Drumming for The Searchers
- 1998 interview
The Searchers in their heydays.
L-R: Mike Pender (lead gtr.), Chris Curtis (drm), John McNally (rhtm gtr.), Tony Jackson (bass gtr.).
by Spencer Leigh
In his first interview since the 1960s, Chris Curtis talks frankly and exclusively to Spencer Leigh about his years with the Searchers
- as published in "Record Collector", March 1998
Around 1980 I set about interviewing Merseybeat musicians for a BBC Radio Merseyside series, "Let's Go Down The Cavern", which eventually became a book. Very few musicians turned me down and the only abrupt response came from Chris Curtis, the former drummer with the Searchers. "I don't want to talk about those days," he said when I rang him, "I don't even want to be reminded of them."
As the weeks went by, I heard stories about his moods and how disturbed he was. I was told that if he had decided to help me, he would have rung every morning at three o'clock.. Liking a good night's sleep, I thought I'd had a lucky escape.
In 1985 Michael Ochs came to Liverpool to promote his book of photographs, "Rock Archives". He appeared on Billy Butler's radio programme and went to the Holiday Inn across the road for a coffee. Chris Curtis came in with a bagful of memorabilia and handed it to him, saying, "You should have this." Billy and I were horrified - this American had breezed into the city for a morning and walked out with a bag of Searchers' goodies. Later I learnt that Chris only received songwriting royalities from his old recordings and his generosity was simply making a rich man richer.
I heard also that Chris had boarded an early morning bus and handed out his record collection to the surprised passengers. One of his neighbours told me what a nice but eccentric man he was.
From time to time, I renewed my request for an interview, the last time being in 1992 when I was doing the sleeve notes for the Searchers' "EP Collection, Volume 2" and I wanted to know who had done the original of "Unhappy Girls". He couldn't help me and again he didn't want to be interviewed.
By December 1997, I still hadn't interviewed Chris Curtis but then, nor had anyone else. One evening I was interviewing John McNally, lead guitarist of the Searchers, on air and when I got home, my wife was talking to Chris on the 'phone and we found he had already left four messages. He had been ringing up while the programme was on air - "I agree with what John's saying," he kept saying, "I can work with him again."
So, after 17 years of trying, Chris Curtis said yes to a radio interview. I said that I also would like to conduct a full interview for "Record Collector" as it was about time his side of the story was told - by all accounts, he was the most important member of the Searchers. I didn't expect him to turn up but we recorded a two hour conversation.
I liked Chris Curtis a lot. He has had years of mental problems and he speaks quickly with his mind wandering all over the place and lapsing into funny voices. In his own words, he is "not Tommy Tantrum anymore", adding, "I think very fast, even today, and people who know me well say, 'Oh, it's him.' People who don't know me well may think I'm off my cake."
Chris Curtis has come through it all - he is confident in his ability and he is performing again as part of a duo, Jimmy, in the Old Roan pub in the Liverpool suburbs. He'll even sing "Needles And Pins" if you ask him.
SL: Did you learn many instruments as you were growing up?
CC: I was a blitz baby, born in Oldham in 1941. I came to Liverpool when I was four and went to primary school. I taught myself how to play the piano in our parlour in 30 Florida Street in Bootle. There's a Marks and Spencer's there now. I knew C was the middle note and I worked out the chords around that. The first B-side for the Searchers, "It's All Been A Dream", was written on that piano. I passed the 11- plus and went to St. Mary's College in Crosby, where they gave me a violin although I wanted to play the double-bass. I played "London's Burnin'" for five years and each year my marks went down. The teachers said, "This boy is not trying", but that's the way I was: if I didn't get what I wanted, I had a tantrum.
SL: When did you start playing drums?
CC: I wanted to join a group as things were going to happen. I thought I didn't need any training to play the drums, you just have to bash hard, so I told my mum and dad that I wanted some drums and my dad signed for them at Frank Hessy's. They were very snazzy, all blue and shiny. One Saturday afternoon when I went to make my payment, I met Mike Pender, who'd been in primary school with me. Drummers were hard to find and he asked me to join them for a booking in Garston that night. My brother had a little Anglia and he took me with my drums scrunged in on the backseat and a big tom-tom on my knees. It was a bit like busking for me, but it wasn't difficult. They were doing songs I knew such as "Oh Lonesome Me".
SL: Would this be at the infamous Wilson Hall?
CC: Yes, the Wilson Hall. That and Hambleton Hall in Huyton were renowned for fights, and there was always a fracas when you played Litherland. They needed Brian out of the Adelphi to say, "Just drink, will ya?" I used to hold up my cymbals in case there was any flying glass. I realised then that chaps would fight over anything in a skirt.
SL: This was around 1960 and I've been told that you had very long hair - and at the time they'd only be you and Screamin' Lord Sutch.
CC: I was a couple of years before him - I know that because we discussed it in at the Star-Club. I've had mine long since I was 14. I had to have it very neat when I was at school, but it was wilder when I worked at Swift's Furniture Store in Stanley Road.
SL: Was Johnny Sandon the lead singer when you joined the Searchers?
CC: No, he joined not long after me. He had a marvellous voice, and later on I recorded him independently for Pye Records - (sings) "Your lips on mine are soft as dew", you know the Brook Benton song "So Many Ways", and he did it brilliantly. God knows what happened to the tapes.
SL: Johnny Sandon left you to go to play army bases in France which was a dreadful career move.
CC: It was a goof and I felt so sorry for him. He was a solo singer - Johnny Sandon and the Searchers - and we decided to continue on our own. I wasn't sure if I could drum and sing at the same time but I knew it was just coordination. We needed some new material and I got hold of soul records by the Coasters and the Clovers and we'd Blanco them up. White boys' voices singing black man's soul and it worked. "Sweets For My Sweet" of course and "Goodbye My Love" is an even better example.
SL: Where did you get the records from? Was it the Cunard Yanks?
CC: No, that's a load of bollocks. How would the sailors know to buy records by the Clovers? Some of them brought country records in, but that was about it. There was a second hand shop on Stanley Road by the Rotunda and I would go from Stanley Road by bus to Young's in my lunchhour, and he would watch me going through boxes of 45s and I would buy things like Bobby Comstock's "Let's Stomp". I was always looking for things - I found "Love Potion No.9" in a second-hand shop in Hamburg when we were at the Star-Club.
SL: If Young's was a second-hand shop, someone was getting rid of them.
CC: I think he had a supplier in America 'cause they were always in good nick, no cracks in them. One afternoon I went to the Gaumont Cinema in Bootle to see "Town Without Pity" and I came out and found another record shop. It was there that I came across "What'd I Say" by Ray Charles and I wasn't sure about buying it because both sides were the same - "What'd I Say (Parts 1 and 2)". Of course when I got it home, I found they were quite different and I played that brilliant riff over and over and over. I decided to sing it myself and we used to finish every show with it.
SL: Do you think you were playing it before the Beatles and other bands?
CC: I would know so, but there were so many groups living in each other's pockets songwise. Roy Orbison came out with "Dream Baby" and by the end of the week, everyone was doing it. Paul McCartney did it best. He was really right for the song.
SL: What about Pete Best?
CC: He was a genius. You could put that man on a drumkit and ask him to play for 19 hours and he'd put his head down and do it. He'd drum like a dream with real style and stamina all night long and that really was the Beatles' sound - forget the guitars and forget the faces - you couldn't avoid that insistent whack, whack, whack! The rhythm guitar went along with it and the bass chucked in the two and four beats and George was wonderful on the guitar. His little legs would kick out to the side when he did his own tunes. He'd go all posh and say, "I'd like to do a tune now from Carl Perkins, 'Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby', and it's in A." Who wanted to know what key it was in? But he always said that.
SL: Were you surprised that the Beatles sacked Pete Best?
CC: I was amazed. When Pete left, I even thought of turning into a guitarist and getting him to drum in our band. The Beatles didn't hate Pete Best but they didn't want a star on the drums. Ringo was a good drummer but he was more ordinary. At that Decca audition, I think they also realised that Pete had so much power that no-one would know how to record him. That's why so many Merseyside discs are icky, all thin and weedy - except for the Searchers'. Our engineer knew what he was doing, but not always. "Love Potion No.9" was our biggest seller in America and the drums are so thin on that record. It was right for their radio stations, they like that kind of sound.
SL: What was playing the Cavern like?
CC: I hated it. When I was on stage, I used to comment on the state of the lavatories and say that the place stank of Jeyes fluid and sweat. Ray McFall told me that if I made any more remarks like that, I wouldn't play there again. I'd play the lunchtime session and I'd have to put my clothes on the line in 30 Florida Street. It was terrible, it stank and the only reason it was popular was because Ray McFall was clever enough to say the Beatles will be here tonight, or Gerry.
SL: But wasn't the sound great there, wasn't it like an echo chamber with it bouncing off the walls?
CC: Not at all. Once the people got in, the sound was dry as a bone. It just used to be thump, thump, thump, that's why Pete Best was so good there.
SL: A lot of the groups were doing the same songs.
CC: We all loved that record by Richie Barrett, "Some Other Guy", and the B-side, "Tricky Dicky", was just as great. Every Liverpool beat group used to latch onto that kind of strong chord thing. If we'd had the amplification that the Who had later on, they would have been a whole different Mersey sound, it would have been even more guitar-orientated. The La's used one of my guitars, a 12-string Gretsch, and when they recorded, they said they weren't going to tune up: they wanted the authentic 60s sound "because the Seachers never tuned up"! More fool you, laddies, you could have had a bigger hit with "There She Goes" if you'd done it right.
SL: How did you get signed to Pye Records?
CC: The Beatles had just hit and Les Ackerley, the manager of the Iron Door club, told us to put some songs on tape. He let us have the club for an afternoon and we got a weeny tape recorder and recorded the whole act. He took it to Decca who didn't want it, but then he took it to Pye. Tony Hatch jumped at it as he wanted to be George Martin to the Searchers or at least, he wanted to be on the bandwagon. "Sweets For My Sweet" was on the tape and he asked us to record that for our first session. Les Ackerley hoped to be our manager but we signed with Tito Burns as we were told he could do a lot more for us in London. I felt very sorry for Les and for us as Tito Burns turned out to be a horrible man. He really worked his artists too - they were always on tour or making records. Whenever you saw the Zombies, they were like zombies.
SL: Didn't he manage Dusty Springfield too?
CC: Yes and she could be funny and vindictive like me. We were on tour with her and Roy Orbison. When we got to Liverpool, she was really peeved with her road manager. She rang up George Henry Lee's and asked for some cheap crockery and they sent it round to her dressing-room at the Empire. One by one, she threw every piece of crockery down the corridor and the road manager never did anything wrong again.
SL: Why did you choose the name Chris Curtis?
CC: I didn't. Tony Jackson was in the bandroom of the Cavern one lunchtime and some reporters from the national press were there. He introduced us as himself Tony Jackson, John McNally, Mike Pender rather than Mike Prendergast, and me the drummer, Chris. He didn't want to say my name was Crummey. They asked for my surname and looking on the Cavern's wall for inspiration, he saw "Lee Curtis" and said, "Chris Curtis". When my mother saw it, she said, "Have they got a new drummer behind your back?" She'd probably have been happy if they had because she thought the Searchers were a bunch of no-marks. She never liked me being in the band. Even when we were having hit records, she wanted me to be in a bank. She didn't mind my new name though - my granny's name was Curtin and it was very close to that.
SL: I get the impression that you were the leader of the Searchers, or at least, the one giving the group its musical direction.
CC: If that constitutes being the leader, I guess I was. If I threw a tantrum and told someone in the group to f- off, the next day I would want to make it up to them. Ameliorate rather than procrastinate, I used to give them presents just to placate them. The moment I had them thinking on my wavelength, I knew we couldn't go wrong. I was right ten times out of ten with singles, so I must know something, mustn't I?
SL: So all the hit singles stem from you?
CC: Pretty much. Oh, not "Sugar And Spice". Tony Hatch tricked us good style with that. We were looking for a follow-up to "Sweets For My Sweet" and I was going on the American idea: if that's one a hit, follow it with something similar. He sensed that was what I wanted, so he lied to me. He told me that he had heard this bloke, Fred Nightingale, in a pub singing "Sugar And Spice". (Sings first verse, then sings it again somehat differently.) Tony Hatch used to be in the guards and you can see he wrote it himself from a marching tune. I said, "It's an icky title. Who in Liverpool will go in a shop and say, Have you got 'Sugar And Spice'?" In the end, we said we'd do it but guess who isn't singing harmony. I said I'd do the oo-ee-oo bits just to carry it through but I wasn't going to sing those idiotic words - (sings) "Sugar and spice and all things nice, Kisses sweeter than wine." I'd rather sing Paulie's "Mary Had A Little Lamb".
SL: You were probably the first UK act to record one of P.J.Proby's songs, "Ain't Gonna Kiss Ya"?
CC: Tony Hatch had a box of records and demos from obscure labels in the States and I picked out one from a girl group called "Ain't Gonna Kiss Ya". I couldn't decide what I liked about it but I knew that there was something there. I took the record, learned the chords and they had a grand piano on the stage at the Star-Club and I used to sit there and play it. I thought that instead of starting it in a minor key, which is a bad commercial move, we should start in C major and then as soon as you had got the "oo-oo-oo" sold, go to the minor for the actual song, and it worked. Whenever he saw me, he would go, "Chris Curtis, the only man who ever made me any money in England." When he's sober, he's the best singer in the world.
SL: And then came "Needles And Pins".
CC: If you haven't got the listeners in the first few seconds, you haven't got them, and we had them with that. That opening A chord on "Needles And Pins" will never be topped. It must have been a good riff as the Byrds have used it countless times - upside down, this way, that way.
SL: But you copied it from Jackie de Shannon.
CC: Sort of. Our version is simpler than hers. She goes through immense emotion on that song - all that "Stop it now, stop it now". That was great for her, but it didn't fit in with a bland, teenybop Searchers record.
SL: And the Byrds, not the Searchers, ended up with the street cred.
CC: Well, they were all "Wow, man, let's take some drugs." Roger McGuinn had those little blue glasses and everyone thought he was on a trip. We wouldn't have wanted that kind of cred, but I don't think they took as many drugs as they implied. You can't keep taking things and perform well, at least not for long. I used to take Preludin because of the long nights in Hamburg, just to keep me awake, but all my playing was from the heart. I did take downers 'cause I needed to sleep.
SL: It must be hard to sleep when so many exciting things are happening to you.
CC: That's exactly it. My doctor in Liverpool gave me something that I could never overdose on: they would make me slow down and sleep if I wanted to. I was grateful for that. The idea of taking mind-altering or body-altering drugs never occured to me. God has given you your body and you shouldn't mess around with it.
SL: Who does the lead vocal on "Needles And Pins" as there has been some confusion about this.
CC: Tony Jackson was the lead singer on "Sweets For My Sweet" and his was the best voice we could have had for that song. Unfortunately, it wasn't the best voice for "Needles And Pins". He tried it but he was singing "I saw her today" totally without meaning, just like he was singing the words off a page. It was much better with Mike Pender.
SL: Did that lead to Tony leaving the band?
CC: I didn't like Tony Jackson much, even from the start, and if I'd had the nous to audition for the Searchers, I would have had someone else in the first place. I never had any rows with him though: if he started arguing, I would just walk away. He wanted to sing "Needles And Pins" and he threatened to reveal something about me if I didn't let him. I said, "You can tell what you like, you're not singing on 'Needles And Pins'." Then I said, "Can you count to 50?" and he said, "Course I can count to 50." I said, "Start counting, and by the time you've reached 50, I'll have phoned Tito Burns to tell him you're out of the band." He was shocked 'cause all of a sudden he was losing his source of income. The first thing he did when he left the Searchers was get a nose job, and guess where his singing voice had come from? His first solo record though, "Bye Bye Baby", was a good one.
SL: Just before Tony went, you recorded "Don't Throw Your Love Away".
CC: Pat Pretty, the publicist in Pye Records, was a lovely lady, who was married to Jack Bentley from "The People". She had come across a song on the B-side of an American hit by the Orlons and I thought it was a great title. The guitar riff came out similar to "Needles And Pins", so again it was following a hit with a semi-copy of a hit. Mike Pender's voice was brilliant on that, just like a little boy wandering through the streets, and I joined in with that very high harmony, and it really worked. It was one of the nicest tunes that the Searchers ever did. The B-side, "I Pretend I'm With You" was pretty good too, one of my little gems. I also like the B-side of "Someday We're Gonna Love Again", "No One Else Could Love Me".
SL: My fault rather than yours but "Someday We're Gonna Love Again" is the only one of your hit singles that I don't go for.
CC: Well, Dusty Springfield went for it, she loved it! We'd been working in the ice-rink at Blackpool and we had to fly back in a two-engine plane for the sessioin and they said I wouldn't be using my own drums. I said, "Get those drums on the 'plane." We flew down in the night, recorded in the morning and flew back in the afternoon. I thought it was a good intro and the harmony is so high, it's like Graham Nash.
SL: So you couldn't do it in that key now.
CC: Oh yes, I could. (Demonstrates, but not too well.) My throat's a bit croaky but I can do it.
SL: And you replaced Tony Jackson with Frank Allen, the bass player with Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers.
CC: Yes, the two bands had met in the Star-Club and he became a good friend and he's a good chap. His style was great, he had a good image and I had never seen anyone play the bass like that. He's very difficult to record playing bass as he plays the note and then slaps the bass. (Demonstrates) It's probably because he had to keep such strong time with Cliff Bennett as they liked hard rock. He loved "When You Walk In The Room" 'cause he respected Jackie de Shannon's writing. He couldn't wait to sing on it.
SL: Who decided who was going to do the lead vocal?
CC: Never me on a single. I was told it wouldn't look right on telly. John McNally wanted us to release "This Empty Place" as a single, which is a real posh tune and carried by some lovely piano. It's a great tune to sing, but I never thought I could get out from behind the drums. I should have done a Don Henley and gone to the front, but it never occurred to me, or anyone else. Actually, I did come from behind the drums for "What Have They Done To The Rain" as I sat on a high stool and played the bongos between my knees. I remember being on stage at the Liverpool Empire and looking at the large drop down the orchestra pit. It's like that Peter Cook thing, "What's the worst job you've ever had?"
SL: "What Have They Done To The Rain" was a very moving song and a marked change in direction.
CC: It was written by Malvina Reynolds, who was an old lady and a great songwriter. It was on a little blue Fontana 45 and I thought it was a great title. When I played it, I realised that it was a lovely tune as well. I thought bongos would be nice instead of drums and lots of guitars, and Tony Hatch asked if he could put some strings on it, and it was lovely, it really made the tune. It was a great record. It had a very profound message and considering people didn't know what they were listening to, it did very well. It was the first green, ecological hit record and the most money Malvina Reynolds ever earned was from us.
SL: Do you really think that people didn't get it?
CC: Now is different, you've got the Green Party and you hear ecological voices the whole time. After Chernobyl, we are finding out that our animals are being poisoned so it's what have they done to the wind as well as the rain. It is so pertinent to today and I could see Oasis doing a hard rock version of it. (Sings song like Liam) He wouldn't have to learn the words - I'm sure he has them written on the ceiling.
SL: Yet another classic hit came with "Goodbye My Love" and your drums are very distinctive.
CC: They're double-tracked, that's why. They recorded the rhythm track, played it back to me and I played on top of that. The original was a gay song, "Goodbye, My Lover, Goodbye" and we totally changed it We worked on the record for a long time and the engineer wiped out some of the bridge. This was six in the morning and as we didn't want to do it again, he spliced things together. The first person I played that track to was Brian Epstein and he related to the rhythm which was almost Spanish. He said, "Oh Chris, this is wonderful." I said, "Don't get carried away, it's only a bleeding record." He said, "I'll bet your agent £5,000 that this will be No.l in the first week it is released." I said, "You shouldn't do that. People will say, 'Why didn't you manage us if you thought the product was so good?' It wouldn't have worked with Eppy as we were too similar in the way we thought.
SL: Did you often discuss things with him?
CC: From time to time. He played me "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" by the Righteous Brothers and said, "I've got this for Cilla." I said, "Do it if you must, it will be a hit for her but the Righteous Brothers will overtake her." It was heartbreaking as she couldn't sing that song for nuts. Her best record was "Liverpool Lullaby" where she actually sounds like a Liverpool girl. I once went in a snowstorm to the Liverpool Empire with a song that would be brilliant for her called "Another Heart Is Broken (In The Game Of Life)", one I'd written especially for her with all posh chords on the piano. I thought she's got to go for this, she hasn't had a hit in yonks, and she told me, "I don't do songs from cassettes." How's she going to hear the bloody thing? Did she expect me to walk in with a 40-piece orchestra? And she hasn't had a hit since.
SL: Then after all those B-sides, you wrote an A-side, "He's Got No Love".
CC: Ah, but you know what that tune is. You play that and then play "The Last Time" by the Rolling Stones. We were naughty boys as I stole the tune.
SL: But the Stones took it from James Brown's "Maybe The Last Time".
CC: We're all the wrong side of legal then. Aretha Franklin had an album track that I loved called "Can't You Just See Me". We did the backing track and I loved it, but then I thought, "I'm not getting enough out of this", and I put a whole new set of lyrics to it called "I'm Your Lovin' Man". The lyrics are rubbish but I got the money.
SL: With "What Have They Done To The Rain" and "Take Me For What I'm Worth", you were defining folk-rock.
CC: I admired the belief in "Take Me For What I'm Worth". Instead of people saying, "I'm better than you", take me for what I'm worth. It's a very profound statement and it could have become a gay anthem. We did some other good songs like that. I loved "Four Strong Winds", which I'd got on record by Bobby Bare.
SL: If you were making these good records, why did you leave the Searchers?
CC: We were touring South-East Asia and we ended up in Australia and can you think of a more daft bill than the Rolling Stones and the Searchers? We couldn't compete with Mick Jagger or Keith Richards. They know how to work an audience so the audience was chanting, "We want the Stones" while we were on and I couldn't handle that. I enjoyed being with Keith as he can play an acoustic guitar like a dream, wonderful stuff, stuff that I couldn't possibly do. The Stones' success is down to him. Mick Jagger's lyrics are usually pretty stupid but there is always good work on the backing track. Keith asked me to give "Take It Or Leave It" a whirl. I thought it could be a single but I'd left the band by then. They did it with their new drummer and it was pitiful.
SL: So what happened in Australia?
CC: I hated Australia. I thought it was a country of dreadful people and I was off me cake. I fell off the stage and I still have the scar on my leg. (Pull up trouser leg to show me.) I went out with an Australian girl who said, "You need some sleep, darling, come home with me." She had this marvellous flat, more like half an apartment building, with a wonderful view over the harbour. During the night I was drinking coffee and thought I would leave before she woke up. The windows were open and it was a heavy door. I opened it but it came back and smashed on this finger. Nearly took it off, but I went back to them with my bad leg and my bad finger. I went to my doctor's bag to find something for the pain in my finger, and I found that they had emptied the entire contents, all my tranquillisers, down the lavatory. They thought they were doing me a favour, and I told them that was it, I couldn't take anymore, but they made me finish the tour. On the way back home, I wrote a Searchers' song on a sick bag but it wasn't used as I left the group. When I got back to Bootle, they tore the nail out at the hospital.
SL: You soon found yourself in opposition to the Searchers as you produced Paul and Barry Ryan's "Have You Ever Loved Somebody".
CC: I was recording Paul and Barry Ryan for their stepfather, Harold Davidson, who is Sinatra's best mate, so you do what you're told. Graham Nash had given me the song and I liked the title, the answer could either be happy or sad, yes or no. John McNally asked me what I was working on and I played him the song. He went behind by my back to the publisher and got a copy for himself. They recorded a very icky version - the vocal wasn't that good and it sounds like there's a rat running across the snare drum. Paul and Barry Ryan, who were lovely people, did it much better. I was recording a Welsh group called Ten Feet and they backed them on that. I told them that I wanted a drum sound that sounded like it was coming from the back of a hall to the front and the guitar was to go (Demonstrates) and it worked and I was well pleased. Because of the Searchers' version, the publisher asked me to hold back on Paul and Barry Ryan, so I went to Harold Davidson and said, "This is a No.l". He said, "We'll have to move fast. I'll get them on 'Ready, Steady, Go' this Friday and on such and such next Tuesday", and he did what he said he'd do. Tito Burns, who handled the Searchers, said to me, "You bastard, you bastard", and I said, "Excuse me, one bastard's enough around here." He said, "You've ruined the Searchers." I said, "I've had nothing to do with them, they had something to do with me. They've tried to be smart arses and it hasn't worked."
SL: Did you do much else with Paul and Barry Ryan?
CC: I got friendly with Jackie de Shannon who used to come and see me in the flat I had round the corner from Harrod's. Through her, I got to know Sharon Sheeley, who suggested that we did a few songs together. She was living with Gordon Waller at the time, whom I didn't like at all - bit of a tearaway and he gave her a hard time. We wrote a song for Paul and Barry, "Night-time".
SL: You also made a single with Alma Cogan.
CC: Yes, she was lovely, just the nicest person in the whole wide world. She was very up on the groups, she loved John Lennon and her best friend was the manager of the Ad-Lib in Leicester Square, which is where the bands used to meet. I wrote "Snakes And Snails" for her and she was made up with it. I got Bobby Ore on drums, John Paul Jones on bass, Jimmy Page, Vic Flick and Joe Moretti on guitars and they played out of their skins. She didn't realise that she'd have to sing over a heavy rock backing and she loved it. The backing vocalists were Dusty Springfield, Doris Troy, Rosetta Hightower from the Orlons, and me. Boy, did we have fun.
SL: And your solo single was "Aggravation", certainly a song with a message!
CC: Yeah, don't give me any, that's it. It's a Joe South song and it had a good riff. I had Jimmy Page, Joe Moretti, John Paul Jones and Vic Flick on that record. I did my Tom Jones hard rock voice and I was really loud. I knew I had a voice that would record well but it wouldn't have worked with Tony Hatch as he was not a funky chap. I just did the one single 'cause I'd had enough. I'd shown I could do it. That song, "Aggravation", is on a compilation, "It Happened Here", a 10-inch LP that came out on PRT. There's "Just A Little Bit" by the Undertakers and then "Aggravation" by me and they sound great together - like real rock'n'roll.
SL: You had the idea of forming a heavy group though, didn't you?
CC: Yes, my money was running out and I had an idea for doing a band called the Roundabout where you have a nucleus of musicians who come and go with myself as the lynchpin. I met Jon Lord, who was living in a dump, and I flew Ritchie Blackmore and his girlfriend over from Germany. I introduced them to a friend of Vicki Wickham, who was the editor on "Ready Steady Go!". He was Tony Edwards, who was in the clothing business. He thought I wasn't right for the group and they left me behind. I met him a few weeks later and he told me that they had changed their name to Deep Purple. He arranged for them to record a song that I had been playing to Jon Lord for months, "Hush" by Joe South, and it became a very big hit for them in the States.
SL: In the end, you jacked it all in and took an office job.
CC: I joined the Inland Revenue in 1969 and it was difficult for me, but the people in the office were lovely. They went out of their way to be nice to me, and I stayed there for 19 years. I'm retired now, but my health suffered. I think it's the sick building syndrome, but I didn't have the money to challenge them.
SL: I've heard some demos that you made in the mid-70s with a local producer, Bernard Whitty.
CC: There was an accountant, Alan Willey, who worked in the Revenue and was one of the best guitarists I'd ever heard. He asked me to join his band, Western Union, but I used to jump up and down playing rhythm, which didn't go well with all these synthesised instruments. He recommended Bernard to me and I got a batch of songs together and put them down. I was living in hope and wanted to do some demos for Elvis. I was really pleased with "Wait Until Tomorrow" and "Down To Earth". I also liked one called "Don't Make Love In A Doorway" on which I played 12-string and did a Gerry Rafferty impression.
SL: And what do you do now?
CC: My life now centres around the parish church called the Holy Rosary and the priest, Canon Bill, is just brilliant. He wants me to get the kids back into church. It's simple really. You need to have more fun in church - have some folk music and some rock'n'roll. I'm also singing in the Old Roan pub, and it's a very friendly thing. As soon as I come in, people say, "Sing 'Needles And Pins'" and I do it halfway, up to where the drums come in, and then go into something else. I especially like doing Tim Hardin songs. I love "Don't Make Promises" and I don't know how Rod Stewart has missed that one. I produced a version by Michael Aldred from "Ready Steady Go!", who died a couple of years ago. I'm still writing, better than ever actually. If you keep at your craft for long enough., you're bound to improve.
SL: Chris Curtis, thanks very much for your time.
CC: I've enjoyed this very much. Will that we be all for now, Dr Spence?
Chris Curtis of The Searchers
- April 2003 Interview
by Spencer Leigh
Considering the influence and the success of the Searchers in the 1960s, it is surprising that no one has written a book about them. I have thought about writing one myself, but there are stumbling-blocks. In my view, it is not possible to write a book that would satisfy the five key members - Frank Allen, Chris Curtis, Tony Jackson, John McNally and Mike Pender - as they rarely like what each is saying about the other. John McNally and Mike Pender disliked each other's comments in a 2002 feature in the US "Goldmine" magazine, and Chris Curtis was very annoyed at what John said about him on BBC Radio Lancashire. Yet a book that does not give all sides of the picture is going to be incomplete.
Frank Allen's own book of reminiscences, "Travelling Man" (Aureus Publishing, 1999), was very entertaining but it painted too rosy a glow and didn't discuss the contentious issues within the band. Two sisters, Laine and Jule Rawlinson, were working on a biography and interviewed the key personnel, but nothing has been heard of the project for some years. If I do ever write a book about them, I have my title - "Someday We're Gonna Love Again".
Chris Curtis was the Searchers' drummer from 1960 to 1966 - the key years - and he was the lynch-pin of the group's success. Very hyper, very enthusiastic, he was constantly seeking out obscure songs that, nevertheless, had "Hit" written all over them. There are different accounts as to how he came to leave the Searchers, certainly some misadventures on an Australian tour played their part, but in the end he was becoming unreliable.
He made a solo record with the musicians who became Deep Purple and he produced records for other performers, notably Paul and Barry Ryan, but in the end, his music career fizzled out and he took a job in the civil service. He has retired due to ill-health (a consequence of "sick building syndrome") and he has returned, somewhat cautiously, to the public light.
I interviewed Chris Curtis for BBC Radio Merseyside early in 1998 (subsequently in March 1998's "Record Collector"), which, although I didn't realise it at the time, was the first interview he had given in 30 years. John McNally said, "This interview is so distorted. Anything good that the Searchers ever did is down to him and he washes his hands of everything else." Frank Allen, on the other hand, thought the interview was very funny and "pure Chris". (The 1998 interview is also on this website so you can make up your own mind about it.)
Chris is still very hyper and very enthusiastic and in recent months, he has taken to performing again. It is sad that someone who made Number 1 records should be singing "Lean On Me" with a karaoke machine at the Old Roan pub or Cooper's Emporium, but it happens. Someone stopped him in the supermarket and remarked on his appearance at the Old Roan without knowing his provenance.
Somewhat classier have been his appearances with live musicians for the Merseycats charity at the Marconi club in Huyton on Thursday nights, where incidentially he is taken by Mike Pender's cousin, Michael Prendergast. He has been singing R&B oldies and "Are You Lonesome Tonight" (with awesome dynamics), but so far he hasn't dipped into the Searchers' songbook.
In April 2003 I asked him to come on to my show, "On The Beat", on BBC Radio Merseyside to discuss the "new" Searchers' albums, "The Searchers At The Iron Door", "The Searchers At The Star-Club" and the "Swedish Radio Sessions". He came across well but it has been a pyrrhic victory as Chris has no concept of time and has been known to ring me for a chat at two in the morning. When I told him to ring only at sensible times, he left me a present at Radio Merseyside. It was a much played copy of the Judy Collins LP, "Golden Apples Of The Sun", which had been autographed, "To Chris, Best wishes, Judy Collins". After "To Chris", he had appended "and Spen". Talk about having a collector's item.
This is what Chris had to say in "On The Beat" on BBC Radio Merseyside on Sunday 13 April 2003. The material is not copyright - anyone who wants to write that book is welcome to use it.
SL: It's quite astonishing, isn't it, Chris, that, 40 years on, tracks are coming out that haven't been heard by the public at all.
Chris Curtis: Yes, I never know about them until you tell me.
SL: You are noted for your versatility on the drums. You played tom-tom rolls, military rhythms, castanets, cowbells and bongos - you did everything on the records, didn't you?
Chris Curtis: (Laughs) Pretty much. I was always doing a lot of things but one that springs to mind is a song I wrote called "No One Else Could Love Me". I put down a basic track down with a standard drum-kit and then they played it back to me and I added castanets and Spanish bells.
NO ONE ELSE COULD LOVE ME - THE SEARCHERS
Chris Curtis: Tony Hatch was playing the piano on that.
SL: Tony Hatch was your producer at Pye. Was he an asset or a liability to the Searchers?
Chris Curtis: He was all right. He fibbed to me for the follow-up to "Sweets For My Sweet". He said that he had been to a folk club in London and he had met this chap called Fred Nightingale who had written this song which would be good for us. It was "Sugar And Spice" and it was exactly the same chords as "Sweets For My Sweet". Tony Hatch had written it himself and he tricked me into recording that rubbish.
SL: Couldn't you have said, "Even so, I think it's rubbish and we don't want to do it."
Chris Curtis: We were really desperate for a follow-up then.
SL: Do you wish you had recorded "Mr. Tambourine Man" because that would have suited you perfectly?
Chris Curtis: No, it would have suited the guitar sound, but it wouldn't have suited me.
SL: When we talked about doing this programme, you said that you would like to play some of your favourite records and the first artist is Lou Johnson.
Chris Curtis: Great bloke and a wonderful artist and this song would be just great for P.J.Proby. Especially if I sang along with him. How's that for big time?
SL: Well, you have been performing again lately for the Merseycats?
Chris Curtis: That is run by some very nice people such as Derek Peel and I love it. Faron came and grabbed my guitar the other night and then he played it. He's a lovely person but if he touches it again, he will never play another guitar again in his life!
PARK AVENUE - LOU JOHNSON
Chris Curtis: I love the laugh in that record. The way he goes "Ha!".
SL: Let's talk about "The Iron Door Sessions". This is your audition for Pye which was recorded at the Iron Door. How important was the Iron Door to you?
Chris Curtis: It was owned by Les Ackerley who became our manager and was a good chap, very nice person, but he lost out when we went to London. It was great to play the Iron Door. We used to do doubles at the Orrell Park Ballroom and the Iron Door. It was difficult to get down the stairs with my drums at the OPB and then down another flight to the Iron Door. The stage was only a foot high, and it was a strange place. The room had a divider in it and Roger McGough used to stand between the doors.
SL: Did you do lunchtime sessions there?
Chris Curtis: No.
SL: What about at the Cavern?
Chris Curtis: Ray McFall, the owner of the Cavern, took a dislike to me because I said it was a dreadful place. It was stinky and sweaty. I used to play in corduroy trousers and a leather jacket and had a hair a foot long, so it wouldn't be conducive to a nice, pleasant lunchtime.
SL: Well, wearing a leather jacket on stage is a pretty daft thing to do.
Chris Curtis: That's me. I used to come home and my mum would say, "Take those clothes off, you stink", and I would be sopping wet.
SL: Well, the song you have picked from "The Iron Door Sessions" is "Rosalie".
Chris Curtis: That's John McNally singing and I thought he did a really good job on that. He swings on rhythm guitar too, he plays the best rhythm guitar in the world.
SL: So you all took lead vocals?
Chris Curtis: Yes, that was one of the advantages of going to Germany. Manfred Weissleder and Horst Fascher realised we could play for a long time. I would sing "What'd I Say" and the audience would go absolutely nuts.
SL: Whereas Gerry Marsden in Gerry and the Pacemakers was their only vocalist and he was ruining his voice.
Chris Curtis: Yes, but he was doing an impression of Tony Sheridan. No one gives that man enough credit. He was great. He was the man who instigated "You'll Never Walk Alone" (sings). Gerry must have heard him sing it. If you impersonate someone singing, it is never the same as your own throat doing the job.
ROSALIE - THE SEARCHERS
SL: You said you were at the Star-Club. St. Pauli was very seedy but people have told me that you went to this church that was in the midst of the strip clubs. Is that true?
Chris Curtis: Of course. We finished at five or six o'clock on Sunday morning and it was a good way of winding down. It was a convent church and there were a lot of nuns there. It was great.
SL: And what did you think of the area itself?
Chris Curtis: You said the word 'seedy'. It was awful. There were transvestites standing in the doorway of the seedy clubs, and because I had very long hair, a lot of people thought I was a tranny, and I wasn't.
SL: Very few people had long hair then.
Chris Curtis: Manfred Weissleder, who was a great bloke, and Horst Fascher, who did the announcing, would ask me why I had my hair like that, and I said, "Because I use it in the act."
SL: But when you started having hit records, presumably somebody told you to have it cut.
Chris Curtis: No, I told myself. (Laughs) I thought, If you want to be as successful as Cliff, it will have to go.
SL: You only heard this Star-Club album the other day.
Chris Curtis: Through your good aegis. I was surprised by its quality. We had been back in England and we had got well known here, and we had a contract to go back. We were told that we didn't have to do it, we could be bought out of it, but we said, "They paid money to see us before we were well-known, so we will return the favour." They really appreciated it. Look at the crowd on the front of that album. They went absolutely nuts for us.
SL: Everybody did "What'd I Say".
Chris Curtis: Yes, but nobody did it like me. Johnny Hutch of the Big Three did it first on Merseyside and he could drum better than anyone.
SL: You mentioned going to church at the Star-Club and this leads us onto another of your favourite artists, Big Maybelle.
Chris Curtis: Oh, I love her, she's brilliant. Nobody knows about her in England, and she did covers of the Beatles's songs. (Sings "Eleanor Rigby" like Big Maybelle.) I thought it wasn't a woman at first, but it was Big Maybelle and she sings brilliantly.
NOBODY KNOWS THE TROUBLE I'VE SEEN - BIG MAYBELLE
WHAT'D I SAY - THE SEARCHERS
SL: And there's some German in there.
Chris Curtis: Yes, that was to get them to join in.
SL: Not many people were singing lead vocals and playing drums until Levon Helm in the late 60s.
Chris Curtis: Oh, wasn't he brilliant? That's what I tried to do with the Searchlights, as I call them.
SL: Tell us a bit about your repertoire at the Star-Club.
Chris Curtis: Well, we would start with a speedy number to get them up dancing. That way the club would sell more beer. They called it "mach schau". We would race around and I would shake my head and they really liked that. For some unknown reasons, the Germans liked me better with short hair and I thought it would be the other way round. I looked like an ordinary English chap when I had my hair cut.
SL: And Astrid Kirchherr took your pictures.
Chris Curtis: No, she didn't. That was another AK, my girlfriend, Annette Kuntze,she came over to London to live with me in Knightsbridge. She took wonderful snaps and she did some of the Pye covers. She would tell us to stand still and not smile, and we would be all sullen.
SL: What about the songs on here - "I Can Tell", "Sick And Tired", "Mashed Potato".
Chris Curtis: They were fillers. Lots of bands over there used to go, "We will do that one, and we can do it again later and then again later on", but we never did that. We did different songs all night.
SL: What about "Sho Know A Lot About Love"?
Chris Curtis: Oh, that's great. I loved obscure B-sides and loved finding really wonky songs. I used to go to a place in Rotunda where the chap knew me and would say, "Go upstairs where the boxes are and go through them for as long as you like." I worked in Swift's at the time, selling prams, but don't ask me about that!
SL: So you never got any of your records from the Cunard Yanks?
Chris Curtis: No, you will find that all of the tracks recorded by the Searchers were available in NEMS or in the Rotunda shop. I found "Love Potion Number 9" in a back-street, second-hand shop in Hamburg. I saw this 45 with a triangle in the middle and I thought, "I've got to have it, it's such a weird looking record." I took my little portable electric record-player to Germany and I played "Love Potion Number 9" and I thought, "This is excellent." For some unknown reason, I reckoned it would be a good single for the States as they like dopey stuff like that. We did it on "Shindig". Brian Epstein used to introduce "Shindig", dressed very British but just right for what he was doing - he was a Keith Fordyce for America.
SL: When you found these songs, did you have any difficulty in persuading the other Searchers to do them?
Chris Curtis: No, they knew I had picked the hits so I must know something. They went along with it.
SHO KNOW A LOT ABOUT LOVE - THE SEARCHERS
SL: Let's move onto Dusty Springfield, whom you knew very well indeed.
Chris Curtis: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. She lived in Liverpool for a time and one night she drove me home to the Old Roan, to my mum's old house. She had a huge silver-grey American car.
SL: I get the impression from Vicki Wickham's book that she didn't appreciate how good her voice was.
Chris Curtis: She never did. She was a very strange star. One night we were on the charbanc coming back from a one night stand and I could see that she was crying. I said, "What's the matter, Mary?" She said, "We have just passed a primary school and a cemetary." It made her aware of the transition of life. This song is pertinent to everything I thought about her, "Ne Me Quitte Pas", "If You Go Away". She was just wonderful.
IF YOU GO AWAY - DUSTY SPRINGFIELD
Chris Curtis: Genius. The French is spot-on.
SL: I saw Marty Wilde last night at Pontin's and you could tell he absolutely loved performing. He couldn't wait to get out there, but I presume Dusty Springfield was never like that.
Chris Curtis: Oh, she was, and she loved to do up tempo things. Vicki Wickham asked me to produce the sound for a "Ready, Steady, Go!". Dusty and Otis Redding were on. She was doing a Northern Soul track called "Bring Him Back". She was working with the Otis Redding band and I thought it wasn't going to work because they didn't seem loud enough. I don't know what they did in the afternoon but when they did the show, it was Bam! Bam! Bam! and I thought, "This'll do for me." ""Bring Him Back" was excellent, she did a real good job on it.
SL: Did you like performing live yourself?
Chris Curtis: Well, I hated miming. I always lost track. I could do it, but it was only all right.
SL: Let's move over to your Swedish sessions. Why did you do all these sessions for Swedish radio?
Chris Curtis: My best friend was in charge of the radio station. When I left the Searchers, I rang him and he told me to come over to Sweden to get myself straight. He sent his wife back to France, to her family, and he was a decent bloke.
SL: And he produced these sessions?
Chris Curtis: Well, it was whoever was there, but Klaus did quite well. "See See Rider" is Mike Pender's forte. It was a good upbeat track that I nicked from Joey Dee and the Starliters. It really swings along.
SEE SEE RIDER - THE SEARCHERS
BRING HIM BACK - DUSTY SPRINGFIELD
SL: I was hoping to lead you into one of the famous incidents when I asked you about Dusty where she threw plates around. Did that happen?
Chris Curtis: Oh yes. She did that at the Liverpool Empire. She had a "Dusty mood", as I call them, and she sent out to George Henry Lee's for a box of plain white crockery. The dressing-rooms were in a corridor and she got the whole box and sent them crashing down there. It's like a child, I suppose, but we all get our little tantrums.
SL: We're going to close with the new Ringo Starr album, "Ringo Rama", and his tribute to George Harrison, "Never Without You".
Chris Curtis: George was one of the nicest, quietest people I have ever known. Both the Beatles and the Searchers, in that order, were playing the Litherland Town Hall. I didn't go round with the other three Searchers that much, so I got the 28 bus from Stanley Road along to the Richmond sausage works and then I walked up the back-streets to the Town Hall. I had my long hair and I was ready to play in my leather jacket and corduroy trousers, I looked like something from "Bad Day At Black Rock". I saw the Beatles, and I heard George say to the others, "It's Mad Henry coming this way. What shall we do?" And John said, "It's okay, he's just mad."
SL: Chris Curtis, thank you very much.
Chris Curtis: A pleasure to be here.
IN MEMORY OF CHRIS CURTIS
26 August 1941 - 28 February 2005
by Frank Allen
Over the last month or two John McNally and I had been talking about contacting Chris Curtis with a view to inviting him to one of the upcoming Solid Silver Sixties shows on Merseyside, perhaps the Empire in Liverpool or the Southport Theatre. Any problems we had following the split way back in March 1966 were water under the bridge and any bad feeling, minimal at worst, had long since dissipated. Indeed John had been in touch with Chris sporadically over the past few years and was pleased to have reconciled any differences with someone who we genuinely liked and who was not only extremely clever and talented but who was also a really good person.
As the tour got under way last week and the Liverpool concerts came closer we figured we had better do something about it. We both wanted Chris there but knew he was not well, on top of which we weren`t altogether sure what his feelings were with regard to such a reunion. Over the years he had blown hot and cold over his connection with the past. For a long time he would not talk about it and refused interviews. But lately he had taken to phoning John and Mary to talk about anything and everything from his current life to plans for a musical future, whether it be his or ours.
The only thing that marred these areas of renewed contact was that once Chris had decided you were a 'phone friend' you could expect a call at any time of the day or night. Four or five times a day was not unusual and a telephone ringing at two in the morning was unfortunately quite typical. Being woken from a deep sleep was not always a welcome intrusion. It was hard to be annoyed with Chris, who was one of the kindest people you could wish to have known, but it did tend to strain relations a tad which was such a shame.
Chris was the kind of guy who, if he thought he had upset you in any way, would brood upon it afterwards and more often than not a present would be delivered as an apology and a peace offering. I had perhaps more reason than most to be grateful to him. He was the main force in enlisting me into the group and fought my corner so many times.
It is no secret that he was a most important person in the history of The Searchers. The most important many would say and it would be hard to argue with that, although of course everyone contributed to one degree or another. His knowledge of music was encyclopaedic and his collection of records vast and eclectic. It ranged from hard rock and roll through meaningful and thought-provoking folk and protest to the best of Broadway. His skill in arranging vocal harmonies was superb and his soft and tuneful voice embellished and enhanced the lead lines of others.
He had an unshakeable faith in his taste and his choice and, though not right one hundred per cent of the time, he was right more often than not. As a personality he was unparalleled. There are not many inhabitants of a drum stool who can command attention and front a band from that awkward position like he did. In those early days before I was reluctantly forced to take over the role, when he decided to quit following our tour of Australia in `66, the show was completely in his control and we could relax on stage knowing we were in safe hands.
We didn`t want him to quit. We desperately tried to talk him out of it but he had made up his mind and once Chris had made a decision there was no going back. It is astonishing that he was unsuccessful in his chosen field. Chris appeared to have it all. He was gregarious and was friends with all the people who mattered in London. Lionel Bart. Brian Epstein. Alma Cogan. Dusty Springfield. Madeleine Bell. Vicki Wickham. Chris was one of the 'In Crowd'. He produced discs for Paul and Barry Ryan, Alma Cogan and others and some of his productions made their mark, but the big one proved elusive and eventually, when the money ran out, he returned to Liverpool and his family and turned his back on the fickle world of showbusiness.
After working for many years for the government as a civil servant his health began to deteriorate and he was forced into early retirement. Occasionally he would turn up at gatherings of the Merseycats, a Liverpool musicians' charity, and could even be persuaded to get up and sing. Even though his movements were restricted his voice, reports had it, was as pure and as haunting as ever.
I got in touch very recently with Spencer Leigh from Radio Merseyside for a contact number and his thoughts on the proposed invitation to one of the shows. Spencer replied that he didn`t think Chris was up to it or mobile enough but gave me a phone number. But John decided to give him a call anyway. It was on Monday 28 February and the number turned out to be wrong. The next day John decided to try an old number he had for Chris and his niece answered. John was passed on to Rosie, Chris`s sister who explained that Chris had died the day before. A wrong number had stopped John making contact in time. It was a shock.
There was no animosity towards Chris. We only remembered him as a great friend and a wonderful character. Charismatic and sensitive. Sometimes wild with a uniquely 'off the wall' sense of humour, a razor sharp and sparkling wit and a heart as big as Liverpool itself. It is easy to regret now and to think that it would be worth the 2 a.m. phone calls just to have him back with us again. He will be very much missed.
3 March 2005
Chris Curtis 4ever