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Tuesday 20th March 2018

No 'Empire Windrush', No Beatles?

Media & Culture

Tony Broadbent

Wed, 06 Jun 2018 14:53 GMT

No kidding. It is highly likely we would never have heard of The Beatles if not for a handsome young calypso singer, songwriter, musician, and later bandleader, who was among the group of immigrants that arrived in England, from the Caribbean, aboard HMT Empire Windrush, in June 1948. Not that it was his first time in Great Britain. In 1943, he lied about his age, enlisted in the RAF, came to England to fight for his 'Mother Country', before returning home to Trinidad, in 1947. His name was Harold Adolphus Phillips, known to one and all as Lord Woodbine.

'Lord Woodbine' (called 'Lord' out of respect for his musical abilities and 'Woodbine' after the title of one of his calypsos) played a singularly important part in the Beatles' early years. 'Woody', as he liked to be called, was one of Britain's very first calypso singers; his 'All Caribbean Steel Band' one of the country's very first steel bands. He was also an irrepressible entrepreneur who ran a couple of music-cum-drinking-sometime-strip clubs in Liverpool 8 called the New Cabaret Artistes Club and the New Colony Club (the pre-Hamburg Silver Beetles played both clubs). Importantly, from time to time, he was also a close business associate of Allan Williams, a music promoter and owner of Liverpool's Jacaranda coffee bar by day/cellar club at night.  

'Lord' Woodbine, known as the forgotten sixth Beatle, and his steel band regularly performed at the Jacaranda and almost always filled the club to capacity. One night, in early Spring 1960, they so impressed a crowd of visiting seamen from Hamburg, that 'Woody' and the band were urged to 'come play' the nightclubs in the dockside area of St. Pauli, the city's infamous 'red light' district. They left for Germany within days, without telling Williams and—renamed the 'Royal Caribbean Steel Band'—they proved a big success with Hamburg audiences, ever hungry for any kind of 'new' entertainment or music.  

'Woody' returned to Liverpool, bubbling over with excitement about the club scene in St. Pauli and the opportunities it presented for 'live' music. He persuaded Williams to accompany him back across the channel, so the music promoter could see the state of play for himself.  

In Hamburg, the two split up. 'Woody' went off to find friends he had made during his earlier visit. Williams began walking round the cluster of streets, off the Reeperbahn, that comprised the 'red light' district. And on Grosse Freiheit, corner of Schmuckstrasse, he was lured down into the Kaiserkeller by the sound of American rock 'n' roll, played on a juke box, spilling out into the street. It was there he had his first meeting with the club's owner, Bruno Koschmider. Ever the opportunist, Williams immediately began extolling the massive business potential of rock 'n' roll played 'live' by Liverpool beat groups; all of which, of course, he could easily arrange, thus sowing the seeds of the all-important Liverpool-Hamburg music link.  

In mid-August, The Beatles were booked to play their initial eight-week season at Koschmider's Indra Cabaret Club. Williams drove the group to Hamburg, in a hired campervan, via the Harwich-Hook of Holland ferry. 'Lord' Woodbine accompanied them on the journey and shared the stage with The Beatles on their first night at the Indra.  

No Hamburg, no Beatles  

This was the equation first formulated by the world's foremost Beatles' expert, Mark Lewisohn, author of 'The Beatles' Recording Sessions', 'The Complete Beatles Chronicle' and 'The Beatles - All These Years. Vol. 1: Tune In.' It is sometimes met with bemused bafflement by Beatles' fans, but it should not be. Lewisohn's reasoning stands on rock solid ground.  

The Beatles had to play 7 hours a night, 7 days a week for 16 weeks, straight. Hamburg was the pressure cooker that transformed the group from a rough and ready band of amateurs, all but the lowest of the low on the Merseyside beat group totem pole, into a rock band powerhouse.  

When The Beatles returned home in December 1960 and appeared as 'unknown' last-minute additions 'Direct from Hamburg' at a Christmas dance at the Litherland Town Hall, and started belting out their new found, hard-hitting, boot-stomping sound, it took Liverpool's beat music fans by storm, and the group instantly became the top 'live' draw on Merseyside. In December 1961, in the first ever Mersey Beat Annual Poll, they were voted Merseyside's 'Top Band', as they were in all the subsequent years of the poll.  

Hamburg, in every way, represents the true beginning of what Merseyside, then all of Britain, and then the rest of the world, would come to know as 'Beatlemania'. One noted pop music historian, Alan Clayson, even refers to Hamburg as "The Cradle of British Rock."  

And as no less a person than John Lennon himself later declared: "It was Hamburg that did it... That's where we really developed."  

No 'Lord' Woodbine, no Beatles?  

'Lord' Woodbine, essentially, exited from The Beatles' story after the group's first night at the Indra Cabaret Club in Hamburg. 'Lord' Woodbine and his wife died, tragically, in a house fire in Liverpool in 2000. Yet nothing should take away from the fact he played a key role in the early years of The Beatles. The music world, indeed, the world, would have been a much poorer place but for him and as Alan Williams, the Beatles first promoter, said, "I wouldn't have even thought of going to Hamburg, if not for 'Lord' Woodbine." 

Tony Broadbent is a novelist and author of The Beatles in Liverpool, Hamburg, London – The People, Venues, Events That Shaped Their Music. The One After 9:09 - A Mystery With A Backbeat, - Website dedicated to the early years of The Beatles, Contributing editor:  

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