Founder of the Cavern Club
Friday 13 January 2006
Alan Lionel Sytner, club owner and car dealer: born Liverpool 10 February 1935; twice married; died Cannes, France 11 January 2006.
In 1957 Alan Sytner became the founding owner of the Cavern Club in Liverpool and, although he sold his interest two years later, his contribution to the ensuing beat boom could not be overlooked. Certainly not by Sytner himself. He told me in 1998,
Without me, no Cavern: without me, no Beatles: without me, none of those bloody things really. Oh, obviously Lennon and McCartney became geniuses and great artists, but answer me this - would they have flourished without the Cavern? If the Beatles had only been playing church halls in Maghull, would anyone have taken any notice?
Alan Sytner, who was born in Liverpool in 1935, was the son of the noted docklands GP Joe Sytner, but the medical profession was not for him. From the age of 14, he spent his school holidays in Paris and he soaked up the music and ambience of the Bohemian night-clubs, in particular the cellar club Le Caveau.
When Sytner was 21, an insurance policy on his life matured and he had £400. He started the 21 jazz club in Croxteth Road, close to the city centre. It proved popular and he knew that the way to go was a purpose-built jazz club in the centre itself. An estate agent showed him a dingy old cellar among the warehouses in Mathew Street. It was a replica of Le Caveau and, as the narrow streets reminded him of the Latin Quarter in Paris, Sytner felt he could bring the Left Bank to Liverpool. Helped by his father, he bought the premises and he took the bold step of not having a drinks licence, which made administration easier and the club safer. There were pubs nearby but the implication was that you came for the music.
Missing the Christmas trade as it was not ready in time, the Cavern opened on 16 January 1957 with the Merseysippi Jazz Band, the Wall City Jazzmen, the Ralph Watmough Jazz Band and the Coney Island Skiffle Group. Over 2,000 people turned up, although only 600 could enter. Sytner, quite rightly, regarded this as magnificent publicity.
Because of the musical polarity of the time, Sytner devoted different nights to traditional and modern jazz and to skiffle, but rock'n'roll was vetoed. On 7 August 1957, John Lennon's group, the Quarry Men, were featured:
I knew John Lennon quite well as he lived in the same road as me. He was 16 or 17 when they did a skiffle night and they couldn't play to save their lives.
Their drummer Colin Hanton recalled,
We did some skiffle numbers to start off with but we also did rock'n'roll. John Lennon was passed a note and, very pleased, he said to the audience, "We've had a request." He opened it up and it was from Alan Sytner saying, "Cut out the bloody rock'n'roll."
Many years later Paul McCartney referred to Sytner as "an odious little man", but Sytner was nonplussed:
I don't care. That talent night was a "no talent night" when they were around.
An entertaining, ebullient speaker, Sytner dismissed what he read about the Beatles:
This story of Brian Epstein having to discover where the Cavern was so that he could see the Beatles is absolute crap. I knew Brian well and he had often been at the club to see jazz.
Unfortunately for Sytner, the Cavern's appalling ventilation fell short of legal requirements and it was expensive to fix. He also lost money on riverboat shuffles on the Mersey. By 1959, the Cavern, despite its membership of 25,000, was in financial difficulties, although Sytner maintained that it was not his fault. "I had terrible advice. There wasn't anyone telling me not to buy another sports car or go to Paris." Ironically, he was to sell the club in October 1959 to one of the auditors, a 32-year-old clerk, Ray McFall. McFall realised that jazz was losing its popularity and he must embrace rock'n'roll.
Sytner moved to London and managed the Marquee jazz club. Ronnie Scott tried to interest him in a new jazz club, but it was not big enough to give both a living.
Eventually, Sytner went into a BMW dealership with his brother, Frank, a former racing driver, in Nottingham. He still promoted jazz concerts from time to time, by visiting American artists.
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