THE BEATLES’ BEGINNINGS/MEETING PEOPLE WHO WERE THERE
By Alan Chrisman, copyright.
I’ve always been most fascinated by the Beatles’ beginnings. I was fortunate over the years to meet several whom were there before they were so well known. I’d read most of the books, seen the films, heard the legends, but I wanted to know what perhaps had really happened. And the only way to do that was to meet some of the people who had known them first and ask them to describe the same incidents and people and places. And if they described it basically the same ways, then probably there was truth to it.
It all started with meeting Cynthia Lennon, John‘s first wife, 1962-’68. She had met John at art school in Liverpool. They were quite opposites really; John the tough, sarcastic teen-age wannabe rocker, and she the more middle-class, nice girl. What they had in common was their poor eyesight and artistic sensitivity. But she also had the ability to ground him in those early years (especially after he had lost his mother, Julia, to a drunk driver, while being raised by his, more strict, Aunt Mimi). “Nowhere Boy” film (2010) captures the time. I had read her Twist of Lennon book (’78), and I wanted to meet her. So I attended my first Beatles’ Convention in Connecticut in ’94, where she was a guest. I met her and she signed my copy of her book and we talked a bit. She was lovely still and warm and artistic, as I’d hoped. And meeting her inspired me to organize my own Beatles’ Conventions and pursue my goal of meeting others who had known The Beatles.
Also at that same convention, to my surprise, as she wasn’t supposed to be a guest, was May Pang. She was John Lennon’s girlfriend, for 18 months, which Yoko had “assigned” to keep an eye on John and actually have a relationship with him, during his infamous “ Lost Weekend” in California, ’73-’74. I was in the dealers room with very few people when an Oriental woman was talking to a author whom had written several Beatles’ books and he had a copy of his latest book for her and called her “May”. I knew immediately, who she must be. She signed my John Lennon ”Walls And Bridges” LP on the song lyrics for one of my favorite songs on it, “# 9 Dream”(where she whispers “John” in the background) and told me another song “Sweet Bird of Paradox” was about her. Again, I was surprised to see her there, because I didn’t know then if Cynthia and May would have gotten along. I knew that Yoko and Cynthia didn’t and May had originally been Yoko’s assistant. Also along with May was Fred Seaman whom Yoko would later accuse of stealing John’s diaries, when he was their assistant at the Dakota. But May was actually there to see Cynthia, because they were good friends, since May had encouraged John to re-connect with Cynthia’s son, Julian, when he was separated from Yoko in California. May gave me her business card, and she was then married to Tony Visconti, David Bowie’s producer. She wrote a book about her time with John called Loving John (’83).
My friend, Al Whyte, and I had taken a course about putting on events (for which we had created a fantasy Beatles’ Convention as a school project) and he was there with me. After the Conn. Convention, Al and I discussed seriously for the first time, to put on our own Beatles Convention back in Ottawa. After all, we now had several contact numbers for Cynthia, May, and several others around The Beatles, we had met that amazing weekend. I had even given Cynthia a copy of our fantasy Beatles Convention (but had changed the fantasy guest from Yoko to Cynthia and her son Julian who had had a big hit with his first album, Valotte.
Shortly after arriving back in Ottawa, I got a call on my answering machine from Pauline Sutcliffe from England (I don’t know for sure, but Cynthia Lennon must have given her my number). Stu Sutcliffe was with the early Beatles when they went to Hamburg, Germany in 1960. He wasn’t very good on bass, but he was a promising painter and a big influence on and a close friend of John in Liverpool. But Stu had fallen in love with Astrid Kirchherr in Hamburg and he had left them to pursue painting and be with her. Astrid had a big influence on them taking very artful black and white photographs and getting them to wear their distinctive haircuts. Unfortunately, Stu was to die in Germany, of a brain hemorrhage, shortly before they became known.
I discussed with Pauline the possibility of bringing in some of Stu’s paintings for our proposed Beatles Convention, but we couldn’t afford the insurance necessary. But I was soon to meet her in person at an exhibition of his artwork in Toronto. I arrived early at the exhibition, and this very nice British woman offered me a tea and tour of the exhibit and it was Pauline, whom I had communicated with earlier. She helped write the book, later made into the film, Backbeat (’94) that told the story of her brother, Stu, and Astrid and The Beatles in Hamburg. I had wanted to have Cynthia Lennon as our guest at our Convention, but it was her birthday, the weekend we planned to do it, and she wanted to be with her family. We had timed it to be the anniversary of the first time The Beatles had played Canada in September, 1964.
We heard though that there was someone from Liverpool who lived in Ottawa and knew Pete Best and was his friend and agent. His name was Barrie Naylor and had played The Cavern with his band, the very last time the Beatles had played there on August 3, 1963. Barrie contacted Pete and he was interested. He’d actually been to Ottawa with little fanfare before, as had Tony Sheridan, with whom they had played and had backed up on their first early recordings like “My Bonnie”. Legend goes that that was the song that a Liverpool teenager would request from Brian Epstein’s record store that would alert him to see them at the Cavern and become their manager (although more than likely, Epstein would have known about them before, because Brian prided himself on keeping up with his young customers).
Pete had been their first drummer in Liverpool and Hamburg. Pete’s mother, Mona, ran one the first clubs, in her basement, The Casbah, they had played before The Cavern after they returned from Germany in 1961. But right before The Beatles had signed their contract with George Martin and EMI, he had been replaced by Ringo (Pete had played with them for over two years). Supposedly, Martin had said his drumming wasn’t up to par for recording. In those days they often used professional session drummers in the recording studio (In fact, Ringo didn’t play drums on the The Beatles’ first single “Love Me Do”). But other people like Cynthia Lennon had said, Pete just didn’t have the ego to compete with John and Paul’s, as George was later to find out when they ignored his own song writing for years. But The Beatles never did tell Pete to his face why he had been cut out, right before they made it. They left the dirty work to their manager, Epstein.
We held the first Ottawa Beatles Convention on September 7, 8 , 1995 (there’d only been one other one in Canada in Toronto), with Pete and his Liverpool band, as guests, signing autographs and performing. Also drumming there with him was his half-brother, Roag ( who, not many people knew, was actually the son of Neil Aspinall, the Beatles old Liverpool friend and road manager and who later became the head of The Beatles’ own label, Apple Records). Neil and Pete’s much older mother, Mona, had had an affair and Roag was the result. Now we had purposely timed our first convention with the release, right at that time, of the first volume of The Beatles Anthologies. The Anthologies had originally been Neil’s idea and he had been working on it since 1970. And with the remaining Beatles also recording two songs by John and The Anthologies selling over 30 million copies and accompanying videos and TV specials, it helped make The Beatles popular with a whole new generation again. It also helped us with an original Beatle as a guest, to make our first convention a success. With Pete playing on several of the old songs (and perhaps with Neil Aspinall being Roag’s dad and whose idea it originally had been), Pete received shortly after our Convention, a check from The Anthologies and, after 30 years of being teased as the Beatle who had just missed out, became a millionaire overnight. As Cynthia Lennon had said, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
But now everybody wanted us to do a 2nd Ottawa Beatles Conventiion. So we went looking for possible guests. The next year, at a Beatles dealers show in Burlington, Ontario, I got to meet a few more from the Beatles’ early days,. First there was Len Garry, one of the original Quarrymen, John Lennon’s teen-aged band before The Beatles. He told the story (he was there) of The Day John Met Paul, July 6, 1957 at a Liverpool church social. A chubby Paul McCartney got up and played “20 Flight Rock” and John was impressed because John only knew a few banjo chords his often-absent mother had taught him. And the way Len Garry told it, John, not wanting to admit he wanted Paul in the band, had his friend, Pete Shotten, who also wrote one of my favorite books on the early Beatles, The Beatles, John Lennon, and Me (’83), to approach Paul later. Evidently. Paul rode his bike up and coolly replied, “Ok” and The Beatles were formed, as George was soon invited along by Paul to play guitar.
Also at that Ontario show was Beryl Wooler, who’d been Brian Epstein’s secretary and later married to Bob Wooler who’d been The Cavern D.J. and an early Beatles supporter. But the next guest there was a real character; Allan Williams, who had run a strip joint in Liverpool called the Jacaranda the Beatles had played early on, and had been the one to actually send them to Hamburg. He had advised Epstein not to touch them with a “F’ 10 foot barge pole”, after they stiffed him on his booking fees for Germany. And thus the title to his book, “The Man Who Gave Away The Beatles” (’75), also one of the best books about early Beatles. He told outrageous stories; he even held up there McCartney’s leather pants they had worn at The Cavern, until Epstein had got them to change to the special Beatle suits. Williams said he was trying to get McCartney to buy back his leather outfit for $10,000! I liked the guy, but I felt he’d be too wild for our family-friendly convention (for now young people were just as enthralled with the Beatles as we who had grown up with them).
Our 2nd Ottawa Beatles Convention, was again timed with the release of the next Beatles Anthologies in September,1996. Our special guest. along with John Lennon’s Psychedelic Rolls Royce, was George’s sister, Louise Harrison, at the Canadian Museum Of Science and Technology. Louise told stories of growing up with George and accompanying The Beatles to Washington, D.C. on their first North American tour. And she revealed a little-known tale about how George had visited her in a small town in Illinois, where she was then living in ’63, and how unknown-in-America George got up and jammed with a local band there and someone had said, “ Keep it up and you might go somewhere”. This was just a few months before everyone would know The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in Feb. 1964. With her as a guest (we also had Indian dancers and music as a tribute to George) and Lennon’s car and The Anthologies, we tripled our attendance from the year before. Also Pete Best agreed to come back to Ottawa and play a club, in conjunction with our convention. Even though he was now a millionaire, he was still the same down-to-earth guy.
Another person connected with the early Beatles I was to meet was BBC director, Leslie Woodhead. He had filmed the only known footage of The Beatles at the Cavern in 1962. I met him because he came to Ottawa to interview and film my Russ/Cdn. friend, Yury Pelyushonok, about his book about growing up in the Soviet Union and trying to play banned Beatles’ music. Yury had written of his personal experiences in his book, Strings for a Beatle Bass (’98 & 2004). Mr. Woodhead used Yury’s song, “Yeah Yeah Virus” as a theme throughout for his 2009 film and 2013 book, How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin, which backed Yury’s claim that Beatles’ music helped bring down Communism. Yury had gotten to know a bit, The Beatles’ friend and manager for the past 30 years, Neil Aspinall, because Yury had left a copy of his book at Apple headquarters in London, as I had suggested, in 2000. Paul McCartney’s assistant had called back for more copies for George and Ringo! Imagine Yury growing up in Russia, playing banned Beatles music,
Stu Sutcliffe’s (original Beatle in Liverpool and Hamburg) Painting ,Toronto, where I met, Stu’s sister, Pauline. Postcard from Astrid Kirchherr, Hamburg photographer, and Beatle haircut designer.
Yury Pelyushonok’s book. “Strings for a Beatle Bass”(’98 and 2004 editions), about how Beatles’ music helped bring down communism!
and The Beatles being interested in your book!
As for me, as I had set out to do, I had met many who had known them, especially from their beginnings. And by meeting and talking to them and others, I felt I really did have a better idea of their amazing journey and how they had changed my life and millions of others.
Alan L. Chrisman’s 1st book, a musical memoir: “It’s A Long Way Home” (& How Beatles’ Music Saved My Life). Currently working on new Beatles book for (2020). Excerpts from 1st book and more Beatles stories, etc.: http://www.rockthistownproductions.com
May Pang & Al Whyte at Conn. Beatles Convention’ 94,
Cynthia Lennon & Alan Chrisman, Conn. Beatles Convention ’94
Pete Best and brother Roag, signing autographs and playing Ottawa Beatles Convention’ 95.
The Casbah, Liverpool, owned by Pete Best’s mother, The Beatles played there first.