The local boy made good
JOE ROBERTSON’S story is the typical one of local boy makes good. A former pupil of Blaydon Grammar School, his first job was with Fenwicks department store in Newcastle. Then he was articled to a firm of accountants for two years before landing the job of disc jockey in Newcastle’s Club A Go-Go.
After that he worked for a spell in a jewellers before becoming road manager of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. At the age of 20 he endured possibly the worst three weeks of his career when he joined the Merchant Navy and embarked on a Mediterranean cruise aboard an ocean liner.
“I was making coffee in the first-class passenger lounge. I wasn’t even serving it, just when we got back to Southampton I jumped ship. That was in 1968. It was terrible.”
It was his return to the North-Fast that he got involved in pop promotion. He was the first manager of Lindisfarne and claims the credit for getting them on to the road to international stardom before it was decided they needed a more professional style of management when they hit the big time.
He also managed another big local band of the time, the Junco Partners, and several other North-East pop bands. In about 1972 he decided to try his hand at printing, initially producing pop posters. This led to his really big first venture in the mid-70’s, the production of a large range of decorative art-nouveau mirrors. He built the business up into the biggest of its kind, with 85 per cent, of the mirrors going for export. During this venture, without knowing anything about hairdressing, he opened the first of Newcastle’s Wildes hair salons.
He sold out after just 18 months to his partner, Ray Santola. Meanwhile, the mirror business, which by now had a thriving retail outlet in Shakespeare Street called Dead Mowers, was falling on hard times. It was hit by a dramatic increase in the cost of silver which, for business dependent on the use on silver nitrate, was a crippling blow. It was finally killed off by an equally dramatic devaluation of the pound which sounded the death knell for a business relying almost totally on export.
“We were no longer competitive in foreign markets and it became a lot of work for no money at all,” he says. Joe then took over Newcastle’s renowned Pumphreys specialist coffee shop in Newcastle’s Cloth Market which he initially converted into an upstairs restaurant and downstairs wine bar. Helping was his girlfriend, North-Fast model Sharon Tate.
The wine bar became linked to his next acquisition, Pumphreys cellar wine bar beneath. The success of one wine bar financed the purchase of the next. He opened City Vaults and Brahms and Liszt in the Bigg Market. At a time when traditional pubs were complaining of dwindling trade, his trendy wine bars had queues literally around the block on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. He drew up ambitious plans for the conversion of an old warehouse opposite Newcastle Civic Centre with terraces and French-style piazzas, calling it Sloanes. Then came Legends opposite the city’s Theatre Royal. He promoted his premises in a way previously unknown outside of London.
For example, he helped organise an open-top double-decker bus to take clients from Sloanes to Julies Quayside night club.
Once when his promotions girl was ill, he personally went to businesses in outlying North-East towns to put large posters in their windows, advertising his business. Tess Embleton, manager of Shiners hairsalon at Fellside Road, Whickham, recalls: “This chap parked his BMW on the pavement right outside my salon and walked in with a poster for Sloanes. He held it up to the inside of my window and said: ‘All right if I just stick this here.’ I had never seen him before in my life. I admired his nerve and the poster stayed there for ages.”
Joe Robertson, who became the proud father of a baby daughter five months ago, says he hates personal publicity. “People will probably think I’ve got £2m. in the bank now. But it isn’t like that. It is a business with overheads and lots of staff . . . and it’s a lot of work,” he says.