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Friday, 28 December, 2001, 16:05 GMT
Pete Waterman: Lucky, lucky, lucky
Hitmeister Pete Waterman
As his most recent protégés, Steps, announce their split, Andrew Walker of the BBC's News Profiles Unit charts the extraordinary rise of gravedigger turned steam-train buff and pop Svengali, Pete Waterman.

The British pop chart is a strange beast indeed. Sure, it accurately reflects sales of pop and rock singles and, as such, is an impeccable guide to popular taste, but in doing so it also throws up some quite unusual anomalies.

Bob Dylan and The Who, titans of popular music, have never made it to Number One. Clive Dunn has, with the truly frightening Grandad. As has the actor Telly Savalas with If and Benny Hill with Ernie, The Fastest Milkman In The West.

Everything I touch turns to gold

Pete Waterman

Heading the list of chart-toppers, understandably, are Sir Cliff Richard with 14 and The Beatles and Elvis Presley on 17 each.

It comes as some surprise, then, to see that even the greatest acts have been beaten by none other than Pete Waterman, who has reached the pinnacle of pop on no fewer than 22 occasions.

Pete Waterman
Pete Waterman: More hits than Elvis
Fair enough, each of these were writer and producer credits but, for every mountaineer who scales Everest there is often an unknown sherpa there, too.

Success in the fickle world of the charts does not come so often without some ability to discern the habits of the pop buying public and as such Pete Waterman is, without any doubt, a master of his game.

As he puts it in his subtly-titled autobiography, I Wish I Was Me: "Everything I touch turns to gold."

Upbeat sound

He has built his reputation on a series of Hi-NRG dance records, appealing particularly to young girls and gay men, often more pap than pop but with an upbeat sound which has seen them flying from the shelves of record shops.

The quality of Pete Waterman's acts has varied. Rick Astley was, to put it kindly, firmly of his time. Bananarama were sexy and sassy and, although they never made it to top spot they were, pre-Spice Girls, Britain's all-time best-selling female group.

And then there is Kylie. Ms Minogue's transformation from Singing Budgerigar to raunchy superstar has been a PR dream. She has grown up with fans who have followed her from winsome teenager, who enjoyed 13 consecutive Top Ten hits between 1988 and 1991, through to her recent huge revival as a slick thirtysomething.

Paul McCartney and John Lennon
He was inspired by meeting The Beatles in 1962

Pete Waterman's transformation has been little short of miraculous, too. Born in bomb-ravaged Coventry in 1947, his father worked in an aircraft factory and the family was so poor that the electricity was only turned on at teatime.

Exhibiting the business talent which would eventually earn him millions, the young Pete sold coal to neighbours from an adapted pram.

An illiterate school-leaver (he would only learn to read properly when 38), he took a job on the railways, pandering to his life-long fascination with trains.

I thought if Oasis could get away with sounding like The Beatles, I could get away with sounding like Abba

Pete Waterman on the idea behind Steps

Later, Pete Waterman became - like rock legend Rod Stewart - a gravedigger. Next settling down with an apprenticeship at the General Electric Company, he was a trade union official by the precocious age of 19.

But it was a 1962 meeting with The Beatles which would change his life. As he recently told one interviewer: "They really did inspire me to do what I've done."

Obsessed with music, he spent all his spare time working as a DJ, building up a fan base throughout the country before being taken on by pop impresario Michael (now Lord) Levy in 1977.

Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue
He launched the pop careers of Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue

Artists such as Musical Youth and Nik Kershaw brought Pete Waterman success before he teamed up with Mike Stock and Matt Aitken in 1985.

Before splitting up seven years later, the team had amassed more than 100 Top 40 hits with the aforementioned Bananarama, Rick Astley and Kylie plus Jason Donovan, Mel & Kim and Sonia.

A spell as a TV presenter on the late-night Hit Man & Her with Michaela Strachan, playing dance music in a variety of obscure nightclubs, brought him public recognition.

18 Ferraris

Phenomenally successful, Pete Waterman once bought 18 Ferraris at one go and became the first man to purchase a piece of the privatised British Rail as well as once owning the legendary locomotive The Flying Scotsman.

And, just like Kylie, he has reinvented himself for a new market. The all-singing all-dancing Steps was based on a simple but supremely effective premise. "I thought if Oasis could get away with sounding like The Beatles, I could get away with sounding like Abba."

Added to this is his most recent incarnation, as a hard-nosed judge on TV's talent search, Pop Idol, where his no-nonsense blunt approach to the contestants has brought him the nickname Pete Slaughterman.

Steps' Clare and H
Steps' Clare and H

So, with the demise of Steps, where does he see the future lie? Perhaps with 12-year-old Wigan schoolgirl, Lauren Waterworth, who he signed up last year. "She is amazing," he says, "like nothing else I've come across." Lauren is due to debut in March 2002.

Pete Waterman brushes off criticism that his music is bland, saying: "If you don't like it, don't listen." But, with a track record like his, there can be little doubt that millions of people will continue to listen for years to come, Dylan or no Dylan.

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