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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Gudinski, Michael Solomon (1952–2021)

by Alan Howe

from Australian

“You can be the cool dude on the street and the artists’ pal, but if you can’t pay your bills you are a bum.”

Michael Solomon Gudinski uttered those words at the age of 59, by which time he was the pal of plenty of artists and had been paying bills on time for 40 years.

But it is an insight into how he saw what some others sometimes considered his contradictory relationship with music and musicians.

Gudinski wasn’t a musician and didn’t grow up in a household where music was dominant. That music made him wealthy was all his own work. He saw a disjointed, chaotic local music scene — run from back yards and with too many fly-by-nighters who “never had a business plan” — and saw the opportunity.

His life became one of seeking out and signing artists, pushing radio to play their songs, hopefully leading to records that charted strongly, the natural dividend of which was ticket sales. After a shaky start, the bands, the records and the venues became bigger and bigger.

His parents, Nina and Kuba, were Russian Jews who fled to Australia in 1948. By then they had a daughter, Tania, aged four, and four years later, in Melbourne, they had a son, Michael.

The proudly Jewish family was not particularly religious, but they were dedicated to education and, on that score at least, Gudinski let his father down. Tania completed a science degree and Gudinski was sent with high hopes to Mount Scopus, a Jewish school in Melbourne known for excellent results and famed alumni.

Gudinski left after Year 6, refusing to learn Hebrew. From there he went to Melbourne High, a prestigious selective state school for boys. He credited his parents for the education that won him a spot. From Year 9, Melbourne High insists its boys make a year-long commitment to an outside discipline and helpfully provides 30 options including chess, debating, walking, choral music, philosophy, rowing and cycling. Foolishly, Gudinski joined the cadets but, of course, the early mornings, discipline and shined shoes didn’t work out. Promoting bands wasn’t on the list, but by Year 9 that was the outside interest Gudinski adopted. And it quickly took over from school studies.

He left Melbourne High in his final year, which others have described as him “dropping out”. Gudinski’s version of this event was different: “I picked the wrong subjects.”

His love of music had come partly from his sister, whom he described as a “huge musical influence”. She listened to jazz and the 1960s hits of Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross and the Supremes. In 1964 he bought his first record, Roy Orbison’s Oh, Pretty Woman. His first live gig was The Loved Ones in Bourke Street one lunchtime. Many years later he would purchase the band’s publishing, including the songs he saw performed that day: The Loved One, Everlovin’ Man and Sad Dark Eyes.

Lunchtime gigs were common then, as were discotheques, and Melbourne and its suburbs had dozens: Berties, Sebastian’s, Thumpin’ Tum, Garrison, Catcher and Mad Hatter. Melbourne’s live scene was in full swing by 1966 and many a suburban town hall became a rock venue at the weekend.

Bands had to be found to populate them and somebody had to find those bands and promote the shows. Often that man was Bill Joseph. And often in those days, small-budget venues advertised themselves with posters glued to suburban lamp posts. One of those going around in the dead of night illegally plastering these across the city — even on council signs that read Bill Posters Will Be Prosecuted — was young Gudinski.

When he was caught by the police one night it hardly deterred him. He saw it as an initiation into the rigours of the rock ’n’ roll life.

Joseph had started many of these “dances”, as they were still known, and along with legendary Melbourne disc jockey Stan Rolf was perhaps the most influential man in Australian music then. He twice offered Gudinski a position with his outfit, but the younger man was concerned about his parents’ reaction. The third time Joseph asked, he added, “This is the last time I am offering you a job.”

Handily, Gudinski’s parents were on a month-long trip to Israel. Gudinski, within weeks of his final exams, went to work for Joseph, whose roster of talent back then was extraordinary. His company managed what seems like the most significant acts of the era including Australia’s most popular bands The Twilights, The Masters Apprentices, Zoot, The Mixtures and The Valentines, along with John Farnham and Marcie & The Cookies. In 1973, Joseph would go into partnership with Gudinski and Frank Stivala to form Premier Artists.

But that was in the future. When Gudinski’s dad, who ran a building company, returned to Melbourne he was not best pleased. “The minute my father got home, and I’d left school, I was thrown dead straight out of the house … it certainly made me realise that I’d made a serious commitment, and the journey began from there.”

That journey ended on Tuesday. Tributes came from some of the towering rock artists across Australia and around the world, including Bruce Springsteen, Ed Sheeran, Paul Kelly, Jimmy Barnes, Bryan Adams, Kylie Minogue and Stevie Van Zandt.

But Gudinski’s success was never a fait accompli. There were failures and near misses along the way, about which Australian banks are less tolerant than those elsewhere.

The quick-witted Gudinski, not yet 20, saw the business opportunity that wouldn’t become obvious to most others for years, starting with the launch of a rival to Go-Set in 1971 inspired by the success of Rolling Stone magazine. He didn’t necessarily see Planet as simply another music publication, but as a tool to help promote bands he managed and a company he hoped soon to launch, Consolidated Rock Records.

“We were, I guess, hippies and dreamers. We had this bullshit advertising campaign that the people shall have an honest music paper. We were pretty naive and pretty stupid,” he said later.

When Gudinski and business partner Ray Evans launched Mushroom Records in 1972 there was no thought of a cautious toe in the water. It wasn’t the Gudinski style. Instead, already managing some of the bands on the bill they negotiated to record the 1973 Sunbury rock festival and released a lavish three-record set.

During the next 18 months Mushroom released some adventurous music by the likes of Ayers Rock, MacKenzie Theory, Chain’s Matt Taylor and Madder Lake — all solid performers, but not breakthrough stars.

The business is reported to have teetered on the edge of bankruptcy on more than a few occasions and was struggling in 1974 when the label signed an eccentric band with a male lead singer called Shirley and an odd-looking bass player, Greg Macainsh, whose wry observations of Australian suburban life had caught the attention of Daddy Cool’s Ross Wilson, who produced Skyhooks’ first albums.

Living in the 70’s was released at the end of October 1974 and featured songs such as Balwyn Calling, Carlton (Lygon Street Limbo), Toorak Cowboy and Horror Movie. It broke Australian sales records while topping charts for 16 weeks. Nonetheless, Mushroom might not have been quite out of the woods; it was reported the label had to pay upfront to record Skyhooks’ follow-up album, Ego is Not a Dirty Word. It too topped the charts, this time for 11 weeks.

Soon Mushroom had signed another oddball act called Split Enz, which after a quite experimental debut album provided a decade of hits. Countdown host Ian “Molly” Meldrum — a friend for 55 years — would direct artists to Mushroom, hoping that Gudinski might take a chance on them, and knowing that if he did he would support them through the thick and more often thin of the music business.

One such act was the Ferrets, about whom Meldrum had been rabbiting on for some time.

Taking Meldrum’s advice, Mushroom signed the band in 1976 with hopes for an album soon after. It was to be produced by Meldrum, who fussed over the tracks for more than a year.

When Dreams of a Love was finally released it was acclaimed as a musical landmark; and when the single Gudinski chose for release, Don’t Fall in Love — a song on which Meldrum had spent just three hours — went to No 2 on the national charts, it proved them both right. The producer on that Mushroom album is listed as Willie Everfinish.

By the end of the decade Gudinski launched Frontier Touring and brought to Australia overseas acts that had hardly broken at home, including the Police, Madness, Squeeze and Gary Numan, all in his first full year. Frontier would go on to tour some of the world’s biggest acts including Billy Joel, Elton John, Rod Stewart, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, the Eagles, Ed Sheeran and even Frank Sinatra.

But the local signings — dependable local pop acts, and some with an edge, such as Hunters & Collectors, Kids in the Kitchen, and Painters and Dockers — continued, as did so many hit records.

In the 1980s he conquered Britain with an unlikely recruit, Minogue. Gudinski banked that her fame there as part of Neighbours would work on the music charts.

After countless Australian and New Zealand No 1 singles and albums, Gudinski had a chart-topping hit in Britain with Minogue’s I Should Be So Lucky in January 1988. By the end of the decade she had secured three more No 1 UK singles and two No 1 albums.

Soon he was scoring in Britain with other acts such as Peter Andre, Ash and Garbage.

“I’d be lying if I said I thought Kylie Minogue would become what she has when I signed her,” he admitted last year.

Gudinski sold Mushroom Records to News Corp in two tranches starting in 1993, using the funds to expand his music business empire into film and other music-industry pursuits.

He was one of the great promoters of philanthropy in a city famed for it. He organised the Sound Relief concerts of 2009 that raised almost $10m in the wake of the Black Saturday bushfires.

Just four weeks ago Minogue starred in the nationally televised Sounds Better Together concert organised by Gudinski and held at Mallacoota oval, aimed at raising the spirit of the town that was pushed to the edge by last year’s deadly blaze.

On Monday he was working on another concert in aid of Melbourne’s annual Royal Children’s Hospital Good Friday appeal.

But his family — wife Sue and children Kate and Matt — always came first and he was never happier than at his Toorak home with them.

He was made a member of the Order of Australia in the 2006 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Melbourne High’s school motto is a line from lauded 19th-century teacher Edward Thring. “Honour the work and the work will honour you.”

And that’s what Gudinski did.

Original publication

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Citation details

Alan Howe, 'Gudinski, Michael Solomon (1952–2021)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/gudinski-michael-solomon-31564/text39029, accessed 21 September 2021.

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