gave him advice from the very beginning. He was anxious about what to say. I would tell him exactly what the interviewer’s interests were, and I told him that whatever you do, don’t argue, don’t get into a heated conversation. I never put him up to saying anything that wasn’t true. I told him you’ve got to try to anticipate the interviewer, tell him or her what they want to hear, and adopt a different style according to the different types of media.
CC: Do you think he was ambivalent about telling the truth?
KP: Yes. He certainly wasn’t broke [a reference to an MM interview I did with DB in 1976 in which he said the only reason he was touring was because he needed the money].
CC: How did you feel about him coming out as gay?
KP: I wasn’t at all happy when the ‘I’m Gay’ interview appeared. It wasn’t the kind of thing I would have advised him to do. I had been observing what was going on in San Francisco, how gays were creating comfortable housing out of slums, designing clothes, going into business and flourishing. I could see how the gay scene was changing and I realised it would happen here eventually. And I knew that if the right kind of artist was to talk about this with great sincerity it would break down all the barriers. That’s why we did the interview with Jeremy… a dreadful magazine. I was horrified by the Michael Watts interview [in Melody Maker, January 1972], and the fact that it was repeated in the Evening Standard that night.
CC: How it is that he has managed to maintain such a good relationship with the press.
KP: He’s interesting to talk to and he gives interesting answers to questions. I think the reason why David has managed to maintain a good relationship with the media is his ability to reinvent himself. He’s never boring.
Ken lived to be 96, dying after a short illness.