It was a scene that burned hotter than a comet and was gone almost as fast. Vintage Rock heads to to Liverpool to salvage 20 of the finest Merseybeat songs on vinyl…
On 25 May 1960, The Cavern held its first beat concert. The Liverpool club was the city’s original dedicated live music hub, but prior to that fateful evening it had been a jazz venue. The headliners that night were Rory Storm And The Hurricanes, with one Ringo Starr on the drums, playing not jazz but an energetic, local take on American rock’n’roll and R&B that became known as Merseybeat.
Gone was the acoustic instrumentation of its predecessor skiffle, and in came electric guitars and drumbeats designed for dancing.
For five years, the Mersey scene was the hottest in the country, with over 300 bands on a circuit that included The Cavern, The Iron Door, The Jacaranda and civic venues such as Wilson Hall and Litherland Town Hall. July 1961 saw the arrival of Mersey Beat, Bill Harry’s music paper dedicated to chronicling this thriving new movement.
Many bands did stints in Hamburg, where they could earn better pay and sharpen their chops, but demand at home was insatiable for the hottest acts – The Beatles gave an estimated 292 performances at The Cavern.
Gerry And The Pacemakers took Merseybeat to the top of the charts in April 1963, followed by the Fab Four, although many groups never found success beyond the local scene.
By 1965, the Merseybeat craze had burned out, The Cavern closed temporarily when it went bankrupt, and The Beatles left the beat sound behind with 1965’s Rubber Soul – but for five glorious years, Merseybeat shook the very heavens.
20 I Think Of You – The Merseybeats
Originally known as The Mavericks, this quartet were renamed The Mersey Beats by resident Cavern DJ Bob Wooler in February 1962, and two months later their name was tweaked slightly. Their first session produced Our Day Will Come for Oriole’s This Is Mersey Beat compilation and they first entered the charts with It’s Love That Really Counts (No.24) before I Think Of You reached No.5. Their heartfelt love songs featured smooth vocals and gentle instrumentation, a far cry from their energetic rocking live set, best captured on The Merseybeats On Stage EP.
19 A Little Loving – The Fourmost
Signed by Brian Epstein in 1963, The Fourmost had been playing together under a variety of names – The Two Jays, The Four Jays… since 1959. The group’s lack of songwriting chops was offset by contributions from Lennon and McCartney, who gave them their first two singles, Hello Little Girl and I’m In Love. A Little Loving was the work of Russell Alquist, who composed for Herman’s Hermits, The Searchers and crooner Bobby Darin, and peaked at No.6. As Merseybeat faded, The Fourmost transitioned to cabaret gigs, mixing comedy and music.
18 Why Can’t It Be Me – Ian & The Zodiacs
After starting life playing trad jazz, Ian & The Zodiacs saw which way the wind was blowing and joined the beat revolution. They were fixtures on the Liverpool circuit and played two nights a week at Jive Hive at St Luke’s Hall, but it was in Germany that they found acclaim. A planned month-long tour became a three-year run and three albums for the Star Club label. Why Can’t It Be Me was an original composition by members Charlie Flynn and Pete Wallace, and they enjoyed commercial success with two albums of Beatles covers as The Koppykats.
17 Twist At The Top – Howie Casey and The Seniors
Saxophonist Howie Casey formed the Seniors in 1959 and they started gigging as Derry & The Seniors, with frontman Derry Wilkie. Twist At The Top, referencing the popular dance craze, features vocalist Freddie Fowell; the album of the same name, released in February 1962, was the first LP by a Liverpool beat group. Casey subsequently recorded with Kingsize Taylor in Germany, and became a successful session musician, playing on Wings’ Band On The Run and the Quadrophenia soundtrack. Meanwhile, Fowell found fame and infamy as Freddie Starr.
16 Bad To Me – Billy J. Kramer with The Dakotas
Another product of Epstein’s stable, Billy J. Kramer needed a backing group, teaming up with Manchester’s The Dakotas. Their first single was a cover of Do You Want To Know A Secret?, and they hit the UK top spot with another Lennon/McCartney creation, Bad To Me. With his clean-cut good looks and saccharine delivery, Kramer was soon performing the song on The Ed Sullivan Show in front of screaming teenage girls. After Merseybeat’s popularity flagged, Kramer and The Dakotas parted company and both acts moved to the cabaret and nostalgia circuit.
15 Needles And Pins – The Searchers
Pye Records (1964)
An early rival to the popularity of The Beatles and Gerry And The Pacemakers, The Searchers enjoyed a run of hits spanning four Top 10 albums and three No.1 singles. Their sound was defined by meticulously arranged harmonies and the chiming tones of a 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. Needles And Pins, written by Sonny Bono and Jack Nitzsche and first recorded by Jackie DeShannon, topped the British charts and gave the group their first US Top 40 hit. The Searchers finally retired in 2019, with only guitarist John McNally remaining from the original incarnation.
14 I Know Something – Earl Preston & The T-T’s
Fronted by Earl Preston – the stage name of George Spruce – and Cy Tucker, Earl Preston & The T-T’s were writing their own songs before Lennon and McCartney. The cheery I Know Something was one of their originals and the band’s only single release where they weren’t backing another artist. The B-side is an excellent cover of Bobby Parker’s Watch Your Step. Many of the group’s strongest cuts appeared on Merseybeat compilations long after the scene’s heyday. The catchy Why Did It Have To Be You, from the Beat Waves ’Cross The Mersey anthology, is a standout.
13 Don’t Ha Ha – Casey Jones And The Governors
Brian Casser – aka Casey Jones – founded his first beat group, Cass & The Casanovas, in 1959. After the rest of the band left to form The Big Three, Casser fronted Casey Jones And The Engineers, briefly featuring Eric Clapton, but he found success in Germany with The Governors. Don’t Ha Ha, the band’s version of Don’t You Just Know It by Huey Smith And The Clowns, was a German hit, with Casser doing his best impersonation of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ demented laugh. The group cut two albums for Golden 12 records and released singles into the early 70s.
12 How Do You Do It? – Gerry And The Pacemakers
How Do You Do It? was nearly The Beatles’ first single, before they decided on Love Me Do. Their loss was Gerry And The Pacemakers’ gain, giving the group, fronted by Gerry Marsden, the first of three UK chart toppers. There are many parallels between the two bands – both were managed by Brian Epstein, recorded by George Martin and did their time in Hamburg. The Pacemakers’ success didn’t outlast Merseybeat; the original line-up split in 1967, but a cover of Marsden’s Ferry Cross The Mersey charted in 1989, raising money for families affected by the Hillsborough Disaster.
11 I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More) – Beryl Marsden
The precociously talented Beryl Marsden started her singing career at 15 with The Undertakers. When the group headed to Hamburg, Marsden had to stay behind due to her age, but she continued to perform with Howie Casey and Lee Curtis & The All-Stars. This debut single shows her skill at interpreting American soul, but success proved elusive. She later cut two sides for Columbia, went on tour with She Trinity, was a member of Shotgun Express with Rod Stewart, and sang on John Lennon’s Instant Karma.
10 I Can Tell – Rory Storm And The Hurricanes
It was Rory Storm And The Hurricanes who blew jazz out of The Cavern to usher in the beat era. Storm was a wild performer, known for his gold lamé suits and proclivity for climbing all over venues. Despite their fiery live shows, the band never broke nationally, hampered by the fact that they didn’t write their own music – their sets were composed of American rhythm and blues and rock’n’roll tunes. I Can Tell saw the group take Chuck Willis’ mournful blues and rough it up, with Ty O’Brien striking his guitar with more enthusiasm than technique.
9 Hippy Hippy Shake – The Swinging Blue Jeans
After they were booed off stage at The Star Club in Hamburg, The Swinging Blue Jeans wisely decided it was well past time they made the switch from skiffle to beat music. The band formed in 1957 and all their hits were covers of American R&B tunes, including You’re No Good, a success for Betty Everett, and Good Golly Miss Molly, recorded by Little Richard. The band made No.2 in the UK with Chan Romero’s Hippy Hippy Shake, performing the song on the very first broadcast of Top Of The Pops. The band is still extant, although no original members remain.
8 Everything’s Al’ Right – The Mojos
Everything’s Al’ Right could easily be mistaken for a forgotten gem from the American R&B vaults, but it was an original by The Mojos. The track gave the band their biggest hit, reaching No.9 in the UK, but thereafter they discarded their blues roots and recorded a string of increasingly insipid pop numbers, such as Seven Daffodils and Comin’ On To Cry. Vocalist Stu James and guitarist Nicky Crouch split off at the end of 1964 to form Stu James & The Mojos, featuring a young Aynsley Dunbar on drums, who went on to play with David Bowie, Frank Zappa and Whitesnake.
7 It’s For You – Cilla Black
Introduced to Brian Epstein by her friend John Lennon, Cilla Black became the biggest-selling female artist of the 60s in the UK – not bad for the former coat-check girl at The Cavern. Her early performances saw her backed by The Big Three and Rory Storm And The Hurricanes. Black was an interpreter of songs, rather than a writer, but she chose her material brilliantly. She hit No.1 with her version of Anyone Who Had A Heart, while It’s For You was written for the singer by Paul McCartney, who played piano on the recording, and it peaked at No.7.
6 What’d I Say – The Big Three
The Big Three had a well-earned reputation as a powerful live act in Liverpool, whether playing their own shows or backing Cilla Black and Beryl Marsden, but when they signed with Brian Epstein he had them record Richie Barrett’s Some Other Guy as a single. The lightweight recording didn’t do them justice, squeaking into the Top 40. Far better is the live EP At The Cavern, which sees them charging headlong through the likes of Ray Charles’ What’d I Say and Chuck Berry’s Reelin’ And Rockin’. The only thing more frenzied than their blasting R&B is the shrieking audience.
5 Do You Love Me – Faron’s Flamingos
Live favourites on the Merseybeat scene, Faron’s Flamingos managed to skirt around success with unfortunate dexterity. They recorded two singles for Oriole but their best cut, a punchy rip through The Contours’ Do You Love Me, was unwisely relegated to the B-side of See If She Cares. Let’s Stomp was released on a double A-side with Rory Storm And The Hurricanes – drummer Trevor Morais was in both groups – but it failed to chart and the band split. Faron and guitarist Paddy Chambers joined The Big Three, while Morais found a new home with The Peddlers.
4 Just A Little Bit – The Undertakers
Pye Records (1964)
With a repertoire spanning soul, R&B and rock’n’roll, The Undertakers raised the bar for other beat bands. They were rightly proud of their Gibson guitars and bass, and the fact they owned the first 100-watt PA in the city, but what really fattened out their sound was the tenor sax work of Brian Jones (not the Rolling Stone). His presence meant they could harness the full flavour and power of tunes like Rosco Gordon’s Just A Little Bit. The Undertakers unsuccessfully tried to crack America in 1965, and their US-recorded album wasn’t released until 1996.
3 Walking The Dog – The Dennisons
A group whose talent far exceeded their national profile, The Dennisons were blessed with one of the best singers on the scene in gravel-voiced Ray Scragg, although he shared vocal duties with Eddie Parry, who had a much cleaner, classic Merseybeat delivery. They regularly shared the bill with The Beatles at The Cavern, but their original Be My Girl stalled at No.46 and their version of Rufus Thomas’s Walking The Dog, belted out by Scragg, only just broke the Top 40. The single’s B-side, You Don’t Know What Love Is, was written for the group by Ben E. King.
2 Stupidity – Kingsize Taylor And The Dominoes
Kingsize Taylor And The Dominoes had talent aplenty, but they didn’t write their own songs and never indulged in the twee teenage romance of their chart-friendly contemporaries. Instead, they played vigorous R&B powered by Taylor’s gutsy blues shouter style. A residency at The Star Club landed them a deal with Decca in Germany, for whom they cut a version of Solomon Burke’s Stupidity, featuring Howie Casey on sax, and a fiery take on Ted Taylor’s Somebody’s Always Trying. Alas, not even tours backing Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins brought them fame.
1 From Me To You – The Beatles
The Beatles are inextricable from the fabric of Merseybeat. On 9 February 1961, the band gave their first performance at The Cavern with a line-up including Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best, while Ringo’s debut with the group at the club came on 19 August 1962. The following year, the band reached No.2 with Please Please Me, before they scored their first UK No.1 with From Me To You. The track features Lennon on harmonica, lending the tune a touch of blues, but the vocal harmonies and Starr’s groove – hiccupping drum fills and all – are pure Merseybeat.