Former record label chief and close friend to the stars Fifa Riccobono shares some highlights with Simon Collins
In 1968, a 16-year-old girl from Sicily landed a secretarial job at Sydney record label and publishing company, J. Albert and Sons. In June this year, she became a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to music — specifically for nurturing the careers of AC/DC, Easybeats icons Harry Vanda and George Young, John Paul Young, the Angels and Rose Tattoo.
Not only did she work with two of the greatest and wildest frontmen in Oz rock history in Accadacca’s Bon Scott and the Easybeats’ Stevie Wright, Fifa Riccobono became the first female chief of a record label in this country when she took the top job at Alberts in 1999.
Helping black-eyed bruisers like Scott and Wright climb the long way to the top must have been a hard road. (Sorry!)
But Riccobono, who will be the keynote speaker at this year’s WA Music conference (WAMCon), says growing up as an Italian immigrant in postwar Australia prepared her for a lifetime of mixing it up in a male-dominated industry.
“I had already done my time being a new Australian and had to find my backbone growing up,” she says from her Sydney home. “It really held me in good stead for when I had to stand up to some of the people that I worked with.”
However, Riccobono found the perfect professional home at
Alberts, where she started bashing out letters on an old
Royal typewriter for her direct boss, Henry Adler. The German-born manager put together the bestselling 1001 Hit Songs sheet music anthologies.
Adler was German. Label owner Ted Albert’s family came out from Switzerland. George Young and younger brothers Malcolm and Angus were Scottish, and Vanda was Dutch.
“We had quite an array of nationalities,” Riccobono recalls. “It was refreshing to go into a company where there was no prejudice shown at all. I’d grown up (with racism). I came out in the wog era . . . so going into a company like that was just wonderful.” Riccobono moved into a promotional role when Vanda and Young returned from the UK in 1973 after the demise of the Easybeats. She helped establish the Albert Productions label with the songwriting legends, who created a string of hits for John Paul Young, Ted Mulry and William Shakespeare.
She also witnessed firsthand Wright’s second bite at the rock’n’roll cherry in the mid-70s with the Hard Road album and three epic concerts at the Sydney Opera House (with a young Malcolm playing hardedged rhythm guitar alongside Vanda and Young). “He was a wonderful performer and exceptional on stage,” Riccobono says of Wright, who died in 2015 after a life tragically derailed by drug abuse. “He had his demons. He fought against it but always succumbed. It was very hard to see it all go so pear shaped.” While Wright did not succumb until long after his heyday, Scott died in 1980 when AC/DC were on a roll. Riccobono cherishes her time with the Fremantle-raised rock icon — a big reason why she loves visiting WA. “Bon was wonderful,” she says. “He was an incredibly colourful character. His image was one thing but what he was as a person was something totally different.
“The first time I met him, I was so taken aback because I thought he looked aggressive and crass. But he was always very considerate and caring. He was a very good friend.”
Scott would often call Riccobono from the road asking her to send money to a mate in need. “He was very generous. He was notorious for having a good time and suffered the consequences later.” While she remembers Scott as a legendary frontman, the more prominent memory is of her friend that would always keep in touch. “He’d write to me. He’d call from wherever he was. Every week I’d hear from him,” Riccobono recalls. “Outside of that he’d send me postcards and in the end I had an entire wall of postcards in my office from Bon.”
Some of the highlights of her time at Alberts came during the post-Bon era, when Angus, Malcolm and Brian Johnson (the Geordie singer who joined AC/DC in 1980) played to gigantic crowds all over the planet.
Riccobono can still feel the energy and heat of 400,000 fans at Rock in Rio in 1985 and the overwhelming sight of a million people stretching into the distance at Monsters of Rock in Moscow in 1991.
She was somewhat surprised when Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose — hardly renowned for his punctuality or healthy intra-band relationships — replaced an ailing Johnson three years ago.
“I thought this could be a marriage not made in heaven,” she laughs, “but Axl was very respectful . . . he did what was asked of him.”
Is Riccobono surprised that Acca Dacca have lasted so long, even beyond the recent death of Malcolm, the driving force alongside the showmanship of Angus?
“No,” she says, “because they’ve always managed to read their audience. They know their audience. They’ve always been a working-class band and they play to working-class people.
“Malcolm was fundamental in his thinking. He knew what he wanted for the band. The band knew what the audience wanted. And they delivered . . . and they stuck to their guns.”
Not only has AC/DC’s sonic style barely budged since 1975 debut album High Voltage, but the Young brothers always seemed unfazed by fame and fortune.
Riccobono says Angus still likes a cup of tea. “He’s a family man. He’s certainly not one that parties. He lets all of his
steam off on stage and then likes to retreat to his home,” she says.
“George and Harry drummed into them very early in the piece that you should treat success with the same contempt you treat failure.”
Riccobono describes her own rockin’ role in the Alberts story as a “protector” of the bands. Right from when she was working in promotions with Vanda and Young in the 70s, she tried to match her “energy and passion” to their talent, doing “whatever it took” to get songs on the radio or in the press.
“When I say ‘whatever it took’ that does not include (bribing disc jockeys with) drugs or anything else,” she clarifies. “It means working hard . . . to see the label own the charts in the 70s was phenomenal.”
Speaking of drugs, did Riccobono ever indulge with the rock gods?
“I went to parties but I knew where my limits were,” she says.
Riccobono finished at Alberts in 2006. Today she advises on matters related to AC/DC and the label’s other key acts, and is heavily involved in music-based charities Support Act and Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy.
While Scott, Wright, George and Malcolm Young, Mulry, Shakespeare, Billy Thorpe and Doc Neeson are all gone, Riccobono has remained close to those rocking on today.
“Even if they haven’t been on the label or I haven’t been working with them for a while, the friendship is still strong.”
‘Colourful character’ Bon Scott. Riccobono with AC/DC guitarist Malcolm Young.
The mighty Accadacca led by Fremantle-raised singer Bon Scott in 1976.
Between Easybeats legends George Young and Harry Vanda, with Ted Albert on the back of a boat.
Tea drinker Angus Young.
With Angry Anderson.
With Brian Johnson.
Former Albert Music chief Fifa Riccobono.