The London-bred label chief reflects on the influence of his power manager mum Marion and songwriter and composer stepfather Mark London on his earnest commitment to artist development throughout his nearly four decades in the biz.
Starting out as a manager for English new wave act Wang Chung in 1982, Arista Records’ president/CEO David Massey has had a career that includes stints at Epic, Mercury and Island Records. Today, he’s leading the rebooted Arista Records and developing next-gen talents like Stephen Puth (Charlie’s brother), Lithuanian producer Dynoro, Israeli pop artist Dennis Lloyd and Swedish duo Smith & Thell. The London-bred label chief has been entrenched in the business since birth: His mother, Marion Massey, was one of the first leading female artist managers in the industry, repping Scottish pop star Lulu for nearly three decades; his stepfather, Mark London, wrote many of Lulu’s hits, including 1967’s “To Sir With Love,” her first (and only) No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Massey, then 8, followed the track’s chart rise from the family’s Holland Park home as his mom’s “assistant”: “My mom was an incredible manager, with an amazing attention to detail and focus,” says Massey. “It was always about putting the artist first.”
My mother, Marion, discovered Lulu in Glasgow. She came to London to live with us when she was 14 and I was 4, and was very quickly signed by Decca Records. I went everywhere with my mother beginning at the age of 5. I have lots of memories, especially of Lulu’s BBC show, The Lulu Show — anyone who came from the U.S., including Jimi Hendrix, would do it, like the Alan Carr show today. I remember all of those iconic ‘60s moments like Ready Steady Go and being at Top of the Pops with Lulu and meeting my hero of all heroes, David Bowie. He produced her track “The Man Who Sold the World,” which was a big hit for her.
Lulu had a single called “The Boat That I Row” on Epic Records, but in America, radio stations started playing the B-side, “To Sir With Love,” which was highly unusual. It was also the title song of a Sydney Poitier movie of the same name that Lulu was in. I was 8 at the time and stuck at home, as I had appendicitis and had damaged the scar badly. I was running my mother’s phones, and calls kept coming in from Lulu’s lawyer in New York, who gave us the updated Billboard chart positions. It became a complete obsession for me. Every week, it was like, “We’re No. 17,” “We’re No. 10,” and finally, we hit No. 1. We sold 2 million records.
I don’t think any of us dreamt of hitting No. 1. This was the b-side of the single! It was the whole concept of the bullet and the momentum — it was my first true exposure to the Billboard charts. In those days, if you went to No. 1, you got a wooden plaque of the whole Hot 100 chart, and I still have it. It was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with the business. Living with a songwriter as well as a manager had such a profound influence on my career on so many levels. Even on the musical level, voices like Lulu’s — I still love that blue eyed soul. I watched the whole star making process from the beginning. That might be why I’m so drawn to the concept of artist development and the building of artists from discovery to stardom — something that I find myself always coming back to.
For me it’s the most natural thing in the world [to be surrounded by female executives]. My two closest female executive mentors in my career have been the late Polly Anthony [former president, Epic Records] and Michele Anthony [current executive vp, UMG]. Polly was my boss when I was gm at Epic, and Michele brought me to New York to become vp of A&R at Sony back in 1992. It’s all very much a no brainer for someone like me.
A version of this article originally appeared in the May 11 issue of Billboard.