The Story of the Beatles’ Early Days at the Cavern Club
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When it opened in 1957, Liverpool’s Cavern Club featured acts like jazz greats Acker Bilk and Ronnie Scott and blues legends Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Rock ‘n’ roll was forbidden, though skiffle bands like the Quarrymen, John Lennon and Paul McCartney‘s early group, sometimes appeared.
On May 25, 1960, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, with Ringo Starr on drums, played the club’s first beat-night session. That paved the way for the Beatles to perform the first of a series of afternoon sessions on Feb. 9, 1961. The band had honed its act in the rough and tumble clubs of Hamburg but had yet to taste success at home.
“We used to play lunchtime dates,” George Harrison recalled in Anthology. “We’d get up and go down to the Cavern and play from noon till about two. It was very casual. We’d have our tea and sandwiches and cigarettes onstage, sing a couple of tunes and tell a few jokes.”
Response from the young office workers in the audience was so positive that the band – Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, bass guitarist Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best on drums – was brought back for its first evening show on March 21, 1961.
The Beatles at the time wore leather jackets and jeans onstage. It infuriated Cavern owner Ray McFall, no fan of rock ‘n’ roll. “I didn’t like them wearing jeans, which were taboo in the Cavern,” McCall said in The Cavern Club: The Rise of the Beatles and Merseybeat. “Our doormen would stop anyone wearing jeans. I felt that if people were wearing good, clean clothes, they would be more likely to behave themselves as they wouldn’t want them getting dirty and damaged.”
Despite a legal capacity of 200 people, occasionally 500 fans would jam the damp, poorly ventilated basement club. “Sometimes the condensation on the ceiling from the people crowded in there would drip onto our equipment, causing the amps to fuse and the power to go off,” McCartney wrote in The Cavern Club‘s forward. “We then improvised, singing a cappella, anything we could think of that the audience would be able to join in with.”
The Cavern was, McCartney added, “the breeding ground for what would become the Beatles’ early repertoire.” Rock numbers included “C’mon Everybody” by Eddie Cochran, “Mean Woman Blues” (recorded by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison), Gary U.S. Bonds’ “New Orleans” and “Lucille,” on which McCartney developed his imitation of Little Richard‘s scream.
There were also ballads (Presley’s “Love Me Tender” and “Till There Was You” from The Music Man), R&B (Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say”) and country (Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin'”).
The Cavern was the center of many of the Beatles’ early historical moments. Brian Epstein walked over from his nearby record store and saw his first Beatles performance there on Nov. 9, 1961. He soon became the band’s manager and polished their scruffy image. Starr first appeared as the Beatles’ drummer at the Cavern on Aug. 19, 1962. He had replaced Best a few days earlier. Some Cavern fans chanted, “Pete forever, Ringo never!” Granada TV recorded the band live at the club on Aug. 22, 1962.
Aug. 3, 1963, marked the last of the Beatles’ 292 performances at the Cavern. “It was a claustrophobic hell,” McCartney recalled on BBC Radio in 1982. “But it was a great one.” The club closed in 1973 and was demolished to make way for construction of a railway ventilation shaft. In 1984, a new Cavern Club was built nearby, using bricks from the original venue.
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