Robert “Bobby” John Engel, booking agent, president and owner of Variety Artists International, Inc. died Aug. 14 at his ranch in Creston, Calif., with his wife Claudia Salot-Engel by his side. He was 73 years old.
Engel’s long career in music began in the 1970s in Minneapolis when he was hired by Gordy Singer and Lloyd St. Martin, senior partners of Variety Artists International, to work as a junior agent. He became friends with fellow newbie Rod Essig, who went on to serve as co-head of music in CAA’s Nashville office, and was assigned by Singer (father of one of Engel’s friends) to his first tour — a U.S. trek with Ike and Tina Turner. It was a difficult tour but “Bobby passed the test,” according to a remembrance written by Salot-Engel.
Engel went on to be appointed to partner in the 1980s and was tasked with moving the agency westward. At 30, he had taken a drive out to LA for fun with a buddy and after about two weeks, decided he wanted to permanently relocate.
“He took on the idea that Los Angeles was where the music business was happening and headed out to locate a West Coast California office off of Sunset Blvd,” Salot-Engel wrote. Engel joined another agent and became the new boss for Variety on the West Coast. Their first hire was filmmaker and writer Petrine Day Mitchum, daughter of famed screen actor Robert Mitchum, who worked as a receptionist.
As the music business evolved, “Bobby held on to his Midwest work ethic and took pride building lifelong relationships over the phone,” she said. “He managed to carry on as the computer replaced the phone conversation as electronics have evolved, and he is still loved by all. These conversations would often turn into friendships that have lasted throughout his career.”
Essig and Martin later traveled to L.A. to join Engel and partner with him on Variety’s L.A. office, located at the top of Beverly Glen Boulevard and Mulholland Drive with a roster of acts that included Red Hot Chili Peppers, Incubus and 311. In 1990, the couple decided to relocate to San Luis Obispo, California, to live on a horse ranch bringing the agency, much of the staff and new partner John Harrington with them, while Essig left for CAA.
Reflecting on Bobby’s passing, Harrington said, “I have lost my longtime dear friend of 40 years and business partner of 27 years. I loved him very much and will miss him deeply.” Former staffer Zach Mullinax added, “Bob was a mentor to many agents, giving them their start in the business.”
“He was a dear friend and I enjoyed working with him for 50 years,” Martin tells Billboard.
Engel is survived by his wife and his three sisters, Connie Engel, Wanda Stepp and Tara Engel, and their families.