Tony Jackson

Singer and guitarist with the Searchers

Anthony Paul Jackson, singer and guitarist: born Liverpool 16 July 1940; died Nottingham 18 August 2003.

The Beatles aside, the Searchers were the most successful of the many Merseybeat groups and their hit records of the 1960s, which included "Sweets for My Sweet" and "Needles and Pins", have endured. Their lead vocalist and bass guitarist Tony Jackson known as "Black Jake", was an important part of that success.

Jackson was born in Liverpool in 1940. He grew up with a love of Frankie Laine and Johnnie Ray records and, closer to home, the skiffle music of Lonnie Donegan. Jackson's nasal vocals were heavily influenced by Donegan's style. He formed a skiffle group, the Martinis, which had a fast-changing personnel. In 1989, he told me about his early days in music:

When you're learning to play guitar and only know three chords, you end up playing Buddy Holly's stuff. Then you learn a minor chord and you find you can do all his stuff. Buddy Holly had very, very good melodies and it was perfect for me as an amateur musician with just four chords in my repertoire.

After leaving school, Jackson enrolled at Walton Technical College to become an electrician, but his heart was in music. In 1960, the Martinis, reduced to a trio, was playing the Cross Keys pub in the centre of Liverpool "for 30 bob a night and as much beer as we could drink". Jackson befriended Mike Pender and John McNally, who were keen to form a beat group. The three youngsters formed a new group with Norman McGarry on drums, but McGarry was put on the night shift at the bakery where he worked and so had to leave, causing them to recruit the charismatic Chris Curtis instead. Jackson said,

Long before Beatle mops came in, Chris had his hair right down his back. He wore leather gear before we saw the Beatles in their Hamburg clothes, so he did stand out a bit and he was a very good showman.

The group, calling themselves the Searchers after the John Wayne film, recruited a fifth member in the lead vocalist Billy Beck, who renamed himself Johnny Sandon (after the Sandon pub). Sandon had a powerful voice and, in keeping with his preferences, the group developed a repertoire of R&B and country songs. Jackson became a proficient bass guitarist, but he was uneasy about the group wearing uniforms:

We had red shirts, black trousers and white shoes. One night we were booked into the Everton Supporters Club and you can imagine how well we went down wearing red and white. We then got polo-neck sweaters and suede waistcoats from C&A which cost us about £4 each.

Johnny Sandon left the group to tour American bases in France with another Liverpool band, the Remo Four. Tony Jackson took over as main vocalist and, encouraged by the Star-Club's resident vocalist Tony Sheridan, the Searchers developed their sound in Hamburg, where the Beatles had also played. Jackson said,

We would get up and go down to the Seaman's Mission about lunchtime and have a meal down there, steak and chips and a pint of milk, and then we would go into the club and rehearse and learn new numbers. It opened at 6 o'clock or 4 o'clock at the weekends and we would do an hour spot, then one hour off or two hours off, and be going on until three or four in the morning.

We were living quite a way from the Star-Club so we never used to go back to the flat. We would go on stage, come off, sit in the dressing-room for a while, go to the bierhaus, then have a few beers and go back on again. With playing so much, all our endings were in time and we all finished on the beat. Prior to that, if you finished first, you gave the others a round of applause.

The Searchers then had a residency at the Iron Door club in Liverpool and because of the rivalry between the Iron Door and the Cavern Club, the Beatles' stomping ground, they rarely appeared at the Cavern. They did, however, audition for Brian Epstein, who became the Beatles' manager, as Jackson recalls,

Brian Epstein came to see us at the Cavern and Ray McFall, the owner, put us on the final spot. We went to the Grapes and had a few and the stage was full of equipment. My bass amp collapsed and I went straight into the audience. It didn't go down well with Brian as he didn't sign us.

The Beatles made the charts with their first Parlophone single, "Love Me Do", in October 1962, and Tony Hatch, encouraged by Margo Quantrell from the Liverpool backing vocalists the Breakaways, came to the city to see whom he might sign up:

I went on a Friday night to a club in Bootle and there were the Searchers and

the Undertakers. I wasn't sure what I could do with the Undertakers but I knew that the Searchers had a huge following and were playing hit after hit. As soon as I heard "Sweets for My Sweet", I knew I was listening to a No 1 record.

 

The Searchers recorded their cover version of the Drifters' "Sweets for My Sweet" under Hatch's guidance and the record soared to the top in August 1963, helped by an appearance on a special Liverpool edition of the ITV show Thank Your Lucky Stars. They followed the single later that year with the similar "Sugar and Spice", written by Hatch under the pseudonym of Fred Nightingale, which was kept from the top of the charts by the Beatles' "She Loves You".

For the Searchers' third single, "Needles and Pins", Hatch double-tracked Pender's voice and added a harmony from Chris Curtis. Jackson, who had already fallen out with Curtis, was unhappy about being restricted to playing bass on the record and was even less happy when the album, It's the Searchers (1964), only contained one of his lead vocals.

After playing on the Searchers' next No 1 hit, "Don't Throw Your Love Away" and also "Someday We're Gonna Love Again", Jackson decided to leave. As it happened, Curtis had already been sounding out Frank Allen from Cliff Bennett's Rebel Rousers, and so both sides were happy about the change. Jackson formed a new group, the Vibrations:

In retrospect, I wish I'd formed a group with some other Liverpool musicians, but we all got along well. We had a hit with "Bye Bye Baby" but it was all too rushed as Pye wanted something out quick.

"Bye Bye Baby" made No 38 in the charts and although they made some good records, including a new Carole King song "Stage Door", nothing more happened for the Vibrations.

Jackson set up a night club in Spain and then moved into golf club management in Kidderminster. Around 1990, he returned to performing, thinking of calling his group Tony Jackson's Researchers, but there was little call for his talents, with the Searchers (McNally and Allen) and Mike Pender's Searchers already touring extensively.

When, in 1996, a woman waiting to make a call in a telephone booth asked Jackson to hurry a call to his fiancée, an argument ensued, with Jackson threatening to kill her and waving an air pistol. He was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment and, when he was released, the arthritis in his hands was so severe that he could no longer play the guitar.

Spencer Leigh

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