In fact, they could rock as hard as anyone when they chose to and the inclusion of a piano in their line-up gave them a different sound. However, there was no doubt that Gerry’s great personality was the main asset. Looking at him as he is today, a squat bullfrog, with a voice to match, it is difficult to believe that in the 60’s he was a dapper little figure, a bit like Dion (nowhere near as good-looking, of course, but with the same build).
The Undertakers were highly original; a dynamic bunch featuring the great tenor sax of Brian Jones. I remember them performing a wild version of the ‘Mashed Potato’ at the Iron Door Club and in the interval, a little comedian came on stage and soon collected a crowd with his hilarious impressions of Billy Fury and other stars.
This was Freddie Starr, who still does the same act today but for a lot more money!
Another scene that stuck in my mind was Cilla Black singing ‘Autumn Leaves’ with the Big Three at an Iron Door All-Nighter. And when she sang, those leaves sure started to fall! (The tree fell as well and nearly killed me…)
I have mentioned the “Carroll Levis Discoveries” Talent Contest and later that year, we entered another one, a “Guitar Contest” at the Crane Theatre. We had chosen to play ‘Honky Tonk’ as the number which would carry us to worldwide fame but just before we went on, I discovered to my horror that the guitars were way out of tune with my sax and there was no time to tune up (We hadn’t played together for about a week.)
There was nothing I could do. I daren’t play a note as I was horribly flat so I just had to pretend to play (no problem! I had been doing it for years!). The audience got to hear just “Tonk” that night. “Honky” wasn’t playing!
If you think the Saga of the Silent Saxophonist a ridiculous story, how about the Silent Guitarist, also on the same show?
Later that night, a young guitarist bounded on stage, grinned confidently at the audience and went into some fast, flashy fingerwork.
After a few seconds, he paused and the grin was replaced with a frown of annoyance. No sound came from his amp. He started fiddling with the controls on his guitar. Still nothing.
Beads of sweat formed on his forehead and the grin returned, only this time as ghastly as that of a ventriloquist’s dummy. He reached down and frantically flicked every switch on the amplifier.
He was suddenly distracted by someone hissing instructions from the wings (presumably, the guy who had leant him the amp) and cupped his hand to his ear in a “I can’t hear you, mate,” gesture.
The unseen advisor walked stiffy and self-consciously onto the stage and reaching down to the amp, went “Click”.
The amp had not been switched on! The great guitar virtuoso had blown his chances before he had played a note.
And talking about guitars: the sad story of how we had the chance of acquiring one of the greatest guitars in the world and lost it.
For a time, our van was off the road being repaired and we had to lug all our gear around in black cabs. One night the taxi-driver watched us loading our stuff inside and asked us whether we were interested in buying a Gretsch guitar that he had bought in the States while he was in the Merchant Navy.
It was a black “Country Gentleman” for which he wanted about £125. When I tell you that this represented three months wages, you will understand why we had to say no; even though I am sure it was the only one on Merseyside at that time.
George Harrison bought it! The Beatles were making quite a bit of money then as they were full-time so they could afford it. Years later, I showed John Day a photo of Harrison playing the Gretsch at the Cavern.
“That was the same guitar, John, wasn’t it?” I innocently enquired. John tore the book out of my hands and hurled it violently across the room, cursing eloquently!
We had now left the Cherokee club as the Manager had stopped paying us. We discovered that he was an undischarged bankrupt and had in fact once disguised himself with a false beard and mingled with the customers when one of his creditors called!
We had gone as far as we could go, having played dozens of small clubs, large clubs, well-known places like the Casbah and Blair Hall and totally obscure ones like the tiny Beat-Route club in Ullet Road, Liverpool 17. We even played at a convent once! The high spot of our career was appearing bottom of the bill to the Big Three and Gerry and the Pacemakers at a church hall in Tuebrook.
Our drummer, Rodney, had had a final bust-up with his brother and had gone down to London to live. As a replacement, we chose John Foster, who was Ringo’s cousin and in fact, played on Ringo’s old drum-kit – we knew that as Ringo had thoughtfully scrawled his name all over the skins!
We also recruited a new guitarist who was much livelier on stage than we were and with a new name (John Day and the Nighthawks) and a new uniform (hideously garish football jerseys and super tight jeans) we secured a booking at Crewe Town Hall. This was unforgettable for the wrong reason: the zips on our jeans burst and we had to borrow some safety-pins from some of the girls to make ourselves decent!
But the new group was nowhere near as tight as the old one and it was clear that John Foster was a poor replacement for Rodney Day.
One night, after a visit to the Iron Door, John parked up the van and gave us a pep talk. The gist of it was that Liverpool was a dead-end place for music and we would never get on if we stayed there. London was the place to be and that was what we should be aiming for.
Like sheep we all believed him and dutifully gave up our jobs. In May 1962 we headed down the Ml to fame and fortune that never happened, while back on Merseyside, “the dead-end place”, the music scene suddenly exploded!
Late in 1962 we listened to ‘Love Me Do’ and still remained unimpressed by the Beatles. Another piece of hype, we decided. It was hardly a song at all, just a blues riff.
John was now married and it was obvious that he had lost interest in the metropolitan dream. I sold my Selmer to a Southampton businessman who was the only person to reply to my ad in the Melody Maker – he even paid my return fare to Southampton and negotiated a discount with the shop as I was forced to admit I still owed some money on it. (I should have kept it: the sax for which I paid £125, including HP, in 1961, is now worth well over £2,000!).
That was the end of the group but the bass-player, Charlie, carried on playing when he and I returned to Liverpool eight months later. He had swapped his Hofner bass for an Epiphone and there was plenty of work just after the Beatles broke through.
He once told me that he only had two ambitions: 1) to play on a stage for money and 2) to make a record.
1) was dead easy. Everyone did it. 2) was practically impossible, unless you had luck or contacts. Yet he managed to play on not one but TWO records produced by the great Joe Meek, no less. How had he accomplished this feat?
Certainly not by his bass-playing prowess. He had joined a group called Jason Eddie and the Centermen. Jason Eddie was the stage-name of Albert Wycherly, who was Billy Fury’s brother. The Fury connection secured them an audition with Joe Meek in his Holloway Road studios.
Meek, a ruthless perfectionist, kept them working literally from morning till night for days on end until they were utterly exhausted. Two records were eventually released: ‘Whatcha Gonna Do’ and ‘Singing the Blues’ (described by a Radio Caroline DJ as the worst record he had ever heard). Meek even recorded one of Charlie’s own compositions, a ballad called ‘Emerald Green’, but it was never released.
None of the group ever made any money from these recordings. Charlie eventually got married and left the music business. However, the musical connections carried on.
He became a civil servant and while working at the Old Swan office met and made friends with Pete Best, the drummer who had been so unceremoniously dumped by the Beatles. Naturally, he asked Pete the $64,000 dollar question: “Why did the Beatles sack you?”
He received the standard answer: “I still don’t know. I wasn’t given a reason.” However, the reasons are well-known. The other members of the Beatles were jealous of Pete’s success with women (not only did he pull more birds than all the rest combined, he didn’t even have to try. They pulled him!)
Also, although Pete was not unfriendly, he was basically a loner and his sense of humour was not quite on their wavelength, so he had to go. Even so, the way the other Beatles did it was very underhand (they asked Epstein to do the dirty work).
As for me: I had now decided I would be a singer! You might not believe the following but I swear it is true. Just before my return to Merseyside in December 1962 I had been to a famous palmist (Mir Bashir) who told me that after my next birthday (March 1963) I would enter a period of financial advancement and success.
But how? I suddenly had a conviction that if I recorded a demo of a song that I had always been fascinated by, done in a modern style, this would lead to the success predicted by the palmist. (Ha! Ha! When you are 23 years old you don’t see any barriers to your dreams!)