Gary James' Interview With
Howie Casey and Sheila Casey
Howie Casey's band, Derry and The Seniors have the unique distinction of being the first Liverpool band to play in Hamburg, Germany. And since then, he's gone on to record with Paul McCartney & Wings, Ringo Starr, The Who, Cliff Richard, Marc Bolan, Mott The Hoople, Ashton, Gardner & Dyke, Paice Ashton & Lord, Gilbert O'Sullivan to name just a few. He's toured with the likes of Paul McCartney and Wings, The Who, Chuck Berry, Wilson Pickett, Marc Bolan, Roger Daltry, Paice Ashton & Lord and the list goes on and on.
We spoke with both Howie Casey and his wife Sheila, who toured with The Beatles. First up is Howie Casey.
Q - As we speak, are you still active in the music business?
A - I'm still playing, yeah. I'm knocking on in years now. I don't go out on the road as much. I do gigs that I like to do and want to do. I don't do up and down the motorways, the highways in a truck. I don't do that anymore, unless the money is so good I can't say no. The past few years I have done a bit of teaching...schools and so on. I do odd gigs here and there. I've written a book just recently which is for a company called Hal Leonard, a music publishing company. They have these Jazz play-alongs. So, I've been in the studio just piece-meal over the last few years putting down tracks. Then I put this whole package together and sent it off to Paul McCartney's office, a friend of mine is there, Paul Wynn. He sent it off to New York, who sent it off to Hal Leonard. They picked it up straight away. That is in the process of being published. That will be out around Sept. (2009) time, it's called 'Maybe I'm Amazed' Vol. 97. I do the odd recording session. I'm not as busy of course as I was a few years ago 'cause I'm now the grand old age of 72. I don't go out and Rock 'n' roll as much as I used to, but I can still do it! (laughs) At the moment, I'm producing & playing on music for a film.
Q - Are The Seniors still active in the music business?
A - Well, a few have passed on. Great drummer, Frank Wibberley, he passed away some years ago. Derry Wilke, one of the singers, he also passed away some years ago. Very sad indeed. Freddie Starr is still going. He's a big comedian, now. Brian Griffiths, the guitar player, I actually worked with him a couple of years ago in Canada. He's still playing. He lives in Canada. He lives in Alberta. The line-up changed, as bands do. I saw one of the bass players Lou Walters ex 'Rory Storm' up in Liverpool. I go up there occasionally and do a few things. He was still around. Most of them I've lost touch with. It's so long ago. We're talking about the late '50s, early '60. The only guy I'm really in touch with is Griff. We exchange e-mails from time to time and call one another now and then. He's coming over this year and we might go up to Hamburg together with Sheila and do a bit of jamming at some of the clubs in the Summertime. But, we'll see.
Q - Where did this name The Seniors come from? Why not Howie Casey And The Juniors?
A - (laughs) It started off as Derry and The Seniors. Derry was the singer. I was the band leader. I put the band together, but I decided, a saxophone player, well OK, but I'm not fronting the band as such. At that time there was a band called Danny And The Juniors, an American group. So, we just twisted it around slightly to Derry And The Seniors. When Freddie Starr joined the band, we had a recording contract with Fontana. The producer said at the time, "I don't want Derry Wilike, Freddie Starr And The Seniors. It should be your band - Howie Casey And The Seniors. So, that's what we did. That's how it came about.
Q - You went to Hamburg, Germany in what year?
A - It was 1960. We went to the Kaiserkeller. They'd had a band, Tony Sheridan. But he'd moved around to the Top Ten Club, which was a newer club. Bruno Koschmider, who owned the Kaiserkeller, was looking for a band, especially a band that had a saxophone and a Black singer. We happened to be in London at the time doing a gig in the Two I's coffee bar, which was quite famous at that time in Britain and he was there. He saw us and booked us straight away. We were the first Liverpool group (to play Hamburg). So, that's how it set it up for everybody else to follow. So, the opening was there.
Q - What was it like for a Liverpool group to find themselves performing in Hamburg?
A - We were having a great time. The women were much more "easy going", should we say. And the booze was flowing. We were young guys having a great time. The club was much bigger than we'd ever played in before. That was when we found out from Alan Williams...we used to correspond by letter, we didn't phone one another in those days, and Alan Williams said "We're gonna send The Beatles out." And it's all well documented what I said. I said I didn't think they were good enough to play over there. They might destroy the scene. I said send a band like Rory Storm or The Big Three ,Cass And The Casanovas. As they were then known One of the more established bands. Keep the momentum going for the Liverpool bands. But he insisted. I think he'd seen something in them, which he was right. When they did turn up, they were vastly improved. The improvement was like night and day. They'd obviously been practicing lots and lots. So, that's how it kicked off and they were the second band from Liverpool in Hamburg. Not playing in the place we were in. They were playing a smaller place, The Indra, just up the road. It was another one of Koschmider's clubs. But from there they used to come into the club we were playing. It was open later. They'd get up and jam with us.
Q - Was it a scary situation in on of those Hamburg bars?
A - It wasn't scary at all. Liverpool is quite a tough town. We were quite used to seeing fights. You'd have a knife or two in some of the Liverpool dance halls. My band, we'd been involved in a few things, people attacking members of the band for looking at their girlfriend. We weren't particularly worried about that. In fact, although these guys were gangsters, I guess for want of a better word, people like Koschmider, they also supplied protection for everybody. If you worked for them, nobody touched you. So in some ways you could behave even more badly than you would normally at home. (laughs) You were under their protection. Bruno Koschmider owned most of the Grosse Freiheit itself, this is pre-Star Club days, it was the Stern Cinema before and it wasn't open as a club. He owned most of the clubs on that strip. And when I say strip, I mean strip clubs as well. He was in charge of that area. That was his little domain. His nearest rivals I suppose were on the Reeperbahn, which is around the corner. A much bigger road. That was where The Top Ten was, owned by Peter Eckhorn. So, all these guys are kind of rivals. They all had their people who worked for them. So you were not under any threat at all. It's a whole different scene from Liverpool. It was only fifteen years after the war. (World War II) There was still a lot of damage around Liverpool. The licensing laws around Britain weren't as free and easy as they were in Hamburg. A lot of the dances we played, there were no booze or licensing laws in those places. It was just soft drinks.
Q - When you say gangsters, do you mean organized crime?
A - They owned strip clubs, that type of thing. The Rock 'n' Roll clubs were quite a new thing, as you can imagine. They'd only been around a few years, but they saw the writing on the wall. All the young gangsters would pay good money to go into those clubs and listen to the bands. It was happening in Britain and America of course. So of course they went for that as well. Now, whether they were into other things, I don't know. We did see quite a bit of violence in the clubs, but nothing against the bands. People would come into the club, sit down with his girlfriend or whatever and the waiters would bring them booze. They'd up the price. In those days in Germany, you'd don't pay until you finished, whereas in Britain you paid as you drank. People would get a bill that is outrageous at the end of the night or there'd be girls in the club who'd come up and say "Buy me a drink?" They'd ask for champagne and it wasn't champagne, but they'd be charged this ridiculous amount. Of course the guys kicked up and the next thing, they'd be whisked away to a side room and they'd be beaten up. I was witness to that quite a few times. So, that type of thing went on. Each guy like Koschmider had guys that looked after the heavy sort of things. A lot of them were waiters, kind of tough guys, but very nice. But you get on the wrong side of them... But that was par for the course. I think every city, every country in the world has that. Liverpool had it's own gangs and gangsters. But it was a whole different ballgame for us, although we'd played around all the clubs as such. Whatever clubs there were and dance halls in Liverpool, we'd not seen this type of thing. The boss of the club said to one of his guys, "Show the guys a good time," when we first arrived there. We're sitting in strip clubs with a girl on each knee with a bottle of whiskey in your hand and I'm thinking "Wow! This is the life!" You were lucky if you got half a pint of beer in Liverpool. So, yeah, it's a whole different ball game. It looked different. It was fantastic. It was an eye-opener for us young guys.
Q - How many hours a night were you performing in these clubs?
A - Well, there's lots of myths on that one as well. We were the only band in the Kaiserkeller. We were doing forty-five minutes on, fifteen minutes off. They had a jukebox that went on. I guess we'd start around nine and play through the early hours. Not like six in the morning or anything like that. Three in the morning, that type of thing. It depended on how many people were in the club as well. They ebbed and flowed. You'd get a whole bunch of people that would come in, then they'd go off to another club or go to eat a meal. People would also come in and stand around the door. You'd also play to get them in. As they used to say to us, "Mach schau!" Make show. We didn't ask for too much 'cause we weren't getting that much. We slept in the club. It was a subterranean club. We slept in two little rooms between the six of us. No washing facilities except for one hand wash basin in the ladies toilet. So we were pretty funky as well. You can imagine! (laughs)
Q - You did six or seven days a week?
A - Six.
Q - At least they gave you one day a week off.
A - We were being pro musicians. Properly professional musicians. I think most of us had had day jobs in Liverpool. It was, as they say, better than working for a living. It was fun. You had the energy. You could sleep all day, then get the energy up to get onstage and do it. They didn't pay us a lot of money. We got couple of free beers each night and then you had to pay a house price on the beer. They didn't give anything away. For us, it was this wonderful sort of release. And of course it kicked off a scene that I suppose really helped European and British rock 'n' roll to make a name for itself. So, it still goes on. There's still some rock clubs there (Hamburg). The Star Club is gone. The original building of the Kaiserkeller is still there. The building of the Indra club, where The Beatles were is still there. Same with the Top Ten. The building is still there. But there's other clubs that have opened up. But you could see if you looked at it even now, it's bit sleazy. Now, it's sleazier than it was when we were there. I've been over there in the last couple of years. But even so, there's still a buzz about the place. Just that area. Hamburg itself is beautiful. It's wonderful. It's cosmopolitan. The sort of rock history thing is quite interesting. Lots of Americans went there...American acts. When the Star Club opened, he was taking all sorts of big name acts at the time.
Q - You recorded for the Fontana record label
A -That's right.
Q - When you toured Britain, where did you perform?
A - Obviously, we were from Liverpool, northwest. When we got the albums and the single out, they gave us sort of an agency who had not really handled a band like us. They handled more show-biz type acts. They wanted to clean us up. Not literally, but how we looked. We went down to London and they got us outfits to wear onstage. The Twist became big 'round about that time. That's why all the records have Twist in the name. We just invented things on the spot and put lots of twist and the words were made up more or less on the spot. They got us a gig. They said it was in London. It was at the Twist Of The Top Club. In fact, it was in Ilford, outside of London...many miles outside. So we opened that club. I think we did a month or so there. Then we went around the South coast, not far from where I live now. We played in London, the odd gig here and there. We went back North again, obviously. We did Liverpool, Manchester, over too Newcastle. Those sort of areas, the North-West, North-East of England. The band broke up in 1963 or 1964. So, we did work quite considerably once the record came out. I didn't go back to Germany with that band, which is a shame really. I did go back with other bands after that, such as Kingsize Taylor & The Dominoes.
Q - Were you the first band to have a single recorded and released in UK/ Europe?
A - We weren't the first rock band. We were the first from Liverpool. Every single town and city had rock bands. It was just from Liverpool itself. A proper recording contract. People made their own records in small studios in the area of Liverpool. A proper nationally released record played on the radio; we got it through Freddie Starr. Freddie had an acting career as well as a singing career. He was sort of a child actor in few films. He had contacts and they got him an audition for a recording contract. It was Freddie who said he was in the band at this time. "I want the band to be on the record with me." That's how it came about. We had to do an audition for Fontana. We did the audition and they said "OK, we'll take it." That's when the name thing came up and they re-named the band. Then we went back to Liverpool and back down to London later to record and I think the album was done in one afternoon. There wasn't a lot of time spent on production. We did a whole album and some extra tracks. We went back again and later on did an EP I think it was. I don't think there were hits out of it. It sold a few in various areas. Germany sold a few. There was nothing major there. It was just an exciting time for us. We got a record out.
Q - What was the name of your first single?
A - "Double Twist".
Q - You were there at the Larry Parnes audition for bands and in walk The Silver Beatles. Describe for me what that was like.
A - When they came in, nobody as far as I knew, knew them. They didn't have a drummer. That's 'cause the drummer they had in the band couldn't make that audition. So the guy from The Big Three, Johnny Hutchinson...well the band was called Cass And The Casanovas at the time, they turned into The Big Three, he sat in for them on drums. He was considered one of the better drummers in Liverpool at the time. So, he helped them out. We weren't impressed by them. It was like, they were OK, but nothing ultra special at all. Stuart (Sutcliffe) faced away from the people watching him. Whether that as an artistic, moody thing or he just didn't want people to see what he was playing, I don't know. They didn't sort of knock anyone's socks off. I don't remember anyone saying "Wow! Listen to them!" Not like they became. That was the thing. They made these vast improvements over a period of months almost. Six months they'd improved beyond recognition.
Q - You also noticed the length of The Beatles hair. You said it was long in back and it caused people to talk. You're probably the first guy I've ever interviewed who took notice of their hair.
A - Am I really? (laughs)
Q - People saw it, but it just didn't register for whatever reason. I guess that means you weren't wearing your hair long.
A - No. Their hair style was like the Tony Curtis style, the D.A. thing at the back. It was longer hair than our parents. They didn't sort of cultivate The Beatles look. They looked like rockers as well. They had lots of hair. I don't really remember commenting much about it, but you're saying I did, so it must be written somewhere did.
Q - That's right. From Bill Harry's The Ultimate Beatles Encyclopedia.
A - They did have longer hair. That was one of the things that became a trademark almost. But I think, at that time, I don't know if they did because I'm sure if you look at the photos of The Beatles at that time, they had more of the rockers style. I think what happened was, it was witnessed in a place like The Cavern when they played in there, everybody really, but mostly them, they got into quick, it was a good thing, the sweat and the condensation of The Cavern, their hair just fell down over their faces. Shakin' their heads. I think that was one of the ways that style was born, the so called Beatles style. They refined it later. Whenever The Beatles played after they came back from Germany, the places were absolutely packed solid. The queues were 'round the block at the local gigs in Liverpool. They played in these sort of places, The Cavern, The Iron Door, sort of steaming hot. It's only an opinion. I don't know.
Q - Why did you take up the sax?
A - My mother used to ask me that. People still ask me that. (laughs) I suppose when I was sixteen, some friends of mine were discussing about forming a band. I liked saxophones. I heard a lot of jazz records. My cousin, John Howard, had quite a good collection of stuff. I used to collect stuff. So, I heard Charlie Parker and people like that. I liked the saxophone. I liked the sound of it. I got myself an old second-hand saxophone about that time. I had a few lessons and got going on it. You had to go into the Army in those days, people of my age. I was very fortunate that I got into the Army band. It was the Liverpool King's Regiment. I went for an audition and got in. God knows why. They must've been really desperate. So, I did three years in the Army, which helped get me some grounding in reading music, etc. and a little bit in arranging and playing styles. When I came out, I had that behind me so I could get into some of the bands that were knocking about at the time in Liverpool. So, I made my mark. That's the reason really. I just carried on playing the saxophone.
Q - Did Paul McCartney ever remind you of what you told Alan Williams; "Don't send that bum group The Beatles over to Hamburg"?
A - Nope. The fact is, when they came over to Hamburg, we were jamming together, you know. So they'd know about that at that time. And then of course, Bruno Koschmider split our band up into two groups and pinched (Stuart) Sutcliffe from The Beatles to play with one of the small bands that we formed, so we could have continuous playing going on. We worked together. When we got back to Liverpool we'd still be working on the same shows together, places like the Tower Ballroom. Liverpudlinans have that. We're quite blunt. They say things as they see them. Obviously what I was trying to do was protect the gig itself, thinking that the better the group he sent over, the more chance it would continue on, which he did anyway. The link stayed there between Liverpool and Hamburg. But he (Paul) never mentioned it.
Q - When they were around, did you keep in contact with John and George?
A - A bit. Well, we had dinner with George one time, it must've been in the 80s...late '70s, early '80s. Sheila and I were with a band called Paice-Ashton-Lord, which was Ian Paice, Jon Lord (from Deep Purple) and Tony Ashton. Jon Lord and Tony Ashton had put a band together that was a departure from the Deep Purple stuff, Tony Ashton, who wrote Resurrection Shuffle and a few other things. Jon Lord, Ian Paice, Sheila and me were at a place called Henley on Thames. We were over there, staying over the weekend. Then we went to dinner at George's. So, that was nice. Picked up from the old days, talking about all the old stuff. Sadly, I didn't see him after that. I was in Chicago working with the Wings horn section, Thadeus Richard and Steve Howard, when news came through of his death. Unless you're sort of working for them or with them on a regular basis, then of course you lose touch.
Q - When did you last see John
A - Back in Liverpool in the early days. I had worked at Apple. I did recording sessions, but John wasn't around I don't think. I don't think we socialized at all after that. Again, John had his own thing. He didn't and didn't have to ask me to play on any of his stuff, so no big deal. I hadn't seen John in a long, long time. The reason I got the gig with Paul to play on the Wings album was I'd worked with Tony Visconti, the producer. I worked with Tony doing Marc Bolan,Mary Hopkins recording and lots of sessions like that. He booked me particularly for the "Band On The Run" session to do the solos on a couple of things, Bluebird, Mrs. Vanderbildt and to play on "Jet". Then obviously Paul knew I was coming in, and from that they offered me the gig for the tour. That would've been a year or so later. So, very nice. They remembered the work I'd done.
The Sheila Casey Interview
Q - Sheila, you and your sister were on the first tour of Britain that The Beatles headlined?
A - That's right.
Q - What was the name of your group?
A - Well, we were known as The McKinleys.
Q - Did you have a record deal?
A - Yeah, we had a record deal with Columbia and Fontana. It actually happened very, very quickly. We were discovered in Edinburgh just singing in this club. The next thing we knew we were transported down to London. (laughs) It all just seemed to happen so very quickly from there. We made records. The very first one was called "Someone Cares For Me", which I think even a girl group in America covered. I can't exactly remember when. Jimmy Page also recorded with us on one record we made, and Big Jim Sullivan. We did the first British Beatles tour in 1964. Then we did some major TV shows with The Beatles as well. Brian Epstein set us up on our own tour. We couldn't sign up with him because our agency wouldn't set us free!
Q - What was the name of your agency?
A - Malcolm-Nixon Agency in London. And the same old story you've probably heard before. They didn't pay us. We did Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and London. In Manchester we turned up and we didn't even have enough money to get to the theatre. We turned up at the railway station and Big Mal was there and he said "Hi girls." We said "We can't get to the theatre" and he took us with him, thank goodness. I don't know if we'd had made the show. It was one of those situations to be honest, we were cheesed off with the agency and we ended up going to Germany and working there in 1965. Before that, Brian Epstein had us signed up to do Blackpool and a concert in Wembley with Dusty Springfield and The Rolling Stones. He offered us stuff, but our agency wouldn't let us go free, so that was that. Because we were cheated out of money, by the agency, we just went to Germany. We ended up actually working in The Star Club. We slept in the same room The Beatles did, at the Kaiserkeller, which was a bit rough for us. (laughs)
Q - Did you and your sister play instruments?
A - We didn't play instruments.
Q - Did you have a backing band?
A - That's right. We had a backing band in Scotland which toured with us. And then at times we had other bands who were available to back us.
Q - Who was on this Beatles tour of Britain besides you and your sister?
A - There were two halves. We were in the first half along with Peter Jay And The Jaywalkers. The second half was The Remo Four, Tommy Quickly and then The Beatles.
Q - What was it like when The McKinley Sisters hit the stage?
A - Screaming. Absolutely screaming. It was just hysterical. Jeanette (sister) and I were absolutely amazed It was a time when kids were throwing jellie babies (jellybeans) at The Beatles as a sign of affection. And we got the same thing. It was just hysterical. I don't think you could hear anything. The kids were just screaming so much.
Q - How did Brian Epstein hear about you? Did he hear your record?
A - He must've heard the record. I think so. I would imagine that's how it happened. I mean, it happened so very quickly. This first record we made immediately became a hit. We had lots of TV coverage. It was getting played lots of times.
Q - What were The Beatles like as people?
A - We had our dressing room right next door to The Beatles. We got to know them very well. Nice guys. They were all very young and unaware that they were gonna be huge. Of course, Jeanette and I, being two completely naive girls, looked on it as fun. (laughs)
Q - In the 1980s you worked with Paul and Ringo. That would've been in the studio?