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With the Beatles
By Alistair Taylor
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2003 Alistair Taylor and Stafford Hildred
All rights reserved.
The advert in the Sits Vac column of the Liverpool Echo read, 'Young man wanted for position as sales assistant in city centre music store.' It might not look too exciting now, but at the time it promised a whole new life. The year was 1960 and I was 25 years old and stuck in a dull job as a clerk in a timber yard in Liverpool. I had worked in shops before and worked my way up as one of the bright young men of the John Lewis organisation. I'd left my home town of Runcorn for a new career in London until an accident in a supermarket damaged my spine and left me jobless.
Until then, my life had been on the up and up. In London, I shared a flat in Battersea and met the lady who is still my wife. My flatmate Nick and I used to see this gorgeous girl coming home from work every night and, in order to get to know her, we had a party. We put an invitation through her letter box and, to my delight, she accepted. We had asked her really for Nick's benefit, because I already had a girlfriend. But when she arrived, I opened the door and it was just like – Bang – we were instantly in love. Five days later we were engaged.
She was called Lesley, and she was gorgeous. I still think she is. We got married on Christmas Eve 1959 at Caxton Hall at nine o'clock in the morning. She had to go back to work because she managed two jewellery shops, one in Regent Street and one in Burlington Arcade. As she worked on commission, she wasn't going to take time off just before Christmas.
At four minutes past nine, we were outside on the pavement getting into a taxi that dropped her off to work. All her family thought that I had got her in the club. We had only known each other for five days when we got engaged and within a month we were married.
Life was fantastic until I slipped a disc lifting a heavy package at work. I was in agony and in plaster for eight months. I couldn't work for ages so I lost my job without any compensation. We moved back up to Liverpool where it was cheaper to live and I got a job as a clerk in a firm of timber importers. I was terribly bored. We were newly married. I was so unhappy. Lesley got fed up with me coming in every night moaning and demanded to know what would make me happy.
'I'd like to get back to retailing,' I heard myself saying. I realised that it was contact with people that I missed the most. I loved working in a shop because of the constant flow of different people who come into your life. Lesley understood. She was a sales lady. I just love the atmosphere of serving people. I started looking in the Liverpool Echo and, lo and behold, I saw the fateful ad: 'Young man wanted' ... That was late in 1960. It concluded: 'Apply in writing to Mr Brian Epstein, NEMS Ltd., Whitechapel', so that was what I did.
I had never heard of Brian Epstein but I knew NEMS, the record shop, very well because I was a big record buyer. I was weaned on buying my first ever records there. I thought that was an incredible opportunity – to get back into selling and to move into the exciting world of music. I got a letter back asking me to come for an interview and along I went.
My interview was in the first floor office at Whitechapel where I was confronted by a very well-spoken, elegantly-dressed young man. The meeting went on for about two hours. It was great from the moment we met. We just clicked. We talked about all sorts of things. We talked about music, life, Liverpool, just about everything. Although our future was to be bound together in pop, we were both devoted to very different sorts of music. I loved jazz and Brian was passionate about classical music, particularly Mozart and Beethoven.
Our relationship was forged in that very first meeting. I knew straight away that he was 'queer', as we unkindly called it then. I wasn't. He knew I wasn't. And he knew I knew he was. And it wasn't a problem for either of us. Remember, this was at a time when homosexuality was about as socially acceptable as bear-baiting. It was a shameful and illegal practice that was widely deplored by all so-called right-thinking people. So this was quite a test for Brian to give me. Throughout our conversation, there was this subtext bubbling away under the surface.
There was a chemistry between us right from the start that is very, very hard to explain. That initial encounter turned quite quickly from being a formal interview into a discussion between friends. He could be so precise when he wanted to be. I will always remember him sitting back and saying, 'I can't pay you enough as a shop assistant', which was what the job was. 'But I have been thinking of having a personal assistant. Would you be interested?'
Of course, I said, 'Yes'. My starting salary was £10 a week and I couldn't have been more delighted. I was earning £7 10s a week at the timber yard and I was bored out of my brain there.
Before I left his office, I was even given my first job. Brian had some bullfighting posters which needed framing. Would I be so good as to take care of that?
Of course, a lot of my work was at the counter but afterwards I would stay behind and do the ordering with Brian. He had this incredible 'GOS' system, which stood for General Over Stock. NEMS became a legend for its ability to get any record at all in those days. People came from as far afield as London to see how this relatively small shop in Liverpool had built up such a fantastic reputation for serving its customers. It was so bloody simple. On every album there was a brown sleeve with a different coloured tag on. When you sold one you left the tag dangling. And at night, after the shop had closed, Brian and I would go round and, guided by the tags, order a replacement for every record we had sold.
Brian was never unwilling to supply a record. He took enormous pride in that. If a record was available anywhere in the world and people wanted to buy it, then Brian wanted to sell it. And he would get it. Even if it took him a year.
Brian was uniquely gifted. He could listen to a record along with me and I would hear nothing special and quickly write off its chances. Brian would smile quietly and say, 'All right, Alistair. Order 250.' I would be astonished.
We had two shops – the large Whitechapel base and the small Great Charlotte Street shop. But that order was always right. Brian could smell a hit record from a million miles away. We both hated pop music. I think I beat him once, maybe twice. But usually he was 100 per cent right.
When Ray Charles' version of 'Georgia on my Mind' was released, Brian was instantly impressed. 'It is sure to be number one,' he said in those elegantly modulated, carefully measured tones. I burst out laughing. I loved the song but I was convinced that never in a million years would it be a hit. Brian backed his judgement with the wager of a large gin and tonic. And, sure enough, it cost me the price of his drink and taught me never to underestimate Brian's uncanny ability to predict a record's popularity.
I first heard John Leyton sing 'Johnny Remember Me' on an early television soap opera called Compact. We knew the record was going to be featured thanks to the enthusiasm of the rep from Top Rank and we wanted to hear it. In those days before video recorders, Brian had a dinner date which he did not want to break so I was delegated to listen and assess. I enjoyed the programme well enough but the record left me cold.
The next day, I gravely advised Brian that five copies in each shop would be more than enough. When this order was despatched to Top Rank, the rep was so disappointed he appeared in the shop with a copy of the record to see if Brian could be persuaded to change his mind. Brian and I listened together and I remained imperiously dismissive. But there was something in the lyrics that Brian liked. He asked for it to be played again and then, with just the slightest flicker of a smile, said, 'We'll take 250 copies, please.' By then, I knew much better than to protest. Brian was clearly confident that 'Johnny Remember Me' was going to be a considerable hit. I still thought it was deeply forgettable.
But Brian, of course, was right. The day it was released, we experienced an enormous rush of people wanting to listen to those haunting lyrics and it went rapidly into the charts. Our competitors on Merseyside had reacted in the same way as me and had hardly taken any copies. But thanks to Brian's ear for a hit, we had a sales rush. Brian was delighted and the rep confided that Brian's taste was rarely wrong.
Orders from NEMS were always carefully examined in the London offices of the big record companies. They knew that Brian Epstein was an expert at predicting the public reaction to a new record.
In those early days, he was not ambitious. Brian was a very easily bored kind of guy. He had done it with the furniture stores and with the record shop and suddenly something new appeared.
We became close quite soon. At 5.30pm when we closed the shop, he and I would then get together and do the ordering. And afterwards, we would go out for a gin and tonic at the Basnett Bar at the end of the day before I went home. Years later, I discovered to my surprise that the Basnett Bar was a hangout for gays. Not that they were called that then. Gay just meant happy in those innocent times.
I'd have a plate of cockles and a gin and tonic with Brian. Often, if we differed about the chances of a record becoming a hit, we would wager our usual bet of a gin and tonic. I always paid my debts and it always seemed to be me who lost the bet.
As we became more friendly, Brian would often say, 'Let's go and have dinner at the Rembrandt Club.' I loved eating there with Brian because he was such good company. We'd laugh and we'd giggle for hours. It never even crossed my mind to worry that I was sitting enjoying myself so much with a homosexual.
It annoys me that so much crap is talked about Brian nowadays. The common legend now is that Brian fell in love with John and that everything followed from that. That's total bullshit. Excuse my French, but it's nonsense. Peter Brown's appalling book explores Brian's homosexual side in grisly detail and I'm not convinced by half of it.
Brian was always looking for some new horizon to head for. He got tired of things very quickly. Brian was an amazing man. My wife Lesley reckons that I was in love with him. And she is right. I did love him, but not in a homosexual way. The idea of going to bed with Brian, or with any man, makes me feel physically sick. It always has. But in a non-physical way, I still loved Brian. He was bright and funny and brilliant. He simply oozed charisma. Brian Epstein brightened up any room he walked into, he couldn't help it. We just hit it off straight away. There was something about Brian that inspired loyalty and devotion in me. I think he knew that. And he also knew that those qualities were not going to be found in any of the men he slept with. He kept them well away from the business.
Early on in our relationship, I remember he was going to go off to Spain. He loved the glamour and the sunshine of Spain. And he loved the spectacle of bullfighting. He insisted, 'Alistair, you must come over.' I got a cab straight over and my task when I arrived was to help him choose what clothes he was going to take with him.
He said, 'Do you think I need a dinner jacket?'
I said, 'Brian, for goodness' sake, you're going on holiday. You're going to relax, not dress up. No, of course, you don't need a dinner jacket in Spain.'
After about two days of his holiday, Brian rang me and said, 'You silly bugger. What do I need tonight? I've had to hire a dinner jacket.'
We both laughed.
Lots of people can say they slept with him and some of them have, but I honestly don't feel there was anyone closer during our time together. He could turn to me when things were rough and know he was going to get 100 per cent help.
He always wore a suit and a white shirt. He was just nine months older than me. When we first met, he somehow assumed that I was older than him and it wasn't until later that he realised. He laughed, 'I've always treated you with such respect, because I thought you were one of my elders.' It became a running joke between us.
He wasn't a hard task-master, but he wasn't easy. He could be awkward and he was a real stickler that everything had to be right. After all, he was running the best record store in the north-west of England. Then it became the north of England. Then it became the whole of England. He was the first man to stock the whole of the Blue Note jazz catalogue. Because he knew I loved jazz, he invited me to share a box at the Royal Philharmonic Hall to hear Art Blakey and Thelonius Monk.
When I first met Brian, he drove a Hillman Minx and lived at home with his mum and dad, Harry and Queenie. He and his brother Clive always called them Mummy and Daddy. They lived in a large detached house on Queen's Drive in Childwall, a very prestigious address. I went there a couple of times. Harry was a lovely, kind man. He used to come into the shop and take a look around and you could tell by his manner if there was going to be trouble, if he didn't think things were being run properly.
Brian was very inventive. When he was running the furniture store, he used to turn the furniture with its back to the shop window so shoppers could see the other side. Harry went mad, but it was unique for its time.
There was a period in the early '60s when cocktail piano music became the big thing. Brian wouldn't just put record sleeves in the window. He made a display. He would have the white cloth on the table with two glasses, two chairs and the record album sleeves. Pow, what's that? It had the desired impact, and people would stop to have a closer look.CHAPTER 2
The story of how Brian Epstein became the Beatles' manager has now passed into Beatles legend, which sadly often means that the facts of the matter go straight out of the window. My memory is as fallible as the next man's, but I was there when it happened and, in spite of what you might have read or heard to the contrary in the avalanche of Beatles books and articles, this is the truth.
I got so fed up with people asking if we had a record of 'My Bonnie' by the Beatles and having to say No that I put through an order for it myself under a name I simply dreamed up. Brian refused to order records unless there was a firm order. Once there was an order, Brian's claim was that if the record existed, anywhere in the world, we could get it.
The famous story is that a guy called Raymond Jones came into the shop and asked for a record by the Beatles. I know that I invented the name and put it into the order book. But now Liverpool people claim to know 'the real' Raymond Jones and a chap with that name can miraculously recall placing the order. Rubbish. It was a name I picked at random because I wanted to get this bloody Beatles record that people kept asking about. But it wasn't by the Beatles.
I researched for weeks and found out that 'My Bonnie' was not by the Beatles. It was by Tony Sheridan and the backing group was called the Beat Brothers.
It turned out that the Beat Brothers were the Beatles. But we had to order it from Polydor in Germany. The minimum was 25 copies, which I ordered and had them shipped over. I bought one myself and Brian stuck his own handwritten notice up in the window saying 'Beatles Records for Sale'. And they were gone inside a couple of hours.
We played it and Brian and I both thought it was garbage, but the reaction it inspired among Liverpool record-buyers was exciting and impossible to ignore. It was a great, noisy, wonderful record. I ordered another box of 25 and they went just as quickly. We sold thousands of them and we rang Polydor and tried to tell them that something remarkable was happening here but they couldn't have been less interested. They didn't want to know about a bizarre sales flurry in an obscure provincial record shop.
But that was what kindled Brian's interest in the Beatles. Several weeks later, Brian walked into the shop and asked, 'Do you remember that record we sold by those people the Beatles? Well, they are playing over here at The Cavern. Do you know where The Cavern is?'
It was only 200 yards from where we were standing! I used to go often when it was a jazz club, in the days before the groups took over the music scene. Yet Brian was blissfully unaware of its existence. He suggested we took a look at this strangely popular group of musicians called the Beatles on our way to lunch. Brian had seen a poster advertising the Beatles 'direct from Hamburg'. People insist today that we must have known they were a Liverpool group by then. Well, maybe we should have known. But the truth is, we didn't.
Excerpted from With the Beatles by Alistair Taylor. Copyright © 2003 Alistair Taylor and Stafford Hildred. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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