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Farewell to Glenn Wheatley: Australia’s rock music maverick

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Glenn Wheatley (left) helped establish John Farnham as an Australian music icon (Screenshot via YouTube)

Glenn Wheatley, a legendary mover and shaker in the Australian music industry for more than 50 years, has died from COVID-19 complications. He was 74.

After playing bass guitar with The Masters Apprentices in the 1960s, Wheatley went on to become one of the greatest managers and talent-spotters the Australian music industry has ever seen — launching and overseeing the careers of Little River Band, John Farnham and Delta Goodrem.

He was born Glenn Dawson Wheatley on 23 January 1948 in Nambour, Queensland and joined The Masters Apprentices in 1968. During his four-year tenure with the group, Wheatley played on the hit songs 'Turn Up Your Radio(1970) and 'Because I Love You' (1971).

While his talents as a bass player were nothing to get excited about, Wheatley was a genius at deciphering contracts and soon realised that the band was getting royally screwed due to bad management decisions and lack of record label support.  

According to Wheatley’s memoir Paper Paradise: Do what you want to do, a key event occurred in 1969 that changed the course of his whole career. The Masters Apprentices were booked to entertain a then-record crowd of 7,000 at the Brisbane Festival Hall and Wheatley knew that fans were paying $5 per ticket.

Although total receipts for the night would have been around $35,000, The Masters Apprentices were on a fixed fee and pocketed a measly $200. The top-billed performer, John Farnham, received about $1,000. This meant the promoters walked away with at least $30,000 without doing much actual work.

Lessons learned from this experience stood Wheatley in good stead when he managed Little River Band in the 1970s and guided them toward constant commercial and chart success in the United States. Under Wheatley’s management, the Australian band sold more than 30 million albums, spawning nine singles that reached the top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. They also achieved a worldwide number one hit with 'Help Is On Its Way' (1977).

In 1986, Wheatley returned to Australia to manage the career of his old friend, John Farnham, who had fallen on hard times and was widely considered to be a “has-been”.

Wheatley famously mortgaged his house to finance Farnham’s solo album Whispering Jack, which was a smash success. The highest-selling album in Australia by an Australian artist at  24 x times platinum – indicating sales of more than 1.68 million – it spent 25 weeks at number one between 1986 and 1987. It was also the first Australian album to be released on compact disc. The lead single on the album, 'You’re the Voice', established Farnham as an Australian music icon.

In later years, Wheatley discovered the then 15-year-old Neighbours' actress Delta Goodrem and nurtured her towards achieving chart and commercial success. Her debut album Innocent Eyes (2003) topped the ARIA Albums Chart for 29 non-consecutive weeks and sold more than four million copies.

In addition to being a highly successful talent manager, Wheatley was also an entrepreneur and led a consortium that founded EON-FM in Melbourne in 1980. It was the first commercial FM radio station in Australia and was sold to Triple J in 1985.

However, being a gambler and a maverick, Wheatley sometimes sailed too close to the wind and was convicted of tax evasion in 2007. He was sentenced to 30 months in gaol but managed to reduce his sentence by informing on his lawyer to 'save his own skin'.

Wheatley told the Court:

“I’m ashamed of what I have done. It was something that I have regretted for a long, long time and I’m ashamed of what I’ve brought on my family, who have had to suffer a lot.”

The tax evasion conviction did not, however, affect Wheatley’s great legacy or the contributions he made to the Australian music industry.

The news of his death was conveyed by Wheatley’s wife of nearly four decades, Gaynor, his son, Tim, along with daughters, Kara and Samantha.

In a family statement, they said:

[Glenn] had an enthusiasm that was unmatched and believed everything was possible. He gave everything to support projects he believed in, whether they were ultimately successful or not... He treated roadies, artists and fans with the same love and respect, and had time for everyone.'

An emotional John Farnham is said to be “beside himself” at the news of the death of his dear friend.

He tweeted:

'Devastating news… there are no words, our hearts are broken.'

Glenn Shorrock, who knew Wheatley since his days with Little River Band in the 1970s, described his lifelong friend as “a great negotiator” and “a great champion of Australian music, both here and, of course, overseas”.

Shorrock added:

“He [Wheatley] thought Australian musicians were getting a raw deal and we did get a raw deal in those days. He fought for better royalty rates and more money for struggling musicians.”

Nine News Entertainment Editor Richard Wilkins said he was “gutted” by the loss of Wheatley.

He added:

“It is not overstating to say that Glenn was one of the founding members of the Australian music industry. He opened the door, really, for other acts like INXS and Air Supply... I don’t think anyone in the Australian music business has had any sleep... Glenn leaves a huge hole...”

Arguably the best tribute came from Kate Ceberano, who tweeted: 

'Glenn the rock-'n-roller, the rascal, the dreamer, the hustler, the optimist, the manager, the visionary. Deepest condolences to the Wheatley family. Glenn the great!'

Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.

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