Napier-Bell in 1984 when he was at his peak managing Wham!
Many people would have fought tooth and nail to keep hold of a cash-cow star whose career was plainly about to go supernova.
Instead, with a poise that’s been typical of his own stellar career behind the scenes, Simon concluded that being fired was, ironically, one of the best days of his life.
He had already discovered ‘70s glam rock superstars T-Rex and had managed bands like Ultravox, Asia, The Yardbirds and Japan.
He would oversee the later career of Sinead O’Connor. And before turning to management, he had co-written Dusty Springfield’s classic ballad You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.
But George Michael was the biggest talent Simon has been involved with in a career lasting nearly 60 years at the heart of pop music. So why was being fired cause for celebration? “It meant I had my freedom back,” Simon tells the Daily Express.
“When George fired us after Wham! split, Jazz was mortified. He was shattered, but I said to him, ‘This is the best thing that’s happened to us in two years. We won’t get any more stupid calls from George in the middle of the night.’
“When I’d meet George afterwards, he was a much nicer person, because I was meeting him as a friend. George was a very nice person, but managing him was hard work. And I just like freedom.”
George tragically died of heart disease on Christmas Day 2016.
Pop duo Wham! split up in 1986
Simon and Jazz, who himself went on to manage stars including rock bands Snow Patrol and The Verve, had originally been hired by Wham! to extricate them from a previous contract. The pair instigated Wham!’s move to major record company Sony as George and bandmate Andrew Ridgeley became one of the biggest bands of the ‘80s before splitting in 1985 after just two albums.
Andrew famously quit the spotlight soon after, living quietly in Cornwall for decades until surprisingly releasing his autobiography Wham! George And Me in 2020.
Simon believes Andrew felt able to retire from fame because he was less tortured than his bandmate.
Simon explains: “All stars become stars because there’s an emotional deprivation in their life. There’s something or someone missing in their life, so they grow up with a desperate need and desire for affection. They’re the kid who needs to show off, and they find it very difficult to live without that.
“George was no different, but Wham! couldn’t have existed without Andrew. When they met at school, George was a self-described ‘fat kid with bad hair and glasses’. Andrew was the cool one, and that’s what Wham! was.
“They looked like Starsky And Hutch, but Wham! was essentially the real Andrew and the fake Andrew: George trying to be cool like his friend.
“Andrew was able to walk away from fame because he thought it was boring. Which it can be, with everyone coming up to you saying, ‘You’re amazing! Can I have your autograph?’ Stars passionately need that attention.”
Napier-Bell meeting with Ridgeley for the first time in 30 years
At 83, Simon now focuses on writing books and making films about the music industry. His new memoir is an insightful and frequently hilarious series of stories of life at the heart of it all.
His continuing work means Simon is aware of how the modern music business operates. He now lives in Thailand with his husband, Yo Chaijanla. The couple got married in October after 31 years together. This music mogul believes that, among current pop superstars, Ed Sheeran is the only one who shares the same level of dedication George Michael had.
“Ed knows what’s needed to make a song succeed,” Simon explains. “He studies the business, which is exactly what George did. Ed does that over and over again. Like George, Ed assesses the market. Coupled with the same ability to put a song across and sell himself, Ed is fantastic.”
Citing George’s ability to create a successful song, Simon explains how George wrote Wham!’s timeless festive classic Last Christmas. He says: “Last Christmas is my favourite song I worked with as a manager. It’s technically brilliant and incredibly thought-out. It’s got a bit of Kool And The Gang’s Joanna, a bit of Reunited by Peaches And Herb and a bit of The Marvelettes’ Please Mr Postman.
“Genius is borrowing something and making unique art from it. George absorbed every piece of pop music there was and, if you hear those songs, you can hear Last Christmas. Recreating them in such a special way is what made that song so fantastic.”
Despite his fondness for George, Simon admits that, while managing him, he discovered the singer’s steelier side. The singer was famously generous, often giving away thousands of pounds to strangers whose hard luck stories he heard on TV. But he behaved differently with his manager.
Simon recalls: “George wouldn’t even buy me a cup of tea. He bought dinner just once, then called the waiter over and said, ‘I shouldn’t have to pay the bill.’ He was aware artists give their management a percentage, so thought you shouldn’t get anything else.”
Indeed, Sinead O’Connor was the only client ever to buy Simon a Christmas present, when he was managing the Nothing Compares 2U singer in the 2010s. However, Simon instigated legal proceedings against the Irish star in 2015 when she made financial allegations about him on Facebook.
He dismisses their dispute today, saying: “Sinead is the epitome of the complex artist. Sinead only said what all singers say about their manager behind their backs, but stupidly she said it publicly.
“The fact she bought me a Christmas present shows how eccentric Sinead is. Other singers are too sensible to bother. She’s an extremely nice person.”
Initially a film editor, Simon got his break in music through his friend Vicki Wickham, longtime manager of Dusty Springfield. Dusty asked Simon to write English words for the song Lo Che Non Vivo (Senza Te), which the iconic diva had heard while playing at a festival in Italy.
Simon turned it into the anthem You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, but barely wrote another song after.
He insists: “People would always ask me: ‘Why not write another song like that?’ I’d say: ‘Why bother? I’ve already written one. I want to try a new challenge, not repeat myself.’”
Vicki helped Simon get his start in management with The Yardbirds, the cult ‘60s rockers featuring future guitar greats Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck. Simon then transformed Marc Bolan from a cult folk singer into a swaggering glam-rock star in T-Rex, who had a string of hits including Get It On, 20th Century Boy and Ride A White Swan.
Napier-Bell and Sinead O’Connor in Dubai
Simon says of Marc, who died in a car crash in 1977: “Marc decided to be loved by being cute. But he’d snap sometimes and become incredibly angry and bad-tempered, as anyone who didn’t get enough love as a child would snap.
“Like many singers, Marc lost it to cocaine. But Marc was a very clever guy. Had he lived, I think he’d be using his unique voice in a smart, old man’s version of rap.”
Assessing the current state of the music industry, Simon dismisses the idea that streaming services such as Spotify, which are often accused of paying poor royalties, have made it harder for new talent to succeed.
“The constant moan is: ‘Spotify pays 95 percent of its earnings to only five percent of its talent’,” he says. “That’s how every industry works. The royalty rate, if songwriters bothered to work it out, is more than fair, but they have such a sense of entitlement. They forget that the music industry is a lottery.
“I often get people saying: ‘I’ll give you a million pounds if you can make my son a star.’ Much as I’d like a million pounds, I have to tell people: ‘You’ve more chance of making a fortune by buying a million lottery tickets.’”
Simon insists managers are well worth the amounts they earn from musicians’ talent. “Stars have the passion and desperation to succeed, while a good manager rides that talent like a jockey, keeping their life and career organised,” he adds. “If a jockey falls off a horse, the horse stops running – and it’s the same for a singer who doesn’t have a good manager.”
Sour Mouth, Sweet Bottom by Simon Napier-Bell (Unbound, £20) is out now. For free UK delivery, visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832.
Sour Mouth, Sweet Bottom is available now