Every major news source last week carried news of Andy White’s death at 85. The Guardian’s “Early Beatles Drummer Andy White Dies at 85” represents a typical article title intended to attract readers albeit with misinformation that suggests that a particular two-minute-and-twenty-second episode from his life should be why we remember him.
The late guitarist Big Jim Sullivan described Andy White as “fearless,” summing up the calm and determination that the Scotsman brought to recording sessions. The drummer, who would be in the studio before anyone else with his kit in place, anonymously participated in the creation numerous hit records and with his passing we lose one more contact with a remarkable era in music.
In the sixties London, the limited number of available recording studios proved a formidable challenge for the young British musicians who flooded the popular music market. The major record companies that controlled the primary studios largely reserved access to their facilities for their artists, but, with hundreds of acts wanting to record, studios still had to limit sessions to three-hour slots. For each of these three-hour sessions, the company (and EMI, Decca, and Pye) expected an artist-and-repertoire manager (later called a producer) to create four completed songs. This context placed considerable pressure on musicians whom recording managers expected perfect performances of music they had only just encountered.
Professionals called the recording fright experienced by amateurs “red-light fever”—the inability to play when the balance engineer lit recording sign—and the industry came to rely upon a core community of musicians who could deliver on command. Everyone would be in the studio and ready to go when the union clock started and usually had about thirty minutes to create and to complete a convincing interpretation of a musical idea. In this endeavor Andy White established the musical bedrock upon which others built. Such was the situation on Monday 11 September 1962.
Ringo Starr has described the experience of arriving at EMI’s facilities in Abbey Road thinking he would be recording only to discover another drummer and his kit already set up and ready to go. A week earlier, the Liverpudlian had played on a version of the song “Love Me Do” and was ready to redo it along with two other Lennon-McCartney songs: “P.S., I Love You” and “Please Please Me.” But artist-and-repertoire manager George Martin had been unhappy with the 4 September session and, although he was giving The Beatles another chance, he did so with the condition that they use a session drummer. His assistant Ron Richards called Andy White.
Andy was never a member of The Beatles, but he did belong to an elite community of musicians called by recording managers to save the day every day, if not with their musical ability, then with a sense of humor that could diffuse the tension. Make no mistake, Andy White had high standards that he brought to everything he did, as well as a wit as dry as the Sahara.
Raised in Glasgow, his baker father loved drumming and encouraged Andy in this pursuit, which in this context meant pipe bands. After joining the Boy Scouts in order to play in their band, he went on to play with the Rutherglen Pipe Band, reveling in the discipline of the tight musicianship that such ensembles embrace with passion. Andy of course also played in dance bands, but remained an amateur musician until bandleader Vic Lewis heard him and extended an invitation to go professional. He would tour with the Lewis band for six years in the early fifties, including opening for Bill Haley and His Comets during their February 1957 UK tour.
With his innate musical ear, Andy quickly took to rock ‘n’ roll with television producer Jack Good choosing him to be in The Firing Squad, the resident band for his influential show Boy Meets Girls that performed weekly on live broadcasts. In that context, White developed his reputation as an undaunted studio master and a regular member of the backing bands for a long list of British artists such as Tom Jones, Lulu, Dusty Springfield, Joe Brown, and many others, including The Beatles.
In retirement, he moved to New Jersey in the United States and returned to his first love, pipe bands, which he coached for decades. It seems entirely fitting that Andy passed away on 11 November, Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth, a date commonly celebrated with the pipe-and-drum music he so loved. A humble gentleman, he seldom sought the spotlight instead devoting his life to making other people sound good. We will remember him by his good works.
Featured image: Cupcake Band. (c) tgsdesigner via iStock.