By Gordon Thompson
To many adolescents fifty years ago, the future seemed bleak: the “King” had become preoccupied with refurbished Italian schmaltz while the world drew closer to Armageddon. But hope buzzed in the heart of an ungrounded amplifier in a West German high school.
Goodwill had floundered between the recently elected American president, John F. Kennedy and the Soviet Union’s premier, Nikita Khrushchev over the Soviet blockade of Berlin and America’s support of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. As a backdrop to those deliberations, Elvis, fresh out of the army and back from Germany, had apparently abandoned rock and roll to sing “Surrender”—a modernization of the Neapolitan ballad “Torna a Surriento”—at the top of popular music charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Still, new beginnings can percolate in unlikely forms and in unusual places.
In Hamburg, the stolid bandleader and recording manager Bert Kaempfert saw an opportunity to make some quick money before rock and roll completely died of disinterest. The city’s notorious St. Pauli district hosted a thriving scene populated largely by young British musicians doing reasonable imitations of America’s celebrated musical decadence. As his vehicle, he hit upon a former London television persona in exile that had risen to the top of the local pop hierarchy, that played guitar better than almost everyone else in Hamburg, and whose German pronunciation Kaempfert could tolerate.
For Tony Sheridan, Hamburg’s St. Pauli District proved the perfect place to live the rock-and-roll life he had embraced. Late-night bars, strip clubs, prostitution, organized crime, drugs, alcohol, all seemed to roil beneath the roughly paved streets attracting sailors and students, businessmen and bands. Like moths to a flame, the young and innocent, as well as those old enough to know better, wandered (and staggered) in its streets. Among its most recent immigrants, the Beatles seemed to try harder than most, pushed by ambition and fear of failure. For sheer energy, Sheridan probably suggested the Liverpudlians as one option for his accompaniment at a recording session Kaempfert was arranging.
Kaempfert had in mind what Elvis and others were doing: updating older material. Ray Charles had revived Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind” the previous year and had done a version of “My Bonnie” in 1959. German audiences often did not entirely understand the English lyrics, especially the American colloquialisms that pervaded rock-and-roll recordings by people like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Choosing songs like “My Bonnie” and “Ain’t She Sweet” provided texts with which German audiences might already be familiar. Sheridan would record “My Bonnie.”
Long hours, amphetamines, and existentialist students had transformed the Beatles. With a repertoire built from bar requests, current hits, and personal American favorites (as well as their own first compositions), the Beatles had become avid devotees of rock and pop, developing a style that drew increasingly larger audiences. The heart of the Beatles’ growing success lay in their ability to adapt to their diverse audiences. Hamburg in particular had tested and pushed them to their physical, mental, and musical limits, putting the musical and social structure of the band in crisis. They had only arrived the previous September and had been sent home in December ignominy; but they learned quickly.
Gradually over the spring of 1961, bassist Stu Sutcliffe had withdrawn from the Beatles and returned to art, winning admission to study in Hamburg with Eduardo Paolozzi and gaining the opportunity to continue living with his girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr. In his place, McCartney had reluctantly taken over the responsibilities of providing the melodic bottom of the ensemble, a role he would apply to maximum effect as he discovered how much the bass line contributed to harmonic direction. To get there, however, the musician first converted a guitar into a bass (cutting bass strings from a piano to satisfy the required physics), then borrowed and played Sutcliffe’s bass, and, after returning to Hamburg, purchased what would become his iconic Hofner “violin” bass. The instrument’s unusual symmetrical shape and thin neck proved perfect for the left-handed guitarist.
When they arrived at the Friedrich-Ebert-Gymnasium on 23 June 1961 to play in the high school’s impressive auditorium, they encountered an environment dramatically different from the Top Ten Club. The room’s natural reverberation would have surprised the band at first after playing in the acoustically dry clubs and dancehalls of Liverpool and Hamburg and whetted their appetite to play similar venues in the future. But most of all, the thrill of recording pushed the adrenaline through their veins.
“My Bonnie” gained modest recognition in Germany; but for the Beatles the disk represented their official entry into the recording industry. Polydor released the disk, which included “The Saints (When the Saints Go Marching In)” on the B-side, as Tony Sheridan and the Beat Boys. Although “The Beatles” had served them well as a name playing on the Reeperbahn, the name sounded too close to a German slang term for “penises” to serve as an appropriate name for the staid parent company of Polydor, Deutsche Grammophone.
The disk would open unexpected doors for the Beatles. They would also record “Ain’t She Sweet” (with Lennon singing) and “Cry for a Shadow” (an instrumental credited to Lennon and Harrison); but when a customer entered Brian Epstein’s store later that year asking for a copy of “My Bonnie,” their world would begin to change.
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.