It wasn’t all about The Beatles you know. Before the emergence of Mersey Beat in the early-60s Liverpool had already produced chart-topping heart-throbs and we started the decade with a Scouser at the top of the charts.
By July 1961 the local music scene was so vibrant it had a dedicated magazine The Mersey Beat, an idea of Bill Harry who was a friend of John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe and inadvertently coined a genre of music history with the publication he headed up from a small office above a wine merchant in Renshaw Street.
The first issue of 5,000 copies quickly sold out. Bill asked John to write a piece about The Beatles who had recently returned from Germany. John wrote a biography of the band entitled: On The Dubious Origins Of Beatles, Translated From the John Lennon. It began: ‘Once upon a time, there were three little boys called John, George and Paul, by name christened. They decided to get together because they were the getting together type.’
Another supporter of Bill Harry was Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein who wrote a regular column on the latest releases from his acts, many of whom who rose to prominence on-stage at Ray McFall’s Cavern and attracted the backing of Jacaranda-owner Alan Williams who organised stints for Liverpool bands at Hamberg’s Star Club.
Read on to hear more about the beats, boys, girls and groups who made Merseybeat…
Born Norman Alexander Milne in Kirkdale, Michael Holliday had the first Scouse Nº1 of the decade with Starry Eyed in January 1960. Holliday had already celebrated his first Nº1 hit in 1958 with The Story Of My Life and a Nº3 the same year with Stairway Of Love.
His Crooner-style was based on his idol Bing Crosby and led to Holliday winning two talent contests – one at Locarno Ballroom on West Derby Road and a second while serving in the Merchant Navy during WWII at Radio City Music Hall, New York. His showbiz career led to regular top-billing and work across BBC TV and Radio but besieged by crippling stage-fright and amid changing music trends, Holliday found himself in financial ruin and tragically took his own life in 1963.
Shortly before the advent of Mersey Beat former docker Billy Fury was a prolific star who became a Teen idol during the 1960s, scoring eleven Top Ten hits including Jealousy which reached Nº2 in 1961 and a Nº3 with Halfway to Paradise. He secured a total of 26 UK Top 40s including Colette, I’ll Never Find Another You and Last Night was Made For Love with sales of his singles equal to Elvis and The Beatles.
In 1963, We Want Billy! was one of the first live albums in UK history and he also starred in a number of movies during that era, staging a comeback in 1973 with That’ll Be the Day starring David Essex and Ringo Starr. Due to health problems and bankruptcy, Billy Fury sadly passed aged 42 in 1983. In 2003 The Sound of Fury Fan club commissioned a bronze statue of the idol which stands at the Royal Albert Dock.
Featuring Richie Starkey – that’s Ringo Starr to you and me – on drums, the band was founded by Alan Caldwell aka Rory Storm in 1959. In 1961 they infuriated Cavern-owner Ray McFall by switching from their Skiffle-sound to break into Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On live on stage as Jazz fans booed and threw pennies! It was a smart move. The Beatles’ first booking agent and Jacaranda-owner, Alan Williams was impressed and after they honoured a season playing at Butlins, sent the band to headline The Star Club in Hamberg where they became hugely popular on the circuit.
Shortly after in 1962, Ringo was offered £25 a week to leave the band and replace The Beatles’ drummer Pete Best – not sure how that worked out for him? Despite their popularity and offers from Ringo, the band never made it into a professional recording studio and the premature death of lead guitarist Ty O’Brien led to a break-up in 1967.
Bucking the backbeat trend, the band gained an avid R&B fanbase playing classics influenced by Muddy Water’s Chicago-sound and found big fans in The Beatles with George Harrison stating, ‘The Stones are good – almost as good as The Roadrunners.’
The Roadrunners were the first band to appear on Sunday Night at the Cavern on Radio Luxembourg and played a stint at Hamburg’s Star Club, returning to Liverpool as the resident band at Hope Hall later known as the Everyman Theatre, as well as appearing as guests at The Fab Four’s final appearance at The Cavern on 3 August 1963. After talk of record deals never reached fruition, followed by a series of line-up changes the band split in 1966.
In 1962 after a few Skiffle incarnations The Searchers began working with legendary 60s producer Tony Hatch – who collaborated with Bowie, Petula Clarke and Scott Walker – securing three UK Nº1 hits with a cover of The Drifter’s Sweets For My Sweet in July 1963; Needles and Pins written by Sonny Bono in January 1964 and Don’t Throw Your Love Away in April that same year.
Other Top Ten hits quickly followed including Sugar and Spice written by Hatch; When You Walk In The Room and Goodbye My Love. The Searchers appeared with Motown legends including Marvin Gaye and The Supremes, toured with The Rolling Stones and considered Bruce Springsteen a fan. After 57 years, The Searchers who still featured founder John McNally and original bassist Frank Allen, played their last gig in March 2019.
Originally known as The Mavericks, the band got permission from Mersey Beat editor Billy Harry to change their name and signed to Brian Epstein, going on to have seven UK Top 40 singles starting with their first big hit in 1963 with It’s Love That Really Counts, followed by the million-selling When I Think of You which reached Nº5 in 1964 and gave the band their first gold disc.
The Merseybeats enjoyed two more major hits Don’t Turn Around and Wishin’ & Hopin’ appearing in Germany, the US and even fronting their own show on Italian television!
They started out playing Jazz-influenced Skiffle but by 1962 embraced Rock & Roll as The Cavern’s resident band, inviting The Beatles as one of the first groups to take part in their Tuesday Guest Night. By December 1963 the band reached their highest chart position with Hippy Hippy Shake grabbing the Nº2 spot in December and charting in the US.
In June 1964 they scored a Nº3 with You’re No Good and a Nº11 hit later that year with Good Golly Miss Molly, and were famously involved in a punch up with the Rolling Stones at BBC studios during the recording of the first Top of the Pops in Manchester after an argument broke out over a ball point pen while they were signing autographs!
In July 1961 Bill Harry wrote about talented vocalist Priscilla White who was joining Merseybeat bands on stage, accidentally changing Cilla’s name from White to Black – and despite her dad’s disapproval – Cilla kept it!
By 1963 Cilla became the first female artist to sign with Brian Epstein and made her debut at the Odeon in Southport with The Beatles in August. Her first single Love of the Loved written by Paul McCartney brought a minor hit at Nº35 but in February the following year, Anyone Who Had A Heart hit Nº1 for three weeks, followed by another Nº1 in May with You’re My World.
But it wasn’t just singing talent which made Cilla a star. In a career-defining move, Epstein arranged for the BBC to give Cilla her own series in 1968 with huge stars including Tom Jones, Donovan and Tony Bennett appearing, and a theme tune Step Inside Love written by Paul McCartney which gave Cilla another Top Ten hit.
Cilla Black remained a household name as Britain’s highest-paid female TV star and she celebrated 50 years in show business in 2013. After sadly passing away in 2015 a bronze statue was unveiled in 2017 to forever remember Cilla back where it all started on Mathew Street.
You might’ve heard of this famous breakthrough act of the Merseybeat era who gave the city a soundtrack and LFC an anthem. Gerry and the Pacemakers signed with Epstein in 1961 and were the first band ever to score three consecutive UK Nº1 singles with their first three songs in 1963 – How Do You Do It, I Like It and You’ll Never Walk Alone.
In 1964, the band followed with another three Top Ten hits and penned what was set to become one of the city’s most enduring soundtracks – Ferry ‘Cross The Mersey which reached Nº8. As the popularity of Merseybeat drew to a close, the band split in 1966 but remained on the 60s touring circuit, with Gerry reforming the band in 1972 and becoming the only Merseybeat band to record for the BBC’s John Peel Show.
Gerry announced his retirement in November 2018 but surprised Take That fans in June 2019 as he joined the band on stage at Anfield to sing You’ll Never Walk Alone.
Founding member of The Fourmost, Billy Hatton grew up with playmates Ronnie Wycherley (Billy Fury) and Richard Starkey (Ringo Starr). Playing guitar with Ronnie during their teens he recalled how all the girls adored Billy and he felt, ‘lucky to be with him.’
Signed to Epstein, debut single Hello Little Girl was the first song John Lennon ever wrote back in 1957. The single got to Nº9 in August 1963 with a follow-up written by Lennon and McCartney, I’m In Love reaching Nº17 later that year.
Despite performing songs written by Lennon, Billy’s relationship with The Beatle wasn’t great after he stopped John beating up Cavern DJ Bob Wooler at Paul’s 21st birthday party, saying Lennon deserved a smack but someone shouted: ‘Billy, if you hit him, your career’s over!’ The band remained popular on the cabaret circuit over the decades and in 2005 released a compilation The Best of The Fourmost with booklet notes written by Billy Hatton who passed away in 2017.
Born in Bootle as William Howard Ashton, Billy’s on-stage surname was chosen from the telephone directory and it was John Lennon who suggested adding the initial to add a tougher-sounding edge!
Billy J Kramer’s original band The Coasters weren’t interested in working with Epstein so Manchester-based The Dakotas joined Billy instead, recording several original Lennon–McCartney compositions and stacking up five UK Top five hits including Do You Want To Know A Secret (Nº2) – which was sung by George Harrison on The Beatles’ Please Please Me album a month earlier – and two Nº1 singles with Bad To Me in 1963 and Little Children in 1964 which hit the Top Ten in the US.
Despite this success their last UK single of 1964 – another Lennon-McCartney composition, From A Window only just became a Top Ten hit and by 1965 the band opted for a softer sound which missed the mark with the emergence of Rock-influenced hits.
Among all the boy bands were one of the world’s first all-girl Rock & Roll groups featuring Sylvia Saunders, Mary McGlory, Pam Birch and Valerie Gell. The Liverbirds turned down management from Brian Epstein, rising from The Cavern where John Lennon told them, ‘Girls don’t play guitars.’
Instead the band went to live in Hamberg to be managed by The Star Club’s owner Manfred Weissleder, and signing to his record label in 1964 were they were billed as The Female Beatles. After hitting the German charts, The Liverbirds appeared with The Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry, attracting fans in Switzerland, Denmark and Japan.
In October 2019 the musical, Girls Don’t Play Guitars, taken from the comment made to them by John, debuted at Liverpool’s Royal Court with Mary and Sylvia involved in the production and joining in the cast for the encore.]
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