The gate to this Jewish Cemetery was locked but two smartly dressed Jewish women on the pavement told me the 4-digit code to the lock. I must have looked trustworthy as they said the code they had given me opened the gates to all the Jewish cemeteries in Greater Manchester (Jewish cemeteries are prone to vandalism these days.)
I’d lied when I said I was there to find a soldier’s grave. I was there to find the final resting place of Don Arden (born Harry Levy). He was a highly successful and rich record mogul who looked after the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Air Supply, The Small Faces and Black Sabbath. In later life when he was better known as the dad of Sharon Osbourne, manager of Ozzy Osbourne and television personality.
Though he’d sold Jet Records for $40 million and he died under the Californian sun he lies here in a fairly nondescript cemetery on the outskirts of Salford, Manchester. They didn’t call him Mr Big or the Yiddish Godfather for nothing as he was an aggressive sometimes frightening businessman and employed illegal tactics to get his way. He liked to be the Al-Capone of the music world and carried a gun. In his earlier days he’d broken the arms and legs of bootleggers and drug-pushers.
He started off near where he was born in Cheetham Hill, Manchester. After being demobilised from the Army after World War II he changed his name from Harry Levy and impersonated famous tenors. Aged 28 he became a showbiz agent after realising it would be more profitable.
Though 5 feet seven inches high he head-butted anyone who called him a “little Jew Boy.” His reputation for head-butting, knee-capping and putting loaded guns to temples went before him. When Robert Stigwood tried to snare The Small Faces Don and minders went to Stigwood’s office and reportedly hung Stigwood out of the window to warn him off.
Over the years he was involved with Elkie Brooks, ELO, Lynsey de Paul but one of his huge successes was Black Sabbath. He sacked their singer Ozzy Osbourne and when his daughter Sharon took over his management Don allowed his vicious dogs savaged her resulting in her losing the child she was carrying. Sharon eventually married Ozzy and had no contact with her dad for 20 years. She once threw soup over the woman Don had begun an extramarital relationship with in Hollywood in the early Eighties (leaving Sharon's mother to live alone in England.) She also tried to run over her dad n her car while Ozzy cowered in the passenger seat.
Don enjoyed the self-styled music-business gangster image he omitted but it wasn’t just froth. His own daughter Sharon said, "He's an evil old bastard and I can't wait for him to die." He held loaded guns to people’s heads, got other music managers in headlocks and frightened others to death. A record company which refused his request to release one of his bands mysteriously burnt down one night.
In the seventies and eighties his friends included Cary Grant and Tony Curtis. He made friends with Joe Pagano who was head of one of the five big Mafia families in New York.
He raked in millions moving from promoter to management and mined serious cash. He bought Howard Hughes' former house in Beverly Hills (worth about £40 million in today’s money.) He swung pendulum-like from this mansion and one in Wimbledon. He brought Sam Cooke, Brenda Lee and Little Richard to Britain for the first time. He tried to bring Elvis Presley by holding out the bait of an appearance on behalf of one of the Duke of Edinburgh's charities but the plan faltered when Elvis said he wanted a personal invitation from the Duke himself.
Though materially rich there are some things the coin can’t buy: his wife - a former ballet dancer - died of lung cancer and he’d missed seeing his grandchildren by Sharon growing up (seeing them again when aged 75). A court case finally finished him off as he went too far. He discovered one of his accountants had been stealing from him. He had the man abducted and brought to his home where he beat and tortured him. It led to an Old Bailey court case (he was cleared but his son David was sentenced to two years in prison.)
Years later David let Sharon know their dad was suffering from Alzheimer's disease and they nervously met up and put their angst aside. Eventually the disease tightened its grip and he moved into a nursing home in Los Angeles. His daughter Sharon paid for his care in his latter days and he died in a mental fog. The most feared man in music was dead.
I had the whole cemetery to myself and though Jewish headstone all look similar my eye seemed to just fall on Don’s grave within minutes. Isn’t it odd how some people return to the humble haunts where they were spawned? No matter what feats, fame and fountains of millions are experienced they come full circle and return to the area where it all began. This dude has been born Cheetham Hill nearby, the son of emigre Jews from Russia and Poland. He’d grown up in a house with no electricity, one cold tap and big rats. You’d think he’d want to be buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in California with all the stars but he’s here in a field near a road dotted with industrial buildings.
I placed a pebble on his grave and had a stroll around the place. Few or no pebbles had been left on many of the older graves (no visitors) but many on the more recent ones. There was a monument to the holocaust victims which warranted a hearty salute. Six million Jews murdered mainly due to one man with a dodgy moustache, dodgy gonad and chip on his shoulder. Blimey - six million.
As I was leaving the cemetery a well-suited shiny-booted man in a skull cap appeared at the gate. I thought he was enquiring what I was doing there but he told me he’d got his “knickers in twist” and was “still asleep” and realised he’d just driven to the wrong cemetery. He rushed off. I did too.
Blackley Jewish Cemetery is nearby and I set off to visit it. I’d been there previously to find the grave of a soldier and had to climb over the wall due to a locked gate. I wanted to try the access number the two women had given me - yes, worked. I did a salute at the appropriate grave and left a pebble on it. The cemetery had appeared on the local news as some yobs had smashed up some graves but the grave of the brave dude I visited was untouched.
Many visitors to this one…
Having a stroll around…
At the Holocaust memorial stone…blimey, six million Jews died…