As a formidable publicist, she has worked closely with a range of big names including Foo Fighters, REM, Elton John, Prince, Elvis Costello and Mark Ronson.
The name is synonymous with the surreal, dizzying phenomenon that was Madonna’s career in the 80s and 90s. She briefly managed Rufus Wainwright, considers Neil Tennant from the pet store her friend, and helped Keith Richards write his memoir.
So when it was announced that Barbara Charone was writing a memoir about her half-century in rock ‘n’ roll, saliva flowed almost immediately.
A few months ago, a British newspaper described the resulting book: Access to all areasas an “explosive storyteller” who had the biggest names in the business shaking in their boots.
“There is some panic – this book will be full of revelations and will certainly get people talking,” a source told the paper in December. “Imagine that you have a woman who cared for so many A-listers and then decided to write a book. It will be very interesting”.
However, it speaks to Charone’s unrivaled professionalism as a celebrity PR man that the resulting memoir is arguably less bawdy, juicy, and lewd than some might expect.
“The only person I’ve really let out is myself,” Sharon says on a call from her office in St. John’s Wood, London. “The only addictions people have to drugs or alcohol that I really talk about were my own. Of course, I had to convince many managers who work with me that [what the papers wrote] couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Whatever the case, Charone is still very much offering the reader a dazzling ringside seat in a circus that was rock and roll.
Raised in suburban Chicago as the son of a lawyer, she fell madly in love with music from an early age, and any plans for a “sensible” career were quickly abandoned. After graduating from Northwestern University, she was the first plane to land in London; the city she fell in love with from afar.
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“From [music] From a perspective, everything is pretty much London oriented,” says Charone. “If something happens in football, government or music, it immediately makes an impression on the whole country, right? I had a romantic vision of England from the Beatles. Hard day night as well as Help, and all other kinds of British bands. I came here and saw taxis and double-decker red buses, and I was absolutely delighted.”
At first, landing worked as a correspondent Chicago Sun Times as well as Cream magazine, Charone quickly invaded the scene as a music journalist. Being a true, diehard music fan solidified her career. At the time, she was one of the few women in a very male-oriented world.
“I remember trying to get backstage to see The Who at Madison Square Garden and I told the guy at the door that I was on the guest list and he said, ‘Yes, of course.’ I had to be very persistent and adamant before he even looked at the list,” says Charone. “I think the artists [took me seriously] because I was a real fan – they appreciate it, and it shone.”
At one lucky moment in 1977, she was in Toronto when Keith Richards was arrested with the intent to deal heroin. Coming to his aid, they became friends, and Charone moved into his house for three years and wrote his memoirs with him. Her affection and respect for “Kif” is reflected in her own book, and she still considers him a good friend.
“We hit it off because a lot of the journalists covering him at the time were blown away by his reputation as a bad guy, and I was just blown away by the music,” says Charone. “You know, the frontman of any band is someone that people tend to gravitate towards, and when I first interviewed Keith, he walked into the room and it was like rock ‘n’ roll came right after him. It made a big impression on me.”
A few years later, the poacher became a gamekeeper and was offered a job in Warner Music’s public relations department. After a bit of a false start—at first she was too shy to call the paper to talk about Jeff Dean—soon a young woman from Detroit came through the door and changed everything.
“Her appearance attracted attention: crucifix earrings, black top, black skirt, leggings, hair, lipstick, birthmark, exposed navel, belly – all nine yards,” Sharon writes in her book on Madonna.
“She was electrified and danced like Bob Fosse himself was pulling the strings.”
Charone says Madonna was ambitious, hardworking and focused. “From the very beginning, Madonna realized the value of publicity, and I suspect that even in those early days she understood that she would not have to deal with all this advertising for a long time. She saw what was going on.”
Despite her stellar client list, Charone’s name is most closely associated with Madonna, and along with her legendary US publicist, Liz Rosenberg, has overseen her career from the start.
“When you’re in the middle of a storm, or a pivot, or whatever you want to call it, you know, it’s very exciting,” Charone says of the sheer strength of Madonna’s pop career.
“It’s just amazing when the people you work with become one of the biggest stars in the whole world. We’ve moved on from the game [tiny] Camden Palace and then the next UK show was Wembley Stadium. This will never, ever happen again. She never played in those intermediate places.”
Of Madonna, Sharon adds: “She knew exactly what she wanted. She was smart. I think the best artists have a really good sense of themselves.”
However, being young, handsome, ambitious and demanding could sometimes be seen as a problematic combination at the time.
“For anyone who consistently writes great music and puts on great live performances as much as she does, none of that matters,” Charone says of any “diva” allegations leveled against the star.
Elsewhere in his book, Charone gives a compelling look at the changing record label and media landscape and considers himself a complete “newspaper junkie” (“I must be the only person in Britain who gets The keeper as well as Sun delivered to my house every day).
She recalls a press trip to Las Vegas with Boris Johnson and his daughter to watch the Elton John show. “I never, not for a moment imagined that this rather bumbling journalist would one day become Prime Minister of Great Britain,” writes Charone. “In the summer of 2004, he was just another interesting politician with very loose hair who wrote for GQ“.
A perpetual diplomat, Charone will not be drawn into extending this surveillance. “I mean, with my hair down and my tousled look, I would never bet on [him becoming PM]’ is all she will say to that.
In the end, Access to all areas this is a passionate love letter to rock ‘n’ roll and Charon will be the first to tell you that she’s just a music lover who got very lucky in life. She still apparently pinches herself for being paid to listen to music and work alongside her favorite artists all day long.
I ask her if, after half a century in the business, she’s as much of a fan of music as she was when she was younger. “It’s not the same because you’re not the same,” she says. “Still, I love Father John Misty’s new album. It was a big discovery. I started with Foo Fighters just a few years ago and now that I’ve watched 30 shows I’m a huge fan.
“During self-isolation, when we had a lot more time at home, and while I was writing a book, I fell in love with my record collection again and again – Bob Dylan today, Simon and Garfunkel – the next,” she says. “To do that was pretty amazing.”
Barbara Charone’s “Access to All Areas: A Behind the Scenes Through 50 Years of Music and Culture” is out now in White Rabbit books.