Fifty years ago tomorrow the Beatles released their first album. Here, Stuart Bathgate tells how an unsung Scot played a big part in its success.
IT’S NOT the classic Beatles line-up we all know, but that’s how it was one morning at Abbey Road, half a century ago. It was a day on which some of the best-loved popular music in history was recorded – and the life of a Glaswegian session drummer changed forever. While the story of Edinburgh-born Stuart Sutcliffe, the so-called fifth Beatle who left the band before it made the big time, is well known, the involvement of compatriot Andy White in the Fab Four’s early success is a tale that has rarely surfaced over the following 50 years.
The sessions for what would become The Beatles’ first album – Please Please Me, released on 22 March, 1963 – had been going on for some time when producer George Martin decided that a different ingredient was required. The band had not long replaced Pete Best with Ringo Starr, but the new recruit’s contribution to the sound was still not quite right.
Enter White. At 32, the Scot was a seasoned performer, and unlike Starr knew his way around a recording studio. Time was tight and budgets were minute, and Martin needed someone who would get it spot-on first time.
And so White found himself drumming on Love Me Do, the band’s debut single for Parlophone, P.S. I Love You, which became the B-side, and Please Please Me, their second single and first of many No 1s. He hadn’t heard the songs before, and he had only the merest notion of who the Beatles were. So he went in, did his stuff, and left £5 richer for doing the session. Plus an extra ten bob for bringing along his own drum kit.
Fifty years on, if White had had an extra fiver for every time he has been asked if he would have preferred royalties, he’d be a wealthy man. Instead, he lives modestly in Caldwell, New Jersey, and does not think for a moment that he was in any way short-changed. After all, in a non-financial way, it became one of the most rewarding experiences of his life.
“Remember, the pound was worth more than $4 at the time, so it was a reasonable amount of money,” he told The Scotsman. “Doing sessions we weren’t involved with royalties. I only had time for work – I didn’t even know what the session was about. It was a pretty busy morning and I was really just working with John and Paul, them being the writers. Ringo was there the whole time, though mostly just up in the box. He only came down to play the tambourine. The most I said to him was ‘Hello’.”
The tambourine was on Love Me Do. For P.S. I Love You, the hapless Starr had to shake some maracas. Perhaps anyone wondering where the fourth Beatle’s self-pitying streak came from need look no further.
In Revolution In The Head, the definitive work on the Beatles’ music, the late Ian MacDonald recalls the circumstances in which White, however briefly, became part of the group: “Martin decided that Love Me Do needed remaking with a session drummer because Starr had failed to ‘lock in’ his bass drum with the bass guitar. This convention of the polite studio style of the early 1960s was about to vanish under the impact of loose-swinging drummers like Starr and the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts. However in 1962 Starr’s virtue as an intuitive time-keeper had yet to be recognised. Andy White, a regular player on EMI sessions, sat in on drums while a disenchanted Starr tapped a superfluous reinforcement to the snare on tambourine.”
The Starr version of Love Me Do was issued as the A-side of the Beatles’ first single in the UK. White’s was released on later versions of the single and on the subsequent debut album. MacDonald also notes White’s contribution to P.S. I Love You. The Scot can be heard “adding rim-shots to what is basically a brisk cha-cha”, he writes. Yet Revolution In The Head, exhaustively researched though it is, makes no mention of White when it comes to Please Please Me. Similarly, other works about the Beatles fail to credit him with any contribution to the title track of the album.
White himself, however, is adamant. The proof is there, he insists, for those with ears to hear it. “From the drum sound I can tell that I was on it, because it was a vastly different sound to Ringo’s drum set at that time,” he said. “This is before he got the Ludwig kit. Each drummer gets an individual sound, first of all by the way they tune the drums and then by the way they play the drums. So that’s why I recognise the sound of the drums and the way they were played. It was John, Paul, George and Andy. Me, not Ringo.”
Having said that, he does not harbour any grievance. Though proud of his association with the most famous group of all time, White has always accepted that it would have been unrealistic to expect any lasting involvement. Somehow he could never see himself visiting the Maharishi in India, or even posing on the zebra crossing on Abbey Road itself. “I was a decade older. I don’t think my hair would have been long enough for them anyway.”
But he liked the Beatles’ music, all right, and by the time that debut album came out he was convinced they were a cut above the hundreds of other young groups sprouting up across the country. “Oh yes, I liked the songs. In fact, I was impressed, because most of the time in those days groups were just doing copies of American stuff. The Beatles’ stuff was different, and I think that’s part of the reason they made such a big impact.”
Of the 14 tracks on the record, eight were originals by Lennon and McCartney – an unusually high ratio for a band in the early 1960s. A couple of albums later and every track was self-penned, with even the much-maligned Ringo eventually getting in on the act. And somewhere along the way, the drummer who was sidelined by Martin for those early tracks became quite proficient. Lennon, when asked once if his bandmate was the best drummer in the world, cuttingly replied that he was “not even the best drummer in the Beatles”, but at his best Starr made a significant and highly individual contribution to the collective. One listen to Rain, the B side of Paperback Writer, should convince anyone of that.
Meanwhile, as Starr steadily mastered his craft, his temporary replacement remained in demand as a session drummer throughout the 1960s, playing on a number of hits, including Shout by his fellow Glaswegian, Lulu. “She was cute, actually,” White recalled. “She was very nice.”
Then he spent more than a decade on a magical mystery tour of his own, in tow with the veteran entertainer Marlene Dietrich. “I worked with Marlene for 11 years, touring round the world. That was a great gig, of course. But the poor soul eventually fell and broke her leg. She was in her seventies by then.”
Not long after that, employment as a drummer came to an end, White married Thea, his second wife, and settled in the USA. He plays the drums as vigorously as ever, though these days mostly while teaching far younger men. “I started playing drums in the Scouts when I was about 12,” he says. “It was just a wee pipe band, marching around, but it was a good start for me. I moved to the States in 1983 and I did most of my teaching once I moved over here. At one time I was teaching four or five bands a week. One of them was the NYPD band – that was a big band.
“There are a lot of good players here, and there’s a big organisation of pipe bands. I still do some teaching for an Irish band called the Sons of the Shillelagh – you can’t get more Irish than that.” And you can’t get more English than the Beatles. Except, that is, for the small part of their legacy which is really from Scotland.
1 I Saw Her Standing There (by John Lennon & Paul McCartney). Lead vocal: McCartney
2 Misery (Lennon & McCartney). Lead vocals: Lennon & McCartney
3 Anna (Go to Him) (Arthur Alexander). Lead vocal: Lennon
4 Chains (Gerry Goffin & Carole King). Lead vocal: George Harrison
5 Boys (Luther Dixon & Wes Farrell). Lead vocal: Ringo Starr
6 Ask Me Why (Lennon & McCartney). Lead vocal: Lennon
7 Please Please Me (Lennon & McCartney). Lead vocals: Lennon & McCartney. Reached No 1 in singles chart
1 Love Me Do (by Lennon & McCartney). Lead vocals: Lennon & McCartney. Reached No 17 in singles chart
2 P.S. I Love You (by Lennon & McCartney). Lead vocal: McCartney. Was B-side of Love Me Do single
3 Baby It’s You (by Mack David, Barney Williams & Burt Bacharach). Lead vocal: Lennon
4 Do You Want to Know a Secret (by Lennon & McCartney). Lead vocal: Harrison
5 A Taste of Honey (by Bobby Scott & Ric Marlow). Lead vocal: McCartney
6 There’s a Place (by Lennon & McCartney). Lead vocals: Lennon & McCartney
7 Twist and Shout (by Phil Medley & Bert Russell). Lead vocal: Lennon