Obituaries: Brian O'Hara

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:33

THE FOURMOST were the clown princes of Merseybeat. They had a distinctive name and six Top Forty hits, and yet their potential was unfulfilled. Maybe with the right management - and they were managed by the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein - they could have had lasting success. "It went wrong for the Fourmost," recalls Bill J. Harry, the editor of Mersey Beat newspaper. "They were as talented as the Barron Knights, who are still going to this day. The Fourmost could have been so much bigger."

Brian O'Hara, the leader and oldest member of the Fourmost, was born in the depressed Dingle area of Liverpool in 1941. He and a schoolfriend, Billy Hatton, learnt skiffle and rock'n'roll songs and played a six-week season in the Isle of Man in the mid-1950s. They performed around Liverpool dance halls and coffee bars as the Two Jays and, after doing well on a talent contest at the Pavilion Theatre, decided to form a group.

With the guitarist Joey Bower and the drummer Brian Redman, the Two Jays became the Four Jays and, in 1962, they came 10th in a poll of local groups in Mersey Beat, no bad feat considering the competition. Joey left the band when he was married and was replaced by Mike Millward from Bob Evans and the Five Shillings.

Following an advertisement in a national paper for a New Brighton show featuring Jerry Lee Lewis, the Four Jays were forced to change their name because a similarly named Scottish group threatened legal action. Bob Wooler, the Cavern Club's DJ, suggested the Four Mosts and Brian Epstein shortened it to the Fourmost. He asked them to turn professional but as they were all learning their trades or professions (O'Hara doing accountancy), they turned him down. Twice.

It was only when the Beatles started having hits in early 1963 that they changed their minds, and by then their drummer was Dave Lovelady, formerly of Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes. Dave Lovelady recalls, "We wanted to impress George Martin and show him that we were a cut above the other Liverpool groups. We began our audition with `Happy Talk' from South Pacific. George Martin looked at us in disbelief and said, `You do realise that you're playing the wrong notes.' "

Nevertheless, the Fourmost passed the audition and next they needed a song. O'Hara knew where to go. "I asked John Lennon if he'd got anything and he did a tape for me. He says, `I wrote this one while I was sitting on the toilet', and then sings `Hello Little Girl' with just his guitar for accompaniment."

"Hello Little Girl", an infectious record full of bounce, drive and excellent harmonies, made No 9 on the UK charts. It was followed by Lennon and McCartney's "I'm In Love," which deserved better than its No 17 placing. The Fourmost's biggest hit came in May 1964 with "A Little Loving", which reached No 6. They also did well with "How Can I Tell Her" (33), a cover of the Four Tops, "Baby I Need Your Loving" and a revival of the Coasters' "Girls Girls Girls" (33).

Their versatility can be glimpsed on their only album, First and Fourmost (1965), which included country and comedy songs as well as rip-roaring rock'n'roll. O'Hara remembered, "George Martin didn't encourage us to do comedy records but nobody would have known what to do with a comedy group at the time. We did an occasional single like `Auntie Maggie's Remedy' but nobody bought it. We foolishly turned down `Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear' because it was unlike anything in the charts."

In 1964 the Fourmost were part of a long-running variety show at the London Palladium with Tommy Cooper, Frankie Vaughan and Cilla Black. They appeared with Cilla as guest stars in the film Ferry Cross the Mersey (1965); their role required them to lose to Gerry and the Pacemakers in a talent contest. O'Hara said: "Gerry had to beat us because the script said so. We didn't play badly to let him win."

During their run at the London Palladium, Mike Millward contracted leukaemia but he continued playing until shortly before his death in March 1966. George Peckham and then Ian Edwards (of Ian and the Zodiacs) took his place, with Joey Bower returning in 1968. The Fourmost were a clean-living group who kept away from the excesses of the 1960s life style. Dave Lovelady once reported to the others, "I thought Joe Cocker was doing well but he's rolling his own cigarettes."

They maintained their friendship with the Beatles and through hearing advance copies of their albums were able to cover "Here There and Everywhere" and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" for singles. Paul McCartney produced and played piano on their 1969 single "Rosetta", which sold poorly at the time but is highly sought by collectors.

Despite his love for comedy, O'Hara was the sobering spirit in the group and the one who took their progress the most seriously. Like many of Brian Epstein's artists, he felt that Epstein was spending too much time with the Beatles. "They all felt that," recalls Epstein's press officer, Tony Barrow, "but, whereas Gerry Marsden would be facetious, the Fourmost would whinge and moan. And it did them no good. Brian certainly didn't like them moaning to me, a humble press officer, and it just made both sides more resentful." Epstein should have realised that O'Hara, an excellent lead singer and guitarist, could have become a major entertainer with his gifts from comedy and impersonations.

Eventually, the Fourmost gave up trying to make the charts and settled for the well-paid but stifling world of cabaret. One speciality number called them to mimic instruments with their voices - O'Hara would be a trumpet and the rest trombones; they also performed a superb high-voiced arrangement of "I've Got You Under My Skin". They toured the world, including South Africa with Frankie Laine, with O'Hara transposing his Irish jokes to the local situation.

O'Hara did not want to change a successful cabaret act, although the others wanted to perform more contemporary material. The Fourmost split in 1978 with Hatton, Lovelady and Bower forming Clouds, the name being a nod to John Williams's classically based group Sky. O'Hara continued as the Fourmost with three local musicians, but, after a few years, he sold them the name, so that the Fourmost were performing with no original members. Local wags referred to them as the Fraudmost or the Four Almost.

In 1990 O'Hara, Hatton, Lovelady and Bower set aside their differences for a top-class performance at a tribute concert for John Lennon at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool. "We can always recognise our original fans," said O'Hara. "They're the ones beating time with their pension books." They never performed again and, although O'Hara worked a mobile disco, he rarely sang on stage. He retained his fondness for his hit records and he commented, "I'd like to record them again, because recording techniques have advanced so much. They've got electricity now."

Brian O'Hara, singer and guitarist: born Liverpool 12 March 1941; died Liverpool 17 June 1999.

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