L4LM writer Bob Wilson sought out an exclusive interview with author Jim Berkenstadt with regards to his book about the story of drummer Jimmie Nicol, aptly titled The Beatle Who Vanished. Nicol replaced Ringo Starr during a bout of tonsillitis as the band was about to set out on their first world tour, held it down on the kit, and then just as quickly vanished. Here is the story that many Beatles fans don’t know.
Of all of the claims to the title of “The Fifth Beatle”, none seem to match the case made in defense of Jimmie Nicol as the true heir. Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe may have played in the band as they built up to their heyday, but no one else can lay claim to being on the same stage with them in concert after the advent of Beatlemania. Really, only four other fab people ever to walk the earth can say that they were recipients of the adulation that began in dank Liverpool, and shone a light throughout the rest of the world. Oddly, no one else seriously mentioned for the title probably want to be associated less with it than the man who actually experienced it.
Author Jim Berkenstadt is dubbed “The Rock and Roll Detective” for good reason. Jim has been hired by no less than George and Olivia Harrison for work on the CLOUD 9 liner notes (among other things), and Martin Scorsese for HBO’s documentary LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (2012). Jim has researched the Quiet Beatle, and the three noisier ones, as well (for Apple Corps’ HELP! project). Jim speaks of it very humbly, but he has a keen eye, and a bloodhound’s nose. “I didn’t want to publish the book unless I could fill in all of the blanks”, he told Live 4 Live Music, and he filled in far more on Nicol than any other of the voluminous number of authors writing about the lads before him. Jim called this work “a labor of love, that required six years of research”.
On the eve of the departure for their first world tour, Ringo Starr collapsed from tonsillitis. These were the days before “out clauses” could postpone such ordeals due to illness, or other unforeseen pitfalls. The show must go on, and money may not get everything you want, but it inspired the machinations to keep turning even without the lovable Ringo in tow.
Jimmie Nicol had been a session drummer used to produce “Top Six Records”. These were EP records that had a cover band doing songs likely to be hits, six for the price of one. Fans who did not realize the Real McCoy’s were not on the records would snatch them up, and continued to do so for several months until the public became wise to the charade. The Beatles related Top Six recordings actually cracked the “Top 30″ in sales, an impressive number for such an endeavor.
Jimmie Nicol could handle session work, live shows, ska, rock, and “Big Band Music”, still a hit in England after it died down in America. Although none of the Beatles could read music, Jimmie could. Jimmie could front a band as a centerpiece, and keep a steady backbeat, as well. The more Berkenstadt looked into Jimmie Nicol, “the more I realized, this guy was really talented.” The Beatles and their handlers caught on as well. Nicol knew their songs by heart from the Top Six work, and looked the part. A wardrobe lady came and gave him the famous Beatle haircut, and he was in. According to news accounts, his pay was 2,500 pounds per show, with a 2,500 pound signing bonus, a tidy sum in those days.
On June 3rd, 1964, Ringo Starr was rushed to the hospital, and scratched from the Beatles lineup for the start of the tour the next day. Ringo’s reaction was understandably a bit insecure, with Pete Best back lingering in the shadows of Beatles history already; “It was very strange, them going off without me. They’d taken Jimmy Nicol and I thought they didn’t love me any more – all that stuff went through my head”. On June 4th, 1964, Jimmy Nicol sat behind Ringo’s Ludwig drum kit in his very suit, and was playing as a Beatle in KB Hallen in Copenhagen, Denmark. 24 hours earlier, Jimmie Nicol did not even have a suitcase or a passport. He would fill in for 8 shows playing the mostly ten song set list, until the return of Ringo Starr on June 14, in Melbourne, Australia.
As Nicol’s brief tenure progressed, Paul McCartney who understood the intense pressure Jimmie was under would ask him how it was going, and Nicol would, “It’s Getting Better”. If this seems to ring a bell in a Beatles fan’s mind and you haven’t caught on already, it was the inspiration for the tune from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album a few years later in 1967. One wonders what Nicol thought upon hearing his phrase turned into song on arguably the greatest rock album of all time.
Jimmie is described by author Berkenstadt as “a very proud, independent person”. He had hoped that the Beatle boost would lead him to better and bigger things than before his Mop-Top tenure behind the drums. The aftermath of the experience, however, left him bankrupt, divorced, and thought by many he worked with to be long dead.
Jimmie Nicol went on to tour the world with a Swedish instrumental band called the Spotniks, but that limited success paled in comparison to his Beatles experience. That ended a few years later when he fell from his drum kit in Mexico, hampered by the effects of drug abuse, seemingly altered for the worse by his short taste of being a temporary Beatle. Stints with Peter & Gordon, filling in for the Dave Clark 5, and playing with Georgie Fame could not match the brief heights he had soared to in those thirteen incredible days.
When the Beatles tour had ended, Jimmie “returned to London, hailed as a 5th Beatle”, said Berkenstadt. Nicol had smashed the engraved gold watch the Beatles had given him, blaming Beatles manager Brian Epstein for a seeming “blacklist”. The author continued that Jimmie’s second wife Julia told him that the drummer felt “Epstein had always tried to ruin his solo career.” And that “this bitterness has apparently remained over the years”.
Live 4 Live Music can tell you that Jimmie never tried to seek an easy payday for his story on has time in the spotlight with the greatest band of the 20th Century. Jimmie even passed up a chance to be interviewed in the Beatles ANTHOLOGY project, which was their accounting of the Beatles’ story. We can advise you to seek out Jim Berkenstedt’s book for as fine a telling of Nicol’s tale as has been published to date. In order to learn the more intricate details of where Jimmie was yesterday and may be today, you will have to look up that book. Doing that is something no Beatle fan will regret.
For more of an in-depth look at the story behind the 5th Beatle, check out Jim Berkenstadt’s The Beatle Who Vanished (Rock and Roll Detective Publishing) and purchase it here.
“She Loves You” w/ Jimmie Nicol: