Jim Berkenstadt, who calls himself the Rock 'n' Roll Detective, really lives up to that label with his new book, “The Beatle Who Vanished.” The book documents a lengthy search for Jimmie Nicol, who temporarily replaced an ill Ringo Starr for a week during the Beatles' 1964 tour then basically disappeared from public view. The book contains incredible and never before revealed details on Nicol's career.
How long did it take to put the book together?
“I started my search in 2005, looking for musicians who had played with Jimmie Nicol at the start of his career in Soho coffee clubs,” he says. “I wanted to know his career background to get a better understanding of why and how he was chosen to play with The Beatles. I got lucky early on finding out the general chronology of his career by locating bands he had played in and then finding members of those bands to talk to me about their lives with Jimmie. I found that almost universally his friends loved him very much and found him to be generous and highly talented. They all seemed to be rooting for him to succeed.”
He says it wasn't easy because it appears Nicol didn't want to be found.
“The search for information about Nicol took years. Nicol left behind some false leads. For example, there would be a story in Billboard around 1967, stating he had moved to Australia, which proved to be false. Or a member of The Spotnicks told me they thought he had moved to Brazil after leaving them. That was another false lead planted by Nicol.
“Whenever he wanted to change his life or career direction, he would seemingly walk out his door in one country and move to another without even saying goodbye. The best way to describe my years of research is like a treasure hunt to find 1000s of pieces to a giant puzzle. Then after finding all the pieces, one has to use interviews, photos, articles, video, recordings and memorabilia(like posters), to fit the pieces together to create the portrait of Jimmie Nicol that readers will examine in the book. I think I did most of the writing in 2010 and 2011. I am most proud to have added a totally new chapter to The Beatles’ history.”
The research took him to several parts of the world. “After I had assembled a good amount of first-hand knowledge of Nicol’s life and career, I wanted to visit some of the places where he had done his work so as to better describe them first-hand to the readers. I went to London in 2011 and located his birth place, and visited the old clubs and studios where he played. I also went to his last known home in London. Then I took a trip to Australia with my family and they kindly allowed me to retrace Nicol’s footsteps with The Beatles in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne.
“In Melbourne, I spent a day pouring through the archives of the Ken Brodziak Beatles’ Australian Tour Collection. The interesting results of that research is that Epstein and NEMS insisted in their communications that Nicol be treated as 'a Beatle' with respect to all amenities, transportation, visits with Royalty, etc. I also met a woman who was a teenager in those huge crowds to greet The Beatles at their Melbourne hotel. I tell her story of getting in trouble at school after playing hooky to see The Beatles. What I did not find, was Jimmie Nicol!”
The letdown that Nicol must have felt after Ringo returned parallels what happened to Pete Best. Was Nicol able to handle the aftermath of being in the Beatles well?
“There is a photo in the book of Nicol sitting alone at the airport waiting to be sent home to London after Ringo returned,” he says. “I was able to find an unreleased Nicol interview from 1984 of him talking about how shell-shocked he felt when it was suddenly over. I plan to post some of that interview at my site www.thebeatlewhovanished.com for people to hear the emotion of his feelings that day.
“At first, Nicol handled the aftermath quite well upon his return. His label PYE had put out a new single and he was re-uniting his band Jimmie Nicol & the Shubdubs to play some high-profile shows and appear on TV. He had some successes over the years after The Beatles and he had some low points as well. I think he felt he could compete on the same level as The Beatles after he returned. It goes to the secondary theme of the book -- how do you live your life after you have touched the sun and had your 15 minutes of fame? It is certainly a cautionary tale.
“Grammy Producer Butch Vig (Paul McCartney, Nirvana, and Smashing Pumpkins) summed it up after he read the book: 'This is a fascinating and mysterious must read for hardcore Beatles fans, and anyone who wants to understand the meteoric rise to pop stardom and the subsequent crash landing.'
With all the study he's done on Nicol, how does he rate him as a drummer?
“I did not know what to expect of Jimmie Nicol’s drumming at first. It took about a year to locate some early 1950s live video performances (which I have posted up on my website) and listening to 45s and LPs that I collected from all of the bands he recorded with, before and after his stint with The Beatles. Once I heard the music he had played on, I was impressed with his ability to play not only great rock and roll, but ska, big band, jazz, R&B and really anything. As the readers will discover, not only was Jimmie a great rock drummer who could step in at the last minute for Ringo, but through a stroke of fate, he already knew the drum parts to The Beatles’ current concert set list when they chose him!”
How does he compare to Ringo?
“It is interesting to view film clips of both Ringo and Jimmie playing drums with The Beatles, to compare and contrast. The Beatles were musically a very tight unit. They breathed, moved and played together as one. Imagine how difficult it must have been for them to launch a world tour with a brand new person to drive their rhythm? Nicol came through for them based upon his experience.
From a technique standpoint, both Nicol and Starr employed the matched grip style of holding the sticks. This was still a new approach to drum technique in 1964. The matched grip approach positions the weight of the arms over the stick, allowing the weight to assist in producing a bigger sound.
“Briefly, Ringo’s style is defined by his staying low to the drums and cymbals for the most part, using his strong/powerful wrists to get a beat that is clear, communicative and which helps define and serve key sections of the song. In contrast, Nicol’s style is more staccato than Starr’s. Nicol employs more of a whipping arm motion from a higher plane down into the drums which produces a brighter tone. (Nicol also set his stool higher than Starr for this purpose). His performances with The Beatles also highlight more of his R&B and big band influences in the way he breaks away from the beat and plays strong fills to set up changes in the tune. Both styles work well to hold The Beatles together.”
Berkenstadt, in promoting his book, has a little help from a friend who also was briefly a Beatle. Chas Newby, who made four appearance with the Beatles beginning in 1960, has written the book's introduction and will appear with Berkenstadt at the NY Metro Fest for Beatles Fans April 5-7.
"I had known Chas for a few years. He is such nice guy and has some great stories. I was fascinated by the fact that I was researching and writing about Jimmie Nicol, who had temporarily played with The Beatles and realized that Chas and Jimmie were linked by their brief tenure of playing live with the group," he says.
"So I thought it would be interesting for one temporary Beatle to write the foreword for another temporary Beatle. I sent Chas an advance copy of the book and asked him if he would be interested in the writing the foreword based on this common link he shared with Nicol. I was honored when Chas accepted my invitation."
Note: The author will appear from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Genna's Lounge, 105 W. Main Street, Madison, WI. to talk about his six-year search for Jimmie Nicol and sign copies of his book. Every purchase will receive a free "Jimmie Nicol/Beatles in Hong Kong" CD while supplies last.
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