In his first interview since the 1960s, Chris Curtis talks frankly and exclusively to Spencer Leigh about his years with the Searchers. – (As published in “Record Collector”, March 1998)
Around 1980 I set about interviewing Merseybeat musicians for a BBC Radio Merseyside series, “Let’s Go Down The Cavern”, which eventually became a book. Very few musicians turned me down and the only abrupt response came from Chris Curtis, the former drummer with the Searchers. “I don’t want to talk about those days,” he said when I rang him, “I don’t even want to be reminded of them.”
As the weeks went by, I heard stories about his moods and how disturbed he was. I was told that if he had decided to help me, he would have rung every morning at three o’clock.. Liking a good night’s sleep, I thought I’d had a lucky escape.
In 1985 Michael Ochs came to Liverpool to promote his book of photographs, “Rock Archives”. He appeared on Billy Butler’s radio programme and went to the Holiday Inn across the road for a coffee. Chris Curtis came in with a bagful of memorabilia and handed it to him, saying, “You should have this.” Billy and I were horrified – this American had breezed into the city for a morning and walked out with a bag of Searchers’ goodies. Later I learnt that Chris only received songwriting royalities from his old recordings and his generosity was simply making a rich man richer.
I heard also that Chris had boarded an early morning bus and handed out his record collection to the surprised passengers. One of his neighbours told me what a nice but eccentric man he was.
From time to time, I renewed my request for an interview, the last time being in 1992 when I was doing the sleeve notes for the Searchers’ “EP Collection, Volume 2” and I wanted to know who had done the original of “Unhappy Girls”. He couldn’t help me and again he didn’t want to be interviewed.
By December 1997, I still hadn’t interviewed Chris Curtis but then, nor had anyone else. One evening I was interviewing John McNally, lead guitarist of the Searchers, on air and when I got home, my wife was talking to Chris on the ‘phone and we found he had already left four messages. He had been ringing up while the programme was on air – “I agree with what John’s saying,” he kept saying, “I can work with him again.”
So, after 17 years of trying, Chris Curtis said yes to a radio interview. I said that I also would like to conduct a full interview for “Record Collector” as it was about time his side of the story was told – by all accounts, he was the most important member of the Searchers. I didn’t expect him to turn up but we recorded a two hour conversation.
I liked Chris Curtis a lot. He has had years of mental problems and he speaks quickly with his mind wandering all over the place and lapsing into funny voices. In his own words, he is “not Tommy Tantrum anymore”, adding, “I think very fast, even today, and people who know me well say, ‘Oh, it’s him.’ People who don’t know me well may think I’m off my cake.”
Chris Curtis has come through it all – he is confident in his ability and he is performing again as part of a duo, Jimmy, in the Old Roan pub in the Liverpool suburbs. He’ll even sing “Needles And Pins” if you ask him.
SL: Did you learn many instruments as you were growing up?
CC: I was a blitz baby, born in Oldham in 1941. I came to Liverpool when I was four and went to primary school. I taught myself how to play the piano in our parlour in 30 Florida Street in Bootle. There’s a Marks and Spencer’s there now. I knew C was the middle note and I worked out the chords around that. The first B-side for the Searchers, “It’s All Been A Dream”, was written on that piano. I passed the 11-plus and went to St. Mary’s College in Crosby, where they gave me a violin although I wanted to play the double-bass. I played “London’s Burnin’” for five years and each year my marks went down. The teachers said, “This boy is not trying”, but that’s the way I was: if I didn’t get what I wanted, I had a tantrum.
SL: When you start playing drums?
CC: I wanted to join a group as things were going to happen. I thought I didn’t need any training to play the drums, you just have to bash hard, so I told my mum and dad that I wanted some drums and my dad signed for them at Frank Hessy’s. They were very snazzy, all blue and shiny. One Saturday afternoon when I went to make my payment, I met Mike Pender, who’d been in primary school with me. Drummers were hard to find and he asked me to join them for a booking in Garston that night. My brother had a little Anglia and he took me with my drums scrunged in on the backseat and a big tom-tom on my knees. It was a bit like busking for me, but it wasn’t difficult. They were doing songs I knew such as “Oh Lonesome Me”.
SL: Would this be at the infamous Wilson Hall?
CC: Yes, the Wilson Hall. That and Hambleton Hall in Huyton were renowned for fights, and there was always a fracas when you played Litherland. They needed Brian out of the Adelphi to say, “Just drink, will ya?” I used to hold up my cymbals in case there was any flying glass. I realised then that chaps would fight over anything in a skirt.
SL: This was around 1960 and I’ve been told that you had very long hair – and at the time they’d only be you and Screamin’ Lord Sutch.
CC: I was a couple of years before him – I know that because we discussed it in at the Star-Club. I’ve had mine long since I was 14. I had to have it very neat when I was at school, but it was wilder when I worked at Swift’s Furniture Store in Stanley Road.
SL: Was Johnny Sandon the lead singer when you joined the Searchers?
CC: No, he joined not long after me. He had a marvellous voice, and later on I recorded him independently for Pye Records – (sings) “Your lips on mine are soft as dew”, you know the Brook Benton song “So Many Ways”, and he did it brilliantly. God knows what happened to the tapes.
SL: Johnny Sandon left you to go to play army bases in France which was a dreadful career move.
CC: It was a goof and I felt so sorry for him. He was a solo singer – Johnny Sandon and the Searchers – and we decided to continue on our own. I wasn’t sure if I could drum and sing at the same time but I knew it was just coordination. We needed some new material and I got hold of soul records by the Coasters and the Clovers and we’d Blanco them up. White boys’ voices singing black man’s soul and it worked. “Sweets For My Sweet” of course and “Goodbye My Love” is an even better example.
SL: Where did you get the records from? Was it the Cunard Yanks?
CC: No, that’s a load of bollocks. How would the sailors know to buy records by the Clovers? Some of them brought country records in, but that was about it. There was a second hand shop on Stanley Road by the Rotunda and I would go from Stanley Road by bus to Young’s in my lunchhour, and he would watch me going through boxes of 45s and I would buy things like Bobby Comstock’s “Let’s Stomp”. I was always looking for things – I found “Love Potion No.9” in a second-hand shop in Hamburg when we were at the Star-Club.
SL: If Young’s was a second-hand shop, someone was getting rid of them.
CC: I think he had a supplier in America ‘cause they were always in good nick, no cracks in them. One afternoon I went to the Gaumont Cinema in Bootle to see “Town Without Pity” and I came out and found another record shop. It was there that I came across “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles and I wasn’t sure about buying it because both sides were the same – “What’d I Say (Parts 1 and 2)”. Of course when I got it home, I found they were quite different and I played that brilliant riff over and over and over. I decided to sing it myself and we used to finish every show with it.
SL: Do you think you were playing it before the Beatles and other bands?
CC: I would know so, but there were so many groups living in each other’s pockets songwise. Roy Orbison came out with “Dream Baby” and by the end of the week, everyone was doing it. Paul McCartney did it best. He was really right for the song.
SL: What about Pete Best?
CC: He was a genius. You could put that man on a drumkit and ask him to play for 19 hours and he’d put his head down and do it. He’d drum like a dream with real style and stamina all night long and thayt really was the Beatles’ sound – forget the guitars and forget the faces – you couldn’t avoid that insistent whack, whack, whack! The rhythm guitar went along with it and the bass chucked in the two and four beats and George was wonderful on the guitar. His little legs would kick out to the side when he did his own tunes. He’d go all posh and say, “I’d like to do a tune now from Carl Perkins, ‘Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby’, and it’s in A.” Who wanted to know what key it was in? But he always said that.
SL: Were you surprised that the Beatles sacked Pete Best?
CC: I was amazed. When Pete left,I even thought of turning into a guitarist and getting him to drum in our band. The Beatles didn’t hate Pete Best but they didn’t want a star on the drums. Ringo was a good drummer but he was more ordinary. At that Decca audition, I think they also realised that Pete had so much power that no-one would know how to record him. That’s why so many Merseyside discs are icky, all thin and weedy – except for the Searchers’. Our engineer knew what he was doing, but not always. “Love Potion No.9” was our biggest seller in America and the drums are so thin on that record. It was right for their radio stations, they like that kind of sound.
SL: What was playing the Cavern like?
CC: I hated it. When I was on stage, I used to comment on the state of the lavatories and say that the place stank of Jeyes fluid and sweat. Ray McFall told me that if I made any more remarks like that, I wouldn’t play there again. I’d play the lunchtime session and I’d have to put my clothes on the line in 30 Florida Street. It was terrible, it stank and the only reason it was popular was because Ray McFall was clever enough to say the Beatles will be here tonight, or Gerry.
SL: But wasn’t the sound great there, wasn’t it like an echo chamber with it bouncing off the walls?
CC: Not at all. Once the people got in, the sound was dry as a bone. It just used to be thump, thump, thump, that’s why Pete Best was so good there.