October 20, 2023

From the Vaults: Jimmie to the Rescue


     On June 3, 1964, The Beatles had a full schedule ahead of them.  They were to spend the morning posing for a photographer from The Saturday Evening Post before they did an afternoon and evening recording session at EMI Studios.  The next day, they would fly off to begin their first ever world tour that would take them to Denmark, The Netherlands, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand.  Author Jim Berkenstatdt summed up the importance of the moment when he wrote, “This was not just any tour, but one that had been carefully planned for months, planned with the preparation and detail of a military campaign.”  The Beatles were already riding high having taken both the United Kingdom and the eastern seaboard of the United States by storm with their juggernaut record sales.  Indeed, they had the top five positions on the US Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart simultaneously.  The contracts were signed, the travel itinerary was set, and the boys were ready to take on the world the same way they had conquered both sides of the pond.  Then, without any warning, The Beatles’ drummer, Ringo Starr, collapsed in the middle of the The Saturday Evening Post photo session.

     Manager Brian Epstein knew immediately they were going to have to find a way to start the tour without Ringo.  At first, the other Beatles were against the idea, “It won’t be The Beatles without Ringo,” was the line they gave Epstein.  George Harrison flatly refused to tour without his drummer.  As producer George Martin put it later, “George is a very loyal person.”  Harrison himself had stated, “If Ringo’s not part of the group, it’s not The Beatles.  And I don’t see why we should do it.  I’m not going to go.”  George standing his ground was one thing, but to Epstein’s way of thinking, there was no ‘out clause’ built into the tour plans.  Unless they adopted a ‘the show must go on’ plan, the group’s future was going to be uncertain, at best.

Paul McCartney also remembered the events of that day:  “For some reason, we couldn’t really cancel it.  So, the idea came up, we’ll get a stand-in drummer.”  With one day’s notice, Epstein did just that.  After being turned down by his first two choices, Epstein called Jimmie Nicol.

     James George Nicol was born in London, England on August 3, 1939.  He was seven when WWII ended so his childhood history was similar to many of the other English rock stars we have discussed in this space.  The times were tough, but like many of our parents and grandparents who lived through the Great Depression, they didn’t think of it in terms of ‘oh, we were deprived of this and that’.  Life was tough all over but people summoned their resolve to get on with things and make the best of it.  Jimmie Nicol’s family was no different.  Growing up in the Battersea area of London, Nicol watched as the slums and bombed out neighborhoods were replaced by modern homes replete with gas and electricity.  They had a comfortable life compared to the war years.  Jimmie never spent much time fleshing out the story of his early years so there has been much speculation of what drew him into the world of music.  He was no doubt exposed to music at the cinemas, at public hall dances, and from family trips taken to the seaside resorts that were common at the time.  Seaside resorts drew vacationers with live music.

     In his 2013 book, The Beatle Who Vanished, author (and self-proclaimed ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Detective) Jim Berkenstatdt describes Nicol’s early years:  “Jimmie was unconventional from the start.  He did not conform to the norm.  He began tying his shoes backward from the top down and made the knot and bow at the bottom, not the top.  It was his protest against conformity, a theme that would continue throughout his life.  He was known as a sincere lad, but one happy to be a contrarian.”   His first instrument was the piano and he was a member of the Boy’s Choir group at school.  Jimmie was reported to be playing the drums with other students in a school band that included one saxophone and two trumpets.  The Battersea area was a notable breeding ground for musicians in the 1950s including Bob Geldof (Boom Town Rats and the founder of the Live Aid concerts), Rick Parfitt (Status Quo), and Simon Le Bon (Duran Duran). 

      As a member of the Army Cadet Force (whose mission was similar to the Boy Scouts of America), young Jimmie learned musical theory, how to read music,  performance, and the  diverse drumming skills that would serve him throughout his career.  Perhaps the most important skill he developed was the ability to play with many types of ensembles and with players of varying abilities.  According to Berkenstatdt, “Nicol thrived as a drummer and enjoyed the enthusiastic response of the audiences to the band’s live performances.  At the age of 14, Jimmie Nicol obtained his first drum at a pawn shop.  This allowed him to practice at home, much to the chagrin of nearby neighbors.  He began to listen to jazz music on the radio and loved it.”  Though his father disagreed, Jimmie quit his day job at age 17 to explore the London music scene, intent on becoming a professional drummer.

     The Soho section of London was just beginning to come alive with clubs and coffee houses that featured live music.  Jimmie found work repairing and maintaining drums at the Boosey & Hawkes musical equipment store located not far from the 2I’s Coffee Bar.  As skiffle musicians transitioned to rock ‘n’ roll, Nicol was there to take it all in.  As his drumming skills improved, he found he was able to sit in with any group of musicians in need of a drummer.  Jimmie’s  experiences at The 2Is introduced him to many other drummers and musicians he could learn from.  Nicol was a veritable musical sponge,  capable of playing any style of music.  Jimmie’s apprenticeship with other drummers and musicians allowed him to listen, learn, and develop his own hard hitting style.  The word was out, “Jimmie could really play the drums.”

     In 1954, Jimmie was spotted playing the drums at The 2Is by music impresario Larry Parnes who had a stable of musicians like Tommy Steele (nee Tom Hicks – Parnes was famous for renaming his artists).  Steele’s younger brother Colin was just starting out in the music biz and Parnes provided Nicol with his first big break.  He invited the drummer to join Colin Hicks and the Cabin Boys (Hicks had recently returned from a stint in the merchant marines).  After touring extensively with Hicks in Italy, Jimmie went on to play with other acts on Parnes’ roster including Vince Eager, Oscar Rabin, and Syril Stapleton.  Parnes, looking to get the best hit-making potential, often moved musicians around his various bands like chess pieces. 

     Nicol had sat in with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames numerous times and in 1964, he and BF bassist Bob Garner formed a band called the Shubdubs.  The Shubdubs leaned more toward the jazz side of the ledger but in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, there were many places that still preferred to book bands playing that genre.  Jimmie always said he was a jazzer and was perfectly content playing with his band when he got ‘the call’.  It was The Beatles manager Brian Epstein who made the call, but more than likely he got the idea from their producer George Martin.  When their first attempts to find a temp drummer were rebuffed, Martin recalled working on a session for Tommy Quickly with Jimmie Nicol.  Nicol was at home having ‘a bit of a lie down’ when his phone rang and his career made an abrupt lane change.

     Nicol met the other Beatles and ran down a few numbers with them and tried on Ringo’s stage suit.  It was not an audition as some reported it.  The tour was ready to depart the next day so it was more of a ‘meet and greet’ so everyone would be ready to roll in the morning.  Before he really knew what hit him, Jimmie was on a plane to Denmark to begin a 13 day whirlwind tour subbing for Ringo Starr.  The press was quick to dub him ‘The Fifth Beatle’.  After their European stops, they made their way to Asia and eventually to Australia.  Beatlemania was by now a full blown phenomenon and Jimmie Nicole was there to witness it:  “The day before I was a Beatle, the girls weren’t interested in me at all.  The day after, with the suit and the Beatles (hair) cut, riding in the back of the limo with John, Paul, and George, they were dying to get a touch of me.  It was very strange and quite scary.”

     Jimmie felt right at home with The Beatles.  He grasped their sense of humor and instinctively played Ringo’s Ludwig drum kit so the fans would hear as close an approximation of Starr’s style in their set list (if they could indeed hear the music above all the screaming).  When Ringo was discharged from the hospital, he and Brian Epstein finally caught up with the boys in Melbourne.  Nicol was able to do one last ‘balcony wave’ to the fans, the only time all five Beatles appeared together.  The 13 day fill in gig had gone very well, but suddenly the whole atmosphere changed.  Jimmie’s traveling buddies from the past fortnight were happy to see their drummer back in the pink.  At that point, they circled their wagons around Ringo and pretty much ignored their substitute drummer.

     During the tour, the ever independent Fifth Beatle had made it a point to explore some of the exotic locales they were visiting.  The other famous faces were inclined to hide out in their hotel rooms since a personal appearance anywhere would cause a near riot.  Jimmie was not as well known so he was able to roam freely and take in the local color unmolested.  On his last night in Melbourne, he drew Epstein’s ire when he borrowed a car and went out for a couple of drinks.  He was just beginning to relax when Beatles roadies Mal Evans and Derek Taylor screeched to a stop at the front door and all but dragged Nicol back to the Southern Cross Hotel.  Having previously chided Jimmie for talking to a reporter on the sidelines during the first group interview when Ringo returned, Nicol was feeling disrespected by their manager.

     The next day, Jimmie was not even afforded the courtesy of saying goodbye to the Fab Four before Epstein drove him to the airport.  A photo of Nicol sitting alone on a long bank of chairs at the airport paints a clear picture about how quickly his fortunes changed.  With a long flight home to plan his next move, Nicol drafted a mental game plan of how to use his brief time as a Beatle to his advantage.  He would reassemble his last band, the Shubdubs and get back to his own career.  When drummer Dave Clark was hospitalized, Nicol would get his second call to sub for an ailing drummer, only this time it was the Shubdubs who filled in the weeks long engagement, not just Jimmie filling in on drums.  Without a hit record to propel them, the band quietly folded.

     The next group he organized was called The Sound of Jimmie Nicol.  He spent himself 4,000 pounds into debt to outfit the band but it too, ultimately, failed.  Adding to his troubles, his marriage broke up and he lost his homebase of wife and son.  Nicol ended up moving back in with his mother and declaring bankruptcy.  Out of the session scene, he picked up a few stray drumming gigs but within 18 months, his heady time as the Fifth Beatle had come and gone.  The press and public moved on and Jimmie Nicole was busted and broke, if not broken.  He did pick up a touring job with Peter and Gordon.  Paul McCartney was dating Peter Asher’s sister, Jane, and recommended Jimmie for the job.  Nicol was probably unaware he had been given assistance by one of The Beatles.  For the most part, Jimmie thought that his acrimonious parting with Epstein had resulted in the Beatles manager blacklisting him to deny him work.  It was not true but Jimmie would carry this baggage and an intense dislike for Epstein there after.  McCartney never forgot their sub-drummer.  When they were first touring with him, John Lennon would ask Jimmie how he was doing.  His response (‘it’s getting better’) came to Paul’s mind when they were writing for the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.  The track that reminded him of Jimmie(Getting Better) ended up on that 1967 release. 

     During his pre-Fifth Beatle days, a couple of Jimmie’s bands toured with a Swedish band called the Spotnicks.  This old friendship paid off when the band needed a drummer for an upcoming world tour.  Their manager did not just offer Jimmie a ‘hired gun replacement’ gig – he offered Nicol a full membership in the band.  He took the job and quietly moved to the band’s base in Gothenburg without telling anyone he was going.  It seemed that he had again simply disappeared from the London scene just as he had when he left The Beatles tour in Australia.  The versatility of his drumming skills improved The Spotnicks (their name was a takeoff on the USSR’s ‘Sputnik’ satellite.  This time, Jimmie got to experience a world tour as a full member of the band that was enjoying their popularity without so much hysteria – they were well accepted, especially in Mexico and Japan, but there was no surge of  Sputnik-Mania.

     Things were rolling along for Nicol until the band made their second visit to Mexico.  Jimmie began indulging in the local customs (some of which involved more than the heavy marijuana use he was known for) and he stopped showing up for band functions.  He didn’t miss any gigs but he was incapacitated at a few leaving the band no choice to bring over another drummer from Sweden and let Jimmie go.  They had tossed him a lifeline when he was in dire need and it seemed he was now paying them back by choosing to go out on his own in Mexico rather than finish the tour.   Jimmie Nicol would spend the next fifty years disappearing and hopping around the globe but he never tried to cash in on his Beatles fame.  He often said it was probably the worst career decision as it 8-balled his own career.

    As he did research for his book, author Berkenstadt decided to make one last push to see if he could find and talk to Jimmie Nicol.  While in London, he hired a private detective who assessed the situation thusly:  “Nicol was more successful at vanishing than Osama Bin Laden.”  His son Howie has become an award winning sound engineer.  Many of his former friends and band members echoed the ‘he seems to have just vanished’ line.  Oddly enough, one of the last verifiable sightings was in the Netherlands.  A Beatles historian from Australia named Brendan Pearse told Berkenstadt he had been at the international Beatles convention in the Netherlands.  Walking by a construction site near the convention center, he spotted an older, but still familiar face.  He asked the construction worker if he was drummer Jimmie Nicol.  The man confirmed his identity and gave Pearse his autograph.  It seems Jimmie Nicol was still beating out rhythms, but now using a hammer instead of drumsticks.  If he is still with us in 2023, he would be 84 years of age, but in his secretive world, we may never know when he leaves this mortal coil.

Top Piece Video:  A 1964 clip from a Dutch TV show with Mr Nicol subbing for Ringo