by James Ray Deaton 2/7/15
Back in the 1960’s when photographs and television were mostly small and black and white, and teenagers wore riveted bluejeans instead of droopy drawers, young people often asked one another a very important question: “Who is your favorite Beatle?”
Was it the cheeky John, the quiet George, the cute Paul or the sad-eyed Ringo? The Beatles hit it big a little before my time, but I remember my older sister discussing this question with her friends for what seemed like hours on end. Which Beatle you identified with seemed one of the philosophically primordial questions of life—right up there with to be or not to be, the validity of transubstantiation or knowing the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.
I didn’t become a Beatles fan until years later when the group was in the “rock classics” section of the record store, but their beat, harmony, lyrics and music still sounded better than anybody this side of the Everly Brothers. I never cared for their lefty politics, but the joyful noise they made (especially in the early albums) aways made things better.
Having a literary bent, as I started buying first their records, then tapes, then CD’s, I also started to read their biographies and history of the group and discovered Pete Best, the Beatles original drummer. In pre-internet times I couldn’t find out much about Pete other than he was the group’s drummer in the early 1960’s and was booted from the Beatles about the time they signed with Parlophone Records in 1962.
For some reason the story of Pete Best has always intrigued me. Maybe it is the pathos of someone so close to blasting off into fame and fortune only to find himself left alone on the launching pad wondering what might have been.
Over the years I’ve fleshed out the Pete Best story with books and music. Most books and histories about the Beatles have at least a few references to him. Usually one or two old black and white photos showing the “early Beatles” show Pete on the drums in the background. Books like his 1985 autobiography, Beatle! The Pete Best Story, Shout! by Philip Norman, The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away, by Allan Williams and William Marshall and Brian Epstein’s A Cellarful of Noise helped fill in the story.
Pete’s “comeback” album Live at the Adelphi with the Pete Best Band is rocking good fun and his 2008 autobiographical CD “Haymans Green” is a musical treat for any fan of the Mersey Beat sound.
Born in November 1941, Pete Best joined the Beatles in August 1960 just before their first trip to the Hamburg music scene in Germany and was with the group for two years until August 1962. His mother, Mona Best, acted as the group’s godmother and promoter. Pete toured Hamburg three times with the group and performed regularly with his bandmates including at the now-famous Casbah Coffee Club and the Cavern Club in Liverpool.
When the Beatles returned home from their first months-long stay in Hamburg, they wowed the local teens who thought they were a tight German rock group in black leathers and cowboy boots.
George Harrison said Hamburg is where the Beatles served their apprenticeship. During their stints in Germany they played all night long, seven nights a week. It’s been said that Pete Best put in more hours as a Beatles drummer in his two years than Ringo Starr did in his eight. At one point in 1961 they played 98 nights in succession, seven or eight or more hours a night.
With his movie-star good looks and his loud and powerful “Atomic Beat” style of straight-up rock and roll drumming, Pete was a favorite with the Liverpool fans. A reporter for the local music newspaper “Mersey Beat” wrote of his “mean, moody magnificence. ” Pete was probably the most popular Beatle in Liverpool at the time. “Small-B” Beatlemania was just beginning and Pete’s popularity definitely helped the Beatles stand out among the several Liverpool bands fighting for attention at the time.
His sacking as drummer caused an uproar with local Beatles fans. Shouts of “Pete Forever, Ringo Never” and “Pete is Best” were heard at the Cavern Club and elsewhere. Signed petitions of protest were sent to the “Mersey Beat” office. George Harrison was head-butted and given a black eye from a disgruntled fan upset with the change of drummers. For a time young female fans camped outside 8 Hayman’s Green, Pete’s home in the West Derby section of Liverpool.
Pete has always said he was never given the reason for his firing. Manager Brian Epstein was recruited to do the deed by the other three Beatles. Supposedly Pete didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the group. He was likely more shy than “mean and moody.” John Lennon reportedly later told a friend that Pete was a good drummer, but Ringo was a good Beatle. Some say his drumming wasn’t up to the task. George Martin, the legendary Beatles producer, planned to use a studio drummer instead of Pete during the recording sessions, reportedly a common practice at the time.
In any event Pete was out, Ringo was in and time went on. Two months later their single “Love Me Do” was on the charts. Seven months later their debut album “Please Please Me” was released. Little more than a year later the group played the London Palladium at a “Royal Command Performance” and eighteen months after Pete was sacked, the Beatles flew into New York City to conquer America with their legendary performances on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Some of the songs they played were the same ones Pete had provided the beat for back in Liverpool and Hamburg.
For a while Pete plugged on in show business, but career lightning didn’t strike twice for him. In the mid 1960’s he toured North America with a new band, the Pete Best Combo, but things didn’t pan out. In 1968 he left show business, worked for a bakery to support his growing family, and eventually became a civil servant working in employment services.
In 1988 he was talked into returning to the stage for a “one-off” performance at the Adelphi Theatre in Liverpool with a group of former Cavern Club rockers. After that Pete retired from his civil service job and returned to show business. The 1995 Beatles Anthology 1 album included ten early Beatles tracts with Pete on the drums and he received a reported several million dollars from his inclusion on the album.
Pete never spoke with any of the Beatles after getting the sack, but has said he considers his inclusion on the album and the money as a kind of acknowledgement from the group for “services rendered” during his two years as a Beatle.
Now in his early 70’s, Pete Best is still drumming and still looks and sounds good behind a set of skins. He has a website, blog and twitter account. His website has his CDs, books, souvenir T-shirts, vintage Beatles posters, and other memorabilia. “The man who put the beat into the Beatles,” it reads. Pete still tours with his band and venues have included Japan, Mexico, France, Chile, the Czech Republic, Peru, Argentina, the Philippines, the U.S. and the UK.
What I admire most about Pete Best is how he just kept on keeping on after being ousted from the band that went on to become the most successful pop group in history. While his former bandmates became rock and roll legends, multimillionaires and cultural icons, he was slicing and loading bread into delivery trucks in Liverpool. When it became clear that he wasn’t going to make it in show business post-Beatles, Pete manned-up and did what he had to do to support his family and get on with his life. No whining, no excuses, no playing the victim. And more than 50 years later, he’s still rocking and rolling and keeping the beat.
And that’s why Pete Best is and always will be my favorite Beatle. • (2873 views)