He achieved notoriety in Britain for his aggressive, sometimes illegal business tactics; which led to his being called "Mr Big", the "Yiddish Godfather" and the "Meyer Lansky of Pop".
He was married to Hope Shaw, a former ballet dancer/teacher, who died in 1999. He was the father of David Levy and Sharon Osbourne (and father-in-law of Ozzy Osbourne).
Arden's success story turned sour when his violent 'negotiating' methods and questionable accounting caught up with him, and he became estranged from members of his own family.
Born into a Jewish family in Cheetham Hill, Manchester. Arden began his showbusiness career when he was just 13 years old as a singer and stand-up comic after briefly attending the Royal College of Music and in 1944 changed his name from Harry Levy to Don Arden. After being demobilised from the British Army at the end of World War II, Arden returned to carve out his showbiz career from 1946 to 1953.
Arden worked as an entertainer on the British variety circuit. He impersonated famous tenors such as Enrico Caruso and film gangsters such as Edward G. Robinson and George Raft. On weekends, Yiddish-speaking Arden impressed Jewish audiences with his Al Jolson routine. One of his record releases was his version of "Blue Suede Shoes" on the Embassy label when he did his best to impersonate Elvis. He gave up after that and in 1954 went on to become a showbiz agent after realising it would be more profitable. He began his career organising Hebrew folk song contests, then started putting together his own shows.
Arden signed up American rock'n'roller Gene Vincent in 1960 and launched his career as a manager. Taking over from John Schatt, Arden became Vincent's manager. Arden could not control Vincent's compulsive alcoholism. The relationship ended when Vincent reportedly pulled a knife on his manager. For a short period of time in the early 1960s he worked with up and coming British singer Elkie Brooks who went on to become a household name some years later.
During 1964, Arden moved into beat group pop management with the Nashville Teens who secured chart hits with "Tobacco Road" and "Google Eye" and "Find My Way Back Home". According to Johnny Rogan's book Starmakers & Svengalis, their earnings from these hits was £3,513. When group member John Hawken confronted Arden about some confusion over monies to be collected, his manager told him, "I have the strength of 10 men in these hands" and threatened to throw him from an office window.
In 1965, Arden met aspiring rock band Small Faces in his office in Carnaby Street. Half an hour later he had signed them up. Don Arden was immediately struck by the potential of Small Faces: "I thought at that time, on the first hearing, I thought it was the best band in the world." Kenney Jones, Small Faces' drummer, recalls: "He was kind of a Jewish teddy bear I suppose. You liked him immediately because he was enthusiastic and he talked about what he could do and what he couldn't do and whenever he said – 'I'll do this, I'll do that' – he did and it came true." The band's first hit was obtained by "chart-fixing", which cost Arden £12,000. Arden denied it was cheating: "I had a saying, you can't polish a turd. In other words, if the record's no good to begin with it still won't be any good after you've wasted your time and money getting it played."
In 1966, Arden and a squad of 'minders' turned up at impresario Robert Stigwood's office to 'teach him a lesson' for daring to discuss a change of management with Small Faces. This became one of the most notorious incidents from the 1960s British pop business. Arden reportedly threatened to throw Stigwood out of the window if he ever interfered with his business again.
The band was never entirely convinced that Arden had paid them everything he owed them. Kenney Jones has mixed memories of the band's stormy relationship with Arden:
Without Don, the Small Faces may not have existed, without his sort of vision at that time, be it short-lived or what. The fact is we became known and we got a break through Don. So if you think of it like that and I think all of us are prepared to swallow what went on, leave it, fine, it's history. We all learned from each other, he gave us our first break, fine, fair enough, you know, leave it. I've got good and bad memories but mainly I think of Don with affection, surprisingly enough.
Arden tried to rekindle his former glories as a family entertainer by releasing a single of his own in 1967: "Sunrise Sunset", from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, but it failed to chart. Arden returned to music management in 1968 when he signed the Move. He struck gold when two groups formed by ex-Move members, ELO and Wizzard (1972), started having international hits such as "See My Baby Jive" and "Angel Fingers" (1973) and ELO with "10538 Overture" (1972) and "Roll Over Beethoven" (1973).
Arden took over management of singer-songwriter Lynsey de Paul in 1973 who provided him with the first hit on his new Jet label, "No Honestly" in 1974. By 1976, Arden was embroiled in a lawsuit with the distraught singer over what she claimed was late payment of money owed to her. De Paul commented:
It was a time in my life that I'll never forget and I'll never forgive him. And if anybody was near suicide, and if ever I was near, it was then, because it was awful.
She eventually reached a settlement with Arden in 1978.
In 1979, one of Arden's successes, Black Sabbath, sacked their vocalist Ozzy Osbourne. Arden's daughter Sharon began to date Osbourne, and took over his management from her father. Arden was livid. Reportedly, the next time Sharon visited Don, his vicious pet dogs savaged her. She was pregnant, and lost the child.
Sharon eventually married Osbourne and had no contact with her father for 20 years. In 2001 she told The Guardian newspaper: "The best lesson I ever had was watching him fuck his business up. He taught me everything not to do. My father's never even seen any of my three kids and, as far as I'm concerned, he never will." Later the same year, under Ozzy's insistence, Sharon and Arden finally reconciled, with Arden making a walk-on role in the successful reality TV show The Osbournes in 2002. He also met his grandchildren Jack and Kelly for the first time.
In 1979 investigative reporter Roger Cook used the dispute with Lynsey de Paul to probe into Arden's controversial management style on BBC Radio 4's Checkpoint programme. This proved to be a colourful encounter. 'When you fight the champion you go 15 rounds, you've got to be prepared to go the whole way,' Arden tells Cook. 'I'll take you with one hand strapped up my arse. You're not a man, you're a creep.' Arden threatened to break the neck of anyone who talked to Cook in his on-air interview.
From the late 1970s into the early 1980s, Arden enjoyed the high-rolling lifestyle of a top music mogul. He brought his son David and daughter Sharon Osbourne into the business, planning to build an Arden showbiz dynasty. With albums like Out of the Blue and Discovery, ELO became one of the world's biggest acts. Arden bought Howard Hughes' former house in Beverly Hills.
In the mid-1980s, Don Arden bought Portland Recording Studios (formerly IBC Studios) from Chas Chandler and installed his son David as manager. The studios were by this time very outdated and much of the income was being generated by another company who ran half the facility known as RadioTracks, and by George Peckham (Porky Prime Cuts), a well known cutting engineer whose cutting rooms were on the ground floor at the back of the building. Don Arden had acquired shares in RadioTracks through buying out Chas Chandler without the knowledge of the other directors.
Don's son, known legally as 'David Levy', appeared at the Old Bailey in 1986 for his role in an alleged assault on an accountant working for Jet Records. The incident occurred at the offices in Portland Place. Convicted, David Levy spent several months in an open prison. Don, tried separately on related charges, was acquitted.
The drawn-out legal problems meant Don was unable to attend to business, and legal bills proved a fatal strain on Jet Records, which collapsed. Portland Recording Studios were considerably in arrears with rent to the Prudential, who owned the building in 35 Portland Place in London, close to the BBC's Broadcasting House. Eventually, the Prudential evicted Jet Records. Don had already fallen out with his daughter Sharon, who embarked on her own successful management career with her husband and major client, Ozzy Osbourne.
From 1986 to the mid-1990s, Arden shuttled between his homes in Beverly Hills and Parkside in Wimbledon, London. In August 2004 Sharon Osbourne stated her father had Alzheimer's disease. A "tell all" bio about Arden's life, entitled Mr Big, was published in 2007 shortly before Arden's death in Los Angeles on 21 July 2007. Sharon Osbourne paid for her father's care in the last years of his life. He was buried in Agecroft Jewish Cemetery, Langley Road, Pendlebury, near Manchester on 25 July 2007.
On 29 October 2007, a memorial headstone was unveiled at Agecroft Jewish Cemetery by his sister Eileen (Somers) and daughter Sharon Osbourne with her son Jack Osbourne, along with nephew and niece Danny Somers and Cathy Cowan. A line of inscription on the stone reads "His beautiful voice will sing in our hearts forever. Shalom". Later in the morning a plaque was unveiled at Higher Crumpsall Synagogue, Cheetham Hill, Manchester with the addition of the words "It all started here" with a line of musical notes. This refers to the time when Don (then Harry Levy) sang in the synagogue choir as a very young man.
On 8 September 2007 a commemorative plaque dedicated to Don Arden and Small Faces was unveiled at 52–55 Carnaby Street, London, Arden's former offices. Kenney Jones, ex-drummer of Small Faces, said: "To honour the Small Faces after all these years is a terrific achievement. I only wish that Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane and the late Don Arden were here to enjoy this moment with me".