Despite a career that spanned almost 40 years, Tony Sheridan will forever be remembered as the man who first recorded professionally with The Beatles.
Sheridan was born Anthony Esmond Sheridan McGinnity in Norwich, England, in 1940.
Though he played classical violin as a child, he was equally intrigued by the new sounds that arrived in England along with the influx of American soldiers during World War II. “I was five years old at the end of the war, and there were a lot of American influences in our part of England,” Sheridan said.
“The music was blaring out from all over the place. So I grew up with these sounds, but I never got to hear them at home. They weren’t even allowed! Then I heard electric guitar; I forget who it was, probably something like skiffle, Lonnie Donegan or something. And that told me straight away, this is what I’m going to do, nothing else. I wanted to be a painter as well, which I still am sometimes, but music got the better of me.
“First I got an acoustic guitar,” he continued, “and it was difficult enough to get hold of that. But I got an acoustic in my hometown, an old beat-up one, and I was very happy with that. But when I went down to London later on, in the late ’50s, I heard Buddy Holly and all these sounds, and I wanted to do something like that. So I got myself an electric guitar.”
After playing with local groups, the lure of a future in show business led to Sheridan’s arrival in the British capital.
“It was a time of revolution,” Sheridan remembered, “and rock ‘n’ roll music was definitely the side of the revolution that people like myself and kids of our age saw and felt and wanted to do. We weren’t interested in any sociological issues or anything else; we just wanted to get hold of a guitar and do this music.”
“It was more than just music for us. It was breaking out of our past completely, breaking away from our roots, if you like, and opting for something which was strange to us. ‘Cause it wasn’t our music. We were copying, you see? We got hold of this stuff and put our own feelings into it a bit. Then The Beatles came, and everything changed a bit, but in the beginning, we were just looking for something to grab hold of, to get us out of the rut.”
Sheridan soon found work playing with such homegrown talents as Marty Wilde and Vince Taylor and the Playboys, and also formed his own group with bassist Brian Locking and drummer Brian Bennett, who would later join The Shadows.
Sheridan just missed out on the opportunity to be a Shadow himself; the band’s manager, John Foster, stopped by the 2i’s coffee bar one day to ask Sheridan to join the band, but ran into guitarist Hank Marvin instead, and offered him the job.
The story illustrates how a small, tightly-knit music scene was beginning to grow in England. “The London scene in the late ’50s was concentrated around Soho, the West End of London, the so-called red light district, where the coffee bars were,” explained Sheridan.
“You could hardly hear a word of English there sometimes. It was skiffle music initially; this was before Elvis really got off the ground. Bill Haley was going too, but for us he was a bit too exotic. We were more into earthy sounds, blues more than anything else.”
Television producer Jack Good provided a focal point for the burgeoning musical movement with the creation of one of Britain’s first rock TV series, Oh Boy!, which featured Sheridan as a regular performer. “It was quite active, that whole scene,” he says. “I’d been playing with all sorts of bands; the scene was such that it was fairly close-knit and you knew everybody”.
“For instance, the band that went with Cliff Richard later on, The Drifters – they later changed their name to The Shadows – we used to back all sorts of people together as a trio, on TV and on stage. We’d got onto television very quickly, 18, 19 years old, and on national television every week. In fact, I was the first guy to be allowed to play electric guitar live on British television. It’s a dubious honour, but it’s true!”
Sheridan also performed as a backing musician for touring American performers, including the legendary Gene Vincent/Eddie Cochran tour in the spring of 1960. “I was one of the first to get involved with actually playing with these people, which was also something anybody would’ve given their right arm to do in those days,” Sheridan said.
Unfortunately, this particular tour would end in tragedy, when the two rock ‘n’ roll stars, along with Cochran’s girlfriend, songwriter Sharon Sheeley, were involved in a car accident that claimed Cochran’s life following a show at the Bristol Empire.
Sheridan said he was nearly involved in the crash as well. “They all wanted to go back to London, because Bristol was dead after 10 o’clock at night,” he remembered. “They wanted to go back and have some fun, and hired a car. But there was no room in it for me, so I had to stay behind.”
Most other rock histories state that Cochran, Sheeley and Vincent were actually headed for London Airport and a return flight to America.
But despite his growing acclaim as a musician, Sheridan never came into his own as a performer in England. “I wanted to record, of course, everybody wants to record,” he said. “I was playing on other people’s records, playing with singers like Vince Taylor and Vince Eager. I nearly got my own recording contract in Britain, but somebody else got it instead. I don’t know why. Probably because they were not as mad as I was. I had a reputation for being a bit wild, you see. And the British record company in question was looking for somebody more . . . a cleaner image person. So they took somebody else.”
Sheridan’s career was further hampered by his admitted penchant for independence, which caused television producers and music industry promoters to regard him as being too temperamental and unreliable to deal with.
Soon after the Vincent/Cochran tour, Sheridan was approached about appearing in Germany. “In England, there weren’t enough opportunities to play,” he explained. “There weren’t clubs, for instance, in the sense that we know them today. There was just the coffee bar scene in Soho. It was just shillings we were playing for, enough to get a hot meal and some cigarettes, and live wherever we could”.
“Now in Germany, a chap who had a club in the red light district of Hamburg [Bruno Koschmider] had tried out a couple of German singers and had a lot of success, but they were pretty bad, because you can’t sing rock ‘n’ roll in German, and they didn’t have the feel or anything. So he wanted to put what he thought was authentic [rock ‘n’ roll] in. So he sent somebody to London to have a look and brought us over, among other people”.
“It was June in 1960,” Sheridan continued. “I didn’t have any particular group, so I got a group together to come over to Hamburg, sort of a makeshift group, and we went over and did the gig with great success. I guess we were, for a German audience, authentic. We didn’t look at ourselves as being that authentic, but in Germany, they certainly accepted us straight away, and that just exploded overnight. And this really got the Hamburg thing off the ground, because the moment some British artists were there, the whole scene started blossoming and clubs were opening on every corner, almost. There were about 200 British groups in Hamburg at the height of all this, in the early ’60s.”
The first Hamburg stop for the new band, which called itself The Jets (and included Del Ward, Ricky Richards, Pete Wharton, Colin Milander and Iain Hines), was the Kaiserkeller.
“It was a cellar, like it sounds, a big, dirty, stinky place, and we had to ‘rough it’,” said Sheridan. “Which we didn’t mind doing, because it was part of the image. A lot of us were putting on this James Dean image and a bit of Elvis as well; that was half the job, the other half was the music. But at least half of it was looking the part. And we fooled a lot of people!”
“We were earning fairly good money and playing every night; we loved it. I mean, eight hours a night sounds like a lot of work, and it is a lot of work, and it was a lot of work in those days, ’cause we didn’t really look after ourselves and we didn’t eat properly. We didn’t sleep enough, we were doing too much beer and all sorts of funny things; doing speed now and again. But of course, that was all part of that scene, and out of that a lot of things happened.”
“I moved on to the Top Ten, a few months after the Kaiserkeller,” Sheridan continued. “And that being on the main street of this area, it took all the business away from the other club. That caused a lot of animosity. There were some ugly things bubbling under, gangster stuff. The bosses who controlled half the area weren’t too happy about what was going on in the other half. The musicians were sort of oblivious of this, thankfully. But now and again we could sense what was going on. People would try to get us to play somewhere else for a little more money and this sort of thing, bribe us. But basically, we felt good in the Top Ten club and it just escalated again. It was like a second explosion if you like. And that’s when, late 1960, everything was really in gear, records and everything. We had everything we wanted.”
Once other British musicians began arriving in the city, they naturally sought each other out, for companionship as well as music-making. “It was a very tight little society of two streets, practically,” said Sheridan.
“We lived in two streets and we knew everybody. Part of the charm of the whole situation was coming together after the show and playing just for ourselves in little clubs and bars and all sorts of places. We always had instruments with us wherever we went. It was a good way to get free beers! We never had any money, ’cause we used to spend it too quickly. We were just enjoying the adoration of that time in Hamburg.”
Though a variety of groups, including Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Swinging Blue Jeans and Freddie Starr, would eventually play the Hamburg circuit, Sheridan admitted he had a special interest in The Beatles. “If you’re an obsessed musician you have an eye for other obsessed musicians,” he explained.
“Those sort of people naturally attract your attention. And what happened in Hamburg was that people like us thought we were something special, but it wasn’t in a big-headed way. We were just different. We sensed our difference.”
“We came together not just to string our guitar around our necks and get on the stage, we were into much more than that. We were into the lyrics and the melodies and the phrasing and the licks and solos and harmonies and all sorts of things. And we were interested in things like photography and art as well, ’cause we’d all done a bit of this at one point or another in our lives. So there was a clique of us, and I think we excluded a lot of other musicians. We didn’t want to exclude anybody, but we did think that we were perhaps a bit more promising than most of them.”
“And the impression I got from the rest of The Beatles was that they were more promising. They had more charm, personality, all these things which I felt that perhaps we had ourselves. I think as a mirror, they gave us a good feeling seeing them doing their thing. I think perhaps we gave them something like that as well.”
Though Sheridan has his own specific memories about each individual Beatle, he added, “I can’t tell you a lot more than you already know. I think most people have got a pretty good image of what John Lennon was and what he was on about and what he was trying to do. In a nutshell, that was what he was in those days too. And Paul McCartney was basically Paul McCartney, except of course a 20-year-old version, which had slight differences. But the differences were mainly things that had to do with the music. Like he was playing piano on stage, a bit of guitar, a bit of bass, and messing about a bit more. And we were all fumbling, we were all very naive. We were practically kids. It wouldn’t be wrong to say we were kids, especially George, of course.”
As a budding guitarist and junior member of The Beatles, Harrison especially looked up to Sheridan, who was more than happy to spend time teaching him how to become a more proficient guitar player, which earned Sheridan the nickname of “The Teacher.”
“George was very keen,” said Sheridan, “very keen on learning anything he could. And there was practically nobody else that he could look up to, to get that sort of crash course training. I was slightly older, and so I knew a bit more, and I was into weird chords and things. George was not looked upon by the others as being especially good, although they liked his image, and they liked the way he stayed in the background a bit. Of course, he wanted to be more in the forefront, but he could only do it by improving his knowledge and gaining a little more of whatever it was that was needed, which he did.”
When The Beatles returned to Hamburg on their second trip in April 1961, Sheridan’s fortunes as a recording artist were looking up, as he’d finally secured a contract with Polydor in Germany as a solo artist. When the time came to make a record, he arranged to have The Beatles, who were already backing him at the Top Ten, accompany him in the studio.
“I got a contract, and I asked The Beatles to come in and do it with me ’cause that was the group I was playing with at the time,” Sheridan said. “So we just went from the stage, into the studio, did the same thing a couple of times, in glorious mono, and we did it. That was it. The LP was done in about three hours or something; that was the way we used to do it in those days, which had a lot to be said for it. Even in the late ’60s, we were still making an LP in an afternoon.”
“And it’s quite possible when you know what you’re doing before you go in. But today it takes half a day to get the drum sound and all this rubbish. In those days it was nothing like that. There was no real messing about; you got a crate of beer and a tube of pills to keep you awake, and that was more or less the same with most of the groups.”
Details of exactly when Sheridan’s sessions with The Beatles took place, as well as information regarding the specific songs recorded, varies greatly. Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicle lists June 22 and 23 as the dates of the first session, with the musicians assembling in the auditorium of a children’s school to record two traditional numbers, My Bonnie and When The Saints Go Marching In (simply called The Saints on record), Hank Snow’s Nobody’s Child, Jimmy Reed’s Take Out Some Insurance On Me, Baby (aka If You Love Me Baby), and a Sheridan original, Why (Can’t You Love Me Again).
The Beatles were also allowed to record two numbers without Sheridan, the standard Ain’t She Sweet, with Lennon delivering a raucous vocal, and an instrumental parody of The Shadows‘ style, Cry For A Shadow, a rare Lennon/Harrison composition. Stu Sutcliffe did not play on the recordings, though he attended the sessions as an observer.
The sessions were produced by Bert Kaempfert, who’d recently had a #1 hit in the U.S. with Wonderland By Night. Sheridan and The Beatles recorded together again the following year, during The Beatles’ third trip to Hamburg in April 1962, when they recorded Sweet Georgia Brown, and possibly Skinny Minny and Swanee River.
The song selections are curious, given the musicians’ interest in rock ‘n’ roll, but Sheridan explains the choice of material was determined by what Polydor and Kaempfert perceived as being commercial. “The main thing was to sell records from the point of view of the record company and the producer,” he said.
“Kaempfert had a very commercial outlook on things, and the choice of songs was basically a product of a discussion, a heated discussion sometimes, about what to do and what not to do. My Bonnie was a compromise, ’cause nobody really wanted to do that for the first record. But we did it, and we did it as best we could. But it was more tongue-in-cheek than anything else. In fact, I copied the version, more or less – well, not copied, but I got the idea and did it in a rock ‘n’ roll style like Gene Vincent’s. He used to do it that way too. And it turned out quite well and it sold quite well straight away.
“I don’t think Kaempfert really cared whether or not I sang My Bonnie or John or Paul or anybody else,” Sheridan continued. “I don’t think he cared that much about who actually sang the song, but he did care about who was in town to make the next couple of LPs. And ’cause I was the one who was hanging around doing fairly well, he didn’t really have a choice. I was the only one who had that amount of popularity at that time. But the next record, he said, the next single, you’ve got to do a ballad in German, which I did, which was entirely wrong. I shouldn’t have done that. So he was really just out to make some money quickly from us.”
Though he was the first producer to work with The Beatles, Kaempfert missed out on seeing their potential. “Kaempfert had the right sniffer, but he wasn’t able to actually see deep enough into it to see what The Beatles could have done,” said Sheridan.
“I think his main thing was to get this atmosphere that he saw happening in front of his eyes. He would sit there and he used to boggle at what was going on. And he got this down on record and I think that was all he wanted to do; he gave The Beatles away to Brian Epstein. He had no idea at that time what could have happened with them. And not many others did in England. It’s one of those things that I’ll personally never understand. ‘Cause Epstein went ’round all the companies in Britain, all the big ones, and they all turned The Beatles down, with one exception.”
“And that was practically the same in Hamburg,” he continued. “Nobody appreciated their talent. Everybody saw that they were funny people and they messed around onstage a lot, and this was basically what they were famous for in Hamburg. Not their music so much. They weren’t so good, you see. None of us were. But we had a certain way of putting it over and getting through the spirit of the times, which was very important for the kids. It was the feel of rock ‘n’ roll which got them dancing, not so much the power of the sound. We didn’t have any loud instruments. We were quiet in those days; if you heard it today you’d think it was ballads. But the energy was the thing.”
My Bonnie/The Saints was first released on Polydor in Germany in June 1961, credited to Tony Sheridan and the “Beat Brothers,” a name chosen over “Beatles” as it sounded too much like “peedles,” German slang for penis.
The single reportedly sold over 100,000 copies in Germany (though, typically, Sheridan would receive little in the way of royalties), and originally featured a slow introduction, in German on copies labelled “rock” and English on copies labelled “twist.”
The German intro appeared only on the original single; the English intro occasionally, though not always, appeared on subsequent reissues of the song (including Polydor’s The Early Tapes Of The Beatles CD). It was this German single that brought The Beatles to the attention of Brian Epstein, then a record shop manager in Liverpool, and by the end of the year he would persuade the group to let him be its manager.
In 1962, My Bonnie/The Saints was also released as a single in the U.K. (again on Polydor, credited to Sheridan and the Beatles, the first release to use their name) and America (on Decca, again calling The Beatles “The Beat Brothers”).
The two songs also appeared on Sheridan’s album My Bonnie, released in Germany in June 1961, and the original version of Sweet Georgia Brown appeared on Sheridan’s Ya-Ya EP, released in Germany in 1962.
But the other songs from the Sheridan/Beatles sessions remained unreleased until The Beatles found international success in 1963 and ’64; the songs then appeared on innumerable singles and albums released in both the USA and UK to indifferent success, though Ain’t She Sweet did make the US Top 20 and the UK Top 30.
The camaraderie between the musicians was such that The Beatles, said Sheridan, even extended an offer to Sheridan to join them. “There was mention of it,” Sheridan said. “‘You want to come back and play in Liverpool with us? You want to come back and play in England?’ Of course, at that time they were not big; it wasn’t a question of saying, ‘Would you like to join The Beatles, we’re big!’ That, of course, never happened! But had I wanted to go back, it would have been no problem at all. But for me, there was no point”.
“I didn’t look back toward Britain, as many of them did. In Hamburg, we were making a pretty large impression on a lot of people. And I didn’t really want to move; I felt good doing what I was doing. But on the other hand, I was one of the very few who was recording, and who had a name, and who was earning money, etc. I had practically everything I had not had in London, so I had no reason to drop it and go back and try and start anew. So I said, ‘No, no, I’ve got everything I need here.'”
“Later, of course, there was no question of my joining,” he continued. “Everything was pretty much settled as soon as Epstein got the band straightened out and got them dressed up, taught them some manners. And secretly, people like myself, we were quite happy that we were being really ‘authentic!’ We frowned upon the pop world. For us it was either authentic, or it was unauthentic.”
Sheridan admitted he was not a fan of The Beatles‘ early records. “I’ll tell you,” he said, “bearing in mind my impression of what they had to offer, what they could do, the possibilities and the potential, the first records they made – Please Please Me and Love Me Do and all that stuff – I thought, ah, they’ve sold their soul. They’ve forgotten the reason they wanted to play; ambition got the better of them”.
“I really don’t know what went on in their heads to actually let themselves be moulded by Brian Epstein in the way he did. Obviously, they had a lot of trust and respect for him, but they actually let Brian change the whole thing, from top to bottom: the music, the manners, the whole lot. And I personally felt that they’d sold out by doing this.”
“And I still feel, if, say, John and Paul had the chance again, they might’ve done something in a much more rhythm ‘n’ blues vein,” Sheridan continued. “This was the music they were getting into in those days; it wasn’t this bubblegum stuff that they came out with, which was basically just pop, wasn’t it? I mean, they were into the guts of the music and suddenly, here we are, Please Please Me – this is for 15-year-old girls or younger”.
“I think they sold out, in the beginning. Perhaps they did it consciously, thinking, ‘Well, as soon as we make it we’re going to do what we want,’ which they obviously did. But I don’t think they reckoned with George Martin having that creative influence on them. He did have a wonderful, from a musical point of view, influence on them and I think that did them a lot of good. Had they not had him, I think they might have just turned into a rhythm ‘n’ blues band, doing their own stuff, maybe, but certainly not with that amount of musical expansion that went on.”
“Later on, of course, they came out with some wonderful stuff and I was very happy to hear what they were doing,” Sheridan added. “One of the nicest things for me was to hear a particular chord or harmony that I’d taught George. To hear these suddenly coming through one of The Beatles’ tracks from the late ’60s was quite gratifying ’cause I knew where he got certain things. But that’s the way it happened, you know; everybody learned from everybody else.”
As the British beat group scene began to take off in England, and British groups began finding success at home, the music scene in Hamburg naturally began to decline. “Round about ’64, ’65, the impetus went out of it somehow,” Sheridan said. “The energy got used up very quickly and the air went out of it because too many people started to try to make too much money out of the whole thing. I think it burned itself out somewhere along the line; the creativity side of it did. There wasn’t this little colony anymore. A new thing was going on, and this was back in Britain itself. And in Hamburg, nothing much happened, as far as British music was concerned.”
Many British musicians now returned to England, but Sheridan, true to his independent nature, stayed in Hamburg. “I didn’t really want to go back,” he explains. “I was still acting out my rebel thing and being known for that and having a good time, basically. I was a wild guy. I wasn’t doing things that people were telling me to do and I was doing everything I wanted to, doing it my way. Really, I wanted to go to the States, you see. But I never made it to the States until much later, in ’78.”
Sheridan continued making records for Polydor in Germany, recording a mix of rock ‘n’ roll classics and original numbers. After The Beatles‘ success, Sheridan also re-recorded the vocals to Sweet Georgia Brown, with new lyrics that made reference to them, but this was the only time he tried to capitalise on his association with the group. In the late ’60s, Sheridan went over to Vietnam, where, if he hadn’t yet made it to America, playing for US soldiers seemed to be the next best thing.
“I got to know the Americans very well over there,” he said, “and their way of life even, ’cause the whole thing was mini-States. That’s the way it’s done when the army’s somewhere; they bring everything in, all the mod cons and comforts and things.”
“For me, the dream was America,” he continued, “but I never was able to make that jump in the ’60s before I went to Vietnam. When I went there, I was confronted with this very different situation, with guys who knew exactly what I was singing about. Just coming out of Hamburg, of course, half the audience had no idea what you were singing about, ’cause they just didn’t understand it. But in Vietnam everybody did. And this was a great experience, playing for an authentic audience, if you like, for the first time. That’s what it amounted to for me.”
Sheridan’s time in Vietnam led to rumours that he’d been killed, and an obituary was even published in a British music paper. In fact, Sheridan was alive and well and had returned to Germany, where he continued to record for Metronome Records and various other labels. When a new Star Club was opened in Hamburg, Sheridan was chosen to head the bill, cheered on by Starr and Harrison, who were in the opening-night audience.
In 1978, he finally travelled to America and recorded the album World’s Apart with Elvis Presley‘s TCB Band. The album was produced by Klaus Voorman, an old friend from the Hamburg days, and released in Europe. Since then, Sheridan also released the albums Novus, Ich Lieb Dich So (a collection of German songs released by Bear Family), Dawn Colours and Here & Now.
Tony Sheridan died in Germany in February 2013. He was 72.