Beatlemania: it’s the only word to describe 1964, when the mop-topped British boy band dominated the radio waves, sending teenage girls into frenzied fits of hysteria. During that year alone, the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, released Meet the Beatles! and a Hard Day’s Night and embarked on their first world tour… which featured mysterious new member Jimmie Nicol alongside Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison.
But the tour, planned for the summer of 1964, was quickly off to a rocky start. On the eve of the Beatles’ trip, June 3, Ringo Starr collapsed at a photo shoot. The diagnosis: tonsillitis. Starr was immediately hospitalized, and though the would not have his tonsils removed for some months, he was entirely out of commission for the first leg of the tour.
So the Beatles went off to play in Denmark, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, and Australia — but they had no drummer! Cancelling was out of the question for manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin who had money on their minds. But where would they find a replacement drummer, who roughly fit the Beatles’ look (and Starr’s suits) and could rock out on stage? Martin turned to Jimmie Nicol, a young musician who had recently drummed on one of his sessions with Tommy Quickly. Luckily Nicol had also played on a Beatles cover record called Beatlemania — marking one of the earliest recorded uses of the term. So he was already a part of Beatles history. And he knew the songs. Nicol, it seemed, was an obvious choice.
But not to Harrison. Lennon and McCartney were easily on board with using the understudy, but Harrison threatened to drop out of the concerts entirely. According to Keith Badman’s 2000 oral history, The Beatles Off the Record, Harrison told Epstein and Martin: “If Ringo’s not going, then neither am I. You can find two replacements.” Oh, George33. Ever the purist.
Reflecting on the squabble years later, Martin said, “George is a very loyal person. It took all of Brian’s and my persuasion to tell George that if he didn’t do it he was letting everybody down.” In the end, though, upsetting thousands of fans outweighed upsetting one sensitive Beatle. Or even two. As Starr later said that “It was very strange, them going off without me. They’d taken Jimmie Nicol and I thought they didn’t love me any more – all that stuff went through my head,” Starr later said, according to The Beatles Anthology.
In classic Beatles fashion, it was a lot of emotional turmoil over someone who would play, in total, eight shows with the band.
Who Was Jimmie Nicol?
Jimmie Nicol was born in London in 1939 and, by the late ’50s, was a fairly successful career drummer. Throughout the early ’60s, he played with various artists, including Vince Eager, Cyril Stapleton, Oscar Rabin, and Charlie Katz. He was also a founding member of the jazz-soul band the Shubdubs. But it was his studio work with Tommy Quickly and his participation on the Beatlemania cover record which set Nicol apart in 1964. And on June 3 of that year, he received a fateful phone call from George Martin. Imagine: picking up the phone and Martin asks… Son, would you like to be a Beatle?
Nicol left his West London flat immediately to audition at Abbey Road Studios, and from there, the arrangments were made. Nicol packed his bags, arrived to the airport and was hastily given the Beatle’s signature moptop ‘do. Epstein also gifted Nicol with a gold watch, inscribed: From the Beatles and Brian Epstein to Jimmie – with appreciation and gratitude.
“The day before I was a Beatle, not one girl would even look me over,” Nicol recalled later in a 1987 interview. “The day after, when I was suited up and riding in the back of a limo with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, they were dying just to get a touch of me.” Legend has it that Nicol received 5,000 fan letters for his short stint with the band. 5,000!
Nicol played alongside Lennon, McCartney, and George Harrison for eight concerts across four countries. His final show with the band was on June 13, 1964, when Ringo Starr rejoined the tour overseas. And though Nicol got the job done, photos from that week look uncanny. Spliced into this familiar foursome, the square-jawed understudy looks stunned. He has seldom spoken publicly about the experience and recordings from those Nicols-backed concerts are also extremely rare.
Peter Findlay was an artist commissioned to paint a portrait of the Beatles during that historic week, in Adelaide, Australia. And speaking to The Advertiser in 2014, Findlay recalled feeling sad for Nicol. After fighting off fans to enter the Beatles’ hotel, Findlay says, he saw Nicol looking “like Frankenstein without the bolt.” Aw. Poor Jimmie.
Following his 15 minutes of fame, Nicol had trouble adjusting back to regular life. He is quoted as saying “Standing in for Ringo was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Until then I was quite happy earning £30 or £40 a week. After the headlines died, I began dying too.” Nicol was able to live off his brief Beatles salary for sometime, but filed for bankruptcy eight months later. And even as he continued to play music, he never found commercial success.
Nicol eventually left to study Latin rhythms in Mexico for some time before returning to England in 1975. He then started a home renovation business, married, and had a son, Howie, who is a noted sound recordist. Nicol is still alive — despite false claims that he died in 1988.
“It’s Getting Better”
According to Beatles lore, “It’s getting better,” was Nicol’s regular reply whenever the band members asked how he was adjusting to fast fame. The simple words would inspire the song on the classic 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Partying with the Beatles
In Jimmie Nichols’ own words:
“To begin with, Paul was not the clean chap he wanted the world to see. His love of blonde women and his general dislike of the crowds are not told. John, on the other hand, enjoyed the people, but used his sense of humor to ward off any he didn’t care for. He also drunk in excess. In Denmark, for example, his head was a balloon! He had drunk so much the night before, he was on stage sweating like a pig. George was not shy at all, as the press had tried to paint him.
He was into sex as well as partying all night with the rest of us. I was not even close to them when it came to mischief and carrying on. I thought I could drink and lay women with the best of them until I met up with these guys! But I did as they did. To sit here and list each and every little thing we did in such a short time, well, I just can’t do it… The Beatles living life to the fullest. I just thank God that I was there to live it with them. Needless to say, the 300,000 people screaming at me and tearing me coat off to the skin was a trip in itself.”via Beatlesagain.com