We only have to write the words “the Cavern”, and everybody reading this newspaper will know what is meant.
The Liverpool beat venue is, without question, the most famous club in the world. Its glory years are synonymous with the rise of the Beatles, and its owner at that time was Ray McFall, a quiet, dapper man with a background in accountancy. He and his resident disc-jockey, Bob Wooler, were the most unlikely pair to be running a beat club.
McFall was born in the Liverpool suburb of Garston in 1926, and it looked as though he would have a long, steady career in an accountancy practice. One of the clients was Alan Sytner, a 21-year-old who opened the Cavern Club in Liverpool’s Mathew Street in January 1957.
It featured leading jazz musicians as well as local talent, notably the Merseysippi Jazz Band. There were skiffle nights, but rock’n’roll was banned. As well as auditing the books, McFall would help out on the door, and knew the place well. In June 1959 Sytner accepted a job with the National Jazz Federation and hoped to find a buyer while in London. His father, Joe, a local GP, had other ideas and offered the club to McFall for £2,750.
In a press statement, McFall said that he wanted to “put Liverpool on the map as the leading jazz centre in the country outside London.” He added, “I have long felt that something needs to be done to draw off the excess heat when the club is full.” Fine words, but the first objective was ditched and the second was to be his downfall. Although the club was not licensed, he also had to stop the scuffles and fist fights and he recruited a former Guardsman, Paddy Delaney to keep order, an inspired choice.
His opening night, on 3 October 1959, was with the American blues duo, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, but his Liverpool Jazz Festival in January 1960 lost money. At the festival he had reprimanded the skiffle group, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, for breaking into rock’n’roll but soon he invited them back for a rock’n’roll night. The music was being played in the suburbs and the Cavern provided a much-needed venue in the centre.
In October 1960, a railway clerk, Bob Wooler was given the microphone by the Big Three and said, “Remember all you cave-dwellers, the Cavern is the best of cellars.” As a result, McFall employed him as the regular compère. Wooler recommended the Beatles, first in January 1961 for lunchtime sessions for office workers and then for evening performances.
“The Beatles were different and very well rehearsed because they had come back from several months of torture in Hamburg,” recalled McFall. “The other groups were like Cliff Richard and the Shadows, but the Beatles’ music was so vibrant. However, I didn’t like them wearing jeans, which were taboo in the Cavern. Our doormen would stop anyone wearing jeans. I felt that if people were wearing good, clean clothes they would be more likely to behave themselves as they wouldn’t want them getting dirty or damaged.”
From then on, everything worked like magic. McFall’s all-nighters at the Cavern and his beat group cruises on the Royal Iris did well, and the Cavern was regularly full for the Beatles, who played there over 260 times, their final appearance being in August 1963.
Brian Epstein decided to manage the Beatles after seeing them at a lunchtime session in November 1961. It was arguably a missed opportunity for McFall: when the Beatles hosted a fan club evening in April 1962, he sang “Can’t Help Falling In Love” and “Tender Is The Night” with the band. “How could they refuse me?” he joked. “I owned the club.” McFall gave three of his children a spot at his Junior Cavern Club.
The Cavern attendances fell once the key Merseybeat groups had left the area but McFall bought the Mersey Beat newspaper and expanded the premises with a recording studio. The club was losing revenue and the national press reported that its telephone was disconnected in 1964. McFall told the Daily Mail, “This kind of thing is enough to start a stampede among creditors. As far as I am concerned, everyone is snarling, hungry for information. They want to announce the death of beat. It seems to me that I am being singled out.”
The Cavern had already been ordered to install a ventilation system and to create a second entrance, as the basement club was potentially a death trap; it was then discovered that the waste from the toilets was going into a huge underground cesspool and leaking through the ceiling on to the hapless customers. McFall couldn’t raise the money for improvements and the Cavern had a final beat night before it closed in February 1966. “There is a picture of me dressed in a black suit and looking like an undertaker,” said McFall. It has often been said that the Beatles could easily have resolved the crisis, but if you study their career, they never did anything like that: they always moved on.
The Cavern, since that date, has a history of its own, but McFall was not part of it as he and his family moved to London. He sold insurance and calculators and then settled into a long-standing job with Flexiform office furniture, not retiring until he was 73. In recent years he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease; his large, loving family ensured that someone visited him every day.
Andrew Raymond McFall, beat club owner and businessman: born Garston, Liverpool 14 November 1926; married 1952 Shirley Dorothy Wilkins (three daughters, three sons); died Merstham, Surrey 8 January 2015.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies