It’s not easy to fit Pete Best into the format of Groovers and Shakers because ostensibly, from a playing standpoint at least, he arguably didn’t do anything to warrant it. Other than of course being famous for being sacked from The Beatles leaving Sir Richard Starkey to find his way in.
Pete was born on the 24th of November 1941 in Madras, India and his biological father was killed in WW2. His mother Mona, who was training to be a nurse, met and married a commissioned Army PE instructor and Champion boxer called Johnny Best in Bombay. His family were sports promoters who owned Liverpool Stadium which besides being a boxing stadium, in the fullness of time, put on bands. I vividly remember playing with Argent and Yes there and setting the drums up on the unsteady, bouncy and therefore drummer-challenging padded canvas floor of the square boxing ring.
Mona played no small part in her eldest son’s musical upbringing after they moved to Liverpool, arriving on Christmas Day 1945. Eventually after much searching she found a large house and opened a coffee club called the ‘Casbah’ in its cellar. Here the Quarrymen played, who at the time were simply a drummerless skiffle group featuring both Paul McCartney and John Lennon (and the group, who I played with at the Cavern Club last year, are these days called John Lennon’s Quarrymen).
The band played in Mona’s basement coffee club until they left in high dudgeon evidently after a problem with getting paid. They were conveniently replaced by Pete’s group called The Bluejacks. It was Mona who bought him his first drum set (a blue-pearl Premier) from Blacklers Music in Liverpool. This kit was eventually followed by a Ludwig from a shop in Oxford road, Manchester called Barratts. This was in 1962, just in time for him to leave the band.
He was completely self taught and like many of his contemporaries Pete claimed his favourite drummer was Gene Krupa. However, just like everybody else, there was no way he was ever going to be in a band where he’d be able to attempt to play like his hero.
So the question could be asked as to whether the Beatles would have progressed as meteorically with Pete and without Ringo. I had been a professional for a couple of years at the time, playing variety theatres and the like across the UK and saw both of the contenders up close. My view is that without Ringo they most certainly wouldn’t have sounded the same. Without prejudice, there was a musical chemistry between the second generation of the ‘Fab 4’, which certainly wasn’t there when they were making those records like “My Bonnie” in Hamburg with Bert Kampfaert, Tony Sheridan and of course Pete Best on drums.
But that’s not what we’re up-to here on Groovers and Shakers. We aren’t here to denigrate him, we’re here simply to investigate the Pete Best story.
Back in 1996, Pete Best published a book called ‘The Best Years Of The Beatles’, and at the time I met up with him to talk about at the time, and inevitably some other Beatles-related subjects. This was around the time the ‘Anthology’ material was released which brought further riches to all five Beatles. The following should therefore be read with the sure knowledge that Pete Best was about to inherit the fortune – although not the fame – which most people felt was rightfully his.
Pete Best was not the drummer, or washboard player, in The Quarrymen with Lennon and McCartney. He was in the Blackjacks before he became the first drummer in the Beatles – aka The Silver Beetles. He joined in August 1960 to travel to Hamburg to play in the clubs. He was sacked in 1962 – almost two years later – for (depending on whose version you listen to) being the most popular member of the band, which was a dangerous position to be in. Or, the alternative reason was for not being a good enough player. This was just before the first Abbey Road recordings were completed but some time after the Hamburg sessions with Tony Sheridan which found their way onto the ‘Anthology’ compilation album released in 1995.
Since his enforced and lengthy retirement from the music business Pete has bought himself a new drum kit, although he still has that Ludwig. He started out on the road with his step brother Roag, fronting his own “name” band and, thanks to those early recordings and an early redundancy pay-out, seems to now be doing very nicely, thank you. Perhaps this is as good a place as any to reveal the fact that The Beatles had been rejected by Decca Records with Dick Rowe and Tony Meehan presiding over the audition. The reason for this was said to be that beat groups were ‘finished’ and artists like Brian Poole (with or without the Tremeloes) were what people wanted to hear. So we know Pete didn’t make the cut as far as EMI Records were concerned and went off to join another group before eventually becoming a baker in Liverpool.
Since leaving the Beatles from ’62 to ’68 he was still in show-business with a band called Lee Curtis and the All-Stars. In 1969 Pete joined the Civil Service and stayed with them ’till the end of ’92 and since then he’s been touring with the eponymous Pete Best Band.
He started working for the government with what I assume was HMRC as a clerical officer working on the employment side of the Civil Service. He then worked his way through promotions and different aspects of the service up to becoming ‘Special Programmes Manager’ in the North West. Pete was based in Liverpool with his own specific area to cover. This obviously allowed him to feed and clothe his family which Alexa reliably informs me comprised four children.
Pete told me that he was forced to hang up his sticks in 1968 because that was the only decision he could make with a family to bring up. He needed to look towards their security (although he confided he’d always said if he was a single guy he’d have kept looking for that mercurial chance), so the only way to do it was to say no to drumming. He couldn’t work and play at the same time, so it was a case of finishing with music from ’68 through to ‘88. Except for a couple of times when he’d gone down into the cellars to thrash the dust off the old Ludwigs, he didn’t really do anything until he was persuaded by the guys who ran the Cavern to do a one-off convention in Liverpool in ’88 at the Adelphi Hotel.
He expected it to be a one-off thing and got a few Merseybeat friends together and asked Roag [his drumming half brother] to put his own kit up on stage too. This was evidently the first time they ever played together. It could also have been the last although it hasn’t actually turned out that way!
Billy Kinsley [from the Merseybeats] was in the band because he’d always said to Pete ‘If you ever do a gig in Liverpool, I’d like to do it with you’ and Kenny Parry, who Pete assured me was a household name in Liverpool, and Dave Goldberg from Liverpool Express.
Pete takes over the story. “We did a couple of rehearsals, then the show at the Adelphi, and it went down so incredibly well that people said ‘You can’t just leave it as this, look what’s happened!’ Because of that Pete began to be drawn into a bit more drumming until it reached the stage of needing a regular band, preferably all from Liverpool.
Much has been speculated upon the subject but when his book came out, I felt I should ask Pete Best about just why he’d been sacked from the Beatles shortly before they were, in the inimitable words of John Lennon, “about to become as famous as Jesus”.
He felt that the reasons which were given about his drumming ability had never held water. Even George Martin said it wasn’t anything to do with drumming ability. So he said Epstein put out the fact that his dismissal was due to not playing as was expected? It seems that was what the press-release said.
I have heard that Ringo wasn’t the only drummer to be asked to join the band – Bobby Graham was evidently in the frame too .
Pete told me he’d heard since that Freddie Marsden from the Pacemakers was approached, as was Johnny Hutchinson from the Big Three who were the Liverpool band we all admired. According to Johnny, in the few words he speaks about the sixties, he didn’t join because Pete was a friend.
The mind boggles as to how Pete Best coped when it happened. It has to be bad enough getting kicked out of any band, but when it’s the Beatles it must be a major disappointment, worse than losing your winning lottery ticket. Because metaphorically, the Beatles didn’t just win the lottery once – they kept-on winning it!
He told me of course it hurt and people have often said he must have been bitter. His view was that bitterness is something which can make you totally crazy and it remains with you. He was resentful he said, simply because of the circumstances and the way it happened. He didn’t get a chance to defend himself and the band weren’t there at his dismissal. They left it up to Brian.
As I said Pete’s early inspiration came from Krupa whom he called a powerhouse-style drummer. “If you had a leaning towards drums he was the guy you watched ‘cos he smacked them a bit”. Then Pete had what he called his ‘Morello phase’ and of the Liverpool drummers he liked, Johnny Hutch was one of them, and Ronnie Parry who was a great technician and could play all kinds of music.
I asked Pete if he had spoken to Ringo, but he replied that he hadn’t seen him since.
And the others?
“We’ve never met up. We did two gigs [with the All-Stars] where I was on stage with them. Ringo was with them but there was no communication. But from that day to this there’s been no verbal communication – they’ve gone their way and I’ve gone mine.”
I wondered how he felt about that?
“I think a lot’s got to be taken into consideration about what they became.
Aren’t they still the same guys you grew up with who were in the Casbah Club with you?
“Still the same guys, but at the end of the day they became the phenomenon. Their work and their social environment was totally different and they were under a lot of pressure just to keep to themselves, to keep their own wagon-train together without bringing other people into it. And I’ve always looked upon it as that, plus the fact that we walked different walks of life. So to talk to them now there might be embarrassment and resentment. Why go back and open old wounds?
Changing the subject, I asked Pete about the days of the band back in Hamburg with the nine 45 minutes sets each evening.
“Generally the first gigs were forty-five minutes on and a quarter of an hour off, but over a long period of time. It normally worked out that we were around and on stage for about six or seven hours – all for a reported £15 a week. At the Indra it was like that but when we went to the Kaiser-Keller with Rory Storm we alternated with them and played an hour on and an hour off. You could still start at 6pm and finish at 4am. When we went back to the Top Ten Club we changed to 45 on and 15 off. At the Star Club, where they had more bands playing, we’d start at ridiculous times like four o’clock in the afternoon and finish at 3 o’clock in the morning.
He said it was hard work but they didn’t give it a thought. The funny thing was when they got there and they were told they were going to play from seven and finish at four they wondered how they were going to do it?’ But they were easy sets, and sometimes when there weren’t too many people they could coast. But even on our nights off they’d be asked if they wanted to play somewhere else.
They played hard on stage and enjoyed ourselves. They never had a set list (that was something which came in with Brian Epstein) so as the lads felt it, they would be the ones who’d pick the repertoire on stage. So the set would change depending on what the individual members wanted to do.
Pete’s first drum kit was the four-piece Premier in blue Pearl with bongos. He ordered the Ludwig kit just before he was kicked out [of the band] from Barratt’s in Manchester. When he started making enquiries about Ludwig they were almost unheard of. He went to Barratt’s and they ordered them in ‘Sea Jade’ and he’s still got them. They’re not immaculate, they’ve been well played. He’s playing a black Tama in the band now.
“I always look on what’s happened recently as being the icing on the cake and more for recognition of services rendered. It’s been nice to do it this way. I was able to really get back into sport: swimming and rugby, back into the old circle of friends, the boozer on a Friday night, getting slaughtered – the usual things! Friends in Liverpool have said I’m setting a trend: playing until twenty-eight, leaving, bringing my family up, then coming back at fifty-something and starting again. It’s been great.
I realised with dismay it was more than 20 years ago when I interviewed Pete Best and found him to be an exceptionally nice guy who doesn’t appear to have a trace of bitterness about him. He did not bad mouth any of the Beatles, their organisation, or anyone else in the interview even though he had ample opportunity to do so if he’d wanted to. I’d say he deserves everything which it seems in the fullness of time is coming his way!