John Gustafson: Bass guitarist with the Big Three, who played the Cavern and the Star-Club in Hamburg but fell apart acrimoniously


Click to follow

There are no recordings to show how great (or otherwise) the Beatles were at Liverpool's Cavern Club but in 1963 the Big Three recorded their barnstorming EP, At The Cavern, which even now can hardly be bettered in terms of excitement and atmosphere. If the Big Three were this good, you may think, how much better could the Beatles be? The answer is not much; the Big Three had the potential to be a top group, but for one factor: they possessed a self-destruct button. They were unmanageable, uncontrollable and unbelievably good.

John Gustafson was born in Liverpool in 1942 to a Swedish father and an Irish mother. His elder brother became a painter and decorator and bought him an old guitar from a workmate. In the late 1950s beat groups were forming in Liverpool and one of them, Cass and the Cassanovas, featured Brian Casser, Adrian Barber on guitar, Johnny Gustafson on bass and Johnny Hutchinson on drums. Not being able to afford a bass guitar as he was only earning £2.10s a week at a jeweller's shop, he customised the head of his guitar and put bass strings on it, becoming one of the few bass guitarists who played with a plectrum.

In May 1960 the Cassanovas were chosen to support the American rock'n'roll star Gene Vincent at the Liverpool Stadium. They auditioned for the London impresario Larry Parnes and backed his blues-based artist, Duffy Power, on a tour of Scotland. Noting his good looks, Parnes told Gustafson that he would make him a star. Gus went to London, but, he said, "Larry jumped into bed with me. I punched him and came back home."

The group thought it would function better without Casser and so they disbanded and regrouped as the Big Three, taking the name from the summit between Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill. They became a rowdy, raucous band playing American rhythm and blues, including a frenzied "What'd I Say". They signed with Brian Epstein, who inexplicably sent this ill-disciplined band to the Star-Club in Hamburg, which only made them worse. "It was drunken insanity," said Gus, "I was reduced to being a physical wreck, but it was enjoyable to be lying in the gutter in a whiskey-sodden heap."

The contract for Hamburg specified four musicians and so they added another guitarist, Brian Griffiths from the Seniors. When Barber was appointed stage manager at the Star-Club, they were reduced to a three-piece again. On their return from Hamburg they went to Decca and cut the definitive Merseybeat single, "Some Other Guy". "My voice was completely gone after all that time in Hamburg," said Gus, "and we were croaking like old frogs."

Nevertheless, the single had a special magic, but then Epstein told them to record songs more suited to Gerry and the Pacemakers – "By The Way" and "I'm With You." The B-sides, "Peanut Butter" and their own song, "Cavern Stomp", indicate what might have been.

When Decca's recording manager, Dick Rowe, was on holiday in August 1963, a young Liverpool producer, Noel Walker, took their mobile recording unit to Liverpool and recorded the EP At the Cavern. "Brian Epstein had given the group money to buy suits, but they bought the cheapest clothes possible," said Billy Kinsley of the Merseybeats, "When they played places like the Cavern, they would be drenched and their suits shrank, making them look like three Norman Wisdoms."

The Big Three moved to a different agent, Kennedy Street, but ructions were developing within the group, leaving Hutchinson to continue with others. After a short spell in Germany, Gus joined the Merseybeats and played on their hit singles "Don't Turn Around" and "Wishin' And Hopin'". He wrote one of their best records, "Really Mystified".

After Gus was living hand-to-mouth for a couple of years, he joined Episode Six in 1969 and from this developed the highly acclaimed prog rock band, Quatermass. He became a hired hand, touring with the Walker Brothers and Duane Eddy, and spending three years with Roxy Music, playing on their hit singles, "Love Is The Drug" and "Both Ends Burning", but he left the band because he was receiving a weekly wage and not sharing in the profits.

Gus played on the original cast album for Jesus Christ Superstar and the all-star Butterfly Ball. He was on the late Lynsey de Paul's "Sugar Me" as well as sessions for Cilla Black and Rolf Harris. In 1973 he and Brian Griffiths teamed up with the drummer Nigel Olsson to make the Big Three album, Resurrection. Also in 1975, he wrote and recorded his own album, Goose Grease, although it wasn't released until 1997. His most successful song, "Dear John", was a Top 10 hit in 1982 for Status Quo.

He played in Ian Gillan's band and after an emergency call to help out the Pirates, he stayed with them for seven years. He described the Pirates as being "a three-chord battering ram" and there were clear parallels with the Big Three.

Despite his long treatment for cancer, Gus still managed session work and guitar teaching. In August he was interviewed for a documentary about the Big Three, which is being made by Brian Griffiths, now a noted guitarist in Calgary.


John Frederick Gustafson, musician: born Liverpool 8 August 1942; married (two daughters, one son); died 11 September 2014.