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Q: One of the more repeated legends about the Beatles is that Stu Sutcliffe wasn't really a musician, couldn't play bass at all, and he just joined a band as a way of enhancing his image. Is this an accurate portrayal of him?
This is one of those stories that get exaggerated over the years, ending in people who never knew him disparaging his musical ability without ever knowing or hearing him. I heard Stuart, right at the beginning when we booked John's group for our college dances (they hadn't settled on a name yet). I went into the room back of the stage and he showed me his new guitar. He handed it to me and I tried playing it, and then noticed that the skin was coming off the edge of my bleeding fingers. I was unaware of the use of a plectrum at the time!
As I've mentioned before, Allan Williams always comes out with the story that Stuart Sutcliffe played with his back to Larry Parnes at the Wyvern Club audition because he couldn't play the bass, and that Parnes said that he would take the group as Billy Fury's backing group if they got rid of Stuart.
This story first appeared in Williams' book 'The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away.'
In regard to the Wyvern audition, Williams' allegation is untrue.
Parnes himself was to say that he had no problem with Stuart that
his objection was to drummer Tommy Moore, who turned up late for
the audition, was dressed differently from the other members and
was a lot older than them.
When we used to book the group for the art college dances, there seemed no problem with Stuart's performance!
fact, I never heard any criticism of Stuart as a musician until
the publication of Williams' book.
Pauline Sutcliffe, Stuart's younger sister, told me that Stuart had had piano lessons, along with the rest of the family, and his father had brought him an acoustic guitar from Spain as a present some years before.Stuart, who had always been interested in music and art, was a big Presley fan. When he obtained his bass guitar on hire purchase from Frank Hessy's (he never bought it with the money he received from selling a painting at the John Moores' exhibition, as legend has it) he began to practice to Elvis records on his tiny record player and had David May, a fellow art student who was in a local group the Silhouettes, teach him how to play the Eddie Cochran number 'C'mon Everybody.' May also began to coach him on further numbers.
Pauline said that from letters she received and what people told her, Stuart was a popular performer in Hamburg, and a highlight of the Beatles' act was Stuart's solo on 'Love Me Tender.' He left the Beatles for reasons other than his musical ability, but still hungered for the stage and actually joined a German rock group, the Bats, for a few weeks to fill in for their absent bassist, shortly before his death.
She also told me that he was a better musician than history remembers him, commenting, "I don't think he was as outstandingly bad as he's been described, because none of them were excellent, were they, until they went to Hamburg and started to play." She added, "George was better, Paul was better, but nothing like the musicians they became. I mean, they were just more competent, but according to Stuart's letters, and conversations with him, he thought himself good enough to do session work after he left them and, I've got the letters, he was asked to be in other groups."
I Talked to Rick Hardy (aka Richards), who was a member of the first British rock band to appear in Hamburg, the Jets. The Beatles performed on some sessions with the Jets on their first trip and when I told him what Allan had written in his book, he said, "What's the matter with this guy? Stu never turned his back on stage. I remember him as he played 'Matchbox', appearing a lonely figure on stage, dressed like James Dean. He certainly played to the audience and he certainly played bass. If you have someone who can't play the instrument properly, you have no bass sound. There were two rhythm guitarists with the Beatles and if one of them couldn't play, you wouldn't have noticed it - but it's different with a bass guitar.
"I was there and I can say quite definitely, Stuart never did a show in which he wasn't facing the audience."
When the group was playing in Liverpool and Hamburg, there seemed to be no complaints about Stuart's ability in the group.
Howie Casey, leader of the first Liverpool band to play in Hamburg, Derry & the Seniors, was topping the bill at the Kaiserkeller while the Beatles were playing at the Indra. Promoter Bruno Koschmider decided to have another band during the interval at the Kaiserkeller rather than a jukebox, so he split up the Beatles and the Seniors and another outfit was formed with Casey on sax, Stan Foster on piano, Stuart on bass and a German modern jazz drummer. If Stu couldn't play, Casey certainly wouldn't have tolerated him in this outfit.
Next we come to Klaus Voormann, who was to become a famous bass guitarist appearing with numerous bands over the years and making several records backing each of the solo Beatles.
Klaus said, "He (Stu) was a really good bass player, a very basic bass player, completely different. So basic that you could say he was, at the time, my favourite bass player, but primitive. But of all the people or groups, and when we saw groups later, he was my favourite bass player." It was Stuart who first began to show Klaus the basics of playing bass guitar.
What happens when a seed is planted in a book like Williams' is that the story grows, and in all subsequent books, mainly by people who never knew him or witnessed his performances, the same story that he couldn't play the bass and performed with his back to the audience is trotted out.
Repeat a story enough times and even some people involved begin to believe it. The mud sticks.
Even Paul McCartney, many years later, was to say, "The problem with Stu was that he couldn't play bass guitar. We had to turn him away in photographs because he'd be doing F-sharp and we'd be holding G."
Initially, all the local musicians were self-taught and in various stages of ability. Paul himself made a hash of it at the New Clubmoor Hall on 18 October 1959, when he attempted to play lead guitar. He played an abominable version of 'Guitar Boogie' and ended his one and only stint at playing lead.
Yet George Harrison would seem to have a different point of view regarding Stu's ability.
When the group returned to Liverpool following their Hamburg debut, Stuart stayed behind and they recruited Chas. Newby to appear on three gigs with them. Then, until Stuart returned, Paul took over on bass.
George had refused to become the group's bass guitarist and wrote to Stuart in Hamburg, "Come home sooner, as if we get a new bass player for the time being, it will be crumby as he will have to learn everything. It's no good with Paul playing bass, we'd decided, that is if he had some kind of bass and amp to play on!"
If Stuart was such a hopeless player as many people who never knew him or saw him maintain, why would George be so anxious to have him back in the group?"
It's interesting to note Paul's comments about Stuart literally decades after his death. Yet, if we ignore hindsight and go back to what Paul felt at the time. He had a completely different opinion. In a 1964 interview in Beat Instrumental, in which he was discussing guitars, Paul commented, "I believe that playing an ordinary guitar first and then transferring to bass has made me a better bass player because it loosened up my fingers. NOT that I'm suggesting that EVERY bass player should learn on ordinary guitar. Stuart Sutcliffe certainly didn't, and he was a great bass man."
It's not unusual for someone to report on their experiences or
opinions and then years later, perhaps through hindsight, a faulty
memory or by being influenced by what they have read, to come out
with something that completely contradicts their previous statements.
Q: The popular perception is that their experience in Hamburg made them better performers. How would you compare them as musicians before and after their visits to Hamburg?
I always maintained that Hamburg was their 'baptism of fire.' Their
first visit there forged them into a dynamic group, due to the many
hours they had to play. Pete Best developed his atom beat, Stu Sutcliffe
improved, why wouldn't he - if the others did, so did he. They were
more than a 'much better group' when they returned to Liverpool
- they were exceptional. Something magical happened. Of course,
John and Paul in particular had extraordinary talent. John's Aunt
Mimi said she always remembered me because I was the first person
to call John a genius. There was something within the Beatles, some
essence that the music brought out. They were able to hone that
talent in Liverpool, playing so many gigs alongside so many other
brilliant groups that although Hamburg transformed them, Liverpool
matured their music.
Q: How did Stu's decision to leave the group affect John?
I don't think it affected John all that much. Admittedly, they were close, but not as close as that suggested in books. Rod Murray was actually Stu's best friend at the art college. Also, as far as asking Stu to be the group's bass guitarist, at the same time John made the same offer to Rod, but without telling either of them he'd also made the offer to the other. They didn't have any money to buy a bass guitar (George had also asked his friend Arthur Kelly, but Arthur also couldn't afford to buy a guitar). Rod began building a guitar. Then Stu had a stroke of fortune by winning the John Moore's annual art exhibition and selling a painting to John Moore himself. He used some of the money to buy a guitar on hire purchase from Frank Hessy.
When Stu decided to stay in Germany with Astrid following the Beatles first trip, Chas. Newby played with them for three gigs. John then asked Chas if he'd become their bass guitarist, but Newby turned him down because he was on a college course. Would he have done that if he was so enamored of Stu?
Q: What impact did Stu's departure from the group have on the rest of the Beatles, both as a band and on a personal level?
When Stuart decided to leave the group they obviously improved, because it was Paul who took over on bass guitar and Paul had the hunger. Stuart was too split between his art and music. I knew this from when we were at art school and I told him at the time that he was such a talented artist he should dedicate himself to that rather than to music. I think the tension between him and Paul was mainly because Paul wanted to play bass. Because Stuart was on bass, when they appeared for a season at the Top Ten with Tony Sheridan, Paul had to play piano because it was decided there would be too many guitarists if he played rhythm - Tony Sheridan, George, John and Stu - and I'm sure Paul preferred being in front, singing and engaging in vocal harmony rather than sitting at the piano.
The relationship between John and Stu was always a bit romanticized. Initially, Stu hadn't been his only choice as bass guitarist, as I pointed out when John also offered Rod Murray the job. When Stu stayed in Germany, instead of writing to him to rejoin them as George did, John offered Chas. Newby the job - and Newby turned him down. They were close, but John didn't miss him when he left the group, although he, like the others, was in despair when they heard of his tragic death.
Frankly, I think that when Stuart left they felt they were now ready as a band to take on the world.
Q: Did you and Stu remain close during the period between his move to Germany and his untimely death?
Things had changed, he'd moved on past the days when he, Rod, John and I were together. Astrid was his main concern. However, I was in constant touch with his mother who relayed all the information from Germany for me. She phoned me every month for over 15 years, right to her death. Once he'd gone to Germany, he rarely returned to Liverpool, although I did get together with him at the Jacaranda when he brought Astrid along with him. Dressed in black with their pale faces, they reminded me of the images of existentialists I'd seen.
When the Beatles had nothing to do with Millie, I got John to accompany me to her home to see her and she was delighted and gave John and I the pick of his work. He picked a blue abstract oil and I selected a red abstract collage he'd created in Hamburg.
It was Millie who told me that Stu had an accident at Astrid's house, falling down and striking his head. She believed that accident led to his death - so did Neilsa Kirchherr. The stories that a blow to the head, following a gig at Litherland Town Hall, led to his death are rubbish. I don't recall that Stuart ever appeared with the Beatles at Litherland Town Hall. There was a fight outside Lathom Hall in which Stuart was involved, but both Pete Best and Neil Aspinall, who witnessed the fight, said that Stuart's head remained untouched. Due to the nature of the hemorrhage, it could only have occurred a relatively short time before his death, not years before.
Q: What other Liverpool performers were you close with?
I was actually very close to a large amount of artists in Liverpool. Virginia and I loved them, it was our entire life. We spent all our waking hours with them, working in the Mersey Beat office, then going to the Cavern lunchtime sessions, then back to the office (with everyone visiting us there), then in the evening to several venues ranging from the Cavern to the Iron Door and including the Mardi Gras, the Jive Hive, Aintree Institute, Litherland Town Hall, Blair Hall, Holyoake Hall, Plaza St Helens, Queens Hall Widnes, Floral Pavilion Southport, Tower New Brighton, Locarno, Grafton, La Scala Runcorn and many others.
I particularly liked Faron's Flamingos, who I thought would become international stars. They recorded 'Do You Love Me', but the record company put it on the B side and Brian Poole & the Tremeloes and the Dave Clarke five copied Faron's version and it established their careers. The Flamingos disbanded in despair. I actually hypnotized Faron in the office to give a dynamic show! Another of my favourites were the Chants, who I also really wanted to see achieve success. I used to lend them all my Motown albums and took along the famous journalist Nancy Spain to see them rehearse. Beryl Marsden was another favourite. She was only 15 and had no money, so I paid for a publicity photo session for her. We were in the office at the Majestic Ballroom, Birkenhead with her manager Joe Flannery and the ballroom manager - and we discussed her real name, which was Beryl Hogg. We said that was not a good stage name. We asked the manager what his name was. He said Bill Marsden, so we suggested that Beryl call herself Beryl Marsden (no relation to Gerry Marsden of the Pacemakers). In the downstairs bar at the Blue one night when I was talking to John, I asked him if he had a number to give Beryl to record. He said she could have a song called 'Love of the Loved.' A few days later when we got together again for a drink, he apologized saying he'd asked Brian Epstein and Eppy had vetoed it, saying that he would decide who to give the Lennon & McCartney numbers to. Epstein ended up giving it to Cilla Black for her debut disc. I didn't think it suited either Beryl or Cilla. Cilla claimed that the Beatles (it was a Paul song) wrote it for her, but they'd been playing it on stage at the Cavern for some time.
I actually help to fund a tour, along with Flamingos manager Jim Turner, with the Flamingos/Chants/Beryl Marsden which I called 'The Rocking City Tour,' because I referred to Liverpool as 'the Rocking City' at the time. Unfortunately, it only drew 23 or so people at the Queens Hall, Widnes, so we had to drop it because of the cost.
I regarded Rory Storm and Johnny Guitar as close friends. Derry Wilkie was another favourite, as was Howie Casey, Brian Griffiths, Johnny Hutchinson, Jimmy Campbell, Steve Aldo, Adrian Barber, Colin Manley - actually, too many to write about here.
Among the best groups were Rory Storm & the Hurricanes, the Big Three, Kingsize Taylor & the Dominoes, the Remo Four, Gerry & the Pacemakers, the Strangers - electrifying performers.
One thing that's interesting to note is that Virginia and I were
probably the only ones to continue to cover the entire local music
scene until 1966, still visiting the venues the length and breadth
of Merseyside and visiting the Beatles at their television shows
and concerts. Bob Wooler, becoming the Cavern compere, no longer
covered other venues around Merseyside and remained rooted at the
Cavern while various promoters such as Charlie McBain, Vic Anton
and Sam Leach seem to have vanished from the scene by 1963.