What thoughts could you generate if you were asked to step in and play for the most famous pop/rock group of all time? How would you approach such a task, especially as a young drummer playing in front of the public for the first time? What courage could you muster to face a job of such a great magnitude, having been an obscure session drummer in the past?
These questions and a thousand more twirled about in the mind of a young English drummer named Jimmy Nicol when he was asked to fill in for Ringo Starr during the Beatles’ European tour of 1964 at the height of their touring career. During this unbelievable time when rock music took on a different face at the hands of these four Liverpool lads, Jimmy became a Beatle in the truest sense of the word. The words of Jimmy Nicol reveal a deep appreciation for this opportunity that any drummer would love to have had. Jimmy paints a very thankful picture for the chance he received on that fateful day in 1964 when Brian Epstein called upon him to be a Beatle.
AT: Why haven’t you written a “tell-all” book about your time with the Beatles?
JN: Anyone can write a book about someone he or she met or knew who is famous. There is so much trash written about the Beatles, and not one piece shows their good side. I guess I could very well write a book, but I think maybe my angle is not strong enough. But then again, my story is very intriguing!
AT: When did you start drumming, and who did you admire?
JN: I guess Krupa and Rich taught me a lot, but they always used their snares and ride cymbals too much. I like a drummer who tears it up. I once went to a Chuck Berry show in London, and he let the drummer cut loose on a particular song. Man, that was it for me. I loved it.
AT: After you learned to play, what did you do in the way of music?
JN: I worked as a session drummer for the hundreds of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley imitators bouncing around Liverpool at the time. Boy, were they bad. Their mothers and fathers paid for the sessions and demo tapes, and smiled all the way out the door thinking their boys were going to be the next stars of stage and screen. That was before the Beatles tour of ’64.
AT: When did you get your first drumkit?
JN: I chipped in with my dad when I was about 14. We went down to the pawn shop and picked out a Majestic blue-sparkle set that had a bass, tom, snare, and hi-hat. The next week, I bought a ride cymbal.
AT: After that, did you play any gigs?
JN: I practiced hard and long to get good fast. About a year later, I played with some of the worst players in Liverpool. They had their Silvertone amps and large-body guitars like Chuck Berry, and they couldn’t keep the damn things in tune. I had a good ear for music and that bothered me a lot. Needless to say, we played a lot of free gigs because no one would pay us.
AT: What did you think of Ringo Starr when you first heard him?
JN: I thought he was good—innovative and all. By that time, I was getting pretty good at the traps. Ringo was making the drums an interesting instrument for all aspiring musicians. I liked his style of doing rimshots on the snare, then onto the tom-tom. In “Ticket To Ride,” he used it as an accent of George’s strumming chords, and in “She Loves You,” he used it as a lead-in to the bridge. He was different. I loved how he used to attack the hi-hat.
AT: How did you meet Brian Epstein?
JN: Brian helped in his father’s furniture store after his father put in a record department and hi-fi section. He had a used hi-fi that I bought from him for about ten pounds, and he threw in an early Beatles record with it. He later said to me that that was the real reason why he chose me to play that ’64 tour: I bought a player he couldn’t get rid of. Anyway, Brian liked me pretty well, I think. He had heard me and knew I was better than average.
AT: What were you doing just before the phone call that put you in the light as the newest Beatle?
JN: I was playing around in a small band and in the studio whenever I was needed. I was actually making money as a drummer, which was something not many were doing.
AT: When did you first learn of the tour and Ringo’s illness?
JN: My girlfriend at the time brought home a paper, and I saw an advertisement for the tour in it. Then I read in Mersey Beat or somewhere that Ringo was sick. The tour was already booked and set. Brian called me the next day and invited me down to his office. I nearly fainted when he told me he wanted me to play for the Beatles until Ringo was well enough to rejoin the group. I was truly shocked by it all. We talked a little, and he told me he liked my style. He asked me if I had practiced with any of the Beatles hits, and I said I had. It was 1964, and the Beatles had so many hits, but they had a hell of a lot of good album songs as well. I still think Paul’s rendition of the old song “Till There Was You” was a fine song. Paul has one hell of a voice.
AT: You speak of the Beatles with almost a reverent tone. Why?
JN: I’m not alone, am I? There is just a feeling I get when I hear their songs—not just because I played with them, but like millions of other fans, it was a part of my growing up. My dad listened to Frank Sinatra, and I listened to the Beatles. Both have stood the test of time, I think.
AT: What about the time just before you took to the road with the Beatles?
JN: Well, Brian had all of the Beatles— with the exception of Ringo, who was in the hospital—in an outer office. In a passing motion, he waved them in to meet me. I was floored. The Beatles were actually there to meet me! My mind was blown. I would have played for free for as long as they needed me. I shook all their hands and blurted out tones of admiration that I think made them embarrassed. They were very nice. When Brian talked of money in front of them, I got very, very nervous. They paid me 2,500 pounds per gig and a 2,500 signing bonus. That floored me. When John spoke up in a protest by saying, “Good God Brian, you’ll make the chap crazy,” I thought it was over. But no sooner had he said that than he said, “Give him ten thousand!” Everyone laughed, and I felt a hell of a lot better. That night, I couldn’t sleep a wink. I was a Beatle!
AT: That was a mind blower for sure. When did real change start for you?
JN: When a wardrobe lady came over to my flat and a hairdresser cut my hair in a mop-top. In the mirror, I cut a mean figure as the new Beatle. And when Brian handed me a check for 2,500 pounds as the signing bonus, I was on top of the music world for sure.
AT: Tell me about how the Beatles treated you.
JN: Fantastic. Even Ringo kidded me when they took me over to introduce me as his replacement. There were a lot of jokes over that scene. John was super nice, as were Paul and George, with George being about as nervous as I was about the tour. He was very young, you know.
AT: What about the fan treatment?
JN: Like day and night. The day before I was a Beatle, not one girl would even look me over. The day after, when I was suited up and riding in the back of a limo with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, they were dying just to get a touch of me. It was strange and scary all at once. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but I can tell you that it can go to your head. I see why so many famous people kill themselves. There’s so little sanity to it all.
AT: How did the tour go with you at the drums?
JN: Good. A lot of fans were disappointed, I’m sure, because they wanted to see Ringo. John would introduce me at some of the concerts, and at others, he wouldn’t. Also, I think I was accepted by most of the fans because I fit in. I wore the suit and hair, and tried to play like Ringo. I also bowed when the rest of them did, and that went over big.
AT: How long did you play with the Beatles?
JN: I started on June 4, 1964 in Copenhagen, Denmark, our first gig of the tour. I played for three-fourths of the tour until Ringo joined us in Melbourne, Australia. I was praying he would get well, but at the same time I was hoping he would not want to come back. I was having a ball, truly.
AT: It has been said that a lot of bootleg albums of the tour were put together, and that you were on the cover of the album jacket. Is that true, and have you ever seen one?
JN: Yes. But Brian and Capitol Records were on top of it. They had some hotshot attorneys who covered every lead on them. I saw one, but the quality was horrible as well as the picture. The fans didn’t buy them because they wanted a quality record for their hi-fi’s. Live albums were not big at all back then.
AT: Enlighten me as to why you were forgotten after all this.
JN: How soon they forget! [laughs] When the fans forget, they forget forever. After the Beatles thing was over for me, I played around Liverpool for a few years and then got away from the music scene. I mean, when you’ve played with the best, the rest is just, well, the rest.
AT: Why were Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe remembered in so many books about the Beatles, but you were not?
JN: To put it simply, Stu was a sentimental Beatle because he died in the early days of the group. Best was a crybaby. He didn’t want to cut his hair like the rest of the group and resented Brian telling him that he had to. He soon found out that Brian carried more weight in the Beatles than he believed. The crap he wrote afterwards about the rest of the band being jealous of his good looks was just wishful babbling. Paul was ten times the looker Pete Best was.
AT: Any regrets?
JN: None. Oh, after the money ran low, I thought of cashing in in some way or the other. But the timing wasn’t right. And I didn’t want to step on the Beatles’ toes. They had been damn good to me.