Jimmie Nicol The Forgotten Beatle

Written by Dennis Munday
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Regardless of how talented a musician you are, luck plays an important part in climbing the greasy pole to success in the record business.
Look at the Beatles, where every record company turned them down, and it was only George Martin's foresight that got them a deal even though in his words; 'their demos were not that good'. For Jimmie Nicol, it was the same though his luck turned him into a King Midas in reverse.

James George (Jimmie) Nicol was born in Battersea, London, on August 3, 1939, and a drummer who could play everything from jazz to ska, and rock to big band jazz. Nicol's break came when 'pop guru' Larry 'Parnes, Shillings, and Pence' Parnes, caught Nicol playing with various bands at the 2 i's Coffee Bar and hired him to play with Tommy Steele's younger brother's group, Colin Hicks & the Cabin Boys. Parnes also managed many of the top British Rock 'n' Roll singers, which included Billy Fury, Vince Eager, Dickie Pride, Lance Fortune, Duffy Power, and Johnny Gentle.

Nicol left the Cabin Boys for a brief period to play in the first pit-band for Lionel Bart's musical, Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. When Nicol returned to Hicks' band, they made an appearance in the 1958 Italian film documentary Europa Di Notte, which enabled them to undertake extended tours of Italy and become a name on the Italian pop scene. Nicol also played behind Vince Eager, Tony Sheridan, the Oscar Rabin Big Band, and Cyril Stapleton's Big Band. In 1964, with the Mod boom at its zenith, Nicol decided to front his own band and called them The Shubdubs, which had a line-up similar to Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames. The group featured Roger Coulam on organ, who went on to form Blue Mink.

During a photo session for the Saturday Evening Post, on June 3, 1964, Ringo Starr was hospitalised with tonsillitis, just as the Beatles were about to undertake a tour to Denmark, Holland, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand. This unexpected illness was an immense problem for their manager Brian Epstein, as the tour would have been a sell-out, and cancelling it would have been a financial disaster. Modern tour contracts include clauses covering illnesses, but they didn't exist in the sixties.

Epstein first contacted Raye Du-Val, the drummer with Emile Ford and Checkmates, but he rebuffed the offer. Epstein then called Bobby Graham, one of the top session drummers on the scene who, owing to a stack of studio work declined the opportunity. Jimmie Nicol who was playing with Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames had played on a recording of Tommy Quickly, who Epstein also managed and he recalled the session. As Paul McCartney was well matey with Fame, he phoned to seek his permission to hijack Jimmie for the forthcoming tour. Fame tipped Nicol off and told him to get a passport. McCartney would have seen Nicol play during his short stint with The Blue Flames when visiting the Soho clubs to see Georgie's group. George Martin summoned Nicol to the Abbey Road Studio, where he auditioned with the Beatles, and it changed his life forever.

Many budget record labels existed during the sixties, which released sound-alike covers of the current hit records and recorded by session players. Nicol had played on many and, as they included many of the Beatle's tunes, he knew the arrangements. Although he passed the audition, George Harrison was unhappy about the decision and, out of loyalty to Ringo, baulked at Nicol playing with the Beatles. He stated that if Ringo wasn't going, then neither was he. Lennon & McCartney were quite happy to go along with the arrangement and eventually, Epstein and Martin managed to cajole Harrison into accepting the idea.

Nicol was reputedly paid a £2500 (45k nowadays) signing on fee and £2500 a gig. Though the reality is Epstein paid him £500 for the whole tour, confirmed in an interview that Nicol gave to the Daily Mirror in the mid-sixties. At the time, he would have been earning about £30 to £40 pounds a week. At a press conference, one reporter asked John Lennon as to why Pete Best (Ringo replaced Best) wasn't asked. Lennon replied, "He's got his own group [Pete Best and the All Stars], and it might have looked as if we were taking him back, which is not good for him."

A day after the audition took place, the tour commenced on June 4, at the KB Hallen in Copenhagen, Denmark. During the early shows, Nicol was nervous and who wouldn't be playing in front of the Beatle's audience. However, by the time they arrived in Australia, Nicol had come into his own, even adding his own touches to the arrangements. As there wasn't time to get Nicol his own stage suits tailored, he wore Ringo Starr's, which were altered to fit him. During the tour McCartney cheekily sent Ringo a telegram stating; "Hurry up and get well Ringo, Jimmie is wearing out all your suits."

Owing to the Beatles enormous fame, they were prisoners in their hotel rooms, and unable to go outside during the days, which wasn't a problem for Nicol. He could behave normally, and wander around the various cities they were playing without being recognised. As for the after-hours partying, Nicol was up for it and, as it was the swinging sixties, there was some hard drinking and womanising. He stated, "I thought I could drink and lay women with the best of them until I caught up with these guys. I was not even close to them when it came to mischief and carrying on.” During the tour, Nicol often sat in with bands that were playing the clubs he visited, including sitting in with Francis Faye at Chequers in Sydney.

After Denmark, they played concerts in Holland, Hong Kong, Australia, and when Ringo returned for the Melbourne gig on June 14, 1964, it all ended for Nicol. Towards the end of the tour, he had an intense argument with Epstein, and they fell out. Epstein presented him with a gold watch, engraved with the message 'From the Beatles and Brian Epstein to Jimmy – with appreciation and gratitude', as well as the £500 for his services. A gold watch was an award given for long service and symbolic of a person who had spent their life in one job, a joke that Nicol brooded on for the remainder of his career.

The Beatles treated Nicol well, and although they were kind, he still felt like an intruder. He stated, "They accepted me, but you can't just go into a group like that - they have their own atmosphere, their own sense of humour. It's a little clique, and outsiders just can't break in." Nicol also stated, “The day before I was a Beatle, not one girl would even look me over. The day after, when I was suited up and riding in the back of a limo with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, they were dying just to get a touch of me. It was very strange and quite scary.”

During the Beatles tour, Lennon and McCartney would often ask Nicol how he was coping, and he would reply, "It's getting better." Later when McCartney was talking with the Beatles official biographer Hunter Davies, McCartney remarked that the weather was "getting better," and remembering Nicol, laughed. It was this memory that inspired the song Getting Better, a song that appeared on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. McCartney referred to Nicol a second time in 1969, on the Let It Be tapes; "I think you'll find we're not going abroad 'cause Ringo just said he doesn't want to go abroad. You know, he put his foot down. Although Jimmie Nicol might go abroad."

As Nicol was only out on loan, Georgie Fame expected him to rejoin The Blue Flames on his return to the UK. However, he had other plans, on the flight back from Australia Nicol decided to reform his original group, re-branding them as Jimmie Nicol and the Shubdubs and poured most of the money he'd earned from the Beatles tour into this project. This move led Fame to state, 'the Beatles tour went to his head'.

In 1964, they released three singles, Husky/Don't Come Back, Humpty Dumpty/Night Train, and Baby Please Don't Go/ Shubdubery. Singles were also released in the USA on the Argo, Mar Mar, and Parrott labels, as well as in Denmark (Pye Records), New Zealand (Pye Records), and Australia (Astor). In 1965, Decca released Clementine/Bim Bam under The Sound of Jimmie Nicol, but no matter how hard he tried to cash in on his Beatles fame the success he craved eluded him and the singles failed to chart. I found a couple of tracks on YouTube (Husky Humpty Dumpty, and Night Train), and I have to say, they resemble sixties Go-Go music and are more easy listening.

Nicol's group deputised for the Dave Clarke Five for a summer season at Blackpool when Dave Clarke fell ill and appeared on Ready-Steady-Go. He appeared with The Beatles one last time, when his group played on the same bill with The Fourmost, at the Brighton Hippodrome on July 12, 1964. Now penniless, Nicol fell back to being a session drummer; Paul McCartney had read about his plight and secretly called Peter & Gordon. He asked, "Hey, maybe you could give Jimmie a little work on your next tour because he’s a very good drummer, and it looks like from this article he really could use some help.”

However, Nicol's fortunes changed in 1965, when offered the chance to become a full member of The Spotniks, who had made a name for themselves as a Swedish version of The Shadows and toured the world. This engagement was just the kick-start his career needed, but when he moved on from marijuana to heavier drugs Nicol's habit became a liability, and during their 1966 tour of Mexico, The Spotniks replaced him with Tommy Tausis.

Nicol remained in Mexico, and went on to play with various Mexican bands and even became a record executive for RCA Mexicana, hoping to sign up local talent. He formed Los Nicolquinn, with Eddie Quinn, and composed the music for the Mexican film El Mes Más Cruel (The Cruellest Month). During Nicol's spell in Mexico, Duke Ellington offered him the drum stool in his legendary big band, which Nicol turned down as he had just got married and it would have meant moving to the USA. Still thinking that Epstein had him blacklisted after the tour, Nicol continued to harbour a grudge and smashed the watch he received from the Beatles. After breaking up with his wife (who has never seen him since), Nicol returned to London, and ever hopefully that stardom was just around the corner.

Nicol carried on playing, but to no avail, and made his last public appearance playing the drums with The Clarks. He gave up the music business and vanished into the world of house renovations, although he made a brief appearance at a Beatles convention, before disappearing off the face of the earth. There was a rumour that he had died until Daily Mail announced in 2014 that Nicol was alive and well living in London. Even his estranged son Howard (a Bafta award winning engineer) was not sure if his father is alive or dead. Jim Berkenstadt whose excellent book, The Beatle Who Vanished (well worth the money and a great read), spent a considerable amount of time trying to track Nicol down, including visiting Australia, but it all came to nothing. Jimmie Nicol didn't want to be found.

Climbing the greasy pole of success is the easy part, but when it ends, the slide down to terra firma is rapid. Nicol spent the money he earned on the Beatles tour at such a fast rate that by 1965, he was bankrupt and owed £4066. Nicol's wife left him, taking his son with her, and he was reduced to living in his mother's basement. The media, who had built up Nicol, were just as quick to knock him down. It would have been much wiser to return to Fame and session playing, which would have been a good earner for the rest of his life. If this kind of success had happened nowadays, with all the financial advisors that lurk about, perhaps Nicol would have been luckier and invested the money more wisely. However, this was the sixties, the record business was flying by the seat of its pants, and the bands and managers of that era were writing the book for future managers and groups not make the same mistakes.

Jimmie Nicol rarely gave interviews of his experience of working with the Fab-Four, and once stated, “After the money had run low, I thought of cashing-in in some way or other, but the timing wasn’t right, and I didn’t want to step on The Beatles’ toes. They had been damn good for me and to me.” Nicol always talked positively about his time as the fifth Beatle, and never put them down. Although he sadly stated, "Standing in for Ringo was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Until then I was quite happy earning £30 or £40 a week. After the headlines had died, I began dying too." George Martin was quick to acknowledge Nicol's contribution the tour and the problems surrounding his demise. "Jimmie Nicol was a very good drummer who came along and learnt Ringo's parts very well. He did the job excellently and faded into obscurity immediately afterwards." Paul McCartney stated, "It wasn't an easy thing for Jimmie to stand in for Ringo and have all that fame thrust upon him."

It's hard to believe that Nicol thought that by just playing with the Beatles that their fame would rub off on him, although I understand how it affected him. I joined Polydor in 1973, and when I became their Jazz A & R manager (aged 24), I swanned around with some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, Oscar Peterson, Ella, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and Joe Pass, and it certainly went to my head. I must have been a royal pain in the arse judging by my close friend's reactions to the 'new' me. As we both came from a working class background, perhaps we were unprepared for what lay ahead, and I sympathise with Nicol.

Nonetheless, I am not sure why Nicol is such a recluse. Regardless of the problems he went through after playing with the Beatles, he should be telling everyone his unique story. He certainly has nothing to ashamed of, as he never tried to 'cash' in on being the fifth Beatle, plus all Beatles fans would love to hear his stories. One thing for sure, Jimmie Nicol has more star quality than half of the tossers who appear on the X-Factor type talent shows, and it would nice to hear Jimmie's tales, as they are an important part of the Beatles history.

Dennis Munday
December 2016
Ronchi Dei Legionari, Italy
Author of Shout To The Top - A bio on Paul Weller

Read 7404 times Last modified on Tuesday, 06 December 2016 15:32
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Dennis Munday

Dennis Munday

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