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Freddy Bannister, trailblazing rock promoter who set up concerts at Knebworth by bands such as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin – obituary

Freddy Bannister, right, at Knebworth
Freddy Bannister, right, at Knebworth

Freddy Bannister, who has died aged 84, was a pioneer of the modern music festival; he was the mastermind behind the Bath Festival of Blues in 1969, and inaugurated the regular festivals at Knebworth House that have earned it the sobriquet “the stately home of rock”.

Bannister’s festival in Bath inspired Michael Eavis to create his own version at Glastonbury, while the Knebworth festivals proved an enduring success. Bannister organised the first seven festivals at Knebworth, between 1974 and 1979, with memorable sets from the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel, Roy Harper and dozens of other artists.

Bannister’s trailblazing work as a festival promoter was not always remunerative. At a meeting to secure an appearance by Nick Cave at Knebworth, he was denounced by Cave’s manager, Jake Riviera, as a capitalist exploiter of musicians and their fans; Bannister stopped the designer-clad Riviera’s diatribe in mid-flow by lifting his right foot and showing him the large hole in the sole of his shoe.

He took with good grace the music press’s sneers about the soullessness of large-scale festivals, but despaired at the tendency of journalists to overestimate attendance numbers at Knebworth, which led to accusations that he was underpaying the musicians.

After the Stones played Knebworth in 1976, he was summoned to a meeting with their management, who accused him of lying about the true extent of the ticket sales. After being informed that “Keith Richards has some very heavy friends, some of whom have been known to carry knives,” Bannister withdrew a gardening knife that he happened to have in his pocket, stuck it into the table, and growled, “do you mean like this?” By Bannister’s account, the Stones’ manager, Peter Rudge, ran away and locked himself in a lavatory.

It was an uncharacteristic gesture from the genial Bannister. Bald and unflamboyant, he fitted few people’s idea of a festival promoter. When he attended meetings accompanied by his solicitor, Bannister, as the more conservative dresser, would initially be assumed to be the lawyer.

Although flaky musicians and their rapacious managers provided plenty of headaches, much of Bannister’s time was consumed by more mundane issues. He had to endure hours of negotiation with busybody councillors or farmers worried that loud music would upset their pigs and cattle.

On one occasion he was summoned to meet Lady Bowes-Lyon, the Queen Mother’s sister-in-law, who asked him to postpone the next Knebworth concert as she had organised an outdoor chamber music recital nearby.

Bannister at Knebworth with a local councillor

He would often miss his favourite bands’ sets while he had to deal with some issue involving security, parking or lavatories. Recalling the start of his festival promotion career, he once observed: “If I had known then what the future held … I think I would have gone out and got myself a proper job.”

After Led Zeppelin headlined his last two Knebworth events, in 1979, their mercurial manager, Peter Grant, threatened Bannister, accusing him of withholding money.

Drained and disillusioned, he decided to leave the music business (“why did we retire so abruptly? In a word, fear”). But he left as a legacy one of the world’s best rock venues and a widely emulated template that has enriched thousands of performers and delighted millions of fans.

Frederick Bannister was born on December 3 1934. His mother, Rose, left the family when Freddy was young, and he was brought up by his father Percival, a Hatton Garden watchmaker. After education at schools in Suffolk and Kent he did National Service with the RAF as a musician.

He went on to be a professional jazz musician, playing with Bill Brunskill and others, and married Wendy, the daughter of the jazz club impresario Steve Duman, in 1960. After one gig, his father-in-law observed: “As a trombonist you would undoubtedly make a better businessman. Why don’t you try promoting?”

He was soon running gigs around the country, working with some of the biggest names early in their careers, and struggling to control their egos. He threw the Walker Brothers out of the Assembly Halls in Worthing after an unsatisfactory set and was nearly beaten up by Ben E King. He once had to break up an onstage fight between the Kinks – Mick Avory hit Dave Davies over the head with a cymbal.

Sometimes his attempts to impose discipline backfired. When the Who played at the Corn Exchange, Bristol, Roger Daltrey tried to bring a girl backstage before the gig in defiance of Bannister’s rules; an overzealous steward hit him so hard that the show nearly had to be cancelled.

Bannister had a long association with the Pavilion in Bath – in 1963 he booked the Beatles to play there – and in 1969 was asked by the Bath Festival Society to organise something that would appeal to a young audience.

The Bath Festival of Blues, compèred by John Peel and featuring Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, caught the zeitgeist during the summer of Woodstock and Bob Dylan’s fabled appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival.

The closest it came to disaster was when the Nice nearly caused the stage to collapse by bringing on a Hammond organ and four burly bagpipers; Bannister sent his biggest stewards underneath the stage to shoulder it.

Bannister with his wife, Wendy, and their daughter, Henrietta

The following year he organised the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music at Shepton Mallet, which was on a much bigger scale but, beset by logistical problems, made a quarter of the money of the previous year’s event.

Bannister eschewed heavy-duty security measures as he felt they spoiled the relaxed ambience, with the result that there were gatecrashers – among them Michael Eavis, who was inspired to organise a similar festival at his farm in Glastonbury later that year. Bannister vowed to concentrate on single-day festivals.

He had more success with the Lincoln Folk Festival in 1971, and continued to promote tours; he brought Frank Zappa to London and was present at the Rainbow Theatre when a disgruntled fan pushed Zappa off the stage, leaving him in a wheelchair for several months. The following year he organised a UK tour for Captain Beefheart and was assaulted by a fan when he tried to stop him from bothering the singer. A tour he organised for AC/DC saw the band followed from town to town by the vice squad because of Angus Young’s habit of dropping his trousers on stage.

After visiting the Renaissance Fair in San Francisco, Bannister decided to look for possible venues for a similar event in the UK. Knebworth House in Hertfordshire, less than 30 miles from London and a striking example of high Victorian architecture, seemed ideal.

David Lytton-Cobbold (now the 2nd Baron Cobbold), who managed the estate on behalf of his father, gave permission for a fair in the grounds. But Bannister, realising that the park happened to be a perfect natural amphitheatre, decided that it would be an ideal venue for a rock concert, and eventually persuaded the Cobbold family to agree.

The first Knebworth festival, known as the “Bucolic Frolic”, was held in July 1974, attracting 60,000 visitors. There were 100,000 at the following year’s festival, which saw Bannister at his most ambitious, organising a Spitfire display to accompany a set by Pink Floyd – although the band, unused to military precision, started late, by which time the display was over.

Bannister had a flair for publicity, and once paid two girls to streak at a cricket match in Hove that was being broadcast by the BBC, bearing sunshades with adverts for Knebworth.

After leaving the music business he worked in property development and ran classic car auctions at Sandown Park. In 2003 he published an entertaining memoir, There Must Be a Better Way, in which he revealed that the best of the hundreds of acts he had seen included Ike and Tina Turner and Roy Orbison, who “gave his all for the sheer joy of the music – an attitude that seems to be rather lacking in the vast majority of current bands.”

Freddy Bannister is survived by his wife and their daughter, Henrietta.

Freddy Bannister, born December 3 1934, died August 11 2019