Thursday, 1 May 2014
A revolution was stirring in Britain, a movement slowly gathering pace in the unlikely setting of Scotland that would snowball and turn the music and entertainment world on its' head. A hitherto unremarkable rock group in Liverpool set off for a short tour of the Scottish Highlands in May. The Beatles were setting their wheels in motion for world domination, even though they didn't know it. The week long tour of Scotland was arranged by their then current manager Allan Williams in co-ordination with London agent Larry Parnes.
John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and drummer Tommy Moore set off from Lime Street Station for Scotland to back Johnny Gentle ten days after being turned for down Billy Fury because Larry Parnes didn't want Sutcliffe in the line up. Parnes figured he was only in the group because he was a big pal of Lennon's. He couldn't play a note. BBC presenter Brian Mathew described them as 'a penniless backing band'. The tour, a seven night hike around the outer regions, arranged by dance hall organiser and pig farmer Duncan MacKinnon, had them playing the well worn circuit of dance halls, church halls and converted cinemas. They met up with Gentle for the first time in Alloa where they had less than an hour to sort out a set for the gig at the Town Hall. Johnny; "I was used to this, I wasn't sure though, depending on the boys backing you, how or if they could fall in right away. They couldn't with my complete act so I said 'you know that one, and that one, what do you know that I might know?' We made up an act of half each other's repertoire. Elvis's I Need Your Love Tonight, Buddy Holly's It Doesn't Matter Anymore, Ricky Nelson's Poor Little Fool. My act was only about six or seven songs. Then they played for about an hour after me, Chuck Berry's Rock And Roll Music and other big hits at the time. The crowd loved it, the girls loved it, only problem was, Duncan MacKinnon didn't like it! He saw the five lads from Liverpool in the gear that they had turned up in, playing on stage and looking like buskers." Brian Mathew; "MacKinnon, whose dance hall gear was usually and outsize overcoat and Wellington boots was outraged. He phoned Larry Parnes and told him the band would have to go. A compromise was reached and the band agreed to wear a sort of uniform. George had a black shirt in his bag and Parnes reluctantly agreed to buy the others a similar one, except fro Tommy Moore who he reasoned, because he was at the back playing the drums and virtually out of sight, didn't really need one. Why go to the unnecessary expense?" Next stop on the tour was Inverness where they were billed along with the Lindsay Ross and his Scottish Dance Band in a dual attraction at the Northern Meeting Ballroom. Ross entertaining the larger crowd downstairs while Gentle and the Beatles rocked away above. Fraserburgh, Keith and Nairn were also on the agenda, where their appearance was recalled by a young female fan on a BBC special in the nineties. "The music was exciting; they were all dressed in black which was different. Everyone else at the time seemed to be wearing a suit, a collar and tie. The ballroom wasn't very big, it was a cinema and they had taken out the first ten rows of seats. And that was the dancehall. The stage was up high and it was mobbed. We stood in front of Johnny Gentle who we thought was gorgeous. Then this lot came on. We didn't think anything of them until afterwards when they became famous. Then we said 'ach! We didn't even like them. We'd shared coke and tea and pie with them during the break.' We couldn't understand what they were saying - because they were from Liverpool. They were just sort of crazy. But nice boys. Young. Next day I was sitting on top of a sand dune with my friend when we spotted the boys on the beach. So we took a casual walk down towards them, trying to make out we were just passing by. John Lennon asked us where the nearest cafe was. We said we'd take them. It was about a quarter of a mile away which suited us! He spent his last shilling on two glasses of chilled orange, one for me." Supporting the group at the Regal Ballroom, Nairn was The Johnny Douglas Combo. Douglas; "They arrived in an old Austin 16. They were so poor, at the end of the night, we used to get bed and breakfast, and they all slept in the van!" Silver Beetles manager Allan Williams; "The fee for the tour was something ridiculous. £75 between the five of them. Out of that they had to pay the train fare, had to live and they had to pay for their hotel accommodation. When they came back they were absolutely broke. They did a runner in one of the hotels and I got the bill! They just couldn't afford it. Tommy Moore, who was ten years older than the rest of them, quit when they got back to Liverpool. He'd had enough of Lennon in particular. But his girlfriend told him in no uncertain terms. 'You're not playing with those bloody Beetles again. Get a job!' He ended up working at the Garston Bottle works as a fork lift driver for years." Moore's career very nearly had a premature end when the band was involved in a car accident on a Scottish country road. Johnny Gentle;” The van plunged into another car. Tommy ended up on top of Lennon who was sitting beside him, asleep. They both ended up under the dashboard, Tommy had knocked both his front teeth out and had to go to hospital. Whilst lying in the hospital bed, Lennon kept telling him, 'get up, we're on stage tonight!' He made it, and sat at the back playing the drums with his teeth missing and a handkerchief on hand to keep dabbing the blood. No wonder he quit when they got home!" Gentle and the boys went their separate ways at the end of the week, but not before Johnny had given Parnes a glowing report on the band. "I'd phoned Larry a few times and told him he'd better get up to Scotland to sign these boys up. They were getting a far better response to what I was getting. They had so much belief in themselves. I think they knew that somehow they were going places. Larry Parnes said he just didn't have the time."
The car accident must have gave them a reality check, coming just a month after the fatal crash in Wiltshire that involved rock 'n' roll icon Eddie Cochran, who's Twenty Flight Rock had been the key in Paul McCartney passing the John Lennon Quarrymen audition. The American star had been a late addition to the Gene Vincent headlining Larry Parnes tour that began in January. Homesick and deciding to take a short break mid tour, by returning home to the States, Cochran was killed when the taxi he was travelling in to London Airport from Bristol, along with his girlfriend, songwriter Sharon Sheeley and Vincent, crashed into a tree after a tyre blew out. The first many people heard about it was on the Light Programme's Jack DeManio breakfast show. The news stunned the rock world. Brian Bennett, drummer with the Wildcats who backed Eddie and Gene on the tour, though they weren't employed for the Bristol gig recalled; "I received a phone call from Norman Riley, Eddie's European manager. I was shattered. Eddie was a fantastic guy, taught me some rock 'n' roll drums, he was more than an adept player as well as guitarist. He'd told me he was looking forward to returning to Britain later in the year and I was really excited about working with him again. It was a terrible tragedy."
One of the first on the scene of the crash was police cadet Dave Harman, who later became famous as Dave Dee with his group Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. Dee; "I wasn't actually at it; we arrived after the crash had happened. We sussed that the incumbents of the car were musicians because there were guitars and gig things all over the road and in the car. We had to take everything back to the police station and I realised then that it was Eddie Cochran's Gretch guitar. I was a huge fan of both Eddie and Gene Vincent."
Cochran had been brought over on the suggestion of TV presenter Jack Good as the tour was going a bit slow. He immediately made a great impact. Vernon Girl Sheila Bruce; "I went to jelly when I saw him. He was a beautifully tanned blonde haired boy with a brown leather bomber jacket on, like the American air force, he looked fantastic. Gene Vincent was different. He frightened me; he was obviously a very sullen guy, a complex character and not one that anybody really got to know. He used to carry a gun. I was always worried about him." Hal Carter; "Gene Vincent used to carry a gun and a knife around with him, which he called Henry. He would say to people, 'Do you want to meet Henry?' and he would pull out his knife. He had a street-gang mentality and he terrorised the tour bus one night coming back from Ipswich. He ripped the bass player's suit and five of us jumped off at the lights in Romford, even though we lived in north London.
Joe Brown; "He was a bit of a loony, but I never saw him harm anybody. Great performer though. He was very funny; you never knew what he was going to do. He'd hit the chord of E, and gene would go 'Welll, and you'd see his eyes go blank! And you'd know he wasn't sure if he was going to sing Be Bop A Lula or The Road Is Rockin' - they all started the same!" The Wildcats, Marty's backing group, guitarist Big Jim Sullivan; "He came into the rehearsal room, opened his guitar case and got out his orange Gretch guitar and started playing some Chet Atkins stuff, then rock and roll, blues. We were all awe struck."
A press release hailed; 'An exciting teaming of two of America's leading young rock and roll stars has been achieved with the arrival in Britain of Eddie Cochran, who is scheduled to remain here for ten weeks. Cochran co stars with another U.S. Beat singer, Gene Vincent.' The tour also showcased British singer Vince Eager; "They were all one night stands, very rarely did we have a night off. We were hopping all over the place; it was one of Larry Parnes' typical tours. You could be in Plymouth one day, Glasgow the next day, then Southampton. To hell with the artists, they had to get on with it. We'd travel by coach, by train if the distance was too far. That was when we got more contact with Eddie and Gene as we'd go up to their car and get the guitars out. Eddie had a big influence on us." Guitarist Joe Brown; "They used to travel in the first class compartment; we were all stuffed in the back! The ticket collector would come round and sling us all back." Cochran and Vincent also made two appearances on Boy Meets Girl which was hosted by Marty Wilde who was recently married and getting ready to head off to America on honeymoon. Big Jim Sullivan:” I told Marty that we, the Wildcats, had a chance to work with Eddie and Gene, and asked if he'd mind if we did it. We ended up playing virtually the whole of the remainder of the tour, including a slot on radio's Saturday Club." As the tour progressed, Eddie and Gene both grew more and more homesick and started hitting the bottle. Tour manager Hal Carter; "Gene used to drink all the time but Eddie, because he was homesick, he spent a fortune on phoning up his mum in America. He'd be on the phone for over an hour, two sometimes, on the hotel phone! And we never realised in those days that the hotel would charge you twice as much you would pay from a phone box. We had a situation at Leeds when Eddie was drunk as a Lord and we had to get him dressed, drive him to the theatre and take him into his dressing room. We gave him some black coffee, then laid him out on the floor and put a leather bag under his head for a pillow. He looked like he was dead on a slab! He was gone. We told the comedian to go on first and then we put the guitar round Eddie's neck, plugged it in to the amp, then when the mic came up through the floor on stage, we propped Eddie up against the mic for him to have something to hold on to so he wouldn't fall over!" The Leeds gig was also remembered for other reasons by Joe Brown;” Hal Carter used to organise the getaways after the gig, this night he was waiting with the car engine running, a big Humber it was, and he employed two guys to act as decoys to attract the fans in the opposite direction. For some reason the ploy failed and the fans spotted Gene and Eddie and raced after them. I climbed in the back alongside Eddie and Gene was in the front. Next thing, the fans have opened the door, screaming and yelling, Hal's revving the engine and all of a sudden, we're off. And Gene’s lost his pants! The kids had ripped them off! We were staying in a posh hotel in Leeds and we walked in with Gene in just his underpants, a leg iron and a dirty old tee-shirt!"
As the tour progressed, the Americans were getting more and more homesick, drinking more booze and Eddie in particular, confessed that he was missing his girlfriend, Sharon Sheeley, badly. It didn't help that the tour just happened to occur during the first anniversary of Cochran's old pal Buddy Holly's death, twelve months previously. Eddie even wrote a song for Buddy and his two partners in the plane crash, Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. Titled Three Stars, it was a heart rendering tribute. Sinking more into the oblivion of Bourbon by the day, his depression still didn't lighten much when Sharon Sheeley came over from the States. Eddie decided to take a break and head home mid tour to see his family in Oklahoma at Easter. First though, was a gig tacked onto the end of the week at the Bristol Hippodrome. Actor Peter Bowles was present; "When the rock and roll stars came over here I used to go and see them whenever I could. I was appearing at the Old Vic when Eddie and Gene came over. I went to see the show which of course, turned out to be Eddie's last. When he came on, the stage was in complete darkness and the spotlight came on as the music started - but it was on his bum - he was wearing a pair of tight fitting red leather trousers, never seen before. And the spotlight was just on his bottom, gyrating. This was wicked. Sexy. The audience was screaming. The other thing I particularly remember about his performance was that at one point he said to the audience, 'I'm gonna do something I've never done before. I've never done this before and I'm gonna do it now. I'm a gonna do it for you. I'm gonna... I'm gonna...' And we all thought, my God, he's going to drop his trousers! And he said 'I'm a gonna..smile!' The audience went absolutely mad! Extraordinary!" Transport to take Eddie, Gene and Sharon to the airport had been arranged for the following day but they decided to leave that night after the show. Hal Carter; "We'd been using the minicab all week and asked the driver what it'd cost to take them to Heathrow. He said he'd find out and get back to us but instead of going to his firm, he asked a friend of his to borrow him his car and came back and told us £25." The car set off with the three stars, Pat Tompkins the roadie and the driver. They reached the outskirts of Chippenham around midnight. The driver then took a wrong turning but quickly realised his mistake. Hal;” They’d tarmaced the road that day and it was all small pebble dusted. He's hit the brakes, and the back end has gone. The back end struck the kerb, the door's flown open, and Eddie's turned to protect Sharon and as he's put his arm across her he's gone forward and he's hit his head on the top of the car. Then he's caught the back of his head on the strut of the door as he's been thrown out onto the verge on the roadside." Dave Dee; "The driver and roadie were virtually unhurt but Eddie, Gene and Sharon were all lying on the grass injured. It was quite clear that Eddie was in a bad way. He and Sharon were taken away by ambulance. Eddie died next day." The news was received with great shock by friends and fans alike.