Remembering Gerry Marsden

The infectious and enthusiastic leader of ‘60s hitmakers Gerry and the Pacemakers, takes his final bow

RIP Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers (Art: Ron Hart)

If further proof is needed of the cruelty that the Grim Reaper inevitably leaves in his wake, one need only reflect on the loss of a much beloved ‘60s pop hero and hitmaker Gerry Marsden, who succumbed after a short illness related to a heart infection this past Sunday, July 3rd. He was 78.

Best remembered as the ever-cheery and decidedly pop perfect frontman of Gerry and the Pacemakers, one of the first groups to challenge the Beatles’ dominance in the early ‘60s Mersey popularity polls, Marsden proved that it was perfectly okay to share heartfelt emotion, even when it meant basking unabashedly in sentiment and nostalgia.  In an era where pop stars are often viewed as taciturn or tenacious, Marsden remained a notable exception to the very end, an artist who was exceptionally engaging, decidedly clean-cut, innocent, yet never innocuous.

After all, who else could have taken a vintage song from a 1945 musical and turned it into an anthem for all times? Yet, that’s what Marsden and his mates did so successfully with their signature song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” enabling it to endure through to the present and the pandemic via a lyric that still resonates so remarkably. 

 

“When you walk through a storm, 

Hold your head up high, 

And don’t be afraid of the dark

At the end of a storm

There’s a golden sky

And the sweet silver song of a lark

Walk on through the wind

Walk on through the rain

Though your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on, walk on

With hope in your heart

And you’ll never walk alone

You’ll never walk alone”


All it takes is a mere glimpse at those lyrics to bring a lump to one’s throat and with it, a certain clarity of conviction. 

 

VIDEO: Gerry and the Pacemakers “You’ll Never Walk Alone” 

Of course, that’s not the only song for which Marsden and the Pacemakers are rightfully remembered. They recorded the unceasingly chirpy hit “How Do You Do It” after the Beatles passed on it early on, as well as another song in the same mode appropriately titled “I Like It.” That was followed by the sweetly elegiac and encouraging “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” and Marsden’s own ode to his uniquely English environs, the gorgeous “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” while repeatedly scaling the pop charts from their first entry on. In all, the group managed to secure no less than nine top ten hits prior to the original band’s break-up in 1967. They played the iconic Cavern Club, a birthplace of the Beatles, some 200 times. 

Sadly, Marsden’s death comes just over a year to the day after that of Pacemakers bassist Les Chadwick, who died on Boxing Day in 2019.

Not surprisingly, Gerry and the Pacemakers became one of the more successful acts in Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s initial roster. It’s fitting then that Paul McCartney, on learning of his friend’s death, shared his own sentiments.

“Gerry was a mate from our early days in Liverpool,” McCartney reminisced. “He and his group were our biggest rivals on the local scene. His unforgettable performances of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey ‘remain in many people’s hearts as reminders of a joyful time in British music. My sympathies go to his wife Pauline and family. See ya, Gerry. I’ll always remember you with a smile.”

He’s not the only one. I had opportunity to meet Marsden in the ‘80s when Gerry brought a revamped version of the Pacemakers to perform in a Miami Beach hotel. Although slightly paunchy as compared with the boyish visage I first encountered a couple of decades before, he was still enthusiastically engaged and the superb showman I had admired and remembered. 

 

VIDEO: Gerry and the Pacemakers perform “Ferry Across The Mersey” on Top of the Pops 1965

Back home in Liverpool, that image remained enduring. While “Ferry Cross the Mersey” was turned into a movie — the Pacemakers’ take on “A Hard Day’s Night” as it were — and became the best song that any tourist board or chamber of commerce could ever hope for, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” also resonates, especially in times of trouble and turmoil. It was adopted as the theme song for Liverpool’s soccer club and was still sung prior to ever home game prior to the pandemic. Its lyrics summoned strength, determination and perseverance, even in the face of the most overwhelming obstacle or dire disaster. Little wonder then that Marsden’s relationship with wife Pauline, who he married in 1965, endured to the end, or that the song itself was summarily summoned when hope was needed most of all. 

Ironically, Marsden discovered the song accidentally. He recalled watching a Laurel and Hardy movie at Liverpool’s Odeon cinema in the early 1960s and opting to stay for the second half of the double feature because he wanted to avoid walking outside in the inclement weather outside. The film was Carousel and its standout song made an instant impression. 

“I thought what a beautiful song. I’m going to tell my band we’re going to play that song,” Marsden recalled during an interview with The Associated Press two years ago. “So I went back and told my buddies we’re doing a ballad called ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’”

 

VIDEO: “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel

The song brought Marsden back to the top of the charts during the 1980’s after he re-recorded it in the wake of the 1985 Bradford Football Club disaster, which killed 56 people. Then, in April, 1989, three days after another horrible accident in Hillsborough in which 96 Liverpool football fans lost their lives, he joined forces with his old mate McCartney, Holly Johnson and the Christians to revisit “Ferry Cross the Mersey” and divert all the proceeds to charity.

 

VIDEO: The Christians, Holly Johnson, Gerry Marsden and Paul McCartney “Ferry Across The Mersey” (1989)

Marsden, who was awarded the prestigious MBE (Member of the British Empire) for his charitable efforts in 2003, underwent a triple bypass that same year, followed by a second operation in 2016. Although he formerly retired two years ago, he returned for a surprise appearance in 2019 at the Anfield Soccer Stadium. Just last year, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he released a newer version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” recorded live in Australia.

It’s notable that Marsden, having rerecorded both “Ferry Cross the Mersey” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,”  became one of the only artists to return to the top of the charts via two different versions of the same song. It’s a fitting epitaph to a singer who inspired everyone to find the best within themselves and others they might inspire. 

Here’s to that final ferry ride. 

 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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