Obituary: Johnny Guitar

"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.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence