Lord Woodbine: The forgotten sixth Beatle

Lord Woodbine taught the Fab Four the blues– but was written out of pop history. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and James McGrath pay tribute

Thursday 01 July 2010 00:00 BST

Ahomeless black man lived under one of the arches near Waterloo station until about five years ago, when he and his box vanished. His name was Samuel (pronounced to rhyme with Danielle). Most of the time, he talked to himself or slept, but on some summer evenings he would start clapping and sing lines from songs by Marley or The Beatles, or reminisce about Liverpool, where he was born and raised. His deep voice rose from a reservoir of cigarette tar and pain. One story he returned to again and again was that of another Liverpudlian, the calypso singer, songwriter and music promoter Lord Woodbine. For Samuel, Woodbine was just one more talented black man, used then cast aside by the white world, just like those impoverished blues singers in New Orleans, and countless R&B, reggae and rap artists who never got their due: "Who know today that Woodbine, he make the Beatles. Who wants to know a black man did that?" Who, indeed.

When the lads were just starting out, dreaming, green and crazy about music, they, said Woodbine, "made themselves orphans, deliberately" and followed him like motherless chicks, hanging around the joints he either part-owned or played at, always trying to have a go on the steel pans. "Woodbine's Boys", they called them, Paul, John, George, Stuart Sutcliffe (bass player and "fifth Beatle") and, after Woodbine persuaded them they needed a drummer, Pete Best.

Woodbine was not ambitious; The Beatles were, and like most young people, they were takers and triers. The Trinidadian helped guide them through their formative musical years, an inadvertent father figure, an accidental hero. They found each other – the uncut band-players, often unwashed too, getting acquainted with cannabis and their somewhat unconventional role model, who part-owned shebeens and strip clubs, ran up debts and loved making music. Speaking to the musician Tony Henry, the Welshman Allan Williams, the first promoter of the group, admitted that without his old business partner Woodbine, there would have been no Beatles. It was Williams who parted with the group just as they were beginning to get popular. Woodbine's chicks flew away. Brian Epstein, their next father figure, stepped in and the rest is history.

Only one substantial article was ever written about Woodbine – by Henry in 1998. He managed to interview the man himself, who, even then, was reluctant to intrude into the established Beatles legend. Maybe it was pride or humility, or both, or that Woodbine didn't want the whole black Liverpudlian contribution to The Beatles projected on to him. There were others, of whom more anon. There were some poignant moments in the interview when Woodbine couldn't hold back his bruised feelings, his disappointment that he was so casually overlooked by his boys.

As the years went by he had to endure further indignities, reminders that he was Mr Nobody. The worst blow came in 1992 at the Liverpool Playhouse, where he was invited to see Imagine, a play about The Beatles. The backdrop was a photograph taken in 1960, at the Arnhem Memorial, Germany. In the original, Woodbine – who had hired the van – was in the photo with Allan and the band minus John, who stayed in the van because he was a pacifist. The Trinidadian had been airbrushed out: "It really hurt me. Maybe the great Beatle publicity machine did not want any black man associated with their boys."

And it carries on. Woodbine is virtually absent from the many books on Beatlemania. Biopics are as myopic. There is an interminable line of films on The Beatles, the latest of which was the BBC's Lennon Naked, with Christopher Eccleston playing Lennon in a white suit. Liam Gallagher is making the next Beatles movie. Will it drop in on Toxteth? Best not to hope, as many say in that part of Blighty.

Biographers have passed over the black Liverpudlian who inspired and supported the fledgling band. The role of Liverpool, too, is often underestimated. In 2002, McCartney told the Liverpudlian writer Paul Du Noyer: "Liverpool was a huge melting pot. And we took what we liked from it." Various witnesses saw this happening. The black Liverpudlian band-leader George Dixon remembers the boys watching him and the guitarist Odie Taylor at the White House pub. The Nigerian-Liverpudlian singer Ramon Sugar Deen recalls the way their music developed: "I heard them jamming in the Cavern club and the rhythm had changed. They'd got some chords off Odie."

Greg Wilson, an enthusiastic promoter of black music, believes it is impossible to determine "influences" on artistes, the mix inside them, how their own talent responded to the sounds and thoughts of others. However, in accounts of the Merseyside four, credit is always given to Motown, Ravi Shankar and individuals such as DJ Greg Wilson. Only the musicians of Liverpool 8 have no place in the narrative. They have been Tipp-Exed out. Woodbine was the first singer-songwriter Lennon and McCartney ever met, yet one writer said that the Trinidadian had only a "walk-on part" in The Beatles' story.

Born in Trinidad in 1928, his real name was Harold Phillips. When only 14, he lied about his age and joined the RAF. After the war, he went back home and then retuned to England in 1948 on the famous SS Windrush, which carried the first boatful of hopeful West Indian immigrants to their motherland. Though they faced raw racism and hostility, most of these immigrants had spirit and song and a buoyancy that not even the bitter cold could drag down. Woodbine knew how to enjoy life, whatever it chucked at him. He was part of the first professional steel band in this country. They played in clubs and shebeens in Liverpool 8, where in the Eighties, race riots would erupt. He made up a delightful calypso about various characters named after cigarettes. His chums, probably as a joke, renamed him Lord Woodbine. It stuck.

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He perished in a house fire in Toxteth with his wife 10 years ago this July. The inferno ended an extraordinary life. He was 72 and by all accounts as skint as he had always been, though generous till the end. In his time he had been a lorry driver, railway engineer, builder, decorator, shopkeeper, TV repairman, a barman, club owner, songwriter, singer and musical mentor.

In 1958 he was with the All-Steel Caribbean Band, led by a fellow Trinidadian, Gerry Gobin. At the Joker's Club, where the band often played, the musicians noticed two white lads who seemed keen. They were Lennon and McCartney, wide-eyed and restless kids, like many others on rock and dole. The steel-pannists moved to the popular Jacaranda Club in Liverpool 1 and The Beatles followed. Gobin, unimpressed by their music, was initially irritated by these hangers-on. Candace Smith, then Gobin's partner, was also suspicious of them: "Bloody white kids, trying to horn in on the black music scene."

Marylee Smith, Jamaican, 81, used to visit her cousins in Liverpool. Interviewed for this article, she recalled Toxteth's music scene then: "They was there all the time, you know, all the time, like they was looking for some black magic, pushing in, rough boys, unwashed sometimes. Jumping on to the stage, playing the pans like it was theirs. Some of us didn't like that. But the musicians, they didn't mind so much." Woodbine was bohemian, free, left wing, incautious. He even had the boys performing in his strip club. It must have been madly exciting.

In 2008, McCartney recalled those times in Mojo magazine: "Liverpool being the first Caribbean settlement in the UK, we were very friendly with a lot of black guys – Lord Woodbine, Derry Wilkie, they were mates we hung out with." More than that, actually. George Roberts, part Arab and another Liverpudlian promoter, observed that Paul and John not only liked being with people of colour, they were getting to know deep musical traditions and skills: "They had two passions. One was to learn authentic R&B and the other was to become famous. Lennon would never have got that in Menlove Avenue; McCartney would never have got R&B with his upright piano and dad."

Other Toxteth musicians brought on the two wannabes. The Somali-Irish guitarist Vinnie Tow was seen showing John and Paul the seventh chord in the Chuck Berry style, says Roberts: "John was always asking Vinnie, 'Show me this, show me that.'" The Guyanese guitarist Zancs Logie was another willing teacher. In 1995, Woodbine told Derek Murray, author of a forthcoming book on black music: "Zancs was always showing Lennon something. Until he died [1994] he was proud of how he taught Lennon to play guitar." George Dixon thought The Beatles were "three-chord wonders. We were playing sophisticated 15-chord numbers. But The Beatles progressed and others didn't so I admire them."

Williams and Woodbine got The Beatles to Hamburg, then a happening place hungry for new talent. Williams had found some cash left behind in a club – instead of blowing it on themselves, they sent for the boys, shacked up in shabby rooms and got them bookings. The group fell out with Williams when they made a return trip to Hamburg and got bookings without giving him a cut. Later, as The Beatles found fortune and fame, people in Liverpool would say to Woodbine: "See your boys doing great, Woody", and he did feel chuffed. He needed them less than they once needed him. That is a kind of victory.

That affection was not fully reciprocated. True, The Beatles always took a strong stand against racism. When he bumps into black Liverpudlians, Paul McCartney spontaneously remembers his "old friend Woodbine" and others. He has done an admirable amount for black and white musicians in his old city. But when Woodbine burnt to death in 2000, McCartney left it to his press office to issue a statement. The surviving band-members should have attended the funeral, or at least had a public memorial to honour the man. Better still, surely they should have seen him right when he was alive?

Fame brings all kinds of past and present hangers-on – people making wild claims of previous intimacies. Woodbine and the others who helped The Beatles never did. Their protégés were too busy, too wary, too rich, too famous to feel any sense of obligation to those who taught them to fly high with their musical wings. It is forgetfulness more than malice, but still can wound.

And so Woodbine's becomes another sad story perhaps to turn into a blues song. Dr Helen Davies, lecturer in cultural studies, believes that he dramatises the way "'authentic' history is constructed. We see time and time again that the voices that are recorded are white, male and middle class."

Not good enough, says the sociologist Max Farrar, who remembers the Toxteth clubs: "We were listening to black music – it was the start of the, some would say curious, some dubious, love affair that white people like me have with black people and the emancipatory culture they have created. It's high time this debt was properly acknowledged." If it was, we might get to celebrate Liverpool 8, its struggles, appeal, and the fantastic cross-cultural creativity that made The Beatles.

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