Saturday 31 December 2016

The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away: Allan Williams

Only a month or so ago I started re-reading Allan’s hilarious and ‘partly true’* 1975 book The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away for a post I’m currently working on about the New Cabaret Artistes Club – a business venture Allan and his associate / friend Lord Woodbine ran in Toxteth during 1960. 

Whenever I read it I smile, Allan is one of Liverpool's great characters, a local treasure, and if you've ever had the pleasure of his company you can't help but think of him with affection.

Sadly, days after losing one important figure in the early part of the Beatles’ career - Sam Leach - the news has come through today that Allan has passed away at the age of 86.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Allan was responsible for securing the Beatle’s first bookings in 1960 at a time when nobody else would look at them.

Allan was born on 17 March 1930 in Bootle. On leaving school he became a City and Guilds qualified plumber. In 1955, Allan of Liverpool-Welsh stock, married Beryl Chang, a domestic science schoolteacher born in Liverpool to Chinese parents. Enduring hostility because of their mixed-race marriage they spent much of the next few years trekking around Europe. In the late 1950s they returned to Liverpool with some entrepreneurial ideas, Allan opening the Jacaranda Club at 23 Slater Street and later the Blue Angel around the corner in Seel Street.

A former watch repair shop the ‘Jac’ opened in September 1958. By day it was a coffee and snack bar, attracting bohemian types from the nearby art college who would descend upon Slater Street to buy their supplies from Jackson’s, the art shop facing No.23.  At night Allan and Beryl turned the basement into a private members club with the novel attraction of musical entertainment provided by the Royal Caribbean Steel Band, a group of West Indian musicians from Toxteth to whom Williams gave a residency..

The freshly named Beatles were frequent customers, with John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe attending the nearby Liverpool Art College and Paul McCartney and George Harrison at the adjacent Liverpool Institute (when George could be bothered going). With nowhere else offering the group work they asked Allan for the chance to play the Jac. Never one to miss a trick, Williams instead put them to work redecorating the club, with Sutcliffe and another art student Rod Murray painting a mural in the basement and John reportedly painting the women’s toilets.

Allan then bought the Wyvern Social Club at 108 Seel Street, intending to convert it into a top class night-club which he planned to call The Blue Angel after the Marlene Dietrich film.

In March 1960 the pop impresario Larry Parnes brought American rockers Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran to town, performing six nights at the Liverpool Empire. Williams was in the audience one night and realising there was money to be made by what he’d witnessed he contacted Parnes the following day with the suggestion that they stage the biggest rock and roll show the country had ever seen. Their joint promotion at the Liverpool Stadium was a success despite the tragic death of Eddie Cochran in the run-up to the show. Parnes was impressed by the local groups Allan booked to fill up the bill, and realising that they would cost less to employ than London groups saw the opportunity to use them as backing musicians for his stable of solo artists (which included Marty Wilde, Duffy Power, Vince Eager and Liverpool’s own Billy Fury). It was agreed that Parnes would return to Liverpool with Fury and audition the local groups at the Wyvern on 10 May.

Larry Parnes, Beryl and Allan Williams and Billy Fury, 10 May 1960

Aware that a number of groups had been asked to audition for Parnes John Lennon asked Allan why he never did anything to help out his band. Mainly as a favour to Stuart, to whom he was closest, Allan agreed to let the Beatles audition.

In May, Larry Parnes came to town, auditioning. He was the big London agent. His acts nearly always had a violent surname. There was Ronnie Wycherley who became Billy Fury; and a less furious guy you have yet to meet. A sweet Liverpool guy - the first local man who made it, in our eyes. Marty Wilde was also in Larry's stable; he had another tempestuous surname. But Larry Parnes had some new singers and was looking for backing groups, and someone had told him there were a few groups around in Liverpool. So he came up to the Blue Angel. Billy Fury came with him.  (Paul McCartney, Anthology)

They were going to use the Blue Angel, which in those days was called the Wyvern Social Club, to audition back-up bands for Larry Parnes's acts. Beforehand we went out and bought some string shoes with little white bits on top. We were very poor and never had any matching clothes, but we tried to put together a uniform - black shirts and these shoes. (George Harrison, Anthology)

Allan Williams ran the Blue Angel and the Jacaranda. He was the little local manager (little in height, that is - a little Welshman with a little high voice - a smashing bloke and a great motivator, thought we used to take the mickey out of him). He held the auditions in conjunction with Larry Parnes. All the groups in Liverpool were there and we were one of the bands. (Paul McCartney, Anthology)

Also auditioning were Cass and the Cassanovas, Derry and the Seniors, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and Cliff Roberts and the Rockers. Rory Storm popped by to get his photo taken with Billy Fury.

The Beatles didn’t get to back Fury but Parnes saw something in them (they were cheap, and available) and offered them the job of backing another of his solo artists – Liverpool born Johnny Gentle – on a tour of Scotland. They jumped at the chance.

When there was nothing else on Williams would let the Beatles perform at the Jacaranda (the Blue Angel was too upmarket for them). However, it was his part in getting the group a job in Hamburg that secured his place in Beatles’ history.

No Allan Williams, no Hamburg. No Hamburg, no Beatles.

Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn in tribute to Allan Williams,
Friday 30 December 2016

The story behind our going there was that another Liverpool group, Derry and the Seniors, had given up their jobs to do a gig for Larry Parnes. And when they didn't get it, they were all really annoyed so they decided to go to London to beat Larry up. Allan Williams said to them: 'If you are going to London you should take your instruments.' He drove them down and got them into the 2I's (the club where Tommy Steele had been discovered). They didn't beat up Larry Parnes, but they did go down well at the club.

Bruno Koschmider, a German promoter, saw them there and hired them for his own club, the Kaiserkeller in Hamburg, and they were there for a couple of months. He must have really liked them, because he then got in touch with Allan Williams and said, 'We want another Liverpool band to play at the Indra.'

Allan Williams offered the gig to us, 'But,' he said, 'the fellow wants a five-piece.' We needed another person, since there were only the three of us and Stuart. We were excited, but we thought, 'Paul isn't really the drummer. Where do we get one from?' Then I remembered a guy I'd met who'd been given a drum kit for Christmas. His name was Pete Best; the Casbah club was in his basement.  (George Harrison, Anthology)

Like most of my generation of Beatles’ fans my first exposure to Allan Williams was watching his excellent interview in the 1980 documentary “The Compleat Beatles” in which he tells the story of preparing the group for their Hamburg venture. He recounts having to reassure Howie Casey, leader of The Seniors who were already established in Hamburg, who had cautioned Allan: Listen, we've got a good thing going here in Hamburg, but if you send that bum group, the Beatles, you're going to louse it up for all of us.

He also recalls auditioning drummer Pete Best, asking him to do a drum roll, which he did Not too cleverly"...but good enough.

We knew of a guy and he had a drum kit, so we just grabbed him, auditioned him, and he could keep one beat going for long enough, so we took him. (John Lennon, Anthology)

Pete auditioned at one of Allan’s clubs on the evening of Saturday 13 August. As the Beatles needed him more than he needed them, he could hardly fail.

On Monday 15 August the five Beatles, Beryl Williams, her brother Barry Chang, and Lord Woodbine climbed aboard Allan’s Morris J2 Minibus, and with Allan at the wheel they set off on the 625 mile journey through three countries to Hamburg.

Arnhem, Holland. The Beatles on their way to Hamburg. L-R: Allan Williams, Beryl Williams, Lord Woodbine (seated), Stuart Sutcliffe, Paul, George and Pete Best.

The long hours playing on stage in Hamburg transformed the 'bum group' so much that by the time they returned to Liverpool in December 1960 they were noticeably better than any of the local bands, something Allan had already spotted when he visited the Beatles during their German residency. Stuart Sutcliffe would write a letter home noting We have improved a thousand fold since our arrival and Allan Williams, who is here at the moment, tells us that there is no band in Liverpool to touch us.

It was confirmed as soon as they took to the stage back in Liverpool: This was when we began to think that we were good. Up to Hamburg we'd thought we were OK, but not good enough. It was only back in Liverpool that we realised the difference and saw what had happened to us while everyone else was playing Cliff Richard shit.

Suddenly we were a wow. Mind you, 70% of the audience thought we were a German wow, but we didn't care about that. Even in Liverpool, people didn't know we were from Liverpool. They thought we were from Hamburg. They said, 'Christ, they speak good English!' which we did, of course, being English. (John Lennon, Anthology)

Allan continued to get the Beatles bookings, until he fell out with them over the payment of his ten per cent commission in 1961 during their second visit to Hamburg.

Williams had no further business dealings with the group and was especially disappointed that Stuart Sutcliffe, of whom he was especially fond, was the one who told him the band would not pay. In 1962, when Brian Epstein was thinking of managing the group he contacted Williams to make sure there were no remaining contractual ties. There were none, but Williams forthrightly warned Epstein: Don't touch them with a fucking barge-pole, they will let you down.'

Despite this he remained on friendly terms with the Beatles right through the 1960s and 70s and whenever any of them spoke about him in later years it was always affectionately. I think they knew they owed him more than they'd admit.

Allan played a crucial role in establishing Beatles tourism in Liverpool – an industry now estimated to be worth £80 million a year – by organising the first conventions devoted to the band in the 1970s -  a time when nobody else was interested, especially the local council whose attitude seemed to be "What did the Beatles ever do for Liverpool?" He was a regular VIP guest at the conventions, his on stage appearances at the Adelphi with Cavern DJ Bob Wooler were an annual highlight. If only I’d had a video camera in those days!

I obtained the above autograph when I was 15 (circa 1986)

On 9 May 2016 Allan was awarded the Citizen of Honour award at Liverpool Town Hall in recognition of his contribution to the music industry in the city. The award was introduced in 2008 to formally recognise individuals who have made a significant, exceptional or unique contribution to enriching the life of the city.

Speaking to the Liverpool Echo Allan said:  He said: I am over the moon, very proud and honoured. I am no spring chicken now and have been looking forward to the event. I am pleased to have been born and bred in Liverpool, to me it’s the most wonderful city in the UK and I hope that I have done it proud.

"Allan Williams in the Marlboro’ Arms
Giving his story out to everyone”**

It seems that every Liverpool based Beatles’ fan has their own Allan story. I met him several times over the years before the advent of camera phones, the most memorable being a drunken night in La Bodega, a Spanish bar in Temple Street (a door or two down from the old Iron Door).

In the early 1990s my friend Steve Phillips had organised what he called the ‘Fab Forum’ which was basically an excuse for local fans to meet and have a pint.

At Steve's invitation Allan turned up for a drink accompanied by the legendary Lord Woodbine. They'd been over at Granada TV studios earlier in the day, enjoying the refreshments laid on in the green room, though I suspect that's not the only place they'd got pissed. To this day I vividly recall Allan telling us that the TV people had been asking him for his opinion on leather, something which had left him bemused. 'Leather? What do I know about F-uuuu-cking Leather?' he exclaimed to our delight, nobody missing the irony that he was absolutely leathered.

Woodbine laughed uproariously. Great characters both, and a night I’ll always remember fondly.

My Dad had his own Allan Williams tale. In the early 1960s and probably slightly underage he tried to gain entry to the Blue Angel club with a group of mates. They just had to get past the little fella on the door who, unusually for Liverpool, was wearing a top hat. Pushing their oldest looking mate forwards he approached the door and tried to bluff his way in.  The conversation went something like this:

Doorman: Who are you?

Dad's mate: It's alright squire, we're friends of Allan Williams and he said we could  come in.

Doorman: Well, I'm Allan Williams, and I don't know who you are, so F- off!

Allan at the Liverpool premiere of Eight Days A Week (Photo: Ian Cooper)

On 15 September I attended the Liverpool premiere of the Beatles film “Eight Days A Week” at FACT, with Chris Turton, another old member of the Fab Forum as my guest. We bumped into Allan in the lobby with Beryl and I was pleased to see how well he looked. 25 years on from La Bodega Chris and I simultaneously muttered “Leather? What do I know.....”

Before we watched the main feature the FACT audience were treated to a short film, only shown in Liverpool (but now available on the Blu-ray release of Eight Days A Week) about the Beatles origins in the clubs around the city and recent interviews with Allan and Beryl filmed in the Cavern featured heavily. Allan’s clips were subtitled which I thought was unnecessary as we could all understand him perfectly.

Weirdly the last time I’d seen Allan prior to the premiere was at the top of Seel Street. He was on his own, walking past his old club The Blue Angel. Of all the places...

Just heard Allan Williams whom I had a great relationship with starting back in 1960 on our maiden voyage to Hamburg, where we cut our teeth and learnt our craft has passed away. My deepest condolences to the Williams family. God bless you Allan and thank you. Pete.

Pete Best, in tribute to Allan Williams,
Friday 30 December 2016

Thanks for your part in the story Allan, without you it would have been very different.

Cheers  🍷

Allan Williams
1930 - 2016

Notes and Credits:

* Paul McCartney's 'endorsement' of the book The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away.

**lyrics from 'Does this Train Stop on Merseyside' by Ian Prowse/ Amsterdam: used by permission. Thanks Ian.

The Larry Parnes era photos were taken by Cheniston Roland.

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