This lengthy feature was written for publication in the rock’n’roll magazine, Now Dig This, in 2010 and the intention was to publish it over three months. Before it was printed, I thought it would be a good idea to send it to the subject – something I would not normally do – simply because I had found out a lot more about him than I expected and I thought he might embellish some of the stories. Instead, he went mental, threatening to beat me up when he came over for the Beatles Convention in August.
He claimed that he had never gone to jail and that he had not said many of the quotes attributed to him. Well, he had been in jail and he had said all of those quotes to me as I had them on tape from previous appearances at Beatles Conventions and on BBC Radio Merseyside. He also loathed the fact that lesser lights (in his opinion) were passing judgment on him.
Anyway, knowing that he could beat me to a pulp if he chose to, I decided to drop the feature. He still said that he was coming for me though and I wisely kept away from Liverpool that weekend, the first convention I have missed in years. Frankie Connor who hosted one of the events in my place said to me, “What have you done to Tony? He wants to beat you up. I told him you were okay but he said you were scum.”
Why am I publishing it now that Tony has gone? Well, no book on him has ever appeared and I think the public should know and hopefully enjoy his story. I am hoping that the aborted books by Alan Mann (a writer from his home town of Norwich) and Joe Sunseri (his former manager) will now appear. He is a crucial part of the stories of British rock’n’roll and the Beatles and his personality has a lot to do with how the Beatles determined their own career.
More than that, Tony Sheridan was a great musician, a superlative rock’n’roller and he was still very good, if infuriating, almost to the end. There is, I think, no definitive way of looking at Tony Sheridan and rather like Van Morrison, Chuck Berry and Lonnie Donegan, his actions may be viewed differently by different people. Looking at my feature today, I can see that I was gently mocking him, that I was finding his on-stage tantrums amusing, and maybe this is what upset him. I met Tony Sheridan about ten times and I don’t think I can recall him laughing, certainly not at his own expense. He might have been behaving ridiculously on stage from time to time, but that was not how he saw it.
This feature has had a few updates since I wrote it and I would welcome any further information. His lovelife is excessively complicated but hey, this is rock and roll.
Spencer Leigh, February 2013
1. MR SPONTANEITY
“I’m still waiting for my break, man.”
(Tony Sheridan, 2010)
In August 1989 Tony Sheridan came to Liverpool for some appearances in and around the annual Beatles Convention. I’d not met him before but I knew about his wild reputation in the clubs in Hamburg and elsewhere. No one ever doubted his talent but it was untamed. Some said that he was his own worst enemy but I suspected that there were other claimants to this title.
We met for the first time just before a live radio show on BBC Radio Merseyside. Tony hadn’t brought his guitar but he announced on air that he would play live if we could get a guitar. Someone ran round to the guitar shop, Frank Hessy’s, and, amazingly, they lent us a guitar just like that – remarkable, really! – although the shop did go bankrupt a few years later.
The radio show was going well until we talked about the recordings he made in Hamburg. Even though Tony might have been speaking the truth, he clearly libelled someone and I said, “But you don’t mean that?”, thereby giving him the chance to retract. Not a bit of it. “I bloody well do,” he responded, and the following week we had to broadcast an apology or face legal action. Some years later, he signed a CD, “Thanks for forgiving me, Tony Sheridan.” I’m not all that sure that I did.
The previous night Tony had appeared with a pick-up band and I’d heard reports that their performance was rambling and shambolic but his talent shone through. “Last night we had a problem,” admitted Tony. “Everybody’s minds were screwed up because nobody knew what was happening, but that is normal when you’re playing with me. The only way to be is spontaneous. I’ve no time for these guys who plan their shows – that’s all rubbish. Music is all about spontaneity.” That, as I’ve discovered, is a candid and accurate statement of the Sheridan philosophy.
On the Bank Holiday Monday, Tony Sheridan was appearing at the Floral Hall in Southport and I went along. His band from two nights ago had backed off, and this time he was to be accompanied by some twenty-somethings who played rock’n’roll. “That’s okay,” he told them, “There’s no need to rehearse. I’m only doing rock’n’roll standards.”
About 200 people came to the show. Tony Sheridan came on stage in workshirt, jeans and one of his numerous baseball caps. The band wondered what would be first – ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘C’mon Everybody’, ‘What’d I Say’? Not a bit of it. Tony Sheridan walked up to the microphone with his guitar, plugged in and started singing,
“They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within.”
An intriguing opening. Was he relating Leonard Cohen’s song to his own life? More importantly, had the band ever heard the song before?
“I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them,
First we take Manhattan,
Then we take Berlin.”
The band was watching in disbelief: this didn’t sound like Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley to them. They made a half-hearted attempt to back him but they didn’t know where the song (or Sheridan) was going.
The audience was equally mystified. After all, they had been expecting an evening of rock’n’roll and they certainly didn’t want the collected works of Leonard Cohen.
Tony Sheridan continued with the song and finished it on his own, adding an insulting comment about Southport along the way. A few people applauded but mostly everyone was wondering what would happen next; whether indeed there was going to be any show at all.
“This band can’t play,” said Sheridan, “but there must be some guys here who can. Is there anyone who used to know me in Hamburg?” This could have been his intention all along, that he wanted to be backed by old friends.
Fortunately, a couple of Kingsize Taylor’s Dominoes (Sam Hardie and John Frankland) and some other Merseybeat musicians joined him and over the next five minutes, a scratch band was formed and the young lads were sent packing. Tony Sheridan blamed them, Tony Sheridan blamed the organiser, and Tony Sheridan was mad that he had been placed in this position, but he didn’t apologise to the audience who had paid good money to witness this fracas.
Then, comfortable within himself, Tony Sheridan started playing ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘C’mon Everybody’ and ‘What’d I Say’. The only deviation from his rock’n’roll set was Free’s ‘All Right Now’ and even that was okay as it’s like a killer Eddie Cochran riff. He was excellent, spurring on the band to play better. “Come on, John, pull your finger out” and “Don’t vary the tempo, man.” At one point he said, “Time for the saxophone break” but there wasn’t a saxophonist in sight. “Typical,” he said, “They’re lazy bastards. They don’t turn up.”
The evening had been revealing. When you saw and heard Tony Sheridan at his best, you wondered why he had never made it. When you saw him at his worst, you knew precisely why. What was the point of humiliating a young band on stage? After the show, when I confronted Tony Sheridan about his behaviour, he said, “You have to shock musicians out of their lethargy. That is why I started with ‘First We Take Manhattan’. They’ve got to wake up. It makes me nervous to play when someone says, ‘Where’s the set list?’ There is never a set list with me. I will think of a song and we will do it at any given time – and it may be a short version or a long version.”
Surely the audience – not to mention the musicians – deserve some rehearsals. It seemed to me that Tony Sheridan possessed a mean streak that he didn’t hide or correct, but it’s also true that he could be just as critical of himself.
Lee Curtis recalls, “I remember Tony Sheridan being cruel to Billy J Kramer when he went back to Hamburg about ten years ago. Billy got changed into his sequinned blue suit and he looked superb. Tony went, ‘Ummm, nice, but you know something, that ain’t gonna help you out there. You have to do a show and you don’t do it by painting yourself up. They’ll appreciate that you’ve made the effort, but then they’ll think, ‘Can you sing?’’” Billy should have ignored such taunts, but being a nervous guy, it went to his head and he gave a poor performance.
The closest comparison to Sheridan would be with P J Proby, a musician with enormous talent who possesses a similar self-destruct button. P J Proby did have his moment in the sun but he messed it up. I had a feeling that even if Tony Sheridan had had the hits, he would have done the same as Proby and ruined his career.
2. ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS
Some Beatle biographies assume that Tony Sheridan had a privileged upbringing. This is partly because he is well spoken and partly because his full name is Anthony Esmond Sheridan McGinnity. However, his birth certificate reveals that he was born at 38 Glenmore Gardens, Norwich. It is a three bedroom, semi-detached town house and its current value is £130,000: comfortable enough, but not excessive.
Tony Sheridan was born on 21 May 1940. His father, Alphonsus, was an Irishman who had been born in West Derby, Liverpool, close to the Casbah Club in Hayman’s Green where the Beatles started. Alphonsus worked for the Ministry of Labour and his mother, Audrey, was a nurse.
When Tony was only one year old, his father left the family home. “I’m not quite sure what happened next,” says Tony, “but the first few months of my conscious life were in a home for children. When I got to know the first rock’n’rollers in Britain, I found that most of them had been screwed up in some way. That, maybe, is why we all found rock’n’roll so fascinating. I don’t know. It’s a question for a psychiatrist.”
After the war, Tony was reunited with his mother, Audrey, and around 1950, they moved to the village of Thorpe St Andrew, a couple of miles outside Norwich. The upheaval didn’t affect his studies. He was a bright boy, a good swimmer and a cross country runner. He attended the City of Norwich School, played violin in its orchestra and sang in both school and church choirs.
His mother was a good singer and Tony joined her in Gilbert and Sullivan productions. “It was a very good training to be in The Mikado when you’re 11. I was singing a female role and singing madrigals as well. I got so frustrated doing all this shit for six or seven years that as soon as I heard Lonnie Donegan, I wanted a guitar – and freedom!”
When he was 16, Tony Sheridan passed several O-levels and obtained the top grade in Art. He studied commercial art at college, but not for long. In February 1957 Tony Sheridan saw Lonnie Donegan at the Theatre Royal, Norwich and decided to perform skiffle and rock’n’roll. As he puts it, “I wanted to get into the sexual side of music.”
Tony and his friends formed the Saints skiffle group and they performed in a pub by the art college and also at the Red Lion in Thorpe St Andrew. After they won £15, they decided that they might be good enough to make it in London.
As rock’n’roll performers were regularly being discovered at the Two Is coffee-bar in Old Compton Street, Soho, they headed there and impressed Tom Littlewood who managed the place. They found themselves performing alongside Roy Young and the Worried Men. “The others couldn’t take it,” says Tony of his band, the Saints, “They returned home after a week. I was getting 12 bob (60p) a night for playing which kept me in cigarettes and one meal for the next day.” Another member of the Saints, Kenny Packwood, stayed and was to join Marty Wilde’s Wildcats and then Lord Rockingham’s XI.
By day, Tony Sheridan worked in a brewery, shifting beer crates, and he played coffee-bars at night. He bought a Futurama Grazioso guitar. It was a red solid bodied instrument with several knobs and pick-ups and was marketed at the time as “the world’s most advanced electric guitar”. He learnt guitar solos by copying rock’n’roll records.
His first steady musical job came when Vince Eager asked him to join his band, the Vagabonds and he joined Brian ‘Licorice’ Locking on bass and Jimmy Nicol on drums. They went on tour for the promoter, Larry Parnes.
When they weren’t doing anything else, Tony, Licorice and Brian Bennett would play in the Two Is. Licorice Locking remembers, “Tony was a big Buddy Holly fan and we did a very good ‘Rave On’ with Tony on guitar, me on double bass and Brian on drums. We were on when Vince Taylor walked in with his American manager. They were looking for a group to back him and they chose Tony, Brian and me. We added Tony Harvey on rhythm guitar and we became Vince Taylor’s Playboys.”
Vince Taylor also worked for the impresario Larry Parnes. Tony Sheridan: “I was in the Playboys reluctantly, very reluctantly. Larry Parnes controlled the whole business in Britain and if you didn’t work for him, you starved and so I had to be one of the Playboys with Vince Taylor for a while.”
Vince Taylor was an American from Hounslow who wanted to emulate Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent, but he never looked right. There seemed something bogus about him, coupled with the fact that he couldn’t sing. Still, he had an excellent band, who accompanied him on his 1958 Parlophone single, ‘Right Behind You Baby’ and ‘I Like Love’. Licorice Locking: “We did ‘Right Behind You Baby’ on the first take. I was expecting just one 12-bar solo from Tony Sheridan but he took two and the second one was awe-inspiring. It lifted the track off the ground.”
Tony Sheridan: “Everything’s all right on ‘Right Behind You Baby’ except the singer. He had a manager, a nice Jewish gentleman from California who decided Vince Taylor would be the answer to Elvis in Britain because Elvis hadn’t come to Britain. He had nice teeth and looked the part but he couldn’t sing.”
Jack Good was the only British TV producer with a feel for the new music and his ITV series, Oh Boy!, is still revered. At the end of 1958, he had a lapse of taste by employing Vince Taylor, but, for all his shortcomings, Vince was a fine showman. However, it was the Playboys who impressed Jack Good. He signed Sheridan for solo spots and as a guitarist for other singers. Cherry Wainer was a regular on Oh Boy! and Tony played guitar on her cover of ‘The Happy Organ’.
On Oh Boy!, he appeared as Tony Sheridan and the Wreckers. The musical director of Oh Boy!, Harry Robinson recalled, “Tony told them all to dye their hair the same colour. They filled the sink with dye and put their heads in it. The dye went right down over their eyes and when they went on the show, they looked like ghouls from a Hammer film.”
At the same time, Tony Sheridan was the first British artist to be signed by the new Top Rank label. . According to Record Mirror in January 1959. “He’s tall, fluffy-haired and works rather on a Buddy Holly kick.” The same feature talks of his own song with a cha-cha beat, ‘Why (Can’t You Love Me Again)’, being considered for the first single. It had been written with another British rock’n’roll performer, Bill Crompton, who had recorded ‘A Hoot And A Holler’ in 1958.
All this was pointing in the right direction, but there were negative features. Nothing came of the Top Rank contract as Tom Littlewood, who was acting on Tony’s behalf, was demanding too large an advance.
More to the point, Tony was enjoying a bohemian lifestyle with attractive girls everywhere. He moved in with Hazel Byng, a dancer at the Windmill. In the mornings, he preferred to stay in bed and he missed rehearsals for Oh Boy! They married in May 1959 after Hazel had become pregnant. Tony had no regular work, but he joined Marty Wilde for a summer season at the Blackpool Palace. Tony and Hazel’s son, Anthony Sean Sheridan McGinnity Jr, was born on 23 October 1959 and Brian Bennett and Licorice Locking were godfathers.
Not this brought any responsibility. As Sheridan wrote in ‘Sinkin’’ in 2002:
“I knew a honey, gave me all her money
Wanted me to be her man,
But I thought better, got my shit together
Left before it hit the fan.”
A mea culpa song on the same album, Won’t Do It Again, is almost an apology to Hazel:
“Baby won’t you take me back, let me in,
I did a lotta livin’ in sin,
But I’ll never hurt your lovin’ heart again.”