IT WAS THE PHONE CALLS that confirmed it: Glenn Wheatley was a believer.
A manager who put everything into the careers of his artists – in the case of his biggest, and his favourite, John Farnham, literally everything: mortgaging his home to finance Whispering Jack – Wheatley didn’t just hope you’d like his newest signing.
The phone call would come, inviting you to come down to the gig, or encouraging you to take a listen to the single, his soft voice and slight stutter in his enthusiasm not pushy but eager. If he ran into you at an event, he would check if you’d heard or seen the most recent release, his eyes lighting up. This one was good, this one was special, this one was going to go somewhere.
He wouldn’t necessarily remember your name, but his pitch would be insistent. You wouldn’t necessarily share his high opinion, but his history would suggest there was a reasonable chance he was right and you were wrong.
And this was just for your journalists, your professional hangers-on and enablers. His persuasiveness up close – and Wheatley worked best up close – was even more impressive in the offices and meeting rooms, the back stage holding areas and the TV Green Rooms, and the home of then-13-year-old Delta Goodrem after he heard her demo tape.
Dead this week at the age of 74, Wheatley had a career spanning six decades, at least three fields (musician, manager, media mogul), a financial scandal and jail, the creation of FM music radio in Australia, labels and venues, and the launch of some of the biggest names in local pop music. That’s no small beer, and it didn’t happen by chance.
While the backing of Farnham when most in the industry thought he was a washed-up former teen idol heading to the RSL circuit, and his discovery of Goodrem when she was but a highly talented, highly ambitious teenager soon to have a minor presence in a TV soap, are the headlines now, the sure things that everyone can see, it wasn’t really like that.
(Glenn Wheatley and client/close friend, John Farnham)
It wasn’t just that no one wanted to release or play John Farnham by the 1980s, no one wanted to manage him. Or at least manage him the way the singer wanted: taking him seriously, taking him past the novelty songs history. Indeed, taking him past the fill-in, the big-voiced bloke who was a surprise choice to replace his old friend Glenn Shorrock in the internationally successful Little River Band.
That had been Wheatley’s idea too, a manager killing two musical birds with one stone. LRB, who Wheatley had taken from a band put together from successful-only-in-Australia outfits (Mississippi, The Twilights/Axiom) into the first Australian band to have sustained success in the USA and a million-selling album in 1978, sacked Shorrock in 1982. They needed a singer; Farnham, needed a gig – manager to both Wheatley saw the possibilities.
It didn’t really work out, but just as he had with LRB in 1975, Wheatley believed in Farnham and was prepared to do whatever it took to make the record that would show everyone what he was capable of. Whispering Jack did pretty well you’d have to say: spending half a year at number one, selling nearly two million copies, here and in Europe, making the mullet the signature look of a certain type of man.
A decade later he saw the possibilities in Goodrem when others doubted, and repeated the success. She’s done all right for herself since, and who knows where Goodrem might have gone (say, beyond judging television talent shows, for a start) if she hadn’t ditched him as her manager soon after her debut album went platinum.
Even if you don’t own a single Farnham, Goodrem or Little River Band album, if you’ve ever listened to music on the radio, the chances are Glenn Wheatley has bumped into your life in several significant ways.
By 1980 AM radio had dominated pop music in Australia for two decades, its demands and quirks, its prejudices and exclusions shaping the local industry. Having watched the way more adult-oriented, album-focused, rock-friendly FM radio had transformed the landscape in the USA in the 1970s, Wheatley was part of a consortium which established the first music-based commercial FM radio station in Australia, EON FM.
That station, soon changed to Triple M – along the way ditching the album focus and looking to the rock end of the Top 40 – became the cornerstone of a network which became integral to the success of the dominant strain Australian rock in the ‘80s and ‘90s, which in turn sustained the stations’ playlists. And still does.
Blokes and beers ruled the pubs, ruled the charts and ruled the airwaves. And it’s not that big a stretch to say that Triple M, by eventually showing all the limitations of blokes and beers as a basis for a music culture, helped define by opposition the ABC’s Triple J, which had moved to FM in the same year, and carved out an alternative sound, style and culture. And still does.
(Gaynor and Glenn Wheatley)
Mention should be made of Wheatley’s wife, Gaynor, who was the powerhouse, the repository of memories, and the smoother public presence of the Wheatley enterprises, even as she stayed far in the background. They were a rock-solid partnership with complementary skills and parallel drives, and in the latter third of his career, she was invaluable.
Mention too should be made of the fact that Wheatley wasn’t just a money man or dealmaker; he was genuinely a music man, the bass player in one of the great Australian bands of the 1960s, The Master’s Apprentices.
He wasn’t the singer or the songwriter, but he did eventually become their manager, and finessed it so at a time when Australian acts couldn’t get a phone call returned in the UK, the band relocated to London to record two of the finest albums of that period.
How? He had skills, sure, but first of all he was a believer.
A version of this story was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald.