An exclusive chat with the man who spent a fortnight in an embryonic incarnation of the future Fabs
It’s one of the most famous and exclusive clubs on Earth. Historically, there are only ten members (and no new ones since 1964). Only six members are still alive.
Can you imagine being one of those six? Can you imagine puttering around your kitchen, making a big mug of tea, sitting down in a nice comfy chair in front of The Great British Baking Show, and thinking, “Oh…I was in the Beatles. Yes I was. How about that? Why, that’s an interesting take on a Viennese Tart! Oh, and I was in the Beatles. I think I’ll have some biscuits. And, oh, that’s right, I was in the Beatles.”
There are ten men who performed multiple gigs on stage as a member of a band called the Beatles. Their names are (in alphabetical order) Pete Best, George Harrison, Johnny Hutchinson, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Tommy Moore, Chas Newby, Jimmy Nicol, Ringo Starr, and Stuart Sutcliffe.
Chas Newby is a retired mathematics teacher who lives in Warwickshire, a county in the west Midlands of England probably best known as the birthplace of William Shakespeare. Exactly 60 years ago in December of 1960, Newby performed four gigs as a bassist for the Beatles. He was six months shy of his 20th birthday. Notably, Newby was on stage for the Beatles’ gig at Litherland Town Hall on December 27, 1960. This date is generally acknowledged as the start of Beatlemania, the first time a rapt, avid, and responsive audience saw the Beatles display the energy, wit, and wild abandon that they had learned playing six hours a night, six days a week in the cellars of the Reeperbahn.
Unlike virtually everyone on earth (a big place, earth), Chas Newby was actually asked to join the Beatles twice (!). The first time was in the autumn of 1960, when George Harrison was deported from West Germany for performing in Hamburg nightclubs while underage. Pete Best, who had played with Newby in Best’s pre-Beatles band, the Blackjacks, reached out to Newby to replace Harrison for the remainder of the band’s 1960 Hamburg dates. Newby, who had just started his second year at St Helens College, studying Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, turned Best and the Beatles down. However, Newby indicated that if the group still needed someone when they returned to Liverpool he would be happy to help out (especially if the gigs coincided with his winter break from college).
As it happened, the Beatles never played Hamburg without Harrison. Due to a conflict with club owner Bruno Koschmider (who accused them of attempting to burn down the decrepit cinema where they were housed), the band’s contract was cancelled prematurely, and John, Paul, and Pete returned to Liverpool shortly after George, in late November 1960. But they found they needed a bassist: Stuart Sutcliffe had decided to stay behind in Hamburg. Once again they reached out to Newby. This time, he said yes.
What do you ask someone who witnessed so much musical history, who actually stood on stage, in borrowed leather, and stomped alongside John, Paul, George and Pete? Newby seemed happy to answer anything I threw at him, though I deliberately tried to cover ground I had not seen written about in other pieces on the savage young Beatles, or in Mark Lewisohn’s essential accounts of the period.
Can we go over the events that led to you performing with the Beatles, sixty years ago this month?
When the Beatles were playing their first gig in Hamburg, I was starting my second year at college. I was in touch with Pete by post, and was vaguely aware of George’s deportation, but there was no way I was going to give up my college place. When the band reunited in Liverpool mid December, Pete organized a bass guitar for me and we had a couple of rehearsals, which must have gone okay. My overall memory was playing a right-handed bass upside down, and playing with the best band in the world. Dave Bedford, a good friend from Liverpool, always reminds me that I was the first left-handed bass player in the Beatles.
There has been a lot written about the Litherland Hall gig, but I’ve seen very little about your other three shows with the Beatles in December of 1960. Can you tell us something about these?
The first of my four gigs was at the Casbah club. This was a private members club, and all five of us were known by the punters, having played there before. However, they were not prepared for the power of the band, no doubt gained from long hours on stage in Germany. Everybody knew right away how much better they were. Neil Aspinall had prepared posters proclaiming, “direct from Hamburg” which no doubt contributed to the excitement.
The next gig was at the Grosvenor Ballroom in Wallasey [a small town on the River Mersey, immediately to the north and west of Liverpool]. This was a ballroom open to the general public, with a reputation for violence. Also on the bill were Derry and the Seniors, also back from Hamburg. I honestly can’t remember anything special about the gig. I was probably watching the audience for the first sign of trouble.
My last appearance was the New Years Eve party at the Casbah. This was really a celebration of the return of the Beatles back to Liverpool. On the 4 January 1961 I was back at my desk in college, and my career as a rocker was over.
AUDIO: The Beatles in Hamburg
Where did you, John, Paul, George, and Pete rehearse?
I remember we did at least one rehearsal in the lounge of Pete’s home, and probably one downstairs in the Casbah club. The material that the Beatles were playing at the end of 1960 was essentially the classic rock and roll tunes from the mid to late fifties, i.e. Elvis, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly. This was the same for most of the bands around the Liverpool scene, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for me. Certainly, I was familiar with most of their repertoire from playing with Pete in the Blackjacks, prior to him joining the Beatles.
It’s been mentioned that you performed “Long Tall Sally” and “What I’d Say” in the December ’60 Beatles’ sets, but do you recall any of the other numbers you performed at Litherland or the other three shows?
Probably “Matchbox” and “Honey Don’t” by Carl Perkins, “That’ll Be the Day” by Buddy Holly, “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” which had been originally recorded by Ray Charles, but we did the Eddie Cochran version. Paul also sang a recent Elvis record, “Wooden Heart,” and “Red Sails in the Sunset,” which was a recent hit for Emile Ford. I’m sure we also did Chuck Berry songs.
Was there any chatter about doing original songs? Did you hear any fragments in rehearsal?
Although I now know that John and Paul had started to write their own material, I didn’t hear anything at all, and it wasn’t discussed.
Were you and Paul the only left-handed musicians on the Liverpool scene? Did you have a proper left-handed bass?
I don’t remember any other lefties at the time. We just turned the strings around. For my four gigs with the Beatles, I borrowed a bass from a guy named Tom McGurk who was right handed. I just played it upside down. I think the first time I saw a true left handed instrument was when Paul bought his first Hofner later in 1961.
Did you get the feeling at the time that Paul wanted to move over to bass, or was under some pressure to do so?
It was probably Hobson’s choice for Paul. I had imagined that Stuart would return by the beginning of January 1961, and I got the idea that maybe they were under that impression. I do remember seeing Paul playing his Rosetti 7 with the six guitar strings replaced with three bass strings.
There’s a well-known and much-published picture of you taken around that time – you appear to be playing a guitar, left handed, in what looks like a front room? What was the setting and date of that picture?
This photograph was taken in the lounge of the Best home in December 1959. The photograph was taken by Pete’s younger brother, Rory, at one of the first practice sessions for the Blackjacks. Bill Barlow had just bought the first Burns guitar to arrive in Liverpool and so I felt I had to make an effort. Since left-handed instruments were not available, I decided to make one. I rescued a neck from an old acoustic guitar and screwed it to a piece of timber, shaped to look something like a left handed Strat. The other pieces such as pick ups, machine heads and controls were available at guitar shops. It lasted for about a year before collapsing, due to no rod in the neck.
I have seen conflicting information on this, so I will just come out and ask: Did you choose to leave the Beatles? Were you actually asked to join? Was it always understood that you gig was temporary?
I was asked to play bass as a temporary replacement for Stuart. I knew it was short term and I also knew I would be back at college in January 1961. I had no desire to be a professional musician. When the subject originally came up, I think John was trying to get other people interested in going to Hamburg rather than replacing Stuart.
I have heard the Blackjacks’ name a lot, but have no real handle on what they might have sounded like. Can you describe them a little, and compare them to other Mersey acts?
When Ken Brown left the Quarrymen in October 1959, he convinced Pete to start another band with Pete playing drums. Pete brought in Bill Barlow and myself, both school friends of Pete and Casbah members from the opening night. Bill and I had played together in a skiffle group at school, but this new band, the Blackjacks, was our first experience of playing amplified rock and roll. Ken was the most experienced and the three of us picked it up as we went along. Blackjacks were much the same as many of the other amateur bands of the period. The set list would have been much the same as Quarrymen, or Searchers. Mid-fifties American rock and roll. Of the other bands around at the same time, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Cass and the Casanovas, and the Bluegenes were playing professionally [The Bluegenes were a higher-end Skiffle group who evolved into the Swinging Blue Jeans]. The Blackjacks played with three guitar players. Bill [Barlow] played lead, intros and guitar breaks. Ken [Brown] played rhythm, and I played the bass parts, imagine Jerry Lee Lewis left hand piano or Guitar Boogie type scales. I never played bass until I played with the Beatles.
[Author’s note: Let’s address a little band-name muddle-up here. There is some small evidence that The Quarrymen, the skiffle group featuring Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison that evolved into the Beatles, may have also briefly performed under the name The Blackjacks. But this “Blackjacks” is unrelated to the band formed a little later featuring Best and Newby, despite the fact that Ken Brown and Bill Barlow were in both the Quarrymen and the Best/Newby Blackjacks. The overlap in names appears to be more or less coincidental, and the Quarrymen were not an early form of the Blackjacks, despite the moniker confusion and the overlap in members. This has, understandably, caused some confusion over the years.]
VIDEO: The Blackjacks at the Casbah Coffee Club in Liverpool, August 28, 2010
At that time you played with the Beatles, Pete Best had only been in the band a few months. Did you get the feeling he was on solid ground as a member, and, either socially or musically, did he feel fully integrated into the group?
At the time I thought that they were like the Four Musketeers, all for one and one for all. I guess that came from the sharing what was a new experience for them all, long hours of playing to a non-English audience in Hamburg.
I have always thought Mona Best, Pete’s mother and the creator of the Casbah, was the unsung hero of this entire story, and it is possible the Beatles would never have happened without her. Would you agree with this?
I would also include Ken Brown in that comment. When Mrs. Best opened the Casbah club in August 1959, it was Ken Brown and George who brought John and Paul back together to play the opening night as the Quarrymen. When the Beatles returned to Liverpool in December 1960, it was Mrs. Best who provided them with a base and the first and subsequent gigs before Brian took over the management role at the end of 1961.
Can you give me your impressions of Pete as a drummer? I have always sensed he got the short end of the stick. All the Beatles’ recordings with him are very primitive, so it’s hard to tell, but I am assuming that in order to drive a pure rock band like the Beatles were, he had to be pretty good.
At the time, Johnny Hutchinson of the Casanovas and then the Big Three was acknowledged as supreme, but the rest of the drummers in the area bands were much the same. As you say, he was certainly good enough to get the Beatles to the start of their fame.
Were you surprised when Pete was booted from the Beatles? Did you guys talk about it at the time?
Along with almost everybody else in Liverpool at the time, the replacement of Pete by Ringo came as a shock. I was well out of the music scene by then and had lost touch with people.
I know you still have a relationship with Pete, but did you ever run into John, Paul or George again after they became well known?
I saw the band perform in Liverpool prior to 1962, but I lost contact when the guys moved to London.
In his remarkable book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, Billy Bragg makes the case that skiffle was a form that developed independently from American rockabilly, and that it must be taken seriously as a completely independent, powerful, and influential form of rock, and not an “aside” or an interstitial. Would you agree with this? Can you say a few words about how skiffle rocked your world?
I would agree with Billy Bragg that they were separate strains of music that coexisted side by side during the late fifties. You could make a good case for saying that they both emerged from the same source of American music, combining elements of blues, gospel, folk and country music. We were certainly listening to Lonnie Donegan at the same time as Elvis, Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry.
I think everybody started with Skiffle because it was accessible, acoustic guitars and washboards with tea chest basses. I remember thinking “I can do that.” The gradual change to rock n’ roll occurred as electric instruments became available in the U.K. The Quarrymen still play a mixture of both, to showcase the music that influenced the Beatles.
VIDEO: Billy Bragg reads Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World at the Library of Congress
The mania for traditional New Orleans jazz and ragtime – “Trad” – was something that existed alongside the early skiffle scene, and seems to have been fairly present in the Mersey music scene in the late 1950s. When you knew the Beatles, was there any trad influence lingering within them? Some of their earliest recordings were songs that were borderline trad, like “Summertime” and “Ain’t She Sweet.”
I think Paul used elements of show music all the time. George was also interested in a wide range of guitar players, including jazz player Barney Kessel and country virtuoso Chet Atkins.
My understanding is that in its earliest days, the Cavern favored trad bands. Was there any tension between the trad scene and the musicians who came from a trad background, and the young rockers?
I think the prejudice was from the owners rather than the performers. The Cavern opened in 1957 as a jazz club, and it wasn’t until 1961 that the first rock n’ roll bands started playing lunchtime sessions. I think it was Rory Storm who made the breakthrough. The wider appeal of jazz began to wane in the sixties and the ownership of the Cavern needed to bring in a wider audience.
I have always thought that Americans vastly underrate the influence of Spike Milligan and the Goons on the sensibility of the Beatles specifically, and Mersey rock in general. Do you have any thoughts on this?
The Goons were compulsory listening on BBC radio. I always thought that American interviewers had a “sense of humor failure” when talking to the Beatles, and I think the guys played that to their advantage.
Okay…it’s January of 1961, and you are back at college and no longer a Beatle. Want to give us a rough guide to what happened next in your life?
If I was to describe myself now could I suggest “Aging Liverpool Rocker.”
After December 1960, my career as a rock star was over. For the next 40 years I concentrated on family and professional career. I worked as a professional engineer until 1990, and then as a teacher of mathematics until I retired in 1998. Pete Best and his brothers, Rory and Roag, decided to reopen the Casbah club in 1999 to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the opening of the original. Bill Barlow, Ken Brown and myself were dragged out of obscurity to reform the Blackjacks, and we played a short set of our fifties repertoire on the Casbah stage. Having re-awoken our playing urge, Bill and I formed a band called Blue Suede Feet, playing mostly in the area around Bedford. At about the same time, I joined a local band here in Warwickshire called the Racketts. But the biggest influence on my musical output was joining our local Male Voice Choir. We have sung in some really notable places, including the Royal Albert Hall, Symphony Hall, Birmingham and many of the foremost Cathedrals in the UK. However the jam, the cream and everything else on the cake must be singing the six o’clock mass at the Duomo in Florence during a tour of Italy in 2004.
In August 2013, Bill and I were at the Casbah club, playing a couple of tunes with the Pete Best Band. On the bill that night were the Quarrymen. We got chatting about old times and the result was that I started playing bass with the Quarrymen in 2016 [the present-day Quarrymen still contain three members who played alongside McCartney, Lennon, and Harrison in the original 1950s versions of the Quarrymen]. Since then I have played in Czech Republic, Hungary, Spain and a year ago we were in Mexico City. 2020 has been quiet due to the Covid outbreak, but we did manage to do a gig in Germany at the beginning of October, celebrating what would have been John’s 80th birthday.
I am constantly amazed that people attend Beatles festivals to see four old age pensioners performing the music of our youth. We try to emphasize that we are not a Beatles tribute band, but simply perform the music that influenced them sixty years ago. So far we have avoided banging into the microphone stands with our Zimmer frames.
VIDEO: The Quarrymen at BeatleFest Mexico 2019