Don Arden is known as one of the toughest British pop managers of the 1960s and 1970s, handling major acts such as the Small Faces, Electric Light Orchestra, Black Sabbath, and Ozzy Osbourne. Originally a singer and comedian, he abandoned performing for promotion and management in the late '50s, and entered rock by handling Gene Vincent when the rockabilly singer moved to England in the early 1960s. His first British Invasion act was the Nashville Teens, but he found his first major success by working with the Small Faces during their early years.
His management of their affairs engendered considerable controversy, as the group has maintained that he kept them on a 20 pound-per-week wage, a small sum considering that they had huge British hit singles in 1965 and 1966, and were a popular live attraction. In his defense, it has been noted that Arden also paid for comfortable accommodations and plenty of fashionable clothes for the band, luxuries out of the reach of most young adults of their age in England in the mid-'60s. As the group grew more dissatisfied with their financial returns, they got their parents to meet with Arden. Members of the Small Faces have said that Arden distracted the parents by doing his best to convince them that the boys had drug problems.
The debate was still going in 1999, when Arden told MOJO that he was paying their parents money on top of the 20 pounds a week going to each of the Small Faces. In a subsequent letter, Small Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan emphatically stated that the group "never received recording, publishing or songwriting royalties from Don Arden -- in fact, we never received any money from him except the 20 pounds a week we were given as "pocket money." Arden claimed (in Johnny Rogan's Starmakers and Svengalis: The History of British Pop Management) that when he found out Robert Stigwood was interested in the group, he hung Stigwood out a fourth-floor window; McLagan denied that Stigwood ever talked to the band about management, and Arden himself somewhat softened the story in his MOJO interview. If there was any truth in such stories, no doubt they were good training for one of his employees, Peter Grant, who went on to manage Led Zeppelin and also become notorious for strong-arm tactics. In any case, by the end of 1966, the Small Faces were through with Arden, angered when a demo they had sent to him, "My Mind's Eye," was released by Decca as a single (and became a hit) without their consent.
Arden actually did a crooning pop single of "Sunrise, Sunset" for Decca in 1967, but continued with rock management by taking on Amen Corner, Skip Bifferty, and (in their final years) the Move, which in turn led him to Electric Light Orchestra, founded by Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood of the Move. He got into the record business with Jet, ELO's label. Other stories of gangster-like tactics have surfaced, such as Skip Bifferty claiming men with firearms visited them after they had decided to leave Arden, and that he squashed a cigar on early Fleetwood Mac manager Clifford Davis' head after learning that Davis was interested in the Move.
Tougher times awaited Arden in the late '70s and 1980s. ELO declined, and Ozzy Osbourne left him and Jet to be managed by Arden's daughter, Sharon, who had road-managed ELO and become Osbourne's wife. In 1979 he lost his temper on the air while being questioned by the investigative BBC TV show Checkpoint. In the mid-'80s, his son David was imprisoned for blackmail; Don Arden was tried for blackmail and false imprisonment, but declared not guilty.