13 Days as a Beatle: The Sad History of Jimmie Nicol
In June 1964, Beatlemania was at fever pitch as the band prepared for its first tour to Denmark, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. But on June 3, the day before the Beatles were to leave, Ringo Starr collapsed at a photo shoot and was hospitalized with tonsillitis. With hotels and concert halls booked and thousands of tickets sold, manager Brian Epstein understood that cancelling the tour would have been a financial disaster.
A scramble began to find a replacement for Starr. Epstein had to convince the other three Beatles to accept a substitute drummer. And where would he find a musician competent enough to back the biggest group in the world — and fit into Starr’s stage clothes?
“They nearly didn’t do the Australia tour,” producer George Martin said in ‘Anthology.’ “George is a very loyal person, and he said, ‘If Ringo’s not part of the group, it’s not the Beatles. I don’t see why we should do it, and I’m not going to.’ It took all of Brian’s and my persuasion to tell George that if he didn’t do it he was letting everybody down.”
Enter Jimmie Nicol, a 24-year-old London drummer whose studio work had impressed Epstein. McCartney also knew Nicol; the Beatle had recently caught a performance by Nicol with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. He had also played on three late-’50s singles by Colin Hicks and the Cabin Boys.
After a six-song audition, Nicol was hired, given a Beatle haircut and told to pack for the flight to Denmark the next day. In the hospital, Starr recalled that he’d replaced Pete Best as the Beatles’ drummer two years earlier. “It was very strange, them going off without me,” Starr said in ‘Anthology.’ “They’d taken Jimmie Nicol and I thought they didn’t love me any more – all that stuff went through my head.”
Nicol became a full-fledged Beatle for 13 days, participating in press conferences and enjoying the adulation of fans. Nicol played eight concerts and taped a TV show as the Beatles’ drummer. “The day before I was a Beatle, not one girl would even look me over,” Nicol said later. “The day after, when I was suited up and riding in the back of a limo with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, they were dying just to get a touch of me.”
Starr was released from the hospital and rejoined the Beatles in Melbourne, where he performed on June 14. The next day, Nicol did his final television interview as a Beatle and went to the airport for the lonely trip home. Before he left, Epstein presented Nicol with a gold watch inscribed, “From the Beatles and Brian Epstein to Jimmie – with appreciation and gratitude.”
“Socially, he fit in well and musically he came along very quickly,” Berkenstadt said. “In the shows in the Netherlands and Denmark, he was a bit nervous and just tried to stick to four-in-the-bar. John Lennon would turn around oftentimes and show him his strumming on the two- and four-beats so that Jimmie could stay in sync because the screaming of the fans was so loud. That was something he had always done with Ringo as well.
“As they got to Hong Kong and then played Adelaide, Australia, Jimmie really had it figured out. He started to add his own flourishes,” Berkenstadt added. “When the song ended and John, Paul and George were bowing, Jimmie continued to play out a drum riff to milk the crowd for more applause. That never would have happened with Ringo. Ringo finished exactly when everyone else did and would bow at the same time. But now Jimmie was starting to feel his oats and use his own style.”
Berkenstadt said Nicol’s life, however, went into a downward spiral when his time as a Beatle ended.
“The first big downer for Jimmie was that his first two solo bands after the Beatles didn’t sell any records despite some radio and TV appearances,” Berkenstadt said. “The music was too much of a fusion of rock and jazz and I think people wanted to hear the British Invasion-style rock music of the day. He had spent all his money on these bands. He went bankrupt, his wife divorced him, he became estranged from his son and he was living in his mom’s basement.
“The media built him up and then tore him down with glee. The last article was about how he was penniless,” Berkenstadt adds. “Paul McCartney read that story and he secretly called Peter Asher of Peter and Gordon and said, ‘Hey, maybe you could give Jimmie a little work on your next tour because he’s a very good drummer and it looks like from this article he really could use some help.’”
Although Peter and Gordon gave him some concert work, Nicol was soon unemployed and broke. When the Spotnicks, a Swedish instrumental group, offered him a gig in 1965, Nicol quickly grabbed it.
“Jimmie didn’t tell a soul,” said Berkenstadt. “He walked out the door and vanished. The Spotnicks toured with him around the world and made him a full member of the band but then he got into heavy drugs. While the Spotnicks were playing an extended stay in Mexico, he vanished again.”
Nicol would surface in 1984 when he agreed to participate in a Beatles fan convention in Amsterdam. The promoter taped a backstage interview with Nicol, which he shared with Berkenstadt.
“Jimmie felt that he may have had a chance to take over for Ringo,” Berkenstadt said. “He felt that Brian Epstein and others somehow were working against him becoming a member of the Beatles. He would say being a Beatle was both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, it allowed a lot of people to know who he was. But on the other hand, he believed Brian Epstein blacklisted him after the Beatles.”
Nicol has not spoken to the media for the past ten years. Even his son, an audio engineer in London, is not sure whether his father is alive or dead.
Nicol would inadvertently play another role in Beatles’ history years after the tour. During an afternoon walk with his dog in 1967, McCartney recalled that whenever the band would ask Nicol how he was coping with the pressures of the tour, the drummer’s stock answer was “It’s getting better.” McCartney and Lennon turned the phrase into the tune ‘Getting Better’ for the 1967 LP ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’