Vicki Wickham: Ready, Vicki, Go!

She’s managed stars from Dusty Springfield to Marc Almond and has just won an award for her lifetime’s work in the music industry. But outside the business Vicki Wickham is hardly known – and that’s the way she likes it, she tells Caroline Sullivan.

“SO I WENT UP to St James’s Palace to collect Dusty’s OBE,” says Vicki Wickham, elegantly amused at the memory, “and they were so disappointed she hadn’t come herself, because they’d all brought their albums to be signed.”

Even the Queen? “No, apparently she doesn’t go to these things. Anyway, they gave me the OBE, whose ribbon was a bit frayed, but I wasn’t expecting this huge plaque along with it. I asked if they had a bag, and the woman went into a cupboard and produced a pristine Fortnum & Mason carrier bag. When I brought it to Dusty in hospital, she died laughing, saying, ‘I can’t believe you brought this in a carrier bag’.”

Wickham sinks back against the chubby cushions of a Soho sofa with a creak of leather trouser and smiles a slow smile. After 37 years in music as a producer, songwriter and manager, she has a thousand such anecdotes involving the most famous names in pop. Her own name, though, is unknown outside the business. Given the lust for self-publicity that afflicts even the lowliest of backroom boys and girls, her reticence is all the more laudable. A woman privy to piquant details about everyone from Dusty Springfield, whom she managed till the singer’s death last spring, to current client Marc Almond, she’s gained the trust of the top stars precisely because of her discretion – even if she can’t resist concluding a story about one troubled popster with the revelation: “But he still lives with his mother, you know”.

Her years as the consummate unsung heroine were recognised last week with a lifetime achievement award at the glittery Music Therapy woman of the year dinner, an event that tries to divert attention from the fact that females still get a laughable deal in the music biz. The gong won’t raise her public profile, but it’s her peers’ acknowledgment of a very considerable career.

Wickham has done things that would make cultural historians sob with excitement. She ticks them off with a poise that makes her the very picture of the glamorous upper-crust lesbian – about which she’s upfront. Announcing early on “I’m gay, by the way”, she qualifies it later with: “But I’ve been a very bad lesbian, because I’m not into the scene at all. I look with horror at gay parades, because it’s always the least attractive people wearing the least clothes, and who ought to be wearing the most clothes.” (For the record, she’s fully-clothed, in lady-executive black.)

In 1962, aged 20 and straight out of a Berkshire boarding school, she produced Ready Steady Go!, the definitive ’60s pop TV show that introduced to the nation everyone from the Beatles to Marvin Gaye. “I didn’t even know who the Beatles were, and I was thrown into producing and writing it. We booked the Rolling Stones because Cathy [McGowan, the iconic presenter] and I thought Brian Jones was the most gorgeous chap we’d ever seen. Instead of saying, ‘Come up for a cup of tea’, we were able to say, ‘Do you want to be on our show?'” Get anywhere with him? “No.” Did she get romantically involved with any other guests? “Yes.” But she’s conveniently forgotten whom.

In 1966 Wickham co-wrote ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’, which Springfield turned into classic last-song-of-the-night angst. Covered many times, it’s financed Wickham’s comfortable life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for the past 20 years and will help pay for her move back to London in the new year. “It’ll make a psychological difference being back here,” she believes, then sighs that Soho isn’t what it used to be, especially now that her beloved Patisserie Valerie no longer boasts the sign, as it did in the ’60s: “We proudly use imitation cream.”

In the early ’70s, inspired by “watching pantos when I was a kid”, she steered her soul protégées Labelle away from girl-group prissiness into a ludicrous Bacofoil-feathers-helmets look that became the template for ’70s disco-wear. “Pat [Labelle] still hasn’t forgiven me,” she muses. She also persuaded them to record ‘Lady Marmalade’, many people’s idea of what ’70s dance singles were all about. And what does she think of All Saints’ recent note-for-note version? “Ooh, definitely wishy-washy.”

“The difficult ones just find me,” she says, referring to her role as manager of Almond, and formerly Morrissey and Holly Johnson. All the queens, then? “Gay men just have an affinity for me. I’m at an age where they feel safe, and they see me as a mother, though it’s horrifying to think I could be someone’s mother. Morrissey is enamoured of the ’60s, so he liked the ethic of a strong woman manager. Marc just liked the fact I’ve been doing it for a while.”

Has her sexuality ever been an impediment? She thinks about it, then shakes her head. “I wasn’t out in the ’60s. I didn’t know what I was, really. Everyone knew I was gay, but we were so unpolitically conscious. Everyone was sleeping with everyone, because this was the first generation of young people living away from home. I was living in Pembridge Villas in Notting Hill and earning seven pounds a week” – she wafts into nostalgia – “and… no, it didn’t make a difference.”

Nor, surprisingly, did being a woman in, yawn, a man’s world. “It was absolutely easy for women to get ahead in music then. Much easier than it is now, I’d say. I never felt like men thought I couldn’t do it. We were all learning on our feet and it didn’t matter what sex you were. I’m more amazed it happened to someone who’s not particularly fantastic-looking and not musical, though I do have musical instincts. I never had any idea what I wanted to do, so I was just in the right place at the right time.” A bit of self-deprecation, but she’s entitled. Although she modestly (disingenuously?) claims never to have thought about writing her autobiography, Wickham is a dazzling example of what can be achieved with a sharp ear and a little black dress of a laugh. Should she ever be summoned to St James’s for an OBE of her own, the palace functionaries will find themselves in distinctly regal company.

© Caroline SullivanThe Guardian, 30 November 1999

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