5. STARS AT THE STAR-CLUB
Even the names of the key players in Hamburg – Bruno Koschmider, Horst Fascher, Manfred Weissleder – sound menacing. Just say them out loud and there’s something threatening in the air.
Manfred Weissleder was the toughest of the tough. He had made his money with strip clubs and erotic films and on 13 April 1962, he opened the Star-Club in Grosse Freiheit with the Beatles. This was the largest of the Hamburg beat clubs with a capacity for 1,000 customers. Weissleder and his day-to-day manager, Horst Fascher, had taken the musicians from the Top Ten and also had an idea for introducing star names to the areas.
Tony Sheridan saw the rock’n’roll stars at close hand. “Little Richard was an absolute maniac – he had the Bible in one hand and he would be saying, ‘Where can I find a young guy?’ We didn’t know anything about the gay scene. We did listen to his Bible spoutings and I could tell he was a very good preacher. I got the impression that he was into voodoo, but that’s just a feeling I had.”
Some of the stars came for a night or a week, but Gene Vincent had residencies at the Star-Club. He was fined by the Hotel Pacific for setting his sheets alight by smoking in bed. “I don’t think it did Gene Vincent any good to come to Hamburg as he melted into the scenery. There were a lot of leather jackets and leather trousers in Hamburg so they had seen it before and he wasn’t an obvious celebrity to them. We musicians worshipped him for his early work – his first two LPs were great – and he was much more than a rock’n’roller. The Germans just saw another guy on stage doing his antics with leather gloves and medallions. Gene would say, ‘They don’t like me, Tony.’ I think Gene knew that he was good but he had the attitude, ‘If they don’t know I’m good, then I don’t particularly want to tell them.’”
Even by Sheridan’s standards, Tony could see that Gene Vincent behaved irrationally. “People say Gene Vincent died young but I don’t know how he survived as long as he did. He was always getting into scuffles and fights and he wanted to kill people. One of my friend’s brothers apparently slept with his wife. Gene was going to kill him. He said to his road manager, Henry Henroid, ‘I’m gonna kill that motherfucker. I’m going to blow him away’ He shot the gun in the hotel room for effect. He got arrested and the police told him that he was not allowed to fire guns in Germany.”
In September 1962, Gene Vincent hired Tony Sheridan to go with him to Israel. Tony Sheridan: “We went to Tel Aviv and we were performing to Jewish people in a very respectable night club. Gene had a huge chip on his shoulder about not being paid for ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ ‘They were all Jews, Tony,’ he would say, ‘They didn’t pay me.’ On the first night, I was playing guitar for him and we were rocking away and he looked menacing. The audience didn’t like him and they didn’t want him to play anymore. He retreated to his hotel for the rest of the week. He was passing messages to me under the door, ‘If anything happens to me, get this message to CIA or the FBI. There are Jewish spies everywhere.’ I did the rest of the booking without him and it was okay as I was happy and friendly with the audience.
The Beatles still had a contract with Bert Kaempfert Produktion and, indeed, Sheridan and the Beatles with Roy Young on piano recorded two more songs for him, ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ and ‘Swanee River’ during May. The second track has never been issued and appears to be lost. Kaempfert was more interested in Sheridan than the Beatles and he was happy to release them from their contract, so that they could sign with Parlophone.
Tony Sheridan continued to record for Polydor and he had national success in Germany. He had a Top 10 single with ‘Let’s Slop’ (not a prison song about cleaning latrines, but a new dance) and a revival of Bill Haley’s ‘Skinny Minnie’, which made Number 3. It is a most un-Haley like song and fitted into the modern beat era well. It has become a tour de force of his act and in 2003, I heard Tony perform a 20 minute version of ‘Skinny Minnie’ at the Cavern.
Polydor released another Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers album Let’s Do The Madison, Twist, Locomotion, Slop, Hully Gully, Monkey in December 1963. It includes a fine version of the Drifters’ ‘Ruby Baby’, which had just been revived by Dion: “I did ‘Ruby Baby’ in the studio with Bert Kaempfert and I had invited Joey Dee and the Starliters to come in and do background vocals. They were appearing at the Star-Club and they did the vocals very well. Bert Kaempfert got excited and wanted to join us on some wooden blocks. I listened to that record later on and I thought, ‘Somebody’s playing out of time’ and it was Bert Kaempfert. He was missing the beat, and I was a stickler for tempo. I used to get enraged on stage if somebody had the wrong tempo and was going too fast or too slow. He couldn’t keep the beat and so he went down in my estimation after that.”
There was also an LP for Philips by the Star Combo with Roy Young taking most of the vocals, but Tony Sheridan also sang as Dan Sherry (that is, Sheri Dan), for contractual reasons.
Sheridan was also recording in German including ‘Ich Lieb Dich So’ (Ben E King’s ‘Ecstasy’), ‘Arne Kieine Lilly’ (Conway Twitty’s ‘Comfy ‘n Cozy’). Tony Sheridan: “Bert Kaempfert was aiming at a German market and he didn’t know how to approach rock’n’roll, blues or rhythm and blues. He thought it would be a good idea to do ‘Ecstasy’ in German for the German people. I never sang it in English. Lee Curtis from Liverpool used to do it in English. In the middle of it, he jumped on the table and did a tap dance. The German title means ‘I Love You So’ and so that’s how bad it gets, right.”
A collection of Tony Sheridan’s German recordings, Ich Lieb Dich So, was released by Bear Family in 1986. It includes some English tracks including the fine, Graham Bond-styled ‘Hey Ba Ba Re Bop’ with the Bobby Patrick Big Six. Much of the collection is German Schlager, and from time to time, Tony indulged in this middle-of-the-road music. In particular, in 1972, Tony Sheridan recorded with his girlfriend, Carole Bell, from the Liverpool harmony trio, the Three Bells as Carole and Tony but the results ‘Ich Glaub An Dich’ and ‘Monday Morning’ are the blandest of his career.
Interestingly, some of the Jets remained in Hamburg and also recorded in Germany. The 1999 compilation, Damals In Hamburg, contains many of Sheridan’s tracks as well as solo efforts from Rick Hardy, Toni Cavanaugh, Jimmy Ward and his sometime producer, a Scouser based in Hamburg, Paul Murphy (who recorded as Paul Rodgers).
Tony Sheridan was largely based in Hamburg and he married a local girl, Rosi Heitmann. They had a son, Ricky, born in 1961. Tony came to the UK from time to time and was a support act on Brenda Lee’s UK tour in 1963 and Roy Orbison’s the following year. Tony Sheridan with the Bobby Patrick Big Six from Glasgow were billed as being “from the Star-Club Hamburg” and they made an excellent album together, Just A Little Bit Of Tony Sheridan. The album included revivals of ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ (arranged by James Last) and ‘You Better Move On’.
Tony Sheridan: “I was not striving to go back to England full-time to try and make it. John and Paul and the rest of them were all very ambitious. I had made an impression in Hamburg and I didn’t want to lose what I had. The Searchers worked very hard to make it and to stay there while people like myself don’t really care. If it happens, it happens and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I don’t know if I wanted hit records or not. I should have done the black thing a bit more. There was talk of me being produced by Jerry Wexler and that would have been great. I was waiting for a miracle really but the miracle never happened.”
Except that millions of people own ‘My Bonnie’ and the other tracks Tony Sheridan recorded with the Beatles. They have been issued on hundreds of compilations. During 1963, ‘My Bonnie’ was exploited as a single to cash in on the Beatles’ success and made the UK Top 50 and US Top 30. ‘Why (Can’t You Love Me Again)’ even became a hit in Australia. As a result, Tony accepted some dates in Australia in 1964.
Tony was encouraged to exploit his links with the Beatles by revamping ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’. The original track with the Beatles was used but he now added a verse about the Beatles’ hair, which was written by his producer, Paul Murphy. Paul added a Brian Epstein impersonation and the result is an amusing novelty.
Over the years there have been many press reports that Tony has not had his royalties from these tracks, but he is often misrepresented in the press. “I’ve never ever thought of suing the Beatles. Why should I do that? Polydor is the company I wanted to sue. I haven’t had my money from those tracks.” He may not had the money he feels he is owed, but in 2008, Polydor Universal presented him with a gold album for “his unique and eminent contribution to the incomparable worldwide career of The Beatles”.
While the Beatles were gathering headlines around the world, Tony Sheridan was getting unwanted attention in the Hamburg Abendblatt. This respectable newspaper was not interested in the music in St Pauli but reported the vigilante justice dispensed by the Star-Club’s staff and it seems to me that if the police wanted to find someone who was evading justice, they simply raided the club. On one raid, they hit the jackpot with 12 wanted criminals.
Horst Fascher: “Manfred Weissleder was always in danger of losing his licence. The government didn’t like a rock’n’roll club with young people in the red light district. They were concerned that young girls might be asked do other business.”
In September 1963, Tony Sheridan, at that time earning 4,000 DM (£350) a month, and Horst Fascher got involved in a night club brawl in Wiesbaden. The fight ended with Sheridan being struck to the ground by a blow to the head from a heavy stick. Fortunately, no permanent damage occurred.
In November 1963, the Star-Club and the Top Ten decided to sort out their rivalry by a fight to the finish by chosen representatives. Horst Fascher was fighting for the Star-Club and the magistrate asked how you would determine the winner. “It is a fight with bare fists,” said Fascher, “and the winner is when one of the fighters is knocked unconscious.” “But,” said the magistrate, “Walter was knocked unconscious and then kicked and trampled upon and dragged across the courtyard.”
Sheridan was charged with inciting a riot by calling out “Kill the pig!” He said, “Of course I did not want him to kill Walter. I was just screaming with excitement just as I would scream at a football game or a boxing match.” He was released with a caution. Tony did, however, do some time for breaking someone’s jaw.
There were seven cases of GBH brought against Horst Fascher alone in 1963 but they collapsed through lack of witnesses, and who can blame them? In 1965, Horst Fascher was deemed a chronic offender and imprisoned.
6. RUN THROUGH THE JUNGLE
Although Tony Sheridan was based in Hamburg for seven years, he played shows in numerous countries and in 1967, he received his most unlikely offer – would he entertain troops on the front line in Vietnam? Only a lunatic would even consider such an offer. He discussed this with his manger, Horst Fascher, and they decided to go. After all, Fascher, released from prison, was not allowed to work in St Pauli. Tony Sheridan: “I volunteered to get out of St Pauli as it was killing me. I would have died if I had stayed another six months. It was one of my best decisions. I was playing to the best audiences in the world. It was tough of course, but in many ways it was a continuation of St Pauli.”
Many American stars gave well-publicised concerts in Vietnam but Tony Sheridan was much more involved. “Bob Hope lived next door in Thailand and he flew into Saigon and then out again. It was the same with Raquel Welch, but I was there for 15 months right in amongst the mud and the ramshackle buildings. The Pentagon thought that musicians would help the war effort and increase the morale but it had the contrary effect. I would sing ‘Detroit City’ and they would sing ‘I wanna go home’ with such feeling. They didn’t want to be in Vietnam.”
Tony Sheridan got a first hand experience of what was going on. “We volunteered to go on a search-and-destroy mission and I was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat while this guy was shooting at cows and temples and I’m going, ‘Come on, I’m ashamed of this.’”
Often Tony was playing on his own with just his guitar for accompaniment. As a result, he became self-sufficient, a competent one-man troubadour. He was also writing his own songs. In 1967, one of his best songs, ‘Please Let Them Be’, was recorded by Gerry Marsden. It was a post-apocalyptic song in the same vein as ‘What Have They Done To The Rain?’.
It was during this time that Tony Sheridan developed an interest in religion, especially Buddism. He was to join the Sannyasin religion, rechristening himself Swami Probhu Sharan. It is also possible that he married for a third time while he was in Asia.
There were newspaper reports in 1968 that Tony Sheridan had been killed in Vietnam “while travelling without convoy in the military zone”, but it turned out to be a musician who was working with him. Sheridan returned to Germany in 1969. His gallantry was recognised by the US Army as he was made an honorary Captain.
Tony Sheridan was mostly doing acoustic gigs and singing his own songs. He started hosting blues programmes for NDR (North German Radio), which gathered a following from the communist East Germany. As a result, he did several tours there.
7. SWEAT GETS IN YOUR EYES
In 1975 Tony Sheridan’s old associate, Paul Murphy, found the money for him to record a live concert with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. It would be televised for the BBC by Michael Hurll. The first part of the concert, called Progression, traced the changes in music from Beethoven and Mozart to Lennon and McCartney. The second half would feature Tony Sheridan singing his own, new songs with the orchestra.
The concert was well received, but when I asked Paul Murphy about it, he described the evening as disastrous. Paul Murphy: “We were all crazy in Hamburg. I’d grown out of it but Tony was still crazy. He’d taken some substances and he freaked out. At the after show party at the Holiday In, he sarcastically thanked all the people who had never helped him and he called all the Germans Nazis. Michael Hurll was horrified and that TV special was buried.”
The album never appeared and just one one single was released, ‘If She’d Have Stayed’ and ‘Lonely’ on the BUK label.
In 1978, Dirk Summers, who ran Cayman Music Corporation, in the US invited Tony Sheridan to Los Angeles. He was a huge Beatles fan and he wanted to make an album with Tony. So, Tony recorded in Hollywood with Elvis Presley’s musicians. “What a great opportunity that was. Elvis had just died and they weren’t doing much. In America it’s all a question of money. If you have the money you can play with them, and the record company had the money.”
The album, Worlds Apart with ‘the Elvis Presley Band’, featured Glen D. Hardin, James Burton, Emory Gordy Jr and Ron Tutt as well as Klaus Voormann from Germany. It had a rocking side with ‘Rave On’ and ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ and a country side which included Sheridan’s own ‘Lookin’ Back’.
It was an impressive line-up and I like the album, but Tony had reservations: “We had the chance to do something very good and it would have been had we had a producer who knew what he was doing. He just said, ‘Do one side Country and one side Rock’n’Roll. What’s creative about that?’ I liked the track ‘Country Rock’n’Roll’ but our version of ‘My Baby Left Me’ is poor. You can also hear my infatuation with James Taylor at the time. I wanted to write a song that he might be able to sing and ‘Lookin’ Back’ is a synopsis of my life up until then.”
In February 1980, Horst Fascher opened a new Star-Club in a more respectable part of Hamburg. The opening shows featured a host of artists who had played there – Sheridan naturally, and Lee Curtis, Cliff Bennett, Beryl Marsden, Screaming Lord Sutch and Screaming Lord Sutch. On the album, Live At The Star-Club, Tony Sheridan performs an acceptable but rather perfunctory version of Little Richard’s ‘Lucille’.
Sheridan’s prospects should have improved when he was managed by the American saxophonist, Joe Sunseri. Sunseri encouraged him to make new albums: Here And Now! featured studio versions of familiar songs, while Dawn Colours was completely new material and featured guitar playing from both Tony and Albert Lee. Sunseri, an enormous fan, wrote his biography but they split up and it has not been published. Sheridan was supposedly working on his own book but as this has been said for some years, I doubt if it exists. I would have expected Sheridan to have written something in a heated rush and that would have been it.
On the other hand, we have, as an example of Sheridan’s writing, the curious epilogue he wrote for The Beatles – From Cavern To Star-Club (Hans Olof Gottfridsson, Premium Publishing, 1997). Through his Buddhist teachings, he describes his life as a journey and writes of the importance of music and of jumping. If his autobiography was going to be like this, would anyone have read beyond the introduction?
Around this time, Sheridan had a more stable family life than usual. He married Arunama and they had four children – Bennet, Felim, Amber and Wendy.
In 1997, Tony Sheridan was part of a reunion of British rockers at the 100 Club and then, in 1998, he appeared in a tribute to skiffle with Lonnie Donegan, Joe Brown and Chas McDevitt at the Royal Albert Hall. Tony Sheridan: “I said to myself, ‘What am I doing here? Do I really want to play some skiffle?’ and the answer was, ‘No, I don’t. I want to rock’n’roll.’ I went on stage with Chas and Dave and we did ‘Money Honey’, which had nothing to do with skiffle.”
Having seen that show at the Royal Albert Hall and having seen Sheridan making a guest appearance in the tribute musical, All You Need Is Love, and making a seven minute appearance at the Liverpool Arena in a concert for the 70th anniversary of John Lennon’s birth, I realise that he is never good in these surroundings and is best appreciated in lengthy sets. At the arena for example, he complained on stage about being limited to seven minutes and spent a valuable couple of minutes moaning about it. Subsequently, I discovered that one of the bands had kindly given Sheridan five of their minutes but he had ignored this.
In 2002, Tony Sheridan recorded an album of new material, Vagabond, produced by the Hamburg musician and historian, Ulf Kruger. The songs covered a wide range of styles. “They are enigmatic songs and I don’t know how they came to me. I am not a gigolo but I felt like that when I wrote ‘Sinkin’. When I wrote ‘Indochina’, I felt like a guy in that war before the Americans came. Things that I have experienced do pop up in unexpected places. Ideas from here and there can get mixed up in one song. It’s a bit irrational but Bob Dylan writes irrationally too.”
With cheerful but suitable irony, Tony wears a baseball cap with “RMS Titanic” on the cover for Vagabond. His personal life was sorting itself out and there were several songs for his new lady and third wife, Anna Sievers. They married and lived in a farm house in the north of Germany.
In 2003, he played himself in the crime series Stubbe for German TV. In 2005, he released a live DVD, Chantal Meets Tony Sheridan, which presented Tony Sheridan with a classical orchestra. He appeared in several Beatle-based documentaries and a German-based film company was planning a film about him.
Tony Sheridan was especially good at the Cavern in 2003 where he worked with two Latin-American musicians, bass player Victor Gomez from Argentina and drummer, Antonio ‘Nancho’ Baeza Campos from Brazil. They knew what they were doing, and more importantly, sensed what Tony was doing. His one hour set included an extended ‘Skinny Minnie’, ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ (“It could be your mother”), ‘Yesterday’, ‘All Right Now’, ‘What’d I Say’, ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’, ‘Money Honey’ and ‘Bright Lights – Big City’, ending on a frenzied and punkish ‘My Bonnie’. He impressed himself at one point, “I did the amazing feat of playing in four keys at the same time then. Did you hear that?”
In August 2011, Tony Sheridan came to Liverpool for the Beatles Convention, this time without Anna as she was ill. The shows went well and then he was to be collected for the airport. He said to the driver that he had to go back to his room for two minutes. He took 40 minutes and was then concerned that he was not going to get to the airport on time. He told the driver to drive through some red lights and went mad when the driver refused. The driver said, “With respect, Mr Sheridan, you spent 40 minutes in your room.” “That’s past history,” said Sheridan, “Get me to the fucking airport.” The driver did get him there just in time, and Sheridan was grateful. He said, “I don’t tip anyone, but I will shake hands with you, so you can tell people that you have shaken hands with Tony Sheridan.”
Sheridan’s wife, Anna, died of cancer in 2011. She was only 33 and Sheridan was devastated. His own health deteriorated during 2012 and he had a kidney removed and was also on a life support machine for several weeks. He died at the age of 72 on 16 February 2013.