David joined BBC Radio Merseyside’s Roger Lyon for a chat about the Country of Liverpool, as well as talking about those Liverpool Country legends, Hank Walters, Kenny Johnson and Phil Brady.
The Beatles Audition at the BBC in Manchester – 8th February 1962
The Beatles first appearance on BBC Radio was in March 1962. Brian Epstein arranged an audition for them with Peter Pilbeam at the Playhouse Theatre and, though Brian had requested the opportunity for all three vocalists to be heard, Pilbeam only wanted to listen to John and Paul. He decided to assess them both to see if they would be suitable, and gave them the opportunity to perform four songs.
The Beatles audition consisted of two of their own songs, “Like Dreamers Do” and “Hello Little Girl”, plus “Memphis Tennessee” and “Till There Was You”. They had played all of these songs at Decca just a few weeks earlier, and it was surprising that they included “Till There Was You”, which had been as a disaster for McCartney at that audition.
Paul showed his nerves again. However, this time the boys passed the audition, making Pilbeam the first BBC producer to book The Beatles. He remembered that they stood out among the many other groups that had auditioned, recalling that there was a “load of rubbish – masses of rubbish – and then out of the blue this group turned up at the Playhouse at one of our audition sessions – called The Beatles.” As with most places The Beatles went, Pilbeam and his associates perceived perceived as slightly odd. It was a “weird name and everybody said ‘Yuk!’”, Pilbeam said, “but I was impressed with them at the time.”
However, what was interesting was the comments Pilbeam made on their audition report form:
“More Country and Western”
“I wrote that they were ‘an unusual group not as rocky as most, more country and western with a tendency to play music’. This probably sounds awfully crude, but it was praise indeed,” he said. “Many groups just relied on noise to get them through the audition.”
Excerpt from The Country of Liverpool. Get your copy now
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When John Lennon started his first group, The Quarrymen, back in 1956, their musical influences were many and varied. There is no doubt that, without Lonnie Donegan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison would not have formed a group; the same goes for those Liverpool groups, and numerous British groups, who became famous.
The Quarrymen’s first manager, Nigel Walley, had business cards printed, in which they stated their musical specialities: Country … Western … Skiffle … Rock ‘n’ Roll. We know that they became the greatest rock ‘n’ roll group in Liverpool and Hamburg, and the greatest pop act of all time, but their roots were firmly in skiffle, folk and country. Those roots never left them, and are there to see in the artists they covered, those that influenced them, and in many of their most famous songs.
The Quarrymen’s Repertoire
The Quarrymen’s sets would often consist of the following:
“Rock Island Line”, “Puttin’ on the Style”, “Railroad Bill” and “Worried Man Blues” as recorded by Lonnie Donegan, which could all be classed as country/ blues/ folk or bluegrass. “Lost John” and “Cumberland Gap” by Woodie Guthrie, which were American folk/ country, also recorded by Donegan.
George’s hero was Carl Perkins, whose “Blue Suede Shoes”, made famous by Elvis, was classic rockabilly – a fusion of rock ‘n’ roll and “hillbilly” country music – from 1956. It is also interesting that John, even though he adored Elvis, gave a surprising answer about “Blue Suede Shoes”; “I suppose I started to get off-beat, musically, when I found out that I liked Carl Perkins’ version of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ better than Presley’s.” (TuneIn)
John Lennon‘s Country Roots
Michael Hill was a school friend of John Lennon, through Dovedale Primary School and Quarry Bank. He used to host record-listening lunchtimes at his house, with John, his best mate Pete Shotton, and Michael’s best friend Don Beattie. As well as introducing Lennon to “Long Tall Sally”, a record that changed Lennon’s life, Michael said that John “really got hooked on Hank Williams, due to me.
“John, as an adult and a successful performer, treasured fond memories of the musical foundations of his life, for which he was much in my debt. John told an interviewer ‘I listened to country music. I started imitating Hank Williams when I was fifteen, before I could play the guitar. I used to go round to a friend’s house, because he had the record player, and we sang all that Lonnie Donegan stuff and Hank Williams. He, Mike Hill, had all the records’.
“Best of all for singing along were the Hank Williams records,” continued Mike. Like Hank Williams fans everywhere, we struggled to decipher the lyrics he was singing in songs, such as ‘Jambalaya’, with its Creole words and idiomatic language, and in ‘Settin’ The Woods on Fire’. Some of the words were totally unintelligible to us, but we thought the tunes, the accent, and the rhythm were all great.
“I had more records by Hank Williams than by any other artist, seven in all and all 10inch 78 rpm vinyl records with the bright yellow labels and issued by MGM. Here are the records that John Lennon sung along to:
“Jambalaya (On The Bayou)” / “Window Shopping”
“Settin’ The Wood On Fire” / “You Win Again”
“Take These Chains From My Heart” / “Kaw Liga”
“Your Cheatin’ Heart” / “A Teardrop On A Rose”
“My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” / “Let’s Turn Back The Years”
“Baby, We’re Really In Love” / “I Can’t Help It”
“California Zephyr” / “I’m Gonna Sing”
“John had no Hank Williams records. In fact, he had no records at all apart from a well worn copy of Lonnie Donegan’s record of ‘Rock Island Line’ which he sold to Rod Davis in 1957 as he lost interest in skiffle music. I suspect he stole my copy of this record as he was an inveterate pilferer and my copy went missing. Be that as it may, to my knowledge, the only exposure John Lennon had to country music was at my house listening to my records.” (John Lennon: The Boy Who Became A Legend)
“Crumbly and Western”
John commented on his country roots and how it pertained to the formation of The Quarrymen. “I grew up with blues music, country and western music, which is also a big thing in Liverpool. One of the first visions I had was one of a fully dressed cowboy in the middle of Liverpool with his Hawaiian guitar – the first time I ever saw a guitar in my life.” He also famously referred to country and western as ‘Crumbly & Western’. (Bob Rogers 1964)
Country music, as we have seen, was very popular in Liverpool, and formed the basis of skiffle and what was to follow. “What we realised was that the three chords we had learned to play skiffle,” said Rod Davis, banjo player with The Quarrymen, “could also play country songs, and later on, rock ‘n’ roll songs.” The evolution from skifflers to rockers was an easy one, as was the transformation of skifflers to country groups.
Rod Davis was one of those to leave the skiffle music and head down that country road. “I made the occasional foray into it in the ‘60s as I played fiddle, mandolin, autoharp & guitar in a Bluegrass band called The Bluegrass Ramblers. We were really on the folk scene, playing at the Spinners, Pete McGovern’s Wash-house and generally all over the North-West. Just now and then we appeared at Ossie Wade’s in Everton or at the 21 Club.
The “Cousin” Phenomenon
“It was a bit weird as everybody called each other ‘cousin’ and fancied themselves as latter-day cowboys. When we turned up at Ossie Wade’s, they thought we were a folk group, the autoharp especially put them off. However Bill Clifton appeared there not long after us and he played an autoharp! But as he was a very large ex-US Marine, so I doubt if any of the cousins objected! The other problem was that we were totally acoustic, with no “lekky” (electric) guitars – and we had a banjo! So basically not cool enough for the would-be cowboys.”
The Quarrymen’s Rod Davis on ‘The Country of Liverpool’
“David Bedford has done Liverpool’s Country Music scene a great service by producing this monumental work of some 400 pages. For years it has been overshadowed by the Merseybeat scene, yet there were well over 100 Country groups on Merseyside – many of them even played the Cavern and there was more than a little crossover, both in music and musicians! Even the Beatles were not immune. It’s about time that this other vibrant strand of Liverpool’s music received proper recognition – here you have it!”
GET YOUR COPY NOW
The connections between Liverpool and America go back hundreds of years. Many local people followed the Pilgrim Fathers to the new world. These included Richard Mather, a disaffected preacher from the Dingle, Liverpool, who left home in 1635 and set up home in Boston, Massachusetts. His son Increase, and grandson Cotton, like many in their family, were both noted clerics.
Liverpool became one of the main ports of emigration to America, including over one million Irish migrants who left home following the disastrous Irish potato famine in the 1840s. From 1840, Canadian Samuel Cunard began the first transatlantic crossing between Liverpool, Halifax (Nova Scotia) and on to Boston. Cunard ships began the regular trips between Liverpool and the US, gaining a reputation for reliability and speed. In 1917, Cunard unveiled their new Headquarters at the Pier Head, Liverpool, situating it between the Royal Liver Building and the Port of Liverpool Building. Cunard employed many Liverpool seamen, who would become important in the music scene of Liverpool.
Liverpool and the Confederacy
In the 1860s, with the outbreak of the American Civil War, Liverpool became embroiled in the war. Its rich cotton merchants gave financial assistance to the Confederates, due to the Federal Government blockading the Southern ports. The confederacy dispatched agent James Dunwoody Bulloch to Liverpool, in order to construct a navy. Liverpool’s finest shipbuilders then built the ships that would go on to sink the Northern fleet. Liverpool’s shipbuilders built The Alabama, the most destructive ship of the American Civil War. At Lairds, they referred to it as the “290”. With reparations of $15,500,000 for Britain to pay back after the war, Great Britain was in debt to America. Liverpool’s connections with the American south were firmly established, which makes it no surprise that it was the music from the south that found its way back to Liverpool.
Liverpool and African-Americans
African-American performers frequently visited Liverpool in the early 19th century. Groups like the Virginia Minstrels – who pioneered the minstrel show as opposed to the minstrel act – opened their 1843 British tour in Liverpool on 21st May. Pell’s Ethiopian Serenaders, accompanied by William Henry lane (nicknamed Master Juba), who pioneered the ‘Tennessee Double-Shuffle’ performed in Liverpool in 1848. Hague’s Georgia Minstrels (1866), the Fisk Jubilee Singers were a group of predominantly ex-slaves, who visited Liverpool several times during the 1870s to perform negro spirituals (Fryer 1984). Legendary names such as singer Paul Robeson (1922 and later dates), the jazz musician Duke Ellington (1933), and Django Rheinhart also visited Liverpool.
Liverpool: The Gateway to Europe
When war broke out in 1914 across Europe, with millions dying, Britain looked across the Atlantic to the US to join us as allies. A German U-boat sunk the Liverpool-built Cunard ship, Lusitania, in 1915, which led to America joining the allies. Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers disembarked at Liverpool on their way to fight in Europe. Sadly, this would be repeated in the Second World War, when over one million American servicemen passed through Liverpool.
Liverpool and America: RAF Burtonwood
Many thousands of those American servicemen ended up on an acquired airbase just outside of Liverpool, called Burtonwood. Those thousands of servicemen would also become important to Liverpool’s music scene, as musicians and as fans.
These American influences undoubtedly molded the cultural landscape of Liverpool. It’s no wonder that music lovers of the time called it the “Nashville of the North”.
High praise from a respected Beatles fanzine
If you’re a follower of ours on Facebook or Instagram, you will no doubt have seen us post updates on the production of ‘The Country of Liverpool‘ the documentary. Given that the premise is new to many people, we thought it was only right to dedicate a few posts to the book that the film is based on.
The following is an excerpt from a review from Octopus’ Garden magazine, in which writer Tom Aguiar talks about how the thriving country scene connected to the Fab Four in their early days.
“Fans of the Beatles are familiar with the group’s affinity for country music created in America. What many people don’t realize is that in the 1960s and up to today, country music experienced tremendous popularity in Europe as evidenced by its root in the skiffle craze that eventually developed into British rock and roll music. The interest of the Beatles and others is not as simplistic as records coming off the ships berthing in Liverpool. It is much deeper and more substantive.
“The earliest immigrants to the American colonies from Britain and Ireland brought with them folk songs, hymns, and primitive African blues. The songs told stories of love, war, legends, and more and were written with a regular rhythm generations remember and repeat easily. The early settlers came from Britain, Ireland, and Scotland, and found homes in the Appalachian Mountains. As time went on, the descendants moved to other parts of the new world and the songs began to evolve and develop into what eventually became all the splinter forms of the country music genre, from country and western to bluegrass and beyond.
“Bedford expertly describes the growth of country music in the US and how it is also firmly formed in the roots of rock and roll of the early 1950s in the music of Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, and others. Interest in the country and western genre in both America and Britain also included western movies and American cowboys and it was a regular occurrence for British youth to attend Saturday movies to revel in their interest. Many Liverpool bands took names that were reminiscent of the American cowboy, as well.
“The cowboy image quickly evolved into the British rocker. Country and western music did not disappear with the advent of the Liverpool rock scene. Far from it. It had a strong following in Europe that continued to grow, despite slipping into the background. Country stars such as Phil Brady blossomed and grew in their own right and there were many, many clubs that specialized in country music.
“Bedford presents the story in a way that keeps the reader interested. His research skills are deep and impeccable. He uses old photos and posters as key parts of the story with a charm that adds to the book.
“David Bedford has tackled subjects, that other authors sidestep, in his books, such as Liddypool and Finding the Fourth Beatle, and presents topics that are new to readers. The Country of Liverpool is no exception and cements Bedford’s standing as one of the top Beatles historians of today. An excellent book and an excellent story told in a way that is interesting, educational, and just plain enjoyable.
Another must-have for Beatles, and music, fans.”
So there you have it! You can order your copy of ‘The Country of Liverpool’, in hardback or softback, from the Beatles Bookstore.
Adapted with permission from Octopus’ Garden fanzine, Volume 30, Issue #3, March 2021. Review by Tom Aguiar.