Obituary: Johnny Guitar

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The Independent Culture
"THIS NAME isn't getting us very far," Alan Caldwell said to his Raving Texans one night in 1959. "We'll call ourselves the Hurricanes and change our own names. I'll be Rory Storm, Johnny Byrne can be Johnny Guitar and Ritchie Starkey can be Ringo Starr." And so, with Lu Walters ("Wally") and Ty Brian (also pseudonyms), Rory Storm and the Hurricanes became the most popular band on Merseyside. That is, until the Beatles came along.

Two school-leavers, the athletic Rory Storm and the lean Johnny Guitar, had formed a skiffle group in 1957, mostly playing in the Old Swan area of Liverpool. Guitar, who took his name from a 1953 western, recalled: "Our transport used to be the 61 bus to the Stanley Road junction, where we would meet Ringo standing by the roundabout with a snare drum or a washboard. We'd have problems fitting the tea-chest with the broom-pole under the stairs. We'd get off the bus at St Luke's Hall in Crosby the stars of the show."

Dave Lovelady, later the drummer with the Fourmost, remembers, "One night in St Luke's Hall was an absolute sensation. Wally had got the first electric bass guitar in Liverpool. There was always a bass on the American records but we had never seen one. The groups crowded round in amazement and the deep, booming sound when they opened with `Brand New Cadillac' was tremendous."

The reception was not so welcoming when they played the jazz-lovers' haunt, the Cavern club. They were booked as a skiffle group, but, once they took the stage, they couldn't resist the urge to rock'n'roll with "Brand New Cadillac". They were showered with hard old pennies and had their pay docked for such misbehaviour. Fortunately, the pennies exceeded their agreed fee.

Early in 1960 the group were in trouble with the authorities for starting a basement coffee-club, the Morgue, in the Old Swan area, without licensing. It was at the Morgue that George Harrison auditioned for the Beatles, having being turned down for the Hurricanes for being too young.

In April 1960, the local businessman Allan Williams publicised a concert by the American rock stars Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, at Liverpool's boxing stadium. When Cochran was killed in a car crash, Williams went ahead with the concert, supplementing the bill with local talent. The Beatles were not considered to be good enough but Rory Storm and the Hurricanes were on the bill.

Through his contacts in Hamburg, Williams booked the group into the Kaiserkeller, a night-club in the seedier part of Hamburg and a world away from the coffee-bars of Liverpool. Guitar appears to be the only Liverpool musician to have kept a diary and his entry for their first day there, 1 October 1960, reads, "Kaiserkeller. We played six hours and finished at 6am. It was hard work." The next day reads "We had to get up and start playing again. We finished at 5am." It ended shambolically in December:

The Beatles and us wrecked the stage. Bruno sacked Rory and said he would have to pay 65 marks damages and put the police onto him. We got a job in a fab place but the Beatles got deported for almost burning down the Bambi Kino. Rory got home for free, but we all had to bluff our way home. I was sick in the boat, all over the floor: it was very rough and all our souvenirs were smashed.

Rory Storm and the Hurricanes returned from Hamburg an excellent show band: Rory would tidy his blond quiff on stage with an outsize comb and once even jumped from the balcony of the Majestic Ballroom in Birkenhead to impress his fans. He broke his leg. The band had a great driving rhythm through Johnny Guitar's forceful playing which emphasised the bass strings and he worked in a solid partnership with Ringo Starr. They consolidated their reputation around Merseyside and, unlike the Beatles, accepted summer bookings in holiday camps. "John Lennon refused to work in holiday camps," said Johnny Guitar. "He said it would be like playing in Belsen."

By August 1962, the Beatles were dissatisfied with their drummer, Pete Best, and offered the place to Ringo Starr. Rory Storm and the Hurricanes were at Butlin's in Skegness and Johnny Guitar recalled, "We had a great band then. We couldn't wait for Rory to take his break so that we could get into some hard, instrumental rock'n'roll." But Ringo accepted the drum-seat with the Beatles. "It was hardly surprising," says Ritchie Galvin of Earl Preston and the TTs. "Rory was a great showman but he was a dire singer. No wonder Ringo said yes."

Rory Storm and the Hurricanes never recovered from the body blow. One of the Butlin's guests helped them out initially and then they had a succession of drummers, most of whom would have success with other bands - Gibson Kemp, Keef Hartley, Ian Broad, Trevor Morais and Brian Johnson. Rory Storm commented, "I make 'em and they take 'em." Eventually the band stabilised with Jimmy Tushington, the seventh musician to be passed Ringo's red suit to wear. Storm also supplemented the band with a second vocalist: Vince Earl, who now plays Ron Dixon in the Channel 4 soap Brookside.

Alvin Stardust, who married Rory's sister, Iris, saw them perform: "Rory Storm and the Hurricanes was a bit like the Stones were later on. Listen to them in concert and it's totally exciting. Listen to the tape afterwards and there's a fair amount out of tune. The drums are out of time and the guitars are off-key but it doesn't detract from the magic."

The Beatles started their run of No 1 singles in 1963 and the small Oriole Records were quick to react by bringing a mobile studio to the Rialto Ballroom and recording one Liverpool group after another. Rory Storm and the Hurricanes contribute five tracks to the resulting LPs, This is Mersey Beat, volumes 1 and 2, including their stage favourite, "I Can Tell", and "Dr Feelgood" with a blistering guitar solo from Johnny Guitar.

A single, "America", from West Side Story, followed in 1964. Guitar recalled, "Brian Epstein had a guilty conscience about depriving us of Ringo and putting him in the Beatles. We met him in the Blue Angel and he arranged a recording session in London. All our expenses would be paid and he would choose the songs. `America' was a good record but it wasn't commercial."

Johnny Guitar, true to his rock'n' roll roots, was suspicious of any music written after 1962 and the group never climbed on the Beatles' bandwagon. "Rory would never do any Beatles songs," said Guitar, "He said he wouldn't lower himself that far, but the truth is, we couldn't play them. They were too technical for us."

In 1967 Ty Brian died from complications following appendicitis, but by then the beat scene was all but over. Rory Storm disbanded the group and became a disc jockey, dying himself in an accident in 1972. Johnny Guitar had joined the ambulance service and was on call the day his friend died. He made a success of his job but, with his angular features and thin frame, he always looked a rock star.

Billy Fury played Stormy Tempest, a clear nod to Rory Storm and his group, in the 1973 film That'll Be the Day. A musical about the group, A Need For Heroes, was staged on Merseyside in 1987. It encouraged Johnny Guitar to reform the Hurricanes and his forceful playing was heard at functions for the Merseycats charity. When he succumbed to motor neurone disease, his biggest regret was that he couldn't play the guitar any more.

A human magpie, Johnny Guitar had taken posters, tickets and whatever memorabilia he could find from the shows he played. He had suitcases packed with Merseybeat memorabilia. He sold some at Beatles conventions but he was working with the former editor of Mersey Beat newspaper Bill Harry on an illustrated book about his veritable treasure trove.

John Byrne (Johnny Guitar), guitarist: born Liverpool 4 December 1939; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Liverpool 18 August 1999.