Very few American rock’n’rollers had come to the UK and so the nationwide tour early in 1960 by Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran for Larry Parnes was big news. The supporting acts were Vince Eager and the Quiet Three, the Tony Sheridan Trio and the Viscounts.
Considering that Tony Sheridan became such a wild performer in Hamburg, this report from the Sheffield Star is surprising: “Tony Sheridan opened the programme with restrained singing that was probably as good as any heard that evening but was too restrained to earn popular approval.” The following day the touring party moved to Cardiff and Tony had a torrid time. He was showered with lighted cigarettes as the impatient audience wanted Gene and Eddie. He changed his repertoire and performed Ricky Nelson’s ‘Just A Little Too Much’ and Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ for the rest of the tour.
Tony Sheridan: “Eddie Cochran was from a different environment. He was real and I was a copy. He was a very good guitarist and he was into all sorts of things, which influenced his music. Instead of a third string, he used a second string that he could bend, which was a very clever move. He might suddenly decide to do something differently and that is when innovation can happen. Gene Vincent was very good but I really learnt things from Eddie. He was only 21 and as he liked weird chords too, that may have influenced me.”
Tony was allowed to play Eddie’s guitar. “He used a banjo string on the top, a very thin one and all the other strings were thinner, so he was able to bend strings. I was just plonking away on my six string and there was only one set of strings you could buy in those days. It was Gibson Sonomatic and they were heavy strings, man. Eddie could play modern jazz and country and rock’n’roll. He was very versatile but with ‘C’mon Everybody’ and ‘Summertime Blues’, he knew that the beat and the groove were more important than good guitar playing. He would have been a brilliant musician if he had lived.”
Tony developed a love for Ray Charles from listening to Eddie Cochran. “I’d heard ‘What’d I Say’ on the Two Is jukebox but ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’ I first heard from Eddie. He did it every night on stage and I was listening and looking and copying. When I recorded the song in 1962, I stole his solo, which was so good. Later on, I made my own solo. It was good that Eddie was listening to Ray Charles. His influences weren’t just the redneck stuff.”
On the last night of the tour in Bristol on April 16, Tony Sheridan wanted to return home: “I was a bit pissed off that night as I was staying overnight in Bristol and I would have preferred going to London with my idols.” That night Eddie Cochran was killed and Gene Vincent injured on their journey back.
Sheridan had worked with Conway Twitty when he came to the UK for Oh Boy! and he was now recruited as his lead guitarist on a UK tour with Johnny Preston, Freddy Cannon and Wee Willie Harris, whom he endearingly called ‘Charlie’. Tony also had his own spot: “Today it takes me half an hour to warm up and so it was very limiting only to do ten minutes. I prefer to get on the stage and feel it and slowly get into the mood and the groove. Doing three songs on a cinema tour was not for me: It was too frustrating.”
Tony was about to lose that frustration – Hamburg was calling.
3. KING OF ST PAULI
Just as Tony Sheridan had sought out the Two Is when he first came to London, in May 1960, a strip-club owner from St Pauli, Bruno Koschmider came looking for a British rock group for his club, the Kaiserkeller, on Grosse Freiheit. He met pianist Iain Hines who formed the Jets with Rick Richards, Colin Melander, Pete Wharton and Jimmy Ward. They considered the long hours and thought another guitarist and singer was needed. Tony Sheridan had the ability, but his punctuality and reliability were poor.
Only five musicians turned up at Harwich for the ferry on 4 June, but it was Iain Hines himself who hadn’t arrived. Still, even without Hines, they made a good sound and Koschmider who would encourage them to be showmen shouting out “Mach schau!”
The wild and crazy St Pauli lifestyle suited Sheridan fine and he encouraged the Jets to become wild and crazy too. He could wear what he wanted and be as uninhibited as he liked. The wilder he became, the more the audiences responded. This, in itself, is anomalous as the Germans, more than any race, are renowned for their careful planning. Tony Sheridan: “It’s the Irish blood in me. The Germans would rather do it with set lists – Number 1, Number 2, Number 3.”
Tony Sheridan’s philosophy isn’t for everyone: “If you play ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ 2,000 times, you have got to find ways to do it differently and this is when innovation happens – you put in sevenths and ninths and elevenths. That is what Hamburg can do for you – you become something else, but I believe that the only way to play is spontaneously. All those guys who plan their shows are not being creative. Of course, I had bad nights, but there were nights when I turned myself on and also turned everybody else on.” He likened it to art school: “You copy your favourite artists at first and then, if you have any talent, you do something original.”
The Jets with Tony Sheridan only played at the Kaiserekeller for a month as a rival club, the Top Ten, was opening on the Reeperbahn, managed by Peter Eckhorn. Koschmider didn’t want to lose them but he couldn’t risk fighting with Eckhorn’s thugs. Eckhorn’s chief waiter was a former boxer Horst Fascher, who had done time for manslaughter and was to become the prime mover on the beat scene in St Pauli.
Horst Fascher: “The first British group I saw was Tony Sheridan and the Jets and it was such a surprise to see rock’n’roll live on stage. We only knew it from the records and from BFBS in Hamburg, an English military station. Tony was a great guitarist and he was wild on stage. There was sweat all over him, he looked like he had just come of the swimming baths. We liked him very much.”
Koschmider returned to the Two Is and met a Liverpool band, Derry and the Seniors, whom he booked for the Kaiserkeller. This led to the Beatles appearing at another of his venues, the Indra, also on Grosse Freiheit and then moving to the Kaiskerkeller. The Beatles would visit the Top Ten during their breaks from the Kaiserkeller. It wasn’t long before they were breaking their contract by performing on stage with Sheridan. Tony Sheridan: “The Beatles weren’t much when they came to Hamburg but they’d brought their potential with them. They improved very rapidly.”
Part, if not most, of that improvement was down to Sheridan. They saw and liked what Sheridan was doing and how he could pace himself to play for hours on end. They nicknamed him “the Teacher”, a name Paul McCartney still uses when speaking of him.
Tony Sheridan: “George Harrison was the most interesting Beatle as he reminded me of myself at that age. He was only 17 and he was asking me, ‘How do you do that? What’s that funny chord?’ It was the way I’d been talking to Eddie Cochran. We were very enthused by what we were doing. I was very into weird chords and I invented some too. I was listening to Jimmy Smith and his guitar player Kenny Burrell and for me, coming from Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, these were very attractive sounding chords. He’d be playing an F diminished when any other guitarist would play an F. I was taking the weird chords from ‘Georgia On My Mind’ and putting them into ‘What’d I Say’. It made it all the more interesting and inspirational. It is better to play an E7 than a straight E chord. The Beatles discovered that too. Now and again you can hear in the Beatles’ music one of these weird chords that George picked up in St Pauli. Listen to the start of ‘Come Together’. That’s one of my chords, man.”
The one Beatle who didn’t follow Sheridan’s example was Pete Best, and they once had a protracted fight in the passageway leading to the entrance of the Top Ten in Hamburg. “I didn’t want to shout at drummers but I hate drummers, all of them. They sit at the back and they control the whole band. The whole band could collapse if they got it wrong, and the Beatles had Pete Best at the back, looking at the chicks and not concentrating, so he had the wrong attitude. The drummer should be supporting the band absolutely and making the whole thing fire up. If he doesn’t do that, why is he playing drums? The drummers have to produce the right groove, the right beat, the right tempo and the right feeling. It makes the other musicians play better. John Lennon played rhythm guitar as a drummer should have been playing drums, producing that same sort of beat and groove. John Lennon had to play a certain style to compensate for Pete Best, so we have to thank Pete in a way.”
St Pauli was a tough area to play. Tony Sheridan: “The fights were mostly started by the waiters, the white-coated black-trousered guys who were all into boxing and body building. They were big guys and they were looking for fights. If you don’t pay your bill, pow! If a fight starts, you don’t stop playing – the blood is spurting all over the place and you’ve got blood on your guitar, and sometimes it’s your own – but you don’t stop. I bought a German helmet once, a Second World War helmet, a dangerous looking one and I wore it on stage as I thought I might need it.”
The Beatles returned to Liverpool in December 1960 after George Harrison had been sent home for being under age and Paul McCartney and Pete Best arrested for starting a fire. Their new style of playing captivated Liverpool and during the early months of 1961, they built up a huge reputation around Merseyside clubs, especially the Cavern. Little did they know that Tony Sheridan was also back in the UK.
Just before he had gone to Hamburg, Tony Sheridan had signed a hire purchase agreement for a Martin guitar under a false name. He used the name of a promoter he didn’t like, Reg Calvert. When he returned to the UK, he was arrested for fraud and spent ten days in prison.
4. “NOT TOO COMMERCIAL, BOYS, NOT TOO COMMERCIAL”
When the Beatles returned to Hamburg in March 1961, they were regularly backing Tony Sheridan.
During the Top Ten season with the Beatles, Sheridan got into a fight and severed a tendon in his hand with a broken bottle. He missed a couple of nights and since then he has had to play with the third finger of right hand rigid. “I really screwed my finger up when I was 21, and it never worked after that. I had this big plaster on my arm, but I climbed through the window at the seamen’s hospital in St Pauli to get to the Top Ten so that I could still play. I got back through the window and went to bed. The doctor took off the plaster a week later. When Gerry Marsden came over, he thought it was my natural way to play and of course it wasn’t.”
Around this time, John Lennon developed his defiant stage stance: facing the audience straight on, legs astride, guitar high on the chest (though not as high as Gerry Marsden’s). Both John and Gerry were copying Tony Sheridan in Hamburg: there are even photographs of Gerry with his finger outstretched.
Gerry Marsden: “I don’t deny it. I did get a lot of ideas about singing and presentation from Tony Sheridan. His rhythm playing was great, he could drive like mad, and I did nick lots of rhythm off him. He also wore leather pants and cowboy boots and always looked good, but at the time I thought he was a Cockney.”
Bobby Thomson from Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes: “When John Lennon came back from Hamburg, he stood with his legs wide apart and he held the guitar like a machine gun. He didn’t stand like that before and once I saw Sheridan, I knew whom he’d copied.”
Sam Hardie of the Dominoes, who worked with Sheridan in Frankfurt in 1963: “The first few times I saw Tony it didn’t really register but then I became a confirmed addict. I do think he is the greatest singer ever. He was Mr Soul, the musician’s musician.”
Liverpool singer and record producer, Paul Murphy: “Sheridan was absolutely breathtaking on stage. If anyone should have made it, it was him but he had a self-destruct button. Whenever he sees success, he messes it up. I thought he was frightened of success and that was his problem.”
Many musicians remember Sheridan with a 30 minute display of ‘What’d I Say’: “That was the short version! We had to do eight hours a night and we thought, ‘We’ll start this song now’ and I might finish it an hour later. You’re thinking all the time, you’ve got your heart going and this love for what you’re doing, and your body is chugging along trying to keep up. It’s like playing some extreme sport. Ray Charles did ‘What I’d Say’ in two parts – we did it in 14, and I might end up on the floor, half-naked and looking up like Gene Vincent.”
Roy Young, who played piano with Tony Sheridan and the Jets at the Top Ten Club, experienced the exhausting sets. “It was eight hours a night, it sounds ridiculous today. At 10, there was a half-hour break and then you would go on until 4 in the morning. Gangsters would come into the club, and the patrons would have to vacate the table if they were sitting at the front because they would want to sit there. The waiters would give them drinks and they would throw 50 DMs onto the stage and that meant they wanted ‘What’d I Say’, which could go on for an hour. Once I left Tony, went down the road, had something to eat and he was still playing the same song when I got back.”
Paul McCartney recalled ‘What’d I Say’ as being “the one that really got the audiences. It became like trying to get into The Guinness Book Of Records – who could make it last the longest. It is the perfect song”.
It was sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. Ian Edwards from Ian and the Zodiacs comments, “Once Tony Sheridan unwrapped a packet of 20 Preludins and put them in a little tower in front of him. During the evening, he ate every one. He used to say, ‘I feel a headache coming on, Take a Prelly, headache’s gone.’”
Tony Sheridan: “We might choose ‘Johnny B Goode’ to start off. We did it in G yesterday so let’s try it in A tonight. I’ve had a pill and I can do it. We liked to sing as high as possible. McCartney was superb at that. He would take a song by Little Richard and take it up a couple of keys. He sounded like Little Richard.”
As the playing was so demanding and exhausting, it seems odd that the musicians should do extra time by jamming with each other. Tony Sheridan: “Well, it was probably a sort of sickness, I was obsessed. It wasn’t sex and drugs and rock’n’roll – it was rock’n’roll, rock’n’roll, rock’n’roll, with beer and drugs and sex coming after that. Most of the musicians in the Star-Club were fanatics. We didn’t even want to sleep. Why sleep when you can play?”
Sheridan gave songs “the unique Sheridan treatment”. One of his key inspirations was Gene Vincent and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from Carousel and ‘Over The Rainbow’ came from his repertoire. The Beatles put ‘Over The Rainbow’ into their own act. Tony Sheridan: “Everybody sings ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. I got it from a Gene Vincent album and it was one of my theatrical moments. I would do it two or three times a night with Gerry and the Pacemakers, and Gerry copied my version of the song. He even sounded like me, so it’s me that Liverpool Football Club should be thanking.”
During May 1961, Tony and the Beatles were spotted by the Schlager singer, Tommy Kent, who was being produced by Bert Kaempfert, a dance band leader with an international hit, ‘Wonderland By Night’. Tommy Kent remembers, “Bert wanted to see Ivo Robic that evening and so he told me I could have his car and go to the Reeperbahn. I went in the Top Ten. It was dirty and crowded and you had to drink a lot because if you didn’t drink very much, they threw you out. The atmosphere was very good. From the second that I heard Tony Sheridan and the Beatles, I thought, ‘What fun they are’ and I knew that they were very good. I told Bert Kaempfert that he must see them. The next night I went back with Bert Kaempfert and his wife, and I said to Paul McCartney, ‘Can I play some music with you?’ and we did ‘Be Bop A Lula’, ‘Kansas City’ and two blues numbers. The next day I made a record and went back home to Munich and Bert Kaempfert signed a contract with Tony Sheridan and the Beatles.” The contract was with Der Bert Kaempfert Produktion and the tracks were released on Polydor.
The Beatles recorded nine songs in Germany (one lost), seven of them with Tony Sheridan. The session tapes were released on the 2CD set, Beatles Bop, by Bear Family in 2001. When they recorded with Sheridan, the Beatles were known as the Beat Brothers, primarily because Bert Kaempfert was concentrating on Sheridan and wanted a name that he could use whoever was backing him.
The first Polydor sessions took place in June 1961 in Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Harburg, a school hall across the river in south Hamburg. Tony Sheridan: “We had an idea of what was expected. We had about 15 whiskeys the night before and we had agreed on ‘My Bonnie’ and ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’. It was a mistake to choose ‘My Bonnie’ – it was a terrible song. Well, 200 years ago, it was okay on the Isle of Skye as it was about Bonnie Prince Charlie. Maybe it gave McCartney an idea to do something with bagpipes.”
Sheridan recorded slow introductions in both German and English, but often the record is reissued without either. “That German intro was a business move by the publisher and the producer to earn a little money on the side. They could claim authorship and publish it but it was probably a good idea to have a German version as well.”
They also recorded Hank Snow’s weepie, ‘Nobody’s Child’ although they knew Lonnie Donegan’s version better. John McNally of the Searchers recalls Sheridan’s versatility: “Sheridan was always best late at night when he’d got a few drinks inside him. He’d become very melancholic and perform the blues. He was the best guitarist around and I’d watch him every night. He did a great version of ‘Nobody’s Child’ which was very slow and dynamic.”
‘Nobody’s Child’ adds an Elvis reference as the guitar introduction is very similar to Elvis Presley’s ‘I’ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin’)’. They tackle Jimmy Reed’s ‘Take Out Some Insurance On Me, Baby’ with Tony doing his best to sound like Elvis. ‘Why (Can’t You Love Me Again)’ has some good doo-wop harmonies and a neat guitar ending and could easily be mistaken for an American record. Without Sheridan, the Beatles recorded ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ with John Lennon copying Gene Vincent’s version, and an instrumental, ‘Cry For A Shadow’.
Sheridan was encouraging John and Paul to write their own songs, and he wrote ‘Tell Me If You Can’ with Paul in June 1961, although it has never been released. Sheridan has never recorded the song as he says it is “a piece of crap”.
Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers’ single of ‘My Bonnie (Mein Herz Ist Bie Dir Nur)’ was released in Germany in October 1961. It didn’t make the German charts until December 1961, but it stayed there for 12 weeks, reaching Number 32. “I didn’t feel too good about making the charts. I would rather it had been with a good song. It was so silly really. I don’t think any of us liked it. We went to bed at 5am and got up at 8am to be taken to the studio to make the record. We took some uppers to get us awake again and the guitar solo was all right. I was happy with my solo and I was happy with Paul McCartney’s bass and with John Lennon compensating for the drummer.”
Had Tony been hoping it would be released in the UK? “Certainly not. I was rather hoping that no one would hear it in Britain! I didn’t want it to be released there. We had been playing some really juicy rhythm and blues at the Top Ten but that was never recorded. Kaempfert wanted stupid songs, so that record was a joke.”
I think Tony Sheridan’s wrong. If the Beatles had broken up at the end of 1961, ‘My Bonnie’ might well be viewed in a very different light. It might be classed with the best of the British rock’n’roll records, although it was, admittedly, made in Hamburg. It is up there with ‘Move It!’ (Cliff Richard), ‘Endless Sleep’ (Marty Wilde), ‘Baby She’s Gone’ (Terry Dene), ‘Shakin’ All Over’ (Johnny Kidd) and ‘Wondrous Place’ (Billy Fury).
The Beatles had been given some copies of the German single and had passed one to Bob Wooler, the DJ at the Cavern, who was playing it frequently.
On Saturday 28 October 1961, a teenage fan, Raymond Jones, went into Brian Epstein’s record store, NEMS, and requested ‘My Bonnie’. Brian Epstein had not heard of the record and promised to order it. As a result, he saw the Beatles one lunchtime at the Cavern and became their manager.
In December 1961, Sheridan recorded a whole album in a day for Bert Kaempfert, which to add to the confusion was released as Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers, although there was not a Beatle in sight. As the twist was in vogue, Sheridan sang ‘Let’s Twist Again’ and a homage to St Pauli, ‘Top Ten Twist’. The album, with the addition of ‘My Bonnie’, was released as My Bonnie in April 1962.
Just after Christmas, Peter Eckhorn, accompanied by Tony Sheridan, came to Liverpool. He wanted to hear local bands and book them for the Top Ten. Naturally, he wanted the Beatles back but this time they referred him to Brian Epstein. Sheridan was looking for a drummer and he offered Ringo Starr a job: “I had seen Ringo with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes but I had never sat in with them. Ringo was one of the few drummers who could keep a constant beat and do what was expected of him. When the Beatles went back, I had to get a new group together and we drove down the street where Ringo lived. The door was smaller than us. The door opened into his living room and we said, ‘Ringo, we need a drummer. Do you want to come over to Hamburg for a couple of months?’ He was in our group for a while and he got pretty good because of my attitude towards drummers. He got good enough to go with the Beatles, that’s for sure.”