Howie Casey - A Merseybeat Legend

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John Lennon famously said although he was born in Liverpool he grew up in Hamburg, but if one of Merseybeat’s unsung heroes had his way Lennon and his Beatles running mates may not have even made it to Hamburg. The first Liverpool band to make the trek to the bright lights and fleshpots of Hamburg was a rockin’ R&B outfit by the name of Howie Casey & the Seniors.

Led by the imposing sax man Howie Casey, who’d honed his instrumental skills in the late-50s during three years in khaki in the King’s Regiment, the Seniors got together in 1958 united behind Howie’s love of sax-driven R&B as practiced by the likes of Little Richard, Lloyd Price and Fats Domino. By 1960 the band featured vocalists Derry Wilkie and one Freddy Fowell, later to achieve huge fame and no small degree of notoriety as Freddy Starr, and landed a booking to replace singer Tony Sheridan at the Kaiserkeller club in Hamburg, playing at least five sets a day – 45 minutes on, 15 off – six days a week and living in filthy unlit digs behind the stage.

/Howie Casey 1962“We were having the time of our lives,” says Howie. “As band leader I had the only bed and slept under an old Union Jack flag I found, like I was lying in state. The other lads had to go top-to-toe on a settee and armchair pushed together. We washed in the only hand basin in the club’s ladies loo. But it was a great place for a young musician.” Earlier that year The Seniors had auditioned with a host of other Liverpool bands for a summer season in Blackpool promoted by Larry Parnes, the manager who christened Merseybeat’s original hero, Billy Fury. Among the other acts at the audition were The Silver Beetles – the first time the word ‘Beetles’ had appeared – and Howie was unimpressed.

“Their drummer [Tommy Moore] hadn’t shown up so they asked Johnny Hutch [Hutchinson, from Cass & the Casanovas] to sit in with them. This is where the famous story comes from, that I was the man who tried to stop The Beatles being sent to Hamburg. That story has haunted me ever since. As I said, we were having a great time in Hamburg and didn’t want anyone to spoil the party. When I heard that Allan Williams had booked The Beatles I wrote to him begging him not to in case they blew it for the rest of us.

“And ever since I’ve been telling people that when I saw them again in Hamburg they were a different band – a huge improvement. I was asked about it at a Beatles festival in Liverpool recently and I jokingly said: ‘I never said that.’ Then there was a cry from the back of the hall, ‘Yes you did!’ It was Allan Williams – and I just said: ‘There speaks the voice of veracity.’ Some things you just can’t escape!” The Beatles (they dropped the ‘Silver’ and adopted the new spelling just before leaving for Hamburg in August) had a booking at the Indra Club, close to the Kaiserkeller. With drummer Pete Best recruited just a few days before they left home and John’s art school mate Stu Sutcliffe on bass, The Beatles were still a five-piece – John, Paul and George all played guitar.

Their repertoire, like that of The Seniors, was mainly rock ’n’ roll standards with a few show tunes, cabaret standards and instrumentals thrown in. John Lennon later recalled songs had to be extended to fulfil the contracted set times. “Every song lasted 20 minutes and had 20 solos in it. That’s what improved the playing. There was nobody to copy from. We played what we liked best and the Germans liked it as long as it was loud.” When Bruno Koschmider, who controlled the Kaiserkeller and the Indra, decided he wanted non-stop music The Beatles and The Seniors used to swap members to give each other a bit of a rest.

HowSen - Howie and the Seniors in 1961 at the Hollyoak Hall, Liverpool, on the corner of Smithdown Road and Penny Lane: (l-r) Derry Wilkie (vocals), Howie Casey (sax), Frank Wibberly (drums), Griff Griffiths (guitar), Freddie Fowell ((Starr)) (vocals), Phil ‘Spread’ Whitehead (bass)
“We had this idea to split the bands up so I played with a German drummer, our keyboardist Stan Foster, our singer Derry Wilkie and Stu Sutcliffe on bass. The rest of The Seniors played when we were off stage and the other four Beatles were doing shifts down at the Indra,” says Howie. “But then we would all mix in together and jam with each other. In between sets we would sit and drink together and talk over our ambitions. We were all pretty much the same in that we wanted to make our living out of music. Like us, The Beatles had that confidence that youth gives you.

“It was the same back in Liverpool. We’d play a session at the Cavern, or The Beatles would, and then we’d go down the road and chat. But I don’t know to what extent we knew each other – it was just we were in the same game, trying to make our way. I was closer with the others than with John. I always felt he had his own agenda. Whereas the others were more sociable, John was always a bit stand-offish.” Both bands continued the lucrative runs to Hamburg and were joined by others, including Rory Storm and the Hurricanes whose drummer, Ringo Starr, was soon to jump ship and join The Beatles. It was also in Hamburg that both bands met artist/photographers Klaus Voorman and Astrid Kirchherr, credited with defining The Beatles’ early stage image by cutting their hair in the famous mop top style. “I stayed in Hamburg until mid-1962 by which time The Beatles were going in other directions. Brian Epstein wanted to sign The Seniors, but I’d broken the band up the week before! I don’t know if we would have been any different. The Beatles had it all – the talent, the image, the good looks – but we were not the best-looking band in Liverpool.

Howie Casey The Beatles.“After Hamburg I tried to settle down, but it didn’t work and I went back out to Hamburg to join another band, Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes until about 1964. Then I was in London on the session scene so I used to see The Beatles about, but they were well on their way by then.” Howie built a successful career as a session musician playing and recording with the likes of The Who, Mott the Hoople and T-Rex whose producer Tony Visconti orchestrated the tracks on Band on the Run and brought the sax maestro back in the orbit of his one-time Hamburg running mate. “He gave me a call to do this album for Paul who I re-met after quite a few years. He’d become rich and famous while I was working, but it was great to see him. I played on Jet, Band On The Run, I did the solos on Bluebird and Mrs Vanderbilt.” A year later Howie got a call from McCartney’s office offering him a place in the touring band.

“I’d been on tour with Marc Bolan when they asked if I’d be interested in doing a tour with Wings. Then I played on Wings At The Speed Of Sound and the triple live album Wings Over America; as well as Back To the Egg. I did the last UK tour and the final night of the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea. “In between times Jeanette, Sheila and I had all been working for Paice, Ashton & Lord, a great band who never quite got the recognition they deserved. Then I got the call that Wings were going to tour Japan so we all made our way out there which was how I came to be in Tokyo when Paul got busted at the airport.” Wings were due to open 1980 with a series of 11 sold out dates, but after landing on 16 January Paul’s luggage was found to contain more than seven ounces of marijuana. As a result the dates were cancelled, along with a US tour planned for the spring as McCartney spent nine days in jail before retreating to his farm in Scotland.

He put Wings on hold and didn’t tour again for nine years. “We stayed out there while we waited to see what would happen. It was all paid so it was a little holiday like,’ says Howie. “But then of course he got home and decided to put the whole thing on ice – his son James hadn’t long been born and he’s talked since about it being time to take a step back, so that was that.” Howie and Sheila worked with Paul McCartney and George Harrison on Ringo Starr’s 1981 album Stop And Smell The Roses and have maintained loose links with McCartney ever since – Howie was even asked to recommend some saxophone teaching programmes to Paul’s second wife, Heather Mills. “Whenever I see him it’s always really friendly. I’ve always thought it was hard on Paul because John has been deified, whereas a lot of people spent years denigrating what Paul was doing and he’s one of the best songwriters we’ve ever had.”

HowSeniors - Howie and the Seniors on the train at Lime Street station in Liverpool in 1962 headed for a gig in Ilford: (l-r) Howie Casey, Lou Walters (and friend), sometime second vocalist Freddie Fowell (Starr), Brian ‘Griff ’ Griffiths, Derry Wilkie, Frank Wibberly

Adapted from the book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Beatles & Bournemouth (£17.95, Natula Publications). The book is available to order for the special price of £14.95 only at

Howie’s wife Sheila lost her long battle with cancer shortly before Christmas 2012. As the McKinley Sisters, Sheila and her sister Jeanette made a string of charming white bread pop singles in the early to mid-1960s, performing their best-known hit Sweet and Tender Romance on Ready Steady Go, as well as touring with and befriending the Beatles who joined their fan club, borrowed their make up and were taught to say “It’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht the nicht” by their mum.Luminaries such as Donovan and Jimmy Page played on the McKinleys’ records and they also sang with the Rolling Stones, the Hollies, James Last and Ringo Starr. With Jeanette and future husband Howie Casey, Sheila was an integral part of the mid-70s funk-rock supergroup Paice Ashton & Lord, appearing on their 1977 album Malice In Wonderland. Sheila also appeared on records by George Harrison and Ringo Starr.

© Words – Nick Churchill

Donations in Sheila's name can be made to the Monkey World ape rescue centre in Dorset at
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