Isaac Burton Tigrett was a Southern Baptist, born in 1947 as the son of Frances and John Burton Tigrett - a Tennessee entrepreneur who befriended people such as financier Sir James Goldsmith and musician Isaac Hayes, and was an advisor to Vice President Al Gore.
John is known in Memphis as the driving force behind the city's distinctively designed civic center, the Pyramid, and had jobs that ranged from bookseller to bus-company executive to investor in patents.
Patents were where he made the family fortune. In the early 1950s he paid $800 for the Glub-Glub duck, a toy that bobs and appears to drink water, and eventually sold 22 million Glub-Glubs. But he was also an inventor as well as a patent investor. When Isaac's brother John Junior cut himself on a wooden playpen, their father created a new playpen out of plastic mesh.
His mother Frances was on the board of the Metropolitan, which later gave him the idea to build opera houses in theatres next to each of the hotels that were part of his House Of Blues chain.
"I have slept through more operas than I've had hot dinners, but I loved dressing up and going to the opera as a kid. I thought the opera house was so cool."
Isaac is thought to have been named after his father's Uncle, a railroad baron, who took young John away from the orphanage he had been placed in when his father left his mother, and took him to live with him.
"I come from an old Southern family, they came over in covered wagons and founded western Tennessee. They were in the plantation, lumber and railroad business. I grew up in a rural area which was 90% black. The first music I ever heard was gospel music."
Isaac attended church three times a week as a child when not travelling the world with his parents, but the only thing that really grabbed his attention was music. His love of music grew and grew, becomming an obsession in the sixties when he discovered heroes like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. But despite this, the sixties were a very sad time for him. In 1962 Isaac's brother Hewitt died at age 11 when there was a ditch collapse at the family's winter home in Arizona. By 1966 Isaac's parents had divorced. John gave Frances all his money except for a $10 000 grubstake, and then moved away to London. He didn't return to live in Memphis again until 1989. Then 1968 Isaac lost his other brother John Junior who died in Mexico. Isaac later gained a brother Harrison Kerr, when his father remarried a lady named Pat in the mid seventies.
"It was a revolutionary period of time back in the 60's, and musicians at that particular time were gods, they weren't entertainers. I was a rabid fan of Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and others who had developed a whole new sound through amplified music and I followed them all over London and the States as a rabid fan just like many others. A new word came on the scene to describe their type of music, because it was so new, so electronic, and they suddenly decided to call it hard rock music."
Isaac used the term describing the music he loved to name the themed restaraunt chain he founded in 1971 with Peter Morton. Isaac's main motivation for the Hard Rock was to meet girls. He was 19 years old when the idea struck him that if he opened a bar, girls would come in and he'd get to meet them. After getting the required money to start his business, he went to Alan Aldridge, a graphic designer for the Beatles, to create The Hard Rock's famed logo.
"The Hard Rock Cafe was about celebrating culture, a pop culture which took the world by storm in the '70s and '80s. Music moves around the world. We opened Hard Rock Cafes, which were as successful in Tokyo or Stockholm or Reykjavik as they were because the culture had become successful everywhere. I guess (laughs) I'm a child of the '60s and I still carry those ideals in a very big way. The '60s created the baby boom market and the music business, and it was all independents, it was part of this wonderful culture that occurred."
"The first time I sat in front of my first crew at the Hard Rock back in 1971, I was the youngest one there. I stuttered then, and these people were looking to me to tell them what to do."
"I spent the first ten years of my career down at the studio, backstage, up at the hotel room, in the bus, down at the record company creating because I was a rabid, incredible fan. Because music is one-dimensional, the idea was to create a three-dimensional forum where music fans could celebrate together and meet girls. The Hard Rock was the only museum where you could pick up girls and drink beer."
Despite the present day view of the Hard Rock of a world wide multi-venue franchise (an idea which Isaac himself hates), the spreading of the company was slow at the start. "The second Hard Rock I opened was 14-15 years after the first." Isaac dislikes the way Hard Rock has been over produced by it's new owners, and isn't too impressed by the many different theme restaraunts springing up all over the world using the exact Hard Rock concept. To him the Hard Rock was popular because it did something new, and those who create fantastic new brands will be those who can see the direction culture is going in, and be the first there.
"Putting things on walls and in cases seems to be the formula everyone wants to follow. There can only be one, Hard Rock is the godfather, Planet Hollywood stretched it, and the others are really stretching it. It's just different memorabilia in the same cases and that doesn't cut it."
He isn't overly impressed with the corporate world which now runs the Hard Rock style businesses, out to make money out of just about anything through crazy merchandising of a popular culture.
"You don't exploit culture, you have to earn the right to represent it and you have to do that everyday!"
In 1973 Isaac was so amazed by a book called The Secret Life Of Plants that he bought the movie rights to this best-seller which explored paranormal phenomena. A few months later he sold the rights to Warner Bros. on the condition that he could accompany the scriptwriters for the forthcoming documentary around the world to observe the penomena described in the book. Eating breakfast one morning in the dining-room of a hotel in northern India while on this trip he heard a voice clearly saying, 'You've come at last; I've been waiting for you.' Turning round, he saw a picture on the wall of Sai Baba, whom he had never heard of and knew nothing about.
Filled with curiosity he travelled immediately to Baba's ashram, and when he arrived realised it was a festival day. 5,000 people were gathered for darshan, but even mixed in among a crowd of so many, Tigrett was noticed by the Master. "He just came right over to me and said, 'You've come at last; I've been waiting for you.' " Baba then 'materialised' vibhuti in Tigrett's hand. "He said, wait here; we have many things that we are going to do together." It would be another 15 years, he said, before Baba spoke to him again.
"I was very cynical and very suspicious. I believe in the inner guru -- following your own heart -- not the outer guru. It had never occurred to me that it would be some sort of outer master that would draw me down the path."
In 1976 when his doubts about Sai Baba were at their greatest Isaac was driving a Porsche Turbo through the Hollywood Hills after a late-night party, came off the road at 80mph and crashed through a barricade into a 200ft gully.
"I had no seatbelt on. At the moment I knew I was going to die I could feel pressure on my shoulders, and I look and, seemingly to me, there is Sai Baba sitting beside me with his arms around me. The car hits the ground and turns more than a dozen times before it lands upright, totally demolished. And there's not a scratch on me. I'm thinking, this can't be true. Was it him? Was it my imagination? Did I call him and somehow create this belief in my mind that he was there?"
The following day Tigrett was in India, "to thank him". He spent three months sitting in darshan, "and he didn't so much as look at me once". It would be another 13 years, he said, before Baba finally summoned him for an interview. "I said, why did I have to wait so long? He said, 'Big ego.' "
Isaac does not believe that Baba is God, being able to descrbe him only as "A total and complete enigma" and would not even describe himself a devotee. "To me, it's as simple as this: whatever it was I experienced changed my life; whatever it was he did kept me on a spiritual path, for which I am ever grateful. And I will never be able to deny that experience; nothing he could do could change that." Nor does he strive, as many do, to understand the Master, saying he gave up trying to do that years ago."I know that he materialises things, because I've seen him do it. And I know he fakes materialisations, because I've him seen him do that too. I don't know why. Maybe it's just a game." Tigrett has been back to the ashram several times, but he has never again been called for interview.
In 1987 Isaac became a father. He had been pusuing Maureen Starkey, the ex-wife of Beatle Ringo Starr, for some years, even giving her three children jobs at the Hard Rock in 1981 so they could learn about business and the value of earning money. Finally Maureen began to return his affections and they eventually married in Monte Carlo on May 27th, 1989 deciding to live both in Los Angeles and Boston. She gave birth to their daughter Augusta King in 1987, and Isaac's friend Dan Ackroyd became the child's godfather. Also in 1987 Isaac became disenchanted with the business side of his Hard Rock dream and decided to sell it.
"And all of a sudden in the late '70s and early '80s, there were dynamic changes. First of all, the independents were bought up by major companies like Time Warner and EMI and MCA. The whole mentality of the culture changed from an entrepreneur's mentality to a corporate one. And two other tragedies occurred. One was that these new owners started making deals with Madison Avenue. Suddenly they started selling products on TV using the great poetry that our generation loved and adored, because musicians were not entertainers in the '60s and '70s. They were gods, cultural heroes, the voice of a whole generation. We had a different type of relationship with them, and they with us. How can you adore this master, this poetry you've loved so much ... inspiring for one minute, and then the next selling cola or toothbrushes or jeans or beer? Then MTV came along and began marketing to 11-19 year olds. And so our whole generation said, 'See you around.' What had been a cutting-edge alternative culture suddenly became a mainstream culture. There wasn't anything more I could do. It was time for me to move on, although I am and will be forever proud of creating the Hard Rock Cafe, since I sold it back in '87 it has become the Friday's of the '90s. It cut off its real life source, which was its association with the music scene."
After selling the Hard Rock Cafe, Isaac retired and moved to India, but his supposed full time retirement ended when he realised "my master (Baba) started prodding me to get back into the world." During meditation he was transported back to his childhood and the spark of an idea which became The House Of Blues was founded.
"The first music I ever heard was gospel music. These images started floating back to me about my roots, and I decided to do something with Southern culture and the blues. Not just blues, but all music that's been influenced by Africa."
In 1994 he opened the House Of Blues club and restraunt chain which has since expanded it's reach into radio, television, a record label, the internet, a book series deal and a hotel chain. It's passive investors include Disney who own 11%, Chemical Bank, billionaire Paul Allen, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Joe Walsh, Carly Simon, Aerosmith, Jim Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd. The club is unique in that it offers a great deal to both it's customers and it's artists, giving to them instead of just using them to make money. This is why the venues showcase such well known, respected musicians and attract so many customers.
"Let's say you went to the House of Blues and then wanted to buy some blues records, so you go over to any Tower Records. You'd say, 'What do I buy?' I don't know. John Lee Hooker has about 15 records on 12 different labels. The other day, I was going to get his new record, but I didn't even know which one to buy. So we want to create a brand that leads people there... If we want to sign an act, we can promise that, 'Not only can we put you in some of the major venues where you can pull a crowd in some of the great cities around the world and build an audience, we can put you on a radio show, a TV show, we can put you on the Internet.' Where can any artist get that promise anywhere else? Our record division knows there's an opening for him in all these other categories. So instead of a guy getting one hit from a situation, you can give him a full menu of opportunities because marketing, distributing and getting things out these days... all the old ways are dying on the vine. It's all about media exposure and giving value for money to people."
Despite this winning formula, critics cursed him because he'd brought blues into mainstream culture, but he insisted he wasn't exploiting it, all he wanted to do was promote it.
"Every musician in the world pays homage to the blues. Any guitar player learns how to play the 12-bar blues. And of the five original American music cultures that we've created this century -- blues, rhythm & blues, jazz, rock 'n roll, and country & western -- blues is the only one that can claim continuous influence on contemporary music since the '40s. Here is a vast influential culture that has always been alternative but remains as powerful as ever. In terms of the blues buying public, it's a cult thing. And, of course, the blues community is so mad at me for messing with their cult."
In an article called "Who Owns The Blues?" in the New York Times, he was even reffered to as the devil, and his business was called the Holocaust Cafe.
"I've been on the Blues Foundation board for years in Memphis. We have fights internally just about what the blues is. It's brutal. It is a cultish thing, I don't think musicians are even part of the cult, it's basically a bunch of record guys and some critics and writers... They don't want to see it change or be opened to the masses. They're pissed off and say, 'Oh, you're ruining the blues clubs. What are you doing?' I said, I'll tell you what I'm doing. I'm creating a clean place where musicians don't have to change in the car. I'm paying them more money. You don't want them to get as much money? Is that what you want? You want them to get less? I'm putting them on the radio, I'm doing things that no one else can do for them. What are you mad about? Because it's getting out of your control? I've had some strong people in the blues community, who have known me all my life, say, 'You can't do that.' I ask, Do what? Turn young people on, turn the masses on to the blues? Why? You want to keep it to yourself, keep it in a little cult thing? No way. This music has to make it through the millennium. It's got to become part of the next century. It's just as important as pop music... I don't mind the criticism. It's really only going to be a handful of very vocal cultists who don't approve of what I'm doing. The people will speak. If people don't like it, the places will close."
Instead of following the Hard Rock route of taking branding into culture through a series of T-shirts and caps, House Of Blues tries to actually create something cultural rather than just use it.
"We created a radio company with CBS radio, and we do numerous radio shows across 250 markets and it's won just about every award it can. We got into the TV production business and our production company produced "Live from the House of Blues" which was, for a music show, well watched. Now there's another venture called Gumbo TV which will be launched out of the HOB Production company shortly. We got into the Internet business, and I saw the amazing potential of broadcasting live music throughout the world. You don't need Murdoch or Eisner, you can broadcast on the Internet. It is unedited publishing, true free rock and we produce today about 5,000 shows a year. I think that's more than any other music or entertainment company in the world. We do live music seven nights a week, on somedays there are two or three acts out of six places, and the idea was to be able to produce those shows live on the net. We started a company called Live Concert Com out of Seattle with Real Audio, and it has become a highly successful Internet company, which is very exciting. We started a record company originally with BMG now Polygram distributes, and I guess they have produced about 40 records to date. So the idea was to get away from what I think is extremely un-cool, which is the T-shirt cap and jacket business and put it on cultural products that were appropriate for the brand."
Isaac's House Of Blues dream was not only about promoting blues, but also about educationg people.
"The great technology boom has been exciting, I mean with the Hard Rock it wasn't available, but every time a song comes on, and I don't care if you're in your car or walking into a store, or over at someone's house. Wherever it is, a song comes on and you go, "what is that?" It's inherent. One of the things we were lucky to do at House of Blues was to program every song into a computer with graphics, photography, with scrolling historical text of the important contributions that artist has made. It worked brilliantly. A song comes on, people glance up and see the album cover and they see the album name and what track it is, then they get a short history of the artist. They come out educated. If you can teach somebody something using technology, that is its proper use. Technology should be used to enhance people's intellect. If you're just using it to plaster sports, games or video clips, it's a mistake. They come to eat. They have a short attention span, about 7-11 seconds a shot."
At the opening of the Los Angeles House Of Blues in 1994, Isaac's wife Maureen suddenly passed out. It was put down to anaemia, but later turned out to be a form of leukemia known as mylodysplasia. In October she was moved to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA where her son Zak to her previous husband, donated bone-marrow, white blood-cells and blood platelets to help her. On December 30 while stood at her bedside along with all her children and her first husband, Isaac lost his wife Maureen who was aged just 47.
In 1996 he proved his ongoing devotion to Sai Baba by selecting the opening date for Chicago's House Of Blues becase it was Baba's birthday, not because it was most convenient for the construction company. "We'll be functioning. There'll just be a lot of unfinished bits and pieces." The club's logo, the Catholic sacred heart symbol, caused great furor but Isaac insisted that Baba, both his spiritual and business advisor, approved his attempt to "bring spirituality to the forefront of culture." During the nineties he also became known as the man who built Baba's hospital when he donated $20 million to build the Sathya Sai Super Speciality Hospital.
"My guru told me, 'Tigrett, your only job is to create a business based on human values. Very simple. Shanti: peace. Prema: love. Sathya: truth. Ahimsa: non-violence. And Dharma: righteousness. These are ancient principles in every religion. Everything that we do has to pass this litmus test. And your job, Tigrett, is to build a business based on those values, to show young people that you can run a business on them and still be successful, because they don't know that." They think they've got to lie, steal, misrepresent the facts, do whatever they have to do to get by, to get that money, that power, that position. And that's not the truth."
Isaac runs his business on five Vedic principles, or human values. Every business decision he makes is guided by his spiritual master who advises him on everything from timing, to selecting locations and employees. But the biggest lesson he's leaned from his business career is simular to that of his father who died in a Washington hotel room in May 1999: never miss a chance to be kind.
"It's only through tolerance and patience and taking the time with people that you really can make positive change."
Isaac was recently described as "A large, barrel-chested man in his early 50s, dressed in an immaculate double-breasted suit, Tigrett has the ostentatious appearance and expansive charm of a theatrical impresario. We met at his London club. Tigrett drank beer and smoked cigarettes; a man, it seemed, firmly grounded in the real world."
"I want to own less. I want to un-know everything I know. That's my dream. And then maybe somebody will give it back, so I can clear my head of everything I know (laughs). All knowledge is poison except divine knowledge. All I do is serve my master. I would not be here if it was not for him, and as long as I please him, I'll be doing this work. And if he told me to stop tomorrow, I would end it. I feel very lucky to have a divine being as a business manager."