Chris Curtis

Original drummer with the Searchers who left the group in 1966
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Chris Curtis was the mercurial, maverick drummer with the beat group the Searchers. They had three No 1 records in the 1960s and, Beatles apart, they are recognised as the most significant group to have emerged from the Merseybeat era. Curtis chose the material, played a crucial role in the arrangements, wrote some fine songs and often played concerts standing up to ensure he would be noticed. It was a combination of his ego and his hyperactivity that lost him his place in the group.

Christopher Crummy (Chris Curtis), drummer and vocalist: born Oldham, Lancashire 26 August 1941; died Liverpool 28 February 2005.

Chris Curtis was the mercurial, maverick drummer with the beat group the Searchers. They had three No 1 records in the 1960s and, Beatles apart, they are recognised as the most significant group to have emerged from the Merseybeat era. Curtis chose the material, played a crucial role in the arrangements, wrote some fine songs and often played concerts standing up to ensure he would be noticed. It was a combination of his ego and his hyperactivity that lost him his place in the group.

He was born Christopher Crummy in Oldham in 1941, the family moving back to Liverpool when he was four, and was educated at St Mary's College, Crosby, where he started playing the violin under duress. Although always practising his Roman Catholic faith he had a rebellious streak and had shoulder-length hair long before it was fashionable.

Working as a clerk in a furniture store, Crummy met the young musician Mike Pender in the city's leading instrument shop, Frank Hessy's, and Pender told him that his group were looking for a drummer for that evening's performance at Wilson Hall. Needing no encouragement, Crummy volunteered his services and after playing with them that night he became a member of the fledgling Searchers.

From 1960 the Searchers - John McNally (lead guitar), Mike Pender (rhythm guitar), Tony Jackson (bass) and, with his new name, Chris Curtis (drums) - became a staple part of the burgeoning Liverpool scene. They had taken their name from the 1956 John Ford film The Searchers and for a time they had a big-voiced lead singer in Johnny Sandon, but he left to play some US army bases in France with the Remo Four. Pender developed more confidence and soon the band had three lead vocalists in Jackson, Pender and Curtis, with some useful backup from John McNally.

The Searchers went to Hamburg in 1962 and played the Star-Club. The combination of long hours and the friendship of the British beat singer Tony Sheridan enabled them to develop their act. The Star-Club was in the city's red-light district but a church was sandwiched in between the clubs. Curtis recalled,

We finished at five or six o'clock on a Sunday morning and I went to church as a good way of winding down. It was a convent church and there were a lot of nuns there. It was great.

At the end of 1961, the Beatles acquired a manager, Brian Epstein, who was to recruit many other local acts, including Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and Cilla Black. But he turned down the Searchers, because Tony Jackson was drunk on stage at their audition. The Searchers had residencies at the Iron Door and the Orrell Park Ballroom so the owner of the Iron Door, Les Ackerley, became their manager and persuaded the Pye Records producer Tony Hatch to take them and another band, the Undertakers. This was a Pyrrhic victory for Ackerley as he was soon replaced by the London manager Tito Burns. With some reluctance, Curtis realised that his long hair would have to go if the group were to have chart success.

The Searchers' demonstration record of "Sweets for My Sweet" reveals that Tony Hatch only needed to make minimal changes to secure their first hit. The song was taken faster than the original by the American band the Drifters and had an infectious clean-cut enthusiasm. Jackson took the lead vocal and the rest provided the "oo-oo-oo" responses. The single catapulted to No 1 in August 1963 following an appearance on ITV's Thank Your Lucky Stars. The follow-up, "Sugar and Spice", went to No 2 but none of the group cared for it, feeling it was a weak copy of their previous success.

"Needles and Pins", the Searchers' third Pye single, had originally been recorded by Jackie DeShannon and they created a jangling effect by double-tracking John McNally's standard six-stringed guitar. The Byrds were influenced by the Searchers when they recorded "Mr Tambourine Man" and they were to build upon that 12-string sound as their own trademark. Curtis commented in 1998,

If you haven't got the listeners in the first few seconds, you haven't got them, and we had them with that. That opening chord on "Needles and Pins" will never be topped. It must have been a good riff as the Byrds have used it countless times.

Jackson had been disillusioned during the recording of "Needles and Pins" as Curtis, among many other complaints, did not think his nasal delivery was appropriate for the song. The Searchers continued their success with "Don't Throw Your Love Away" and "Someday We're Gonna Love Again", but Jackson left in 1964. His replacement, again coming through Curtis, was a London musician, Frank Allen, one of Cliff Bennett's Rebel Rousers. The Searchers returned to Jackie DeShannon releases for "When You Walk in the Room", another defining moment from the 1960s.

Curtis had found most of their material and was especially pleased when he transformed the obscure "Goodbye My Love" to their commercial template. The Searchers' B-sides often displayed their own aptitude for songwriting and in later years Curtis regretted that he had not spent more time developing this talent. His compositions include "It's All Been a Dream", "I Pretend I'm With You" and a Top Twenty single he wrote with Mike Pender, "He's Got No Love", though Curtis acknowledged that this was derivative of the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time".

Albums made by the group, with amazing rapidity, were Meet the Searchers (1963), Sugar and Spice (1963), It's the Searchers (1964), Sounds Like Searchers (1965) and Take Me For What I'm Worth (1965). The first albums included several of their stage favourites, including "Farmer John" and "Ain't Gonna Kiss Ya". Curtis's voice was at its best on "This Empty Place" and he experimented with percussion by double-tracking on "No-one Else Could Love Me".

The Take Me For What I'm Worth album was Curtis's excursion into the Byrds' world of folk-rock and the rest of the group were uncomfortable with this change. Also, some critics mark the group's decline from the relatively poor chart placing of the Malvina Reynolds folk song "What Have They Done to the Rain". In reality, this was a very audacious and courageous release by a beat group: the song describes the after-effects of a nuclear disaster and the group has a stripped-down acoustic sound featuring Curtis on bongos. Curtis was to comment,

It had a very profound message and, considering people didn't know what they were listen-

ing to, it did very well. It was the first green, ecological hit record and the most money Malvina Reynolds ever earned was from us.

By now Curtis was leading a showbiz life and attending devil-may-care parties with Dusty Springfield and Lionel Bart. When he had an accident during a tour of Australia the other group members showed such a lack of concern that there was a mutual parting of the ways in 1966. He was given a settlement of £5,000 in lieu of all future claims, something he bitterly resented in years to come, although it was generous at the time. Curtis was certain the Searchers would falter without him and that he would succeed as a songwriter, producer and performer. His first move, in order to annoy Tito Burns, was to cover the Searchers' next single, "Have You Ever Been Lonely", with Paul and Barry Ryan. The song suffered from split sales.

Curtis also produced Alma Cogan and wrote with Sharon Sheeley, but he did little of consequence. He formed a new group and their single, "Aggravation", is a collector's item because the musicians soon left him and formed Deep Purple.

He took civil-service employment in Liverpool but his problems were exacerbated by "sick building syndrome". He slept fitfully and listened to the radio non-stop. He was prone to calling his friends, often in the middle of the night, to draw their attention to what was being broadcast. He would give away items from his record collection and his Searchers memorabilia, often to complete strangers.

Curtis was ambivalent about his years in the Searchers, but he gave me his first public interview in 1998 for BBC Radio Merseyside. The catalyst was my own interview with John McNally, which fired his enthusiasm to perform again. Fans were delighted when he sang at the Merseycats charity evenings but he could never complete an entire song and any performance was likely to be a medley of eight or nine pieces, with the musicians doing their best to keep up.

Spencer Leigh

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