Gary James' Interview With Former Beatles Drummer
Before Ringo, there was Pete Best.
Pete Best was the drummer for The Beatles from 1960 - 1962. It was in August of 1960 that Paul McCartney phoned Pete, asking him if he'd like to join The Beatles. Well, Pete auditioned and passed the audition. He went on to Germany with John, Paul, George and Stu Sutcliffe. The band played clubs like The Indra Club and the Kaiserkellar.
Then, on August 16th, 1962, Pete Best was dismissed from The Beatles and replaced by Ringo Starr. While Pete may have put the beat in The Beatles, he got the (Beatle) boot for all his efforts. Pete's replacement in The Beatles remains one of rock history's more enduring mysteries.
Pete Best is currently the subject of a new DVD cleverly titled "The Best Of The Beatles". (Best Wishes Productions / Lightyear Entertainment) Pete also tours with his own group these days - The Pete Best Band.
We're proud to present a rare interview with Mr. Pete Best - "The Forgotten Beatle".
Q - Pete, a few years back you published a book titled The Beatles, The True Beginnings. How long did it take you to put that book together?
A - To put that book together like the documentary, was an awful long time, simply because we initially started off, Roag (Pete's manager / brother) started off archiving it. Family archives, from family history, because I'm not getting any younger. We need something down to analyze what happened to the Best family, the history. He was talking to someone, explaining what happened and how my mother was a very courageous woman. This person basically turned around and said "my goodness mate, what you've just sat around the table and told me would make a wonderful book." There was stuff in there that had never been discussed before or people aren't aware of it. Roag came back and told us and we said "Ok, it's something we'll think about." I thought no more about it. We just went on archiving the stuff. The person came back and turned around and said "Look, I've got you a publishing deal if you want it. The publisher is very interested." We went to the publisher, sat down with him, explained what we would like to see. We said we'll do it, but it's gonna have to be very much the way we want to present it. We don't want it to be just another book. We want it to be something that is personal. It's gotta portray the un-sung heroes of show business...The Casbah, my mother especially what she did to help The Beatles. That was how the title came about, The True Beginnings. The other thing that we emphasize is, yes, we do had a lot of memorabilia. We'd like that to be part of the book. And of course you've seen the wonderful photography that is in there. It was a case of, we wanted it to be a book people could browse through, they can pick it up if they want. There are the color portraits, the content as regards to the pictures. Or, if they want, they can pick it up and read it from start to finish and feel they read a wonderful book.
Q - How would The Beatles story have been different if there was no Casbah Club?
A - I don't think there would have been a Beatles story to be quite honest. It's strange when you think about it. If my mother hadn't opened The Casbah, maybe The Quarrymen would never have reformed. At that stage, George was in a band. Ken Brown was in that band. 'Til the advent of opening The Casbah, they were quite happy playing within that band. John and Paul weren't doing anything. That's when George came up with Ken Brown and said "Mona, I happen to know a couple of guys who aren't doing anything at the present moment." And I think that was the key word, they weren't doing anything at the present moment. So, if it hadn't been for The Casbah, maybe that trio, along with Ken Brown, would never have got together. Maybe that trio wouldn't have talked Stu Sutcliffe into joining as a bass player 'cause he was there in The Casbah when it happened. It's one of those things. As a result of that, The Beatles may have never actually happened, which then would have been a complete tragedy to the music industry.
Q - Oh, absolutely. Did you have any idea at the time how exceptionally talented The Beatles were and John and Paul in particular?
A - Yeah. I wasn't with the band at that time. I suppose you could say I was part of The Casbah working party. So, it was my duty on the opening night to actually stand in the audience and make sure everything was going OK as regards to the sound and the equipment. Well, (laughs) you couldn't call it equipment in those days, but everything was working OK and there was no breakdown in communication or anything. But, when I actually watched them, there was something which (they had), the rapport they had with the crowd, the type of material they were doing, the vocal abilities within each of 'em. Paul's range, John's range, the harmonies they were singing and of course the type of material they could do, because of the fact there were three singers. There was something which basically had you stuck there. I'd seen bands, but it was very much a case of yeah, there is something different about them. There is something special about them, not realizing that twelve months later, you'd be a member of that particular band and through hand and fate, went onto become the biggest icons in the music industry.
Q - You played The Indra Club and The Kaiserkellar Club with The Beatles.
A - Yeah.
Q - Did you play The Star Club with them?
A - Oh, yeah.
Q - So, how tough was it for you guys to play those clubs where you'd have to perform eight hours a night, seven days a week?
A - Yeah, initially. First trip out, we played The Indra and The Kaiserkellar. That's when we were doing six, seven hours a night, six seven nights a week. Second trip out was The Top Ten. We were there for three months. I'm talking about April through June, '61, when we played with Tony Sheridan. I suppose you'd say we were the house musicians. We played with every band that came along, but, we were contracted through Peter Eckhorn to play The Top Ten for three months. And of course, it was there that we got the recording contract with Tony Sheridan for "My Bonnie" and "Cry For A Shadow" and "Ain't She Sweet" as The Beatles in our own right. Then we went back. My third trip out to Hamburg with them was actually when we opened The Star Club, which was April of '62 and we were there for two months. By this time, Brian Epstein was manager. But, the initial ones, The Indra and The Kaiserkellar were the hardest simply because it was the first time we were out there. We didn't realize we were gonna be playing six to seven hours a night, six to seven nights a week. Consequently, your first trip out, you hit this brick wall. It's yes, you are gonna play. Your first disappointment is, you're not gonna play The Kaiserkellar, you're gonna play The Indra. Then you get told, hang on a minute, you're playing six to seven hours a night, six to seven nights a week, with fifteen to twenty minutes off within the hour. That's a bombshell. But, at the end of the day, it's like you're here, it's Rock 'n Roll, we're here to do a job. Let's roll up our sleeves and get on with it. We suddenly realized, OK, we had the German audiences, so when we went back and had to play The Top Ten Club, which was a more elite club than The Kaiserkellar, the same audience followed. Once the audience knew The Beatles were back in town, the following from The Kaiserkellar came to The Top Ten, which was great for Peter Eckhorn, who was the manager. But, we'd already breasted the long hour syndrome. We were playing similar hours. It was still six, seven hours a night, six seven nights a week, but we got used to it. It was like quite a routine for us. It was like falling back into that old routine. Then of course when we opened The Star Club, we found that we were playing initially on the first trip out there, it was like an hour on and two hours off, which, to coin an old Liverpool expression, found it a double. It was dead easy compared to what we had been doing in the past.
Q - I've never been happy with the explanation served up as to why you were dismissed from The Beatles. Is it at all possible that one day, Paul McCartney will be up front with you and tell you the real reason?
A - That I don't know. That's like a million dollar question and I don't have the answer for it. I mean, if it's anything to go by, I suppose in a way, you could turn around and say that within The Anthology, they addressed the situation as they wanted it to be. OK, that was their interpretation of it. What we have done with the book and also within the DVD, yes, I have my opinions and as I've always turned around and said, I don't know whether they're definitive reasons. But, what we have got within the documentary is, there's lots of other people, whether they may be musicians from around that period or people who were in the literary field or in the journalistic field, whether they were people who were fans, Casbah membership, club managers, they have put their own view forward as to what was the particular reason for the dismissal. And all we've done is basically sort of presented it and turned around and said, haven't we said all along, these are people who were there. These were people who lived it. They weren't people who read about it and made their own impressions. They were people who were actually there and saw what was going on. They presented their opinions and we incorporated it into the documentary and at the end of the day, it's very much a case of you make your own mind up about it. We don't know the definitive reason. A lot of 'em will dispel some of the myths that have been created over the years and I think that's the only thing we can really hope to achieve by releasing this documentary. People who have actually seen it and this is one of the beauties about it, have come back and turned around and said "we didn't know that." And when they turn around and say we didn't know that, then that puts a whole different complexion on it.
Q - I interviewed an attorney be the name of Freddie Gershen who said he represented you in your lawsuit* against The Beatles in 1965.
A - That's right. He was part of two attorneys, if my memory serves me right, Fred Gershen and Barry Goldberg. They were young attorneys at the time. I was in America and something was going on which had been said and they actually handled the American litigation for me and won, which was nice. I suppose you could turn around and say it was the first feather in the cap, so to speak, in their legal career. I don't know what happened to Barry, but Gershen went on to become very famous in the film industry in his own right.
Q - Can you give me some insight into the personalities of Stu Sutcliffe and Brian Epstein? What kind of guys were they?
A - I'll take Stu first. When I first got to know him and again it was through The Casbah, he used to come down and watch The Quarrymen and this was before he joined them and he was still a big fan of John's. He was still in Art College. I knew him the as a Casbah member and said hello to him. Then of course when I joined the band, he was playing bass for them. I got to know him very well on our first trip out to Hamburg. Stu was very much his own man. He was the smallest in the band, smallest in stature, but I must turn around and say he had the biggest heart. Over the years I've defended him and always will, where people who weren't there and weren't privy to his bass playing and of course because the media turned around and said he was a bad bass player. That tag has stuck with him same as being a lousy drummer has stuck with me. Unless you were actually there and made the decision, you'd make your own mind up about it. But, because media have sort of perpetrated over the years, a lot of people believe it. But, I've always said there were better bass players and worse bass players, but what he did onstage was give two hundred percent. When someone gives you that total output and energy, you can't fault. But like everyone else, he loved his music. He loved being part of The Beatles, but, I suppose deep down inside, he wanted to further his artistic career, which is why he made the decision to actually...you know, he'd fallen in love with Astrid and the opportunity was there for him to stay in Hamburg and go back to Hamburg College of Art and study under a famous professor, which is something he wanted to do to finish off his artistic career.
Q - And Brian Epstein?
A - Brian, first time I met him was a gentleman. He was the suit and tie man. Quietly spoken. Very refined. Cultured voice. He'd been in the family business, even though we found out many, many years afterwards that it was something he wanted to get out of. He felt that he could do better. With him, sort of being involved theatrically, when the opportunity came along, to sort of manage us or show interest in managing us, he took that onboard. But, he was very much a gentleman. He handled himself with a lot of aplomb. Dignity. A lot of people respected Brian for the person he was and the way he conducted business.
Q - Where were you when you heard the news that John Lennon had been shot and what went through your mind?
A - I was in Liverpool. I was getting ready for work and that was because of the time difference between the U.S. and England. More and more news was coming through and my wife was downstairs. She called up, I was upstairs in the bathroom, and said "Pete, you better come down and listen to this, John's been murdered." At that moment in time, I didn't realize which John. There was like a John the next door neighbor, a John that I work with. She said "no, it's John Lennon who you used to play with in The Beatles." I came downstairs. I was very skeptical to be quite honest. I don't really believe this. This is a sick joke. Someone's playing a "War Of The Worlds" type thing again. But then as I listened more and more to the broadcast, it became very apparent, very, very quickly that it wasn't a sick joke. John had actually been murdered by Chapman. It upset me very much because at the end of the day, regardless of what happened, I'd been friends with John. I was really close to him. It was the loss of a human life, someone I have a lot of respect for and did have a lot of respect for. The only way I suppose I could convey my sympathies was being very quiet. Newspapers came up to me, as media will and tried to get remarks from people and anecdotes and all the other little bits and pieces, and I stayed away from it. I just wanted to have my own time and remember John as I used to remember him.
Q - I don't suppose after you were out of the band you ever got to talk to any of the guys in The Beatles again, did you?
A - No. There's been no communication over the last forty odd years. It's one of those things. It's something that unfortunately never happened. But, you know, there's only a couple surviving Beatles now. If it does, then it does. If it doesn't, then everyone will live their life accordingly.
Q - Pete, if I ever get to interview Paul McCartney, there would be two questions I'd ask: why you were dismissed from The Beatles and how Brian Epstein knew The Beatles, as he saw them on the stage of The Cavern in Liverpool, would go on to fame and fortune. All the books I've read, all the interviews I've read, all the documentaries I've watched, and I've read and watched them all...those questions have never been properly answered to my satisfaction.
A - That's a very valid point. I think John addressed that situation many years later. I suppose in a way it was two fold, "because I was Pete's friend, I should've been there and done more for him concerning the dismissal. I was a coward", which is a fine comment. But then, he also said "The best music we played was in and around the clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg." And, that was my time. We were the best rock 'n roll band there was. The way Brian took them, it was fine. They became the icons of the music industry as the mop tops. But, a lot of people have said and still say, if you never saw The Beatles when Pete Best was with them, then you never saw The Beatles.
© Gary James. All rights reserved.
In 1965, John commented to a Playboy reporter that Ringo had been with the group for a while
before Pete Best was let go, filling in during Pete's allegedly frequent illnesses.
Ringo followed up the comment with "He took little pills to make him ill".
Pete sued over this comment, and reportedly took an out-of-court settlement.