Gary James' Interview With Terry Sylvester of
The Hollies

He was a member of The Escorts, The Swinging Blue Jeans and The Hollies. At the age of 16 he was regularly sharing the stage with The Beatles at the Cavern Club. He worked for George Harrison's brother and was brought up in the Allerton area of Liverpool, not far from Paul McCartney. He's been awarded 5 Platinum, 9 Gold and 6 Silver discs so far in his career. It's his voice you hear singing "Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress" and the 1974, universal, classic love song "The Air That I Breathe".

It's not often that you get to talk to someone like Terry Sylvester.

Q - Terry, why do you base yourself out of Toronto these days instead of your home of Liverpool, England?

A - Well, I've not actually lived in Liverpool, England since 1968, when I first joined The Hollies. I was in The Swinging Blue Jeans and I was based in Liverpool then. But once I joined The Hollies in December of 1968, I took the opportunity to do what The Beatles had done before me and Billy J. Kramer and move to London, because London was the place to be. Even though it's only 230 miles away, Liverpool in those days and maybe even still, compared to London is a million miles away. London is the center of all the entertainment, maybe not so much these days, it changes, in those days there wasn't even a radio station in Liverpool, never mind a recording studio. Everything was based in London.

Q - The internet has probably leveled the playing field.

A - Oh, without a doubt. Yeah. People are making masters in their own living room, which is great. But you gotta go back to 1968 and realize that when I was in The Blue Jeans and we were doing a session for the BBC, there were no commercial stations in those days in '68. What happened is, we basically had to drive all the way to London and then spend 4 to 5 hours in the studio. But, they had a problem with needle time. In other words, the musicians union in England basically didn't like the likes of the BBC just playing records all the time. They wanted their musicians, Mantovani and his orchestra and all these type of people. They wanted them in work, which I suppose is correct. I took the opportunity in 1968 to move to London, where the real deal was.

Q - I've talked to a lot of 60s artists and the one thing they seem to have in common is they were ripped off. You own all the rights to your songs and recordings. How did you get so smart?

A - You've been reading my website haven't you? (

Q - Absolutely.

A - I'm not saying I was never, ever ripped off, but I'll be honest with you, all of the hit records I've had, been lucky enough to have, with The Hollies and everything, yes I do have a share of the ownership. That was all down to a gentleman called Robert Britton, who was our manager when I joined in '68. He had been a manager already for a couple of years. He basically saw that we were well looked after. In other words, he didn't rip us off. I think that's the problem. Half the time it's the managers. (laughs) I don't think record companies particularly rip people off. What happens is, they do deals with managers and then managers do deals with artists. It's normally the middle man that's causing the problems. We were very lucky we had "Robo". We called him Robo. That was his nickname. He sadly passed away in the '80s, but he left his legacy. We're very lucky. I hear horror stories. I tour all around the place with various artists and it breaks my heart. It's just not right. But then again, is the world right? (laughs)

Q - We know the answer to that one! The only guy who comes even close to your business smarts is Dave Clark (Dave Clark 5). He owns all of his master recordings.

A - He was very lucky again because he had a guy called Harold Davidson. Harold Davidson was his agent. Harold Davidson I think was also Frank Sinatra's agent in the UK, so he had somebody who was shrewd. But, the trouble is, you meet lots of shrewd people who are also criminals. People have gotten wiser as it's gone on. But it breaks my heart to hear some of the horror stories.

Q - Did you ever stop to realize how fortunate you were to be a musician in England in the mid-60s? That's where it was all happening at the time.

A - It happened a bit later for me. I was part of the Liverpool scene with The Beatles and Billy J. Kramer and Jerry and The Pacemakers and everybody else down in the Cavern Club in Liverpool. But I was also 5 years younger, which I remember at the time wanting to be 19 and 20. As time goes on, I'm quite delighted to be 5 years younger these days. (laughs) But because of that, Brian Epstein obviously had his stable of artists. They made it big. Then they came over and did the The Ed Sullivan Show. Believe me, I was pea green with envy. I was kind of left behind, but at the same time, I was also 5 years younger, so it's like serving an apprenticeship. Of course a lot of people go down the wayside because they can't sustain an income which keeps them a professional musician. And to be a professional musician, you have to have enough money to pay the bills. Unless you get a hit record, and the hit records were hard to get. There were 90 records getting released every week in the UK in the 60s, but only 2 or 3 of them are getting in the charts.

Q - 90 records a week were getting released?

A - At least 90 singles a week. 2 or 3 would get into the charts and you could guarantee that would be The Beatles, Gerry and The Pacemakers, Cliff Richard, because it was all down to who gets played and who gets heard. My group in the early '60s was called The Escorts and we were very good. We couldn't turn our talent into any hit records. A lot of that was to do with the fact we weren't getting played on the radio because there were only so many shows and of course Epstein and The Beatles had all of those shows locked up.

Q - What was there about Liverpool, England that accounted for all this musical activity? Why did it seem like everyone was in a band?

A - It's a question that's been asked many times and there's been many answers. You gotta cast your mind back to those days for starters, early 60s, 13 to 14 year olds just coming out really of the Second World War. We were and are the Baby Boomers. The 1950s in Liverpool, believe me, was a pretty grim situation. We didn't have to pretend to be Army on bombsites because the place was a mess. It had been devastated by the war. Because it was a seaport and a very important seaport for getting across the North Atlantic, the Germans obviously bombed it. I'm sure the Brits used to do the same thing going there in Dresden and places like that. So, it was hit harder than a lot of the rest of the UK, where they probably never saw an airplane bombing the place. Maybe there was a bit of a hunger in the city of Liverpool and Glasgow and Newcastle and London that maybe there wasn't anywhere else. You don't get many Rock stars coming from Tunbridge Wells. I think a lot of that is we were 38 kids in a class. Why it all ended up in music is beyond me. I just know that Liverpool was always a famous place for music because of the old sea shanties. It's been a seaport for hundreds and hundreds of years. This is just my opinion. You could put all the opinions together but it still won't really work it all out. But, the common denominator here is The Beatles.

Q - You lived close to Paul McCartney. Does that mean that you might have seen him walking to school in those early days or getting on a bus?

A - Oh, of course, yeah. In fact, my mom and dad still live in the same house right now. His house has been turned into a little museum. My mom and dad still live about a hundred yards away from where Paul and Mike (Paul's brother) McCartney lived. I knew Mike more than knew Paul because he was nearer my age. That's Paul's younger brother. I remember seeing, before The Beatles ever made it big, Paul McCartney walk past my house on the way to the pub with Jane Asher. I wasn't star-struck about Paul McCartney, but Jane Asher...this is an actress from London! What is she doing in Liverpool? I used to have to walk past the house, Paul's house, to get to the bus stop to get into the city of Liverpool. I remember many times when I was only 12, 13, listening to the music as I went past the house. I could hear the drums. That was The Beatles rehearsing.

Q - Did you ever see all four of The Beatles come out of that house at once?

A - Not necessarily in that order. Ringo Starr's cousin was the drummer in The Escorts. The first job I ever had when I left school at 14 was for George Harrison's older brother. He was my boss. And obviously I lived on the road next to Paul McCartney, so it was no big deal. It only became a big deal when they basically became the four lads who shocked the world.

Q - So, Paul McCartney knew you or knew of you back then?

A - Of course! (laughs) Later in the years, when we were all recording at Abbey Road, he'd pop in our studio, we'd pop in, in their studio. It was simple as that. But, I'm going back before it happened. You talk about B.C... A.D... B.B. - Before Beatles.

Q - You worked as an apprentice panel beater for George Harrison's brother Peter. What's an apprentice panel beater?

A - It's like a car repairman. When you have a crash you have your car repaired. And that's what we used to do. We used to beat the panels, you see.

Q - You were actually doing body work then.

A - Yeah. Beating the panels out. Now you have a problem with your car, you order a new panel. Those were the days when the artistry was there. We learned how to actually make that panel good again. Not that I really did it a lot on that side of it, but I was only really there at the garage six months. I was playing music at night. The most important thing to me was playing music. I used to go fetch the fish and chips more than beat the cars out.

Q - You were the founder of The Escorts?

A - Yeah.

Q - You put the group together primarily because what you were seeing happening around you?

A - Not really, no. We were just at school. This was like when we were 13. You're talking 1960. We were watching things like The Perry Como Show on television. This is way before I ever knew who The Beatles were. I remember seeing The Everly Brothers (on Perry Como) and being very, very more than impressed with them and their beautiful harmonies and the songs they sang. Eddie Cochran. And obviously we knew about Buddy Holly. We used to listen to Elvis. There was a lot of people playing music. My dad was and still is a musician. He's a Jazz trombone player. I was musical because of that. My dad was in the police band. He wasn't a policeman, but he was in the band. He still plays. He's in his 80s now. In fact, he's playing the same venues now, doing these tea dances, which have become popular again. He's playing the same venues as The Beatles and we all played because those dance halls are still there.

Q - Tea dances?

A - Yeah. 4 o'clock in the afternoon. He gets up; a little 4 piece band, dancing, having a cup of tea and all of that kind of stuff.

Q - The Escorts were performing at The Cavern Club. What kind of place was it?

A - It was a basement where, I can't really recall, there might have been an office block up top. It was like a 3 or 4 story building where they had a basement. Now that's the thing about the UK, houses don't have basements like they do in the States and Canada. In other words, where you have a room, a den and all that stuff. They weren't built like that. Originally I think it would've been some kind of a warehouse. It was exactly 3 arches; only held about maybe 200 to 300 people. Very, very primitive. The middle arch had a stage which I'm sure you've seen the photographs and just wooden chairs. The outer arches is where people would dance. It was just a club. It had been going since about 1956, which started off with Skiffle type music, Lonnie Donegan and then Jazz and then eventually the Beat thing happened.

Q - Do you remember the first time you played The Cavern Club?

A - The first time we played there was 1962, New Year's Eve. It was what they call an All Night Session. From 7 at night 'til 7 in the morning. Every 45 minutes a different band.

Q - How'd you go over?

A - We went down great! I remember we were thrilled to play there. We'd already played lots of places around Liverpool, but the Cavern was the place to be. It was the coolest place in town.

Q - You were probably playing covers?

A - Yeah. Mainly "Dizzy Miss Lizzy", basically all the bands played the same songs. (laughs) Everybody played "Some Other Guy Now". Everybody played "Shot Of Rhythm And Blues". It was all American music.

Q - You appeared on stage with The Beatles for their last Cavern Club show on August 3rd, 1963. Had you appeared with The Beatles prior to that?

A - Oh, yeah. Lots of times.

Q - What was the reaction of the fans to The Beatles?

A - Just the same as it was to us really. There wasn't anything special. First of all, no one was screaming. No one would be screaming for The Beatles. It was just another Liverpool group that basically got lucky. I'm not saying they weren't the most talented. They probably were. The best Liverpool group was a group called The Big Three. They were by far the best. They were just fantastic. The Beatles were just another Liverpool group, really.

Q - What made The Big Three so fantastic?

A - Oh, there was just something about them. There was just a drummer, bass player and guitar player. They were different. In fact, The Beatles were very heavily influenced by The Big Three. They kind of used to watch them and copy them a little bit. Whether Paul would admit it, I don't know. I was there, so believe me I know. But they were fantastic, but again they couldn't turn the talent into hit records. They were also a bit wayward. They weren't as dedicated as maybe The Beatles were. You've got to have a little bit of everything. You can't just be talented. You've got to have the luck along the way and all the things that go with it. You need about 3 or 4 ingredients to make a good dish. I had certain ingredients early on and later picked them up. My luck came in being the right person to replace Graham Nash in the Hollies. So, that was how my ingredients all worked out.

Q - When did you realize there was something special about The Beatles?

A - They obviously went to London and George Martin came in and kind of cleaned them up a little bit, 'cause they were just sort of playing the same music as everybody else. They were doing one thing a little differently...they were writing their own material and they actually used to sing their own material at The Cavern. I remember they used to make jokes about it: "Here's a song we wrote on the way to The Cavern today!" So, they were at least original in that way. Their first 3 albums were basically their stage act. That was when we knew, the likes of myself, there was something happening. They actually got into the British charts. Up until then it was Cliff Richard and Elvis Presley. All of a sudden our friends The Beatles and my neighbor Paul McCartney is in the Top 20. It was unbelievable. We were very proud. It more than helped all the A&R men, the music people from the record companies. They were all looking for another Beatles basically.

Q - When The Beatles made that last appearance on the Cavern Club stage, did the audience understand that this was it...they were going to bigger and better things?

A - Oh, they knew it. It was well documented that this was it. The Cavern DJ, Bob Wooler and the manager, Ray McFall; six months earlier The Beatles pulled out of a show they were supposed to do at The Cavern 'cause they had to do a TV show. I wasn't exactly sure what TV show. So, they basically owed the Cavern one more show. There were contracts to play the Cavern Club for one night. They said to them (The Beatles) as long as you promise to come back, we'll let you out of it. By the time they came back, 6 months later, they'd had a number one hit with "Please Please Me". So, it was pretty obvious. And they were playing theatres. This was 5 or 6 months before the Ed Sullivan thing happened. They were doing tours of the UK, playing theatres, they were on television. So, everybody knew that was it. We were just very delighted, The Escorts, to be invited onto the show because obviously it was a big deal.

Q - When you tour these days, do you perform as a solo act or do you travel with a band?

A - I've got 2 different things going. I normally have a backing band and I sing Hollies songs and any hits I've been on. For instance, I do "Til There Was You" from that era, The Beatles thing. I love that song. I just have a bit of fun actually. Ninety per cent is with a band, but I'm capable, as not everybody is, of doing an actual, like a 45 minute acoustic set, which I quite like doing. After 45 minutes it can get tiresome. (laughs) It's hard work being up there on your own with an acoustic.

Q - So, how long do you think you'll be able to continue singing?

A - Well, I just turned 60. I'm still 4 or 5 years younger than Mr. McCartney and Mr. Jagger and the rest of my friends. You can add another 5 years. I noticed Tony Bennett is on tour and he's 80. So, you know what? I think we all say the same long as someone's prepared to listen to us, we'll carry on. (laughs)

© Gary James. All rights reserved.