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Nigel Grainge, Ensign Records Founder and A&R Legend, Dead at 70

Music executive Nigel Grainge, whom Billboard once dubbed "one of the most respected and knowledgeable A&R men in the business," died at home in Santa Monica, Calif. Sunday.

Music executive Nigel Grainge, who Billboard once dubbed “one of the most respected and knowledgeable A&R men in the business,” died at home in Santa Monica, Calif. Sunday. He was 70.  The cause of death was complications from recent surgery, according to a statement issued by his family.

The London-born Grainge, the brother of UMG chairman and CEO Sir Lucian, founded Ensign Records in the 1970s, signing and developing such acts as Sinead O’Connor, The Boomtown RatsThin LizzyThe Waterboys10ccWorld Party. On his personal Facebook page, he amusingly listed his title as “former chief record player” at Ensign.

Most recently he co-founded and was “chief curator” at innovative music discovery startup TunesMap Inc. and also consulted for the HBO series Vinyl.  

Friends and colleagues shocked by his sudden death posted heartfelt comments not just about his love and extensive knowledge of music, but how funny and genuine a man he was. Some noted his complete dedication to Arsenal football club, taping every game and belonging to fan groups on Facebook. One childhood friend revealed he was the lead singer of their “joke teenage dream doo-wop band the Chaleries.”

It was not surprising Grainge made music a lifelong career. His dad, Cecil, owned a record shop in north London and in the early 1950s gave him a 78 RPM record every weekend beginning at age 3. In 1970, he landed his first job in the industry, as a credit control clerk in the accounting department at Phonogram (then known as Phillips Records, which later became Mercury Records). His encyclopedic knowledge of music earned him several promotions.  

In 1973, he was appointed label manager for all U.S. repertoire where he played a key role in the success of U.K. hits “It’s Four in the Morning” by Faron Young and “My Ding-A-Ling” by Chuck Berry.  He would eventually rise to the head of A&R for Phonogram, where he signed Steve Miller Band, 10cc, Eddy Grant, Graham Parker and the Rumour, Clover (featuring Huey Lewis) and Thin Lizzy.

After three years, Grainge created his own label, Ensign — adding “En” for Nigel to the word “signs” — and giving the world Boomtown Rats (led by Bob Geldof), who achieved more than a dozen Top 40 hits in the U.K.; the acclaimed Celtic folk-rock band Waterboys; alt rock band World Party (started by Karl Wallinger after leaving Waterboys), and the Grammy winning Sinéad O’Connor whose cover of the Prince-penned “Nothing Compares 2 U” became a worldwide hit in 1990, spawning album sales of more than 12 million of I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

A special feature on Grainge in the Oct. 3, 1981 issue of Billboard:
A special feature on Nigel Grainge in the Oct. 3, 1981 issue of Billboard.

According to Billboard, of the first 50 singles released by Ensign, more than half of them charted, “a virtually unprecedented success for the U.K. record industry.”  A decade later, Grainge sold Ensign to Chrysalis and set off on his new venture, a publishing company, Dizzy Heights, which was sold to German music company Edel in 2000.  He moved to Los Angeles in 2002, where he served as a consultant to artists, publishers and record companies, lectured about his knowledge of music and the business, and continued to throw on the telly to take in his beloved Arsenal.

He is survived by: two daughters, Heidi and Roxie; a sister, Stephanie Grainge; two brothers, Sir Lucian Grainge and Justin Grainge; and grandson, Jasper.