Roberta Petersen, the influential A&R executive whose ear for the eclectic helped spawn the careers of artists ranging from The Flaming Lips and Jane’s Addiction to Devo and Dire Straits, died early Aug. 15 while under hospice care in Arizona. The industry veteran, who spent more than two decades at Warner Bros. Records, had been suffering from the end stages of dementia. She was 74.
Former Warner Bros. president Lenny Waronker, a friend dating back to the late 1960s, called Petersen the label’s “secret weapon.”
“Her instincts and musical sensibility — all the things that you look for — were over the top,” Waronker tells Billboard. “She was strong and she made you do things that we might not normally do. Often when I was struggling with a project, I’d go to her and tell her situations and she’d straighten things out.”
Music ran in the family for the Santa Cruz, California, native, whose late husband, John Petersen, played drums in the 1960s baroque pop band Harpers Bizarre alongside her older brother, Ted Templeman, who later established himself as a renowned rock producer for his work with Van Halen, Van Morrison, Sammy Hagar and The Doobie Brothers, among many others.
Producing Harpers Bizarre’s four albums for Warner Bros., all released in the late 1960s, was none other than Waronker, then a junior A&R rep at the imprint before being promoted to head of A&R by legendary label boss Mo Ostin. Waronker recalled recording sessions where the then-Roberta Templeman (she and John married in 1969) would be brought in to listen to tracks.
“Roberta’s got good ears,” someone would say.
Based on her track record and natural knack for spotting quality, Waronker and team hired Roberta Petersen to join WBR in 1971, and by 1977 she had risen to GM of A&R. After a brief sojourn away from the label during the early 1980s, she returned in 1985 and three years later was elevated to vp and GM, A&R.
Commenting at the time of her late-1980s promotion, then-vp A&R Michael Ostin said Petersen had “been a valued part of the Warner Bros. family for 20 years and during that time has played an integral part in discovering and shaping some of our most significant music.”
True, by the time of her title bump in 1988, Petersen had signed, developed and/or worked closely with an eclectic array of now-iconic acts for WBR or its subsidiaries, including Devo, k.d. lang, Dire Straits and Faith No More.
“Hers was a passionate voice for us as new signings to Warners and a staunch ally for years afterwards,” Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler tells Billboard.
In 1987, she was put in charge of harnessing the hype of four young lads from Los Angeles, Jane’s Addiction. And in 1990, a tip from Petersen’s intern hipped her to Oklahoma City psych-rockers the Flaming Lips, who, after hearing of her interest in traveling halfway across the country to see them live, quickly put together a club gig in nearby Norman, Oklahoma.
“It was the most incredible show,” Petersen told Jim DeRogatis for his book about the band, Staring At Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips. “I was mesmerized, I really, truly was, and then they did this thing where they set something on fire. That didn’t work for me — I thought the place was going to burn down — but I also thought, ‘This is a band I’ve got to have. If there’s a fire, I’m gonna die here, but that’s okay: I just wanna die with this band.”
Petersen’s fervor got the band signed and the intern who brought them to her attention — David Katznelson — was hired on full time and assigned to the group as their A&R.
“Roberta was one of the purest, no bullshit people I have ever run into,” says Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne. “Maybe that’s why, as the music business became more and more uncertain, her great intuition and honesty was not valuable to the big corporations she tried to work under. But for us, for The Flaming Lips, she was like a Schindler’s List-type of savior. She loved and encouraged us and believed in us at a very very crucial time in our life. We owe her, along with her great understudy David Katznelson, our whole life.”
With Petersen as his mentor, Katznelson went on to sign Mudhoney, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Boredoms and the Texas Tornados — the Tejano supergroup featuring Doug Sahm, Flaco Jiménez, Freddy Fender and Augie Meyers.
“Roberta was one of a kind… one of the first great female A&R executives, and a phenomenal record person whose relationship with her artists reflected the highest standards that Warner Bros. Records held itself to during her tenure,” Katznelson tells Billboard. “She was an amazing mentor and friend.”
Petersen’s other signings during the first half of the 1990s included BoDeans, Loreena McKennitt and power-pop icons Cheap Trick ahead of their 12th studio album Woke Up With a Monster (produced by her brother Ted).
In 1995, Petersen joined Geffen Records in the then-newly created post of senior director A&R and administration. She departed just two years later, but during that brief tenure the label released such notable commercial hits as Beck’s Odelay and Counting Crows’ Recovering the Satellites, as well as critical favorites like Weezer’s Pinkerton and Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac.
Petersen’s departure from Geffen also signaled the end of her career in the music business. She traded the bustle of L.A. for a quieter life in Twain Harte, California, about two and half hours east of San Francisco, where she engaged in her own artistic pursuits. In 2007, she lost John, her husband of 38 years.
Petersen is survived by her brother, Ted Templeman, and extended family.