Nigel Grainge, Ensign Records founder who discovered Sinead O’Connor, dies at 70
It was sheer embarrassment as much as anything that brought Nigel Grainge and Sinead O’Connor together.
The music executive had seen the Irish singer perform several weeks earlier with a band that was so singularly awful that Grainge had trouble putting a finger on what was worse — their songs or their performance. She, however, was interesting.
But when O’Connor later called him up to say she’d left the band and was looking for a record label, Grainge drew a blank.
“Sinead? Sinead? Do I know a Sinead?”
Embarrassed and too much of a gentlemen to react otherwise, Grainge told The Times in 1990 that he arranged for her to get some studio time. The results, and the fame and notoriety that followed, proved again that his gut instincts were as trustworthy as his ears and eyes when it came to spotting talent.
Grainge, one of the industry’s respected executives, died Sunday in Santa Monica of complications from surgery, his family said. He was 70.
In a career that spanned decades, Grainge signed groups such as the Boomtown Rats, Thin Lizzy, the Waterboys, 10cc and the Steve Miller Band and founded the pioneering label Ensign Records, which was home to some of the most adventuresome musical acts in the late 1970s and ’80s.
At the time of his death, he was at work on developing a technology to let listeners access related visual content while listening to a particular song or artist. He’d also recently worked at a consultant on the short-lived HBO series “Vinyl,” created by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger.
“I never knew anyone who loved music as much as Nigel,” said Seymour Stein, a founder of Sire Records who signed artists such as the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Pretenders and Madonna.
Stein said that Grainge, whom he’d known since he was a teen, was able to retain his instincts for “indie” music despite working for a big record label and overseeing a long lineup of successful, chart-topping musicians.
“I was wrong more times than I was right, but right just enough times to be successful,” Stein said. “Nigel was the same.”
Stein said Grainge was inclined to pounce rather than ponder when he spotted someone he liked, which he said is how he was able to outmaneuver Virgin Records and its founder Richard Branson and sign the Boomtown Rats.
Grainge grew up in London and was introduced to music by his father, Cecil, who owned a record shop and would bring home a new disc for his son every weekend.
“I was like a ravenous beast, soaking up records and interviews and record information,” he said in an interview with the Irish magazine Hot Press. “It was the only interest I had, and I was determined to make a living out of it.”
He was so consumed with music that he eventually took a job at Phonogram as a credit control clerk just “so I could get my mitts on some free records.”
Grainge’s knowledge of rock music and innate ability to ferret out talent resulted in his being promoted to overseeing the label’s roster in the U.S. and eventually all of Phonogram’s artists. He later founded Ensign Records.
His instincts and willingness to embrace risk paid dividends. He signed O’Connor based on one ragged performance, signed Thin Lizzy after listening to one demo tape and agreed to meet with Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats based on a hunch and an unusually light calendar.
O’Connor rewarded him with hits such as “Nothing Compares 2 You” and Thin Lizzy with the radio favorite “The Boys are Back in town.” The Boomtown Rats had a run of hit songs, including “I Don’t Like Mondays.”
Ensign was eventually sold to Chrysalis Records and Grainge launched a successful publishing company called Dizzy Heights, which was sold to the German music company Edel in 2000.
Two years later he moved to Santa Monica, where he lived until his death. Friends said his devotion to soccer ran a close second to his interest in music and that he would drag friends to London to watch his favorite team, Arsenal.
His brother, Lucian, is the chairman and chief executive officer of Universal Music Group. Lucian Grainge was knighted last year for his involvement in music and contributions to business in England.
In addition to his brother, Grainge is survived by two daughters, Heidi and Roxie; a sister, Stephanie Grainge; a second brother, Justin; and a grandson, Jasper.
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