Giorgio Gomelsky, a rock impresario and record producer who gave the Rolling Stones their first exposure, managed the Yardbirds and went on to champion an eclectic batch of progressive rock groups in the United States, died on Wednesday in the Bronx. He was 81.
The cause was complications of colon cancer, his longtime girlfriend, Janice Daley, said.
Mr. Gomelsky was a pivotal figure in the London music scene of the early 1960s, with an adventurous ear and a flair for promotion that helped some of the greatest talents of the era get their start. As the operator of Crawdaddy, a club in the London suburb of Richmond, he booked the Rolling Stones for their first paid appearances, managed and produced the Yardbirds in their prime, brought the Animals from Newcastle and organized one of the first blues festivals in Britain.
Later in the decade, his Marmalade label recorded innovative artists like the keyboardist Brian Auger, whose group the Trinity, with the singer Julie Driscoll, had a Top 10 hit in Britain with “This Wheel’s on Fire,” a song written by Bob Dylan and Rick Danko, in 1968. He also produced the guitarist John McLaughlin’s first album, “Extrapolation,” and recorded the first demonstration records by the rock band Soft Machine.
In the 1970s he continued to seek out artists at the fringes of rock, like Gong, Henry Cow and the French group Magma, whose lyrics were written in an invented language spoken on the imaginary planet Kobaia.
For years after relocating to New York in 1978, he operated his townhouse in Chelsea as a creative center and performance space for musicians like John Zorn, Richard Hell and the Bad Brains.
“My mission was to innovate, to push envelopes, to get a new thing established, to allow the underdog, the underground, to come forward and up,” he told Richie Unterberger, the author of “Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric Visionaries of ’60s Rock” (2000).
Giorgio Sergio Alessandro Gomelsky was born on Feb. 28, 1934, on a ship traveling from Odessa, Ukraine, to Genoa, Italy. He grew up in Switzerland, where his father, originally from Odessa, practiced medicine.
He was a jazz fan from an early age and a devoted listener of the Voice of America’s jazz broadcasts. While attending the School of Humanity, a progressive private school in Hasliberg Goldern, he bicycled around Europe with friends, listening to jazz in French and German nightclubs.
His mother, the former Eliane Wust, from Monte Carlo, was a hat designer for Claude Saint-Cyr in Paris and was sent to run the company’s shop in London. She sent her son copies of the newspaper Melody Maker, which clued him in to the British jazz scene. With a group of friends, he founded a jazz appreciation society in Locarno and formed a trio in which he played drums.
After completing his military service in the Swiss Air Force, he decided to make a film record of the bubbling British jazz scene. He wangled the financing from an Italian television station, left for London in 1955 and began filming performances by the jazz traditionalist Chris Barber at the Royal Festival Hall. Through his work with the National Jazz Federation, he was given the rights to film the second National Jazz Festival in 1960.
As big-city blues began to catch on in Britain, Mr. Gomelsky became interested in setting up blues nights at small clubs. He found his way to the Station Hotel in Richmond, where the owner agreed to let him present shows on Sunday nights, when business was slow. Mr. Gomelsky named the club BRRB, for British R&B, but soon changed the name to Crawdaddy. The Rolling Stones opened there in February 1963, before a crowd of three, an appearance for which they received the equivalent of one dollar each. Word of mouth led to bigger crowds, and they became the club’s resident act.
“I felt that we needed young people to play this music, in order for it to get to young people and their need to identify with a musical style,” Mr. Gomelsky told Mr. Unterberger. “The Rolling Stones became the breakthrough.”
After Andrew Loog Oldham, a young press agent, snatched the Stones from under Mr. Gomelsky’s nose and began managing them, he booked the Yardbirds. Mr. Gomelsky managed the group and produced their records, through the 1966 hit “Shapes of Things.” It was his idea to record the Yardbirds live for their first album, “Five Live Yardbirds.”
Mr. Gomelsky also gave Eric Clapton, the group’s original lead guitarist, his nickname. Mr. Clapton told The Daily Mail in 2013: “I used light-gauge strings, with a very thin first string, which made it easier to bend the notes, and it was not uncommon, during frenetic bits of playing, for me to break at least one string, While I was changing my strings, the audience would often break into a slow hand clap, inspiring Giorgio to dream up the nickname of Slowhand Clapton.”
Mr. Gomelsky arranged for the Yardbirds to tour Newcastle and, in exchange, brought in the Animals to play what was now a circuit of Crawdaddy clubs, giving that group its first London exposure. He also organized one of Britain’s first blues festivals, in Birmingham, with a list of acts that included the Yardbirds, the Spencer Davis Group and Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men, with Rod Stewart.
By the late 1960s, after his Marmalade label went out of business, Mr. Gomelsky grew restless and disillusioned. “By then the Brits had blown it,” he told The New York Times in 2013. “They had been seduced by the American dream of making a lot of money playing music in incredibly bad conditions like stadiums.”
He pursued his dream of ever more experimental music, played in small clubs, in Paris and then in New York, where, in 1978, he organized the Zu Manifestival, a showcase for emerging progressive artists. At Tramps in the 1980s, he produced “Tonka Wonka Mondays,” where unknowns performed jazz, rock and world music for professional critics, and a house band headed by David Soldier backed up invited jazz avant-gardists.
Mr. Gomelsky’s first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to Ms. Daley, his survivors include two daughters, Alexandra and Donatella; and a son, Sergio.
“I had no presumption, assumption or desire to have a career in the music business,” he told Mr. Unterberger. He added: “I just wanted to prove a point. I was passionately interested in change, and change was needed.”
Correction: January 15, 2016
An earlier version of a picture caption with this obituary referred incorrectly to the photo of Mr. Gomelsky at his rehearsal and performance space in Manhattan. It was taken in 2013; it is not undated.
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