Gary James' Interview With The Author Of
The Beatle Who Vanished
The Beatle Who Vanished is the first in-depth, detailed account of Jimmie Nicol, an unknown drummer to the world, who was tapped by Beatles' manager Brian Epstein to fill in for Ringo on The Beatles' Australian / New Zealand tour in 1964. Ringo had his tonsils out at the time. After his brief tour with The Beatles, Jimmie Nicol exited the world stage. The Beatle Who Vanished is a fascinating book about a subject that has never been discussed very much, if at all. Jim Berkenstadt talked with us about his book.
Q - Jim, the detail you've gone into with the Jimmie Nicol story! What made you decide to write this book? Are there people who wondered over the years what happened to Jimmie Nicol?
A - First off, it was more of a personal fascination than worrying about if there was a market for the book. I thought if the story interests me, if I'm able to piece it together, then I assume it will be of interest to other people on different levels and not just Beatle fans. So, I guess I first thought, is there even enough information out there to write an article? All you ever see in Beatles history books is one sentence about Jimmie Nicol subbing for Ringo Starr on the eve of the first world tour when Ringo goes into the hospital. I had all these questions. Where did this guy come from? What was his back story? How did he climb the ladder to even be in the position to be selected as a Beatles drummer? Then I wondered, how was he chosen? Why was he the chosen one? That's a pretty amazing honor, but it's also a very stressful event if you think you suddenly went from being an everyday guy and a drummer in town, to suddenly you step out of a limousine and thousands of teenagers are ripping your clothes apart and pulling on your hair and screaming at you. How does that work? What's that like? I wanted to go in depth on what it was like on the inside of the inner circle during The Beatles' first world tour. Then lastly, after the tour, I thought, what happened to this guy? I've never seen any more information about him. What does a guy do after he's had his 15 minutes of fame and he goes from being an everyday guy to being a Beatle, sort of at the top of the mountain of entertainment, and then back to being an everyday guy again? How does he deal with those 15 minutes of fame and what does he do with the rest of his life? That's what sort of set me off wanting to write an article. As time went on, I started to find people who had been in bands with Jimmie Nicol and after interviewing one, it would lead me to another. Slowly but surely, it was like a 1,000 piece puzzle that I was assembling as to what happened in Jimmie's life.
Q - There's a clip of Jimmie Nicol being interviewed in The Beatles Anthology. In the background, looking over Jimmie's shoulder, is John Lennon. He looks like he's smirking as Jimmie is being interviewed. He looks like he's thinking, why are you interviewing Jimmy Nicol? At least that's the sense that I got. Did you get the same feeling?
A - I did not. I took all of the documentary footage that was out there and looked at it in total and by and large I got the impression that the other Beatles were very respectful and appreciative of Jimmie helping out. There were times when I'd see John Lennon and Jimmie Nicol, say in an airplane and they're sitting together, where you could tell they're having an interesting discussion or they're laughing and joking together or another time when Paul McCartney puts his arm around Jimmie. I think they really tried to take care of Jimmie and tried to make him feel that he was welcome into their group socially while he was playing with them. I think they came to realize after they went on tour how important it was to have a drummer who could drive the rhythm section so that the three of them could stand out front and shake their hair and yell and scream and sing to the fans without have to worry about the rhythm part.
Q - How good of a drummer was Jimmie Nicol?
A - If you go to my website: www.TheBeatleWhoVanished.com, there's a great video clip of Jimmie Nicol playing. He even does a Rock 'n' Roll drum solo in the song, "It's Twenty Flight Rock" and he's playing with one of his early bands, Colin Hicks And The Cavern Boys. Jimmie was an excellent drummer. He could read music first of all. He was able to play many different styles of drumming. A lot of drummers will just stick with one style their whole career, but Jimmie could play Jazz, Big Band, Ska, Blues, Rock and Rhythm And Blues. Those are all complex, different styles for a drummer to learn and he was ultimately not only a great 'live' drummer, but he became an excellent session drummer in London at the time, before The Beatles picked him up. In fact, he even played on a session with Tommy Quickly that I mention in the book, where Brian Epstein is at the session and has an opportunity to observe Jimmie in action.
Q - Was Ringo ever worried about his job?
A - Well, Ringo, even in the Anthology movie, suggested that he felt insecure at the time The Beatles went off with Jimmie Nicol. You have to remember that
Pete Best was The Beatles' drummer for two years, then for the next two years it was Ringo and now two years have passed with Ringo and here comes along this very talented guy, Jimmie Nicol, and so Ringo admitted he felt kind of insecure that they were going off with him and he was seeing them on tour with Jimmie. But in the end, The Beatle loyalty was to Ringo and of course they were all signed up legally as a band and Ringo was part of that. Brian Epstein only just wanted to have Jimmie Nicol come in, save the world tour from disaster, because it couldn't be canceled, and then bring Ringo back as soon as he was able to get out of the hospital.
Q - Why couldn't the tour have been canceled? Bands do it all the time today.
A - In those days there was no legal out-clause for illness which would pay insurance for promoters to kick in and cover any losses or ticket refunds. In those days a lot things were just done by letter correspondence that took a long time. I was able to look at all of the written correspondence between the Australian promoter and Brian Epstein and it was such a volume of letters and paper work and documents going back and forth that it took me 8 hours to read through it all. It was a huge stack in an archive and made me realize too that with all of those preparations that had started almost a year in advance and the fact that legally you couldn't cancel these things, that it would have been a disaster financially because promoters would have sued The Beatles and said, "Look, I had all these tickets sold. I have to refund the money." The people who sell the drinks, the people who sell merchandise, the people at the record stores. They're all set to go. All the news agencies were ready for press conferences. There was just no turning back and Epstein realized this. I think if someone other than Ringo had been sick, they probably would have had a disaster on their hands because you can't replace Paul McCartney, you can't replace George and you can't replace John. I guess they were lucky in that they could replace the drummer, put him in the back, put him in Ringo's suit, have him wear Ringo's clothing, his haircut, and have him play Ringo's kit. I even interviewed fans in Australia who said, "We had no idea that we weren't watching Ringo Starr."
Q - If you were an Australian concert goer in June of 1964 with a ticket to see The Beatles and out marched John, Paul, George and Jimmie, I think I would have felt cheated. Did anyone ever pick up on that? Did anyone complain?
A - There might have been, but I did not talk to any people that complained. It's funny, when I was in Australia doing research on the book, I would come across shopkeepers or librarians and they all had seen The Beatles, waving from the balconies. They had all seen The Beatles in concert and they all loved the shows and they didn't learn 'til afterwards, say if they read a paper or watched the news, that Jimmmie Nicol had been there, but all of 'em said it was a wonderful experience and they all said they wished they could have seen Ringo with the band. But no one complained to me about the fact Ringo wasn't there in terms of feeling cheated. That was the concept Epstein wanted, to pass him off as if nothing was out of the ordinary. All the posters of course had been printed, so they all had pictures of Ringo. The ticket stubs with "The Beatles" on them had Ringo on 'em. Mainly and basically he wanted to impress on Jimmie Nicol after the successful tryout at E.M.I. Abbey Road Studios that he was to basically just go along, be the drummer, do his job and that was it. He didn't want to start any rumors that Ringo was being replaced because they didn't want to deal with a barrage of media on that topic.
Q - George was upset that Ringo wasn't on that leg of the tour.
A - That's correct. He didn't even want to go out. He said, "If we don't have Ringo, well then we're not The Beatles, and if we're not The Beatles then I'm not going to go on tour." So, they actually spent a long period of time that day convincing George why, for business reasons, they had to carry on. If you think about it, back then Pop bands had very short shelf lives, very short career spans. They were reaching one of their greatest peaks of fandom such that they could travel the whole world and make a lot of money touring. This was going to come all crashing down if George continued to say "I'm going to stay home." Even to the present, when he did the Anthology video interview, he said, "Well of course it was really silly that we had to go out with Jimmie, all respect to Jimmie Nicol as a guy and a drummer, but I didn't understand why we had to go out without Ringo." So, he held on to that for a long time. Yet, he was very respectful of Jimmie Nicol on tour and went along with it ultimately because it was one of those sort of sacrifices you have to make sometimes in order for your success to continue upward and onward.
Q - Jimmie roomed with George on that tour, didn't he?
A - I'm trying to think, I actually saw those arrangements. It kind of depended on the promoter and what they set up in the hotels. Often times there were four separate bedrooms and other times they would pair off and I don't know exactly if they paired off, who Jimmie paired off with.
Q - Can you imagine the situation happening today where a well-known group, at the peak of their popularity, would bring in another player?
A - Well, I've seen it happen, but only with drummers. It is easier today to postpone tours because there's insurance in place to insure losses that can incur from refunding ticket sales and lost profit, and the legal contracts today for signing bands to touring allows for shows to be postponed or canceled in the event of a certified medical need that causes someone to be out of action.
Q - Whey do you think Jimmie Nicol was hiding from you?
A - Well, first of all I would lie to leave it up to the readers to read the book and see how it ends, so I don't really care to answer questions about whether Jimmie Nicol is dead or alive 'cause I think it's more interesting for the readers to find that out on their own. So, I'd rather pass on that.
Q - Realistically speaking, what could Jimmie have accomplished after he did that tour with John, Paul and George? Unless he found three other guys as talented as John, Paul and George, he could never have tasted that fame again.
A - I think he naively felt that he could compete against The Beatles when he got back. He felt that he could put together a band as good as them and tour and make records and have success equal to The Beatles. I say that naively with a big underline in bold black. Things went his way right away. The Dave Clark Five band had a really good two week gig at one of these Summer vacation places on the shore in England. Dave Clark got sick and went into the hospital and Jimmie Nicol was able to put together a band of studio musicians who he knew and who knew songs they could put together for a set. So, with Dave Clark sick, their band could not play. A lot of times people think Jimmie sat in for Dave Clark of the Dave Clark Five and that's not what happened. His entire band, The Shubdubs, were able to go and take the place of the band at the top of the bill. They were paid a lot of money. They got a great reaction. So, I think Jimmie thought right off the bat, "Hey, I'm in all the newspapers. I'm considered the fifth Beatle in all the local papers. I'm a big shot. I've got this gig. I'm sure I'm on the right track." Well, unfortunately he started to select his own singles and they were not ones that really charted at the time or got much radio play. And then as time went on and they continued to tour, again remember Jimmie in the back playing the drums. He's not a singer. And so, how can a band like that possibly expect, with anonymous players in it, to be with The Beatles? So eventually their audiences shrank to the point where Jimmie couldn't even afford to retain the band members. He tried one more band in 1965 and that failed and ultimately he was divorced. He went bankrupt. He was completely out of work and so he decided the only way to change things was to disappear or vanish and try to re-invent himself somewhere else, which became his modus of operation; just to vanish and move to another country each time.
Q - To promote this book, you go to Beatles conventions?
A - Yeah. I recently was a keynote speaker at Cancun to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles coming to America ironically. Here we were in Mexico. I spoke about the book there. Pete Best was there, former Beatle drummer. In fact, he mentioned the book to the crowd as well. I've attended the fests for Beatles fans in New York and Chicago. This year (2014) I'm going to be attending in Chicago and Los Angeles at the fests. I've also gone to other book festivals. I was recently in New York on Artie Lang's TV show to promote the book and on radio.
Q - I noticed your book isn't in bookstores like Barnes And Noble, is it?
A - It can be ordered from Barnes And Noble or any book store in the country. The book is self-published by my company, Rock And Roll Detective. It was self-published through Amazon and Amazon has distribution into bookstores. But the way it works is, they don't just put the book in every book store in the country. They wait for people to order them. But it's also available of course at Barnes And Noble and Amazon around the world, both the paperback and the e-book, and then people who also want signed copies can get them at my site, www.TheBeatleWhoVanished.com.
Q - Jimmie got a weekly salary and per diem with The Beatles?
A - He got a few thousand pounds for the experience and also an engraved gold watch presented: To Jimmie Nicol with appreciation from Brian Epstein and The Beatles.
Q - I hope he still has that watch!
A - He doesn't. I'm actually working on that as sort of an addendum to the book right now.