Ray Cooper, the pop executive who signed Spice Girls: From a Sheffield childhood to the top of the music industry

Ray Cooper.
Ray Cooper.

When friends of the late Sheffield-born music executive Ray Cooper gather on Monday in London for an event to celebrate his memory, they will pay tribute to a man who helped to bring some of pop's most successful acts to listeners - Spice Girls, Massive Attack, Chemical Brothers and The Verve among them.

Ray, who died aged 69, rose from his schooldays at High Storrs and a job delivering LPs from a record company warehouse to the heights of being appointed joint president of Virgin's American division, a position that made him one of the most powerful and richest men in the industry.

But despite his wealth and LA lifestyle, Owls supporter Ray never forgot his roots, says his friend Martin Lewis.

"He was always talking about Sheffield and I knew any time he visited England he would go," says Martin, the co-creator of The Secret Policeman's Ball fundraising concerts. "His connection was deep. It struck me as rather typical of him."

Ray, he says, was invited to a party hosted by Virgin chief Richard Branson in 1981. Martin went too and took the comedian Alexei Sayle, who he was managing, while his pal's instinct was to ask 'his two oldest mates from Sheffield'.

"Not to take somebody to impress, or somebody else from the music business who would say 'Wow, Ray's on the big social register now'. They were the people closest to him, that he wanted with him."   

Ray Cooper with Mick Jagger.

Ray Cooper with Mick Jagger.

Ray was born in 1948 with his twin sister, Pam. Their father, Jack Cooper, was a bookkeeper while their mother, Gladys, was a dance teacher. The Coopers lived on Thompson Road, Hunters Bar – Ray and Pam went to Hunters Bar Infant and Junior School, then the family moved to Carterknowle Avenue, Ecclesall, when the twins were 10.  

A music fanatic, Ray soon earned the nickname Rockin' Raymond - a bright boy, he passed his 11-plus to attend High Storrs Grammar and left with three O-levels, initially going into engineering as a commercial trainee at TW Ward in Attercliffe. However, pop's lure proved too strong and by the early 1970s he had moved to the capital.

"He left home to pursue a job in the music industry in London," says Pam. "He was so knowledgeable and read the NME avidly. It was brilliant that he successfully pursued his love and passion throughout his life, and he was prepared to go anywhere that passion took him."  

Ray worked in the warehouse at folk specialist Transatlantic Records, moving into sales somewhat by default as he had a driving licence and was able to take discs to the shops.

Ray Cooper with Victoria Beckham in the 1990s.

Ray Cooper with Victoria Beckham in the 1990s.

"He originally just needed rent money," says Martin, who met Ray as he was also working at Transatlantic at the time. "The idea of being in the music world interested him because he loved music, but it wasn't like he thought 'One day I could run a record company'. That wasn't the motivation at all."

Martin 'immediately took a shine to him'.  "He had such a goofy and enjoyable approach to life. There was no career ambition in Ray at all. He rose through the ranks, I think it was fortuitous." 

Candidly, Ray later described his younger self as 'a pot-smoking, wild-eyed, lazy, dole-addicted, relatively useless member of some hippy society'.  

His salesmanship was encouraged by Transatlantic's boss. "He could see Ray's geniality was very authentic," says Martin. "He became very effective at it."

He left in 1977 and went on to bigger labels: Anchor, Jet - promoting ELO - and then Island, where he teamed up with colleague Ashley Newton and turned U2 into a stadium-worthy band.

In 1988 he and Ashley left to form their own company, Circa Records, handling releases by Neneh Cherry and Massive Attack. In England, Circa had a distribution deal with Virgin, who were impressed enough to buy Ray and Ashley's business. Branson's organisation installed the pair as deputy managing directors, then MDs.

"Virgin just became huge," says Martin. Notably, Ray was instrumental in signing Spice Girls, winning a bidding war against other leading labels and securing massive sales for his company.

"Spice Girls was unashamedly a pop act," Martin says. "He didn't have a snobbish attitude about it, he said 'It's fun - that's part of our job'."  

In 1997 he was asked to take over at Virgin in America. "To import the executives from Britain to run an American label was virtually unheard of," says Martin. "That was how highly thought of Ray and Ashley were."

Spice Girls' initial time at the top was short-lived, but huge artists like The Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson and Daft Punk kept Ray more than occupied. He operated when physical sales of music were at their peak, but he anticipated the changes the internet would bring, and left Virgin in 2002.

"Downloading was having an impact and CD sales were on the slide," says Martin. "Streaming was not on the horizon at that point. He was philosophical about it."

Ray got involved in management - the Polyphonic Spree was one of his clients - and virtual reality technology with Magic Leap.

"He was always looking forwards," Martin says.

Several years ago Ray was diagnosed with a rare neurological condition, primary progressive aphasia, which affects speech and memory. He decided to move back from America, and was in Britain looking for a house when he contracted an infection that caused his death in July.

"It was so sad about his dementia and could so easily have affected me as his twin," says Pam. "His humour was good, and his genuine, straightforward personality special. Our paths didn't cross regularly because of his job, and living in America, but we had more contact when he retired."

He leaves his partner, Philippa Hubsch, and two children. The event in London on Monday follows a similar celebration in Los Angeles; a short film about his life by Sheffield-based director Eve Wood has been specially made. 

"I'm expecting there will be a few named people coming," says Martin. "December is the month that would have been his 70th birthday."

Donations are being collected for the Dementia Research Fund, run by the National Brain Appeal. Visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/raycooperman for details.