Chapter One (Excerpt)
The call, it took only the routine ring of the telephone to turn Jimmie Nicol’s world
upside down. It came out of the blue, born of immense urgency. It was neither a fluke nor
a “lucky break” as some have described that fateful day of Wednesday, June 3, 1964. The
call had meaning on many levels. It came out of desperation, yet it was also a reward, a
once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that sprang from years of hard work, determination, fate,
and musical dues-paying. For Jimmie Nicol, becoming one of the “go-to” drummers in
London meant moving up from one band to the next, one recording session to another.
He had mastered different musical styles from Rock and Big Band, to Ska and Trad Jazz.
He had played every ballroom gig, radio show, and recording session offered to him since
the late 1950s. Even Jimmie’s hair played a role, as he had recently started growing it in
the famous “mop top” style. Nicol even had the right “look” to sit behind the most
famous drum kit in the world.
“Hello, is Jimmie Nicol in please? This is George Martin calling.” At first, it did
not seem these introductory words would have much impact on his life or everyday
routine. Martin, The Beatles’ producer, had found Nicol hanging around his Barnes,
West London home in the late morning with a friend. But why was he calling Nicol
today? Certainly it couldn’t be about The Beatles, since Nicol was well aware of their
permanent drummer, Ringo Starr. Aside from The Beatles, George Martin had begun to
produce some of the other bands in manager Brian Epstein’s stable of artists at the time.
These included: Gerry and the Pacemakers, Cilla Black, and Billy J. Kramer. Nicol
likely assumed Martin wanted to hire him to play drums on one of Epstein’s other artists’
recording sessions. Nicol’s work as a session drummer on Pye and Decca recordings was
well known in London music circles at the time. Perhaps Martin wanted Jimmie to join
one of Epstein’s groups? Nicol recalled seeing music impresario and Beatles’ manager
Brian Epstein at the last Tommy Quickly recording session at Pye in March of that year.
Perhaps he had impressed him with his drumming? Or maybe Epstein had signed a new
band that needed a good rock and roll drummer?
Meanwhile, nearby in Nicol’s own neighborhood, Beatles manager Brian Epstein
was facing the most serious crisis of The Beatles’ exploding career. He had a problem so
monumental that it threatened to economically devastate the band, dilute its fan base, and
destroy his master plan to take The Beatles worldwide. The schedule for June 3, 1964
originally called for the group to pose for photos in the morning, followed by an
afternoon and evening recording session at EMI Studios. The following day, June 4, the
group would fly off on their first ever world tour, one that would feature them playing
live in Denmark, The Netherlands, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand.
This was not just any tour, but one that had been carefully planned for months,
planned with the preparation and detail of a military campaign. Epstein believed that
touring was the most difficult part of his job, and it occupied most of his time and
concern. “I think traveling around and going around the world, making the arrangements
for moving around, is the most difficult thing in managing the group, because you don’t
know what’s going to happen,”1 said Epstein in an interview that seemed to foreshadow
the looming problem. The Beatles had already conquered the United Kingdom and the
eastern seaboard of the United States by June of 1964. They held the top five chart
positions simultaneously on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart with their songs, I
Want To Hold Your Hand; She Loves You; Please Please Me; Can’t Buy Me Love; and
Twist and Shout. Despite this success, Epstein was driven more by his fear of failure than
his will to succeed. This apprehension in The Beatles’ climb to fame was weighing
heavily as the clock ticked down to the world tour launch of the next day. “I hold myself
responsible. It isn’t the money that worries me,” he recalled. “It is the failure; partly
because of my youth; partly because of my background; and partly because of my
provincial origin.”2 Their ambitious manager wanted to prove to himself he could be the
first to have his pop group conquer no less than the entire world.
The contracts for the shows were all signed; hotels, security and transportation
were reserved; records, concert programs and merchandise were stocked; and the tickets
were already selling out. There was no turning back. The media was ready to cover their
every move, and now it seemed as if all of Epstein’s plans were about to implode like the
demolition of a large skyscraper.
The Beatles were posing for photographs at Prospect Studios in Barnes for a
Saturday Evening Post session with photographer John Launois, when suddenly Ringo
Starr collapsed to the floor. Beatles’ road manager Neil Aspinall witnessed the event
and recalls, “Ringo has never been particularly strong. He collapsed during the photo
session… I was with them when it happened and I got quite a fright when I saw Ringo
sink to his knees. This event instantly threw The Beatles’ world tour into serious doubt
and panic, and their recording schedule that day into turmoil. Ringo was discreetly
deposited into the private patients’ wing of Middlesex University College Hospital. The
diagnosis was tonsillitis and pharyingitis. Starr recalls that day, “I was desperately ill.
Thinking quickly on his feet, Epstein knew he needed to find a replacement for
Ringo Starr. He also knew he had to convince the other three Beatles to go along with
the plan; and he needed to fulfill the multiple media, legal, and financial obligations of
the world tour. Faced with the greatest crisis of his career thus far, Epstein had only a few
hours to find a suitable replacement, or risk losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in
concert fees, merchandise, publishing, and record revenues for his remarkable group. His
challenge was daunting. Epstein had to find a drummer who “looked like a Beatle”; knew
Ringo’s parts to all the songs; fit into Ringo’s stage suits (no time for a tailor); and could
comport himself in a way that would not start rumors of a new Beatles’ drummer. This
was a tall order on such short notice!
In 1964, concert contracts were usually no more than one or two pages in length,
containing the mere skeletal deal points of artist, price, location, and performance. They
did not include cancellation or “out clauses” due to illness of a band member (standard in
today’s entertainment agreements). In other words, “the show must go on!” Furthermore,
Epstein realized the risk to the band’s reputation, image, and future popularity, due to
cancellation. This was a time when pop stars had a very brief and unstable shelf life.
Aside from the job of replacing Ringo with another drummer who could play the
arrangements and looked the part of a Beatle, Epstein faced a more daunting task, one in
which a greater showdown emerged. He knew his decision would affect the other
members of the band. The Beatles, more than any of his other artists, were like four very
close brothers. This was an issue of business vs. loyalty, and success vs. friendship.
Within The Beatles’ camp, there was a deep emotional split over Epstein’s
insistence on finding a substitute for Starr. Lead guitarist George Harrison had drawn a
line in the sand; he flat out told Epstein that without Ringo, there would be no Beatles’
tour. He would not participate. Harrison was The Beatle who, more often than not, took
on the role as the group’s “moral compass”. George Martin recalls the showdown and
comments, “George is a very loyal person. And he said, ‘If Ringo’s not part of the group,
it’s not The Beatles. And I don’t see why we should do it. I’m not going to go’.”6 Paul
McCartney remembers, “For some reason, we couldn’t really cancel it. So, the idea came
up, we’ll get a stand-in drummer.”7 …..
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