There is much media attention this week for the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the first Beatles single “Love Me Do” (released on October 5, 1962). In Portsmouth, we knew little about them at that time, although they had played one unsuccessful gig in north Hampshire in the previous year. I suppose, however, that almost everyone of a certain age from Portsmouth remembers that the Beatles came here to play back in 1963, not once but three - or was it four - times?
Since I was lucky enough to be in the audience on two of those occasions, you may wonder why the uncertainty? It all relates to the last of these performances, which occurred on 3 December 1963 but should have been on 12 November. They arrived then to headline a show at Portsmouth's Guildhall and there is still footage available of them being interviewed on Southern (now Meridian) Television’s “Day By Day” magazine programme. It’s noticeable that they are less upbeat and witty than usual and Paul looks particularly morose because he was unwell:
I still remember walking to the bus stop with my sister on that November evening to watch the show, only to learn from a neighbourhood friend who had heard on television that it was cancelled. We went anyway and milled around with hundreds of other teenagers while Paul was tucked up in his hotel bed. Fortunately, they appeared in early December and our tickets were valid, so I can bear witness to the tales of girls’ screaming drowning out the music.
This was different from eight months earlier when, with their second single “Please, Please Me” heading up the charts, they had come to Portsmouth Guildhall on a package tour typical of those days with two shows in an evening, a comedian compere, a couple of minor acts and the stars. On this occasion, top of the bill were two American singers with recent hit records, Chris Montez and Tommy Roe, while the Beatles, in matching suits and ties closed the first half with a selection of tracks mostly from their first LP, also recently released.
That first album was popular not just with their fans but with the growing number of young groups in every town and city who were entertaining local audiences in church halls, youth clubs and, as they too became more proficient and better known, in the clubs and dance halls.
In 1963 there were quite a number of groups around Portsmouth and most, like the Beatles, featured two guitarists, a bass guitarist and a drummer although quite a number added a singer in front. In Portsmouth, one of the most popular groups was Mike Devon & the Diplomats, who had begun learning Beatles songs in their new act which provided a slight problem when they appeared at the city’s leading dance venue, the Savoy Ballroom one Sunday evening in April 1963. They were booked to support the Beatles on what was by then a rare dance hall gig – especially in the south.The story of the Beatles’ second Portsmouth appearance has been told by Keith Francis, the guitarist of the Diplomats in his book Southsea Rock. He recalled that Ringo had a drum problem and borrowed the Diplomats’ kit – not quite as simple as it might sound since the Savoy had two stages and for the Beatles set they had to carry the kit across the ballroom, set up and then take it back for Diplomats’ drummer Terry Wiseman to play the final set of the evening. Keith told of a couple of local ‘groupies’ who entertained the stars, of Paul having a broken tuning peg on his famous Hofner bass guitar and of the large crowd that broke the official limit of 2,000. He revealed that the Savoy’s Manager, George Turner, recognising the Beatle’s promise some months before, paid a fee of just £50! The Beatles got an excellent reception and Keith suggested that their “haircuts and black roll-neck sweaters gave them a completely different look from what was usual in young men at the time”.
By March 1963, the Diplomats had begun to cover some Beatles’ songs from the first LP but they were surprised initially by the ‘Fab Four’s’ live performance, which opened with “Kansas City” and included an unanticipated number of rock & roll songs which they felt were rather old hat. On the other hand, their rhythm & blues/Motown covers of the Marvelettes, Isley Brothers, Arthur Alexander and others offered a new approach for local groups. The world of popular music was changing dramatically and, within a year of that Southsea seafront night, the Beatles had conquered America.
The Diplomats were not the only local act to share a stage with the Beatles. For some years, a female vocal trio from the heart of the city had been breaking into ‘showbiz’. They were called the Honeys and, in February 1963, they were part of a tour featuring the young London star, Helen Shapiro – with the Beatles also on the bill. The Honeys have recounted how the acts shared a coach, mostly in northern England, and the Beatles would pass around lyrics they were writing for new songs. Did the trio get advanced notice of “She Loves You – Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”?
The Honeys enjoyed a successful career, appearing on bills with Cliff Richard & the Shadows, Adam Faith, Ken Dodd, Anita Harris and others. They retired many years ago but are still alive and two, Anita and Vilma, live in the Portsmouth area and remember fondly a magical period. In that, they are not alone!
Dave Allen is an Old Portmuthian. Visit his blog at http://pompeypop.wordpress.com/
Read Dave Allen's review of Bob Dylan's new album, Tempest.
Read Mark Richardson's tribute to The Rolling Stones.