SL: A lot of the groups were doing the same songs.
CC: We all loved that record by Richie Barrett, “Some Other Guy”, and the B-side, “Tricky Dicky”, was just as great. Every Liverpool beat group used to latch onto that kind of strong chord thing. If we’d had the amplification that the Who had later on, they would have been a whole different Mersey sound, it would have been even more guitar-orientated. The La’s used one of my guitars, a 12-string Gretsch, and when they recorded, they said they weren’t going to tune up: they wanted the authentic 60s sound “because the Seachers never tuned up”! More fool you, laddies, you could have had a bigger hit with “There She Goes” if you’d done it right.
SL: How did you get signed to Pye Records?
CC: The Beatles had just hit and Les Ackerley, the manager of the Iron Door club, told us to put some songs on tape. He let us have the club for an afternoon and we got a weeny tape recorder and recorded the whole act. He took it to Decca who didn’t want it, but then he took it to Pye. Tony Hatch jumped at it as he wanted to be George Martin to the Searchers or at least, he wanted to be on the bandwagon. “Sweets For My Sweet” was on the tape and he asked us to record that for our first session. Les Ackerley hoped to be our manager but we signed with Tito Burns as we were told he could do a lot more for us in London. I felt very sorry for Les and for us as Tito Burns turned out to be a horrible man. He really worked his artists too – they were always on tour or making records. Whenever you saw the Zombies, they were like zombies.
SL: Didn’t he manage Dusty Springfield too?
CC: Yes and she could be funny and vindictive like me. We were on tour with her and Roy Orbison. When we got to Liverpool, she was really peeved with her road manager. She rang up George Henry Lee’s and asked for some cheap crockery and they sent it round to her dressing-room at the Empire. One by one, she threw every piece of crockery down the corridor and the road manager never did anything wrong again.
SL: Why did you choose the name Chris Curtis?
CC: I didn’t. Tony Jackson was in the bandroom of the Cavern one lunchtime and some reporters from the national press were there. He introduced us as himself Tony Jackson, John McNally, Mike Pender rather than Mike Prendergast, and me the drummer, Chris. He didn’t want to say my name was Crummey. They asked for my surname and looking on the Cavern’s wall for inspiration, he saw “Lee Curtis” and said, “Chris Curtis”. When my mother saw it, she said, “Have they got a new drummer behind your back?” She’d probably have been happy if they had because she thought the Searchers were a bunch of no-marks. She never liked me being in the band. Even when we were having hit records, she wanted me to be in a bank. She didn’t mind my new name though – my granny’s name was Curtin and it was very close to that.
SL: I get the impression that you were the leader of the Searchers, or at least, the one giving the group its musical direction.
CC: If that constitutes being the leader, I guess I was. If I threw a tantrum and told someone in the group to f- off, the next day I would want to make it up to them. Ameliorate rather than procrastinate, I used to give them presents just to placate them. The moment I had them thinking on my wavelength, I knew we couldn’t go wrong. I was right ten times out of ten with singles, so I must know something, mustn’t I?
SL: So all the hit singles stem from you?
CC: Pretty much. Oh, not “Sugar And Spice”. Tony Hatch tricked us good style with that. We were looking for a follow-up to “Sweets For My Sweet” and I was going on the American idea: if that’s one a hit, follow it with something similar. He sensed that was what I wanted, so he lied to me. He told me that he had heard this bloke, Fred Nightingale, in a pub singing “Sugar And Spice”. (Sings first verse, then sings it again somehat differently.) Tony Hatch used to be in the guards and you can see he wrote it himself from a marching tune. I said, “It’s an icky title. Who in Liverpool will go in a shop and say, Have you got ‘Sugar And Spice’?” In the end, we said we’d do it but guess who isn’t singing harmony. I said I’d do the oo-ee-oo bits just to carry it through but I wasn’t going to sing those idiotic words – (sings) “Sugar and spice and all things nice, Kisses sweeter than wine.” I’d rather sing Paulie’s “Mary Had A Little Lamb”.
SL: You were probably the first UK act to record one of P.J.Proby’s songs, “Ain’t Gonna Kiss Ya”?
CC: Tony Hatch had a box of records and demos from obscure labels in the States and I picked out one from a girl group called “Ain’t Gonna Kiss Ya”. I couldn’t decide what I liked about it but I knew that there was something there. I took the record, learned the chords and they had a grand piano on the stage at the Star-Club and I used to sit there and play it. I thought that instead of starting it in a minor key, which is a bad commercial move, we should start in C major and then as soon as you had got the “oo-oo-oo” sold, go to the minor for the actual song, and it worked. Whenever he saw me, he would go, “Chris Curtis, the only man who ever made me any money in England.” When he’s sober, he’s the best singer in the world.
SL: And then came “Needles And Pins”.
CC: If you haven’t got the listeners in the first few seconds, you haven’t got them, and we had them with that. That opening A chord on “Needles And Pins” will never be topped. It must have been a good riff as the Byrds have used it countless times – upside down, this way, that way.
SL: But you copied it from Jackie de Shannon.
CC: Sort of. Our version is simpler than hers. She goes through immense emotion on that song – all that “Stop it now, stop it now”. That was great for her, but it didn’t fit in with a bland, teenybop Searchers record.
SL: And the Byrds, not the Searchers, ended up with the street cred.
CC: Well, they were all “Wow, man, let’s take some drugs.” Roger McGuinn had those little blue glasses and everyone thought he was on a trip. We wouldn’t have wanted that kind of cred, but I don’t think they took as many drugs as they implied. You can’t keep taking things and perform well, at least not for long. I used to take Preludin because of the long nights in Hamburg, just to keep me awake, but all my playing was from the heart. I did take downers ‘cause I needed to sleep.
SL: It must be hard to sleep when so many exciting things are happening to you.
CC: That’s exactly it. My doctor in Liverpool gave me something that I could never overdose on: they would make me slow down and sleep if I wanted to. I was grateful for that. The idea of taking mind-altering or body-altering drugs never occured to me. God has given you your body and you shouldn’t mess around with it.
SL: Who does the lead vocal on “Needles And Pins” as there has been some confusion about this.
CC: Tony Jackson was the lead singer on “Sweets For My Sweet” and his was the best voice we could have had for that song. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the best voice for “Needles And Pins”. He tried it but he was singing “I saw her today” totally without meaning, just like he was singing the words off a page. It was much better with Mike Pender.
SL: Did that lead to Tony leaving the band?
CC: I didn’t like Tony Jackson much, even from the start, and if I’d had the nous to audition for the Searchers, I would have had someone else in the first place. I never had any rows with him though: if he started arguing, I would just walk away. He wanted to sing “Needles And Pins” and he threatened to reveal something about me if I didn’t let him. I said, “You can tell what you like, you’re not singing on ‘Needles And Pins’.” Then I said, “Can you count to 50?” and he said, “Course I can count to 50.” I said, “Start counting, and by the time you’ve reached 50, I’ll have phoned Tito Burns to tell him you’re out of the band.” He was shocked ‘cause all of a sudden he was losing his source of income. The first thing he did when he left the Searchers was get a nose job, and guess where his singing voice had come from? His first solo record though, “Bye Bye Baby”, was a good one.
SL: Just before Tony went, you recorded “Don’t Throw Your Love Away”.
CC: Pat Pretty, the publicist in Pye Records, was a lovely lady, who was married to Jack Bentley from “The People”. She had come across a song on the B-side of an American hit by the Orlons and I thought it was a great title. The guitar riff came out similar to “Needles And Pins”, so again it was following a hit with a semi-copy of a hit. Mike Pender’s voice was brilliant on that, just like a little boy wandering through the streets, and I joined in with that very high harmony, and it really worked. It was one of the nicest tunes that the Searchers ever did. The B-side, “I Pretend I’m With You” was pretty good too, one of my little gems. I also like the B-side of “Someday We’re Gonna Love Again”, “No One Else Could Love Me”.
SL: My fault rather than yours but “Someday We’re Gonna Love Again” is the only one of your hit singles that I don’t go for.
CC: Well, Dusty Springfield went for it, she loved it! We’d been working in the ice-rink at Blackpool and we had to fly back in a two-engine plane for the sessioin and they said I wouldn’t be using my own drums. I said, “Get those drums on the ‘plane.” We flew down in the night, recorded in the morning and flew back in the afternoon. I thought it was a good intro and the harmony is so high, it’s like Graham Nash.
SL: So you couldn’t do it in that key now.
CC: Oh yes, I could. (Demonstrates, but not too well.) My throat’s a bit croaky but I can do it.
SL: And you replaced Tony Jackson with Frank Allen, the bass player with Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers.
CC: Yes, the two bands had met in the Star-Club and he became a good friend and he’s a good chap. His style was great, he had a good image and I had never seen anyone play the bass like that. He’s very difficult to record playing bass as he plays the note and then slaps the bass. (Demonstrates) It’s probably because he had to keep such strong time with Cliff Bennett as they liked hard rock. He loved “When You Walk In The Room” ‘cause he respected Jackie de Shannon’s writing. He couldn’t wait to sing on it.
SL: Who decided who was going to do the lead vocal?
CC: Never me on a single. I was told it wouldn’t look right on telly. John McNally wanted us to release “This Empty Place” as a single, which is a real posh tune and carried by some lovely piano. It’s a great tune to sing, but I never thought I could get out from behind the drums. I should have done a Don Henley and gone to the front, but it never occurred to me, or anyone else. Actually, I did come from behind the drums for “What Have They Done To The Rain” as I sat on a high stool and played the bongos between my knees. I remember being on stage at the Liverpool Empire and looking at the large drop down the orchestra pit. It’s like that Peter Cook thing, “What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?”