By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Claude Nobs, who founded the Montreux Jazz Festival nearly 50 years ago, has died after several weeks in a coma following a skiing accident, the festival said on Friday.
The Swiss impresario immortalized by rock group Deep Purple as "Funky Claude" in the song "Smoke on the Water" and who lured the biggest stars of the music world to his festival on the shores of Lake Geneva died on Thursday at the age of 76.
"He died peacefully, surrounded by family and close friends," said a statement issued by the festival, where Mathieu Jaton assumed his duties as director earlier this week.
Nobs launched the summer festival in 1967 while working as an accountant at the Swiss resort's tourism office. Over the years, his blend of persistence, patience and charm managed to persuade leading lights such as Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Prince to take the stage at Montreux.
But he often had to meet their whims to coax them along.
"I got Miles a Ferrari for him to drive along the lake, Nina Simone wanted a diamond watch and we found the mineral water that Prince likes in Geneva. We always find a way," Nobs told Reuters last April during an interview at his beloved chalet.
A former festival employee told Reuters on Friday: "He was a shy man but still managed to negotiate. That was his strength and led him to create something huge."
Nobs fell while cross-country skiing on Christmas Eve near his chalet in Caux, overlooking Montreux, a property that he shared with his longtime partner Thierry Amsallem, who is in charge of digitalizing the festival's archives of 5,000 hours.
Last year's two-week festival, which attracted about 250,000 people, featured sold-out concerts by Bob Dylan, American chanteuse Lana Del Rey and British actor and musician Hugh Laurie.
A musical tribute to the people of Montreux is planned in February, in accordance with his wishes, to be followed by events in New York and London this spring, festival board president Francois Carrard told Reuters.
Nobs threw legendary parties at his chalet, full of vintage Wurlitzer jukeboxes, flat screen TVs and sophisticated sound equipment. Waiters delivered fine food and champagne around a pool with a breathtaking view of the Alps.
A Japanese kimono worn by Freddie Mercury, a print signed by Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones and a larger-than-life bust of Aretha Franklin were among mementoes on display.
Film director Roman Polanski stopped in on his way to see his wife Emmanuelle Seigner perform at Montreux in 2010. Days earlier he had been freed from house arrest in Gstaad after Swiss authorities said they would not extradite him to the United States to face sentencing for having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.
Herbie Hancock, Van Morrison, Phil Collins and Gilberto Gil have all been regulars at the festival, whose two venues are the larger Stravinski Auditorium and more intimate Miles Davis Hall.
In the mid-1960s, after his first flight on an airplane, Nobs formed a decisive and lifetime friendship in New York with Atlantic Records executive Nesuhi Ertegun, whose father was a former ambassador of Turkey to Switzerland.
"That first time I met Nesuhi, I had no credentials, nothing, something magical happened," Nobs recalled in his memoirs "Live! From Montreux", first published in 2007.
Of the first edition, he wrote: "That first festival was obviously when I had to learn a massive amount extremely quickly - from how you deal with one artist arriving whilst the act from the previous night's show still hasn't woken up yet, let alone vacated the suite the incoming band are supposed to be going straight into."
The Deep Purple anthem which dubbed Nobs "Funky" was written about a fire that burned down Montreux casino during a Frank Zappa concert in 1971.
Despite heart surgery some six years ago, Nobs had stayed on as festival director, a position he shared during the 1990s with American producer Quincy Jones who returns each year from Los Angeles to introduce new talent and refers to Montreux as the "Rolls-Royce of festivals".
Nobs often joined musicians on stage, playing harmonica, sometimes accompanied by his St. Bernard dogs.
The 47th edition is scheduled for July 5-20.
(Reporting By Katharina Bart and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Paul Casciato)