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Remembering The Beatles’ early days with the late manager Allan Williams and promoter Sam Leach

Not only did The Beatles’ community lose record producer, George Martin, in 2016, but also two businessmen that helped The Beatles in the early days of their career. Allan Williams, The Beatles’ first manager, died on December 30 at the age of 86 and Sam Leach, Liverpool concert promoter, died on December 21 at the age of 81. Both local Liverpool businessmen were involved in The Beatles career in the early 1960s just before Brian Epstein came onto the scene.

allanwilliams-jacaranda
In the early days of The Beatles in Liverpool, John, Paul, George and Stuart Sutcliffe used to hang out at the Jacaranda club owned by Allan Williams. Stuart had painted murals for the basement of the club. Of all the lads, Stuart was closest with Williams, and as a result, he let the group perform and rehearse at the club.
In May 1960, Allan Williams became their first booking manager. He got them gigs often in rough parts of town where Teddy Boys used to frequent. In July 1960, they played at an illegal strip club owned by Williams.

In August 1960, Allan Williams got the Beatles their initial gig in Hamburg, Germany. Many groups from Liverpool were finding success in Hamburg, so the Beatles jumped at the chance.

“If it hadn’t been for Hamburg, there would be no Beatles,” Williams declared in a 1980s interview. “The work there was so fantastically hard. They would work 7 nights a week. Sometimes they would open at 7:00 (pm) and 3:00 in the morning, they’d still be on stage. And people say to me, ‘Alan, tell us the secret of how to be a Beatle.’ I say, ‘Go to Germany for 6 months, work 7 nights a week, 8 hours a night, and then come back and ask me the same question.”

However, during the time of The Beatles’ second trip to Hamburg in the Spring of 1961, their relationship with Allan Williams fell apart. Williams claimed that The Beatles never paid him his commission for booking them in Hamburg.

“The second time I sent them to Hamburg I got a phone call from Stu Sutcliffe,” Williams recalled. “He said ‘John has decided we shouldn’t pay you a commission because we got the job second time round’.

Since they had been able to arrange the gig at The Top Ten Club on their own, they told Williams they no longer needed his services. Williams was furious. He threatened to take legal action against them, but in the end, he let them go.

samleach-beatlescEnter Sam Leach. Leach was a Liverpool concert promoter. He would book over 40 gigs for The Beatles starting in early 1961 at clubs like The Cassanova Club and The Tower Ballroom. (Leach is pictured in the front with George and John)
 

“The first time I saw them, I realized how good they were,” Sam Leach recalled. “They were the best rock band on the planet at that time and I told them so. I said ‘One day you’ll be as big as Elvis’. John Lennon laughed and said ‘We’ve got a right nutter here, Paul’.”

Leach also sponsored “Operation Big Beat”, a mega-show that featured up to 5 rock and roll bands in one night. The Beatles first performed at Operation Big Beat in November 1961 as the headliner.

Sam Leach says he had a verbal agreement to be The Beatles manager, solidified with a handshake. But when Brian Epstein came into the picture, The Beatles decided to go with Brian instead.

“1961 was their [The Beatles] best year for rock and roll,” Sam Leach said, “because Brian sort of smoothed them up and changed their image a little bit and became more pop, but as a rock band they were supreme.”

Both Williams and Leach wrote books about their experiences with The Beatles:
The Birth of The Beatles by Sam Leach

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New online course traces The Fab Four’s origins from Quarrymen to Beatles

Universities around the globe are offering classes on The Beatles for hundreds and thousands of dollars per semester – but what about the rest of us? What are your options if you’re not in school, or you can’t attend the location where the class is being offered?

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To solve this dilemma, Daytrippin’ School of Rock History now brings the college class into the homes of Beatles fans around the world in the form of an online community. Accessible 24/7 from your laptop, tablet or smartphone, music lovers can go deeper into the study of The Fab Four and how they created their music.

In a curriculum that spans a course of 6 weeks, Daytrippin’ is offering their first online course called The Early Beatles: How The Fab Four Came Together. The course offers detailed lectures that illustrate key insights into Beatles history, filled with in-depth reporting, audio and video examples and exclusive interviews with musicians, industry insiders and experts of music history.

Daytrippin’ publisher and course instructor Trina Yannicos is excited to offer Beatles fans a chance to share ideas and learn fascinating discoveries online for much less than it would cost to take a college class.

In The Early Beatles class, you’ll learn the history of the early Beatles from 1956 to 1962 — from the formation of The Quarrymen to The Beatles’ first recording session at Abbey Road Studios.

The Beatles recording career has been well documented but what about the period before The Beatles got a record contract and hit it big?

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To truly appreciate The Beatles and their music, you need to understand the group’s origins and the impact that Presley and other rock and roll artists had on the group.

In The Early Beatles course, you’ll go back in time to the 1950s and watch the transformation of John, Paul, George and later Ringo take place from the formation of The Quarrymen to The Beatles’ first recording session at Abbey Road Studios.

Who were the key players in the early days of The Beatles? How did Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best change the course of Beatles history? Who were The Beatles managers before they met Brian Epstein?

Over a six-week period, we’ll explore in-depth the history of the early Beatles from 1956 to 1962 with fascinating insights from those who were there including John Lennon’s best friend, Pete Shotton; Beatles fan club secretary Freda Kelly; the boys’ close friend in Germany, Astrid Kirchherr; and more.

Elvis represented the pinnacle of success in rock and roll, and he set the model for The Beatles’ achievement of success. The goal of becoming “bigger than Elvis” helped propel the band into worldwide fame which in many ways surpassed The King.

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Stuart Sutcliffe’s bass playing: “I’d like to set that one straight”

by Liscio

Shy and withdrawn, hardly able to play a chord, so unsure of his ability he hid behind dark glasses and turned his back to the audience—if this is your portrait of Stuart Sutcliffe, you’ve got the wrong rock bass guitarist.

Stu has been described as gentle, delicate, a boy of beautiful heart.  But he was funny enough to be on par with Lennon.  He was an original thinker, highly intelligent, responsible and mature beyond his young years, “vulnerable on the surface but extremely strong underneath”.  He was innovative (painting in Hamburg with metallic car paint and charcoal) and daring—art master Arthur Ballard remembered in the Beatles biography, Shout, that against college rules, Stuart painted on massive canvasses and was a sartorial trendsetter even before Hamburg.  Klaus Voorman said Stu could “see 10 times more than other people”—he was “miles ahead of everybody”, especially regarding the intensity of his life, his art, and his cutting-edge perception of style and imagery.  An amazing profile for a kid barely out of his teens.

But could he play the guitar?

The contention that Stu was “a bad bass player” is a piece of historical hokum that has no substantiation– meaning no factual evidence backs it up.  Stuart had basically only two detractors: the statements of one have been shown to be blatantly false—the remarks of the other are inconsistent and less than impartial.  Yet years of media repetition from these two sources have been accepted as truth.

Let’s start at the end of 1959 when teenaged Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were actively searching for a bass guitarist.  As is well known, they persuaded 19-year-old art student Sutcliffe to purchase a Hofner electric bass. George Harrison said it was “better to have a bass player that couldn’t play than to not have a bass player at all.” (1) Stuart straightaway recruited Dave May of the local Silhouettes to teach him Eddie Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody”.

The Forthlin Road rehearsals at Paul’s house, some of which were taped on Rod Murray’s (Stu’s flatmate) tape recorder, took place that March.  In a 2007 article, Murray said, “Stu would borrow the recorder and go to Paul’s house to record…but he had to buy his own tapes as they were so expensive.”  The audio quality is poor, but listening to these tapes makes clear that the entire band at this point was very rudimentary.  (Note: Of the 16 songs known to have been recorded at the Forthlin Road rehearsals, three were released on 1995’s Anthology 1: “Cayenne”, “Hallelujah” and “I Love Her So”.  You can hear these on Youtube).

Finding gigs in Liverpool was tough and everybody was still going to school; not having played much together “for months”, on May 10 the group found themselves before London musical scout Larry Parnes, who was looking for a group to back one of his stars, Billy Fury.  Photos of this audition do show Stuart playing with his back turned, perhaps attempting to hide his fledgling ability.  Paul McCartney said, “If anyone had been taking notice, they would have seen that when we were all in A, Stu would be in another key.  But he soon caught up and we passed that audition to go on tour.” (2)

These photos are the only ones of Stuart playing turned around—and this is where one of the sources of the “bad bass playing” got its start.

The idea sprang from the lips of one Allan Williams, a colorful man of dubious veracity who called himself the Beatles manager when he was, in fact, a booking agent for various bands in Liverpool.

Bill Harry, art school classmate of Sutcliffe and Lennon and creator of Mersey Beat magazine, sets the record absolutely straight: “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 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’.  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 than the other members and was a lot older than them.  When we used to book the group for the art school dances there seemed to be no problem with Stuart’s performance.  In fact I never heard any criticism of Stuart as a musician until the publication of Williams’ book (which came out in 1977).” (3)

After returning home from their tour, the band played some twenty-odd venues around Liverpool before August 1960.  At this time, one of Liverpool’s best, established groups was Derry and the Seniors.  Seniors’ Howie Casey remarked for the ‘Beatles Anthology’, “they were a nothing little band.”  When he heard the Beatles were soon to play in Germany, Casey complained, “They might destroy the [emerging German rock] scene.  I said send a band like Rory Storm or the Big Three.  When they did turn up, they were vastly improved…the improvement was like night and day.”

Arriving in Hamburg, the Beatles (whose current playlist of songs could barely fill an hour) were shocked to learn they were expected to play close to eight hours nearly every night. They had to expand  their repertoire, and fast.

George:  “We had to learn millions of songs. We’d be on for hours…Saturday would start at three or four in the afternoon and go on until five or six in the morning.”

John:  “We got better and got more confidence.  We couldn’t help it, with all the experience, playing all night long.”

Paul:  “We got better and better and other groups started coming to watch us.”

Is it credible to think that all this learning, experience, confidence and improvement affected every Beatle except Sutcliffe—the others were roaring along, but Stu was still just plunking?   Stuart himself wrote home:   “We have improved a thousand-fold since our arrival.”

These “savage young Beatles” were now playing loud, thrashing, primeval and pumping proto-punk rock—a throbbing nightly musical orgy.  Lennon would say these Hamburg performances were the Beatles at their rock and roll best.

“Backbeat” director Ian Softley, after researching extensively and talking to bands and others who attended the German clubs, told the Los Angeles Times: “he (Stu) was very punk, very insistent.  He would turn up his bass really loud… it was dominant and driving.”

Howie Casey said in the same Times piece that Stu “had a great live style”.  He would know…while the recently-arrived Beatles were still playing the Indra, Bruno Koschmider (owner of both clubs) wanted continual music at the Kaiserkeller.  So he split up the Seniors and the Beatles–in effect, creating a third band.  Says Casey, “I was given Stuart Sutcliffe along with Derry and Stan Foster and we had a German drummer.”   If Stuart couldn’t play, a professional like Casey certainly wouldn’t have tolerated him very long. Casey never complained about Stu’s ability.  And this temporary split actually made Sutcliffe the first Beatle to play the sought-after Kaiserkeller gig.

In ‘The Beatles History’, Rick Hardy of the Jets confirmed: “Stu never turned his back on stage.  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.”

Renowned artist and bassist Klaus Voorman says, “Stu was a really good rock and roll bass player, a very basic bass player, completely different.  He was, at the time, my favorite bass player…and he had that cool look.”  In a 2006 documentary, Voorman’s opinion was, “The Beatles were best when Stuart was still in the band.  To me it had more balls, it was even more rock and roll when Stuart was playing the bass and Paul was playing piano or another guitar.  The band was, somehow, as a rock and roll band, more complete.”

Interviewed on radio, Beatles drummer Pete Best revealed “what a good bass player Stuart was.”  Pete has said, “I’ve read so many people putting him down for his bass playing.  I’d like to set that one straight.  His bass playing was a lot better than people give him credit for.  He knew what his limits were…what he did was accept that and he gave 200%.  He was the smallest Beatle with the biggest heart.”

Stu, who had stayed in Hamburg after the others had gone back to Liverpool, received a letter from George that read in part: “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 to play on!”

And not long before his death, after he’d left the Beatles, Stuart was asked to play with a German group, the Bats.  He borrowed back his bass from Voorman (to whom he’d sold it), and played the Hamburg Art School Carnival and the Kaiserkeller.  The “James Dean of Hamburg” was obviously respected for his bass work.

There is no record of anyone commenting negatively about Stuart’s playing the entire time the Beatles were actually performing in Liverpool or in Hamburg…except for one.  At last we come to Stuart’s other detractor: Paul McCartney.

Paul has knocked Stu’s bass playing– remarks he made while working with Stu were perhaps spawned by their “dead rivalry” (at least that’s how Paul saw it), and are therefore open to question.  But many of Paul’s negative comments have been in retrospect.  In 1964, much closer to when he’d actually been playing with Sutcliffe, Paul said in a Beat Instrumental interview: “Not that I’m suggesting that every bass player should learn on an ordinary guitar.  Stuart Sutcliffe certainly didn’t, and he was a great bass man.”

Stuart was clear-eyed and candid about his musicianship.  He put it all out there and made no apologies.  He had the nerve to audition when he’d barely begun to play—that took guts.  He worked hard and grew in expertise along with the rest of the band in Liverpool.  Having to quickly master new material in Germany, Stu could rely, if not on deep innate talent, then on his very high IQ to memorize the “millions” of new songs.  Voorman gets the last word on the result: “It sounded amazing, fantastic.  I loved it from the first moment.  The other bands that played in the clubs were good, but none were as good as them.”

By all reliable accounts, Sutcliffe’s bass put down a hard-driving, rock and roll sound.  It wasn’t fancy…his attack was pretty basic.  But when it came to playing raw, exciting, sex-drenched rock and roll that hit you in the chest, electrified your limbs, made you want to dance all night and kept you coming back to the Top Ten Club for more, the band to see was Stuart Sutcliffe and The Beatles.

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Sources:

(1) ‘A Brief History of the Beatles’ online
(2) ‘The Beatles Bible’ online
(3) ‘The Beatles History’ online

Note: Additional references for this article include: The Life of John Lennon and Shout by Philip Norman; quotes by Astrid Kirchherr for Boston 90.9 WBUR and How Stuff WorksLiddypool: Birthplace of the Beatles by David Bedford; The Beatles in Hamburg by Hillman; Art by Lennon, McCartney, Sutcliffe and Starr; interviews by Garry James; British Youth Culture-Shapers of the 80’s; The Quarrymen Through Rubber Soul by Everett; Pete Best interview/terrascope; Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand by Knublauch, Korinth and Muller; Stuart Sutcliffe letters; Voorman/tripod.com Quotes; and John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stu-Los Angeles Times/Movies

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