A WORLD-WIDE fascination with the British pop heroes of the Swinging Sixties has ensured that many of the original groups have been able to enjoy a working career into the Nineties, long after their hits dried up. Such was the case with Herman's Hermits and their lead guitarist, Derek 'Lek' Leckenby. Even though Peter Noone, the original 'Herman' and lead singer with the Hermits, had long since left, the group had the rights to the name and carried on touring, playing such hits as 'I'm Into Something Good,' 'Mrs Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter' and 'No Milk Today' to hordes of insatiable pop nostalgia fans.
Herman's Hermits were one of Britain's hottest exports to the United States in the wake of the Beatles' success, and the winsome Noone's cheeky charm ensured they won a fanatical teenage following. The Manchester band was born when Noone met Leckenby in 1963 and they decided to merge groups into an outfit called the Heartbeats. Noone, who had been to drama school, was already a celebrity, having appeared in early editions of Granada's Coronation Street.
The Heartbeats were spotted by the producer Mickie Most, after he was alerted by their managers Harvey Lisberg and Charlie Silverman. The band was signed to EMI and Noone was renamed 'Herman' after a television cartoon character he resembled (actually called Sherman). Herman's Hermits were born. Their first hit, 'I'm Into Something Good', topped the UK charts for two weeks in 1964. It was the start of an extraordinary dual career, during which the Hermits were hailed as successors to the Beatles in the United States, but regarded as just one of many chart-breaking pop groups at home.
Leckenby played lead guitar on the road, with Keith Hopwood (rhythm), Karl Green (bass) and Barry Whitwam (drums). However it was later claimed that the Hermits were edged out of the studios by top session men of the day, such as Jimmy Page and Big Jim Sullivan. They supposedly played most of the guitar parts on records, with bass added by John Paul Jones, who later joined Page in Led Zeppelin. However Leckenby later refuted these allegations, writing to rock journalists to insist that he had played on the hits.
In 1970 the band enjoyed their last hit together, 'Lady Barbara', before Noone quit to go solo. They got back together for a reunion concert at Madison Square Garden, New York, in 1973 but thereafter Noone severed ties with his old colleagues. He was not entirely happy when they toured on the strength of their name and past hits. But for Leckenby it was a perfectly legitimate and sensible option. He had never known any other life since his student days and saw no reason why he should give up. There was no point in wasting energy trying to establish a band under his own name and the good will towards the memory of Herman's Hermits ensured they always had an audience.
The Seventies proved a tough time, but by the mid-Eighties there was a boom in nostalgia that helped revive not only the Hermits but many other Sixties bands like Wayne Fontana & the Minder Benders and the Searchers. As middle age beckoned, the erstwhile teenage heart throbs found themselves once again playing to huge stadium-sized audiences.
Derek Leckenby was born in Leeds in 1943. After a spell as a student, he founded his own group the Wailers, with Barry Whitwam, which played local clubs, before they merged with Noone to form the Heartbeats. Leckenby had a very dry, laid-back Yorkshire sense of humour and at the height of the Hermits' fame, could be relied on to keep a sense of proportion about their success. He wasn't above taking the rise out of Noone, when the chief Hermit got above himself. After the break-up with Noone, the Hermits continued touring the United States first with the singer Garth Elliott, and more recently with Rod Gerrard (rhythm guitar and lead vocals), Keith Roberts (bass and lead vocals), the original Hermit Keith Hopwood (guitar) and Barry Whitwam (drums).
'They never stopped working,' recalls Mike Neil of The Beat Goes On, a fanzine which specialises in Sixties artists. 'They spent a lot of time in America playing at state fairs and nostalgia shows. And they had only just got back from the States when 'Lek' died. They were due to go back for another tour in the autumn. Derek was a very good guitarist and he was greatly admired for the way he kept the band going. It was true a lot of people paid to see them expecting to see Peter Noone as Herman, but the Hermits always managed to win them over. 'Lek' was a very nice guy and he had a very positive, professional attitude.'
Hal Carter, the band's agent and manager of the Swinging Blues Jeans, says: 'They supported the Monkees on their revival tour and they were playing to audiences of 15,000. Their show consisted of all the famous hits. On one big pop package with bands like Slade, the Equals and Suzie Quatro in Germany last year, they played to 25,000 people a day.'
The band is now planning to carry on 'in Lek's honour', Carter says. 'He was the driving force in the band. If he had quit touring when he first got cancer, he could have probably lived a lot longer, but he loved playing and that's all he wanted to do. It shortened his life because of the amount of travelling he had to do, but it was preferable to sitting at home doing nothing. When he got into hospital the first thing he did was arrange to get Keith Hopwood to send in for him, and the band went off to Germany to play without him, on his instructions. He said: 'You mustn't let anybody down.' '
Although he suffered hair loss because of chemotherapy, and was in considerable pain, he never told his music business colleagues about his illness. 'He would never discuss it with anybody,' Carter says. 'He didn't want to be a burden to anybody and just wanted to go on making music. He was a true Sixties original.'