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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Beatlefan Interview with Jim Berkenstadt, Author of 'The Beatle Who Vanished'

2:56 PM Posted by Nicole M
Article by John Firehammer and originally published in Beatlefan magazine (P.O. Box 33515, Decatur, GA 30033)Adapted with permission.

The news broke recently that author Jim Berkenstadt’s 2013 book, “The Beatle Who Vanished,” about temporary Beatles drummer Jimmie Nicol, is being developed as a film or TV project.

The Beatles hired Nicol, a London club and session musician, to fill in for an ailing Ringo Starr during the early part of their 1964 world tour. Altogether, Nicol was a Beatle for 13 days, yet the experience colored the rest of his life.

Berkenstadt’s book turned up a wealth of information about Nicol, including the fact that – though rumored to be dead – the drummer is still alive, or was when the book was published. All attempts to track down and talk to Nicol in recent years have been unsuccessful.

In this interview, Beatlefan contributor John Firehammer talks to Berkenstadt about his research into Nicol’s story and about the movie/TV plans.

On the development deal, it sounds like this will be a dramatization of Jimmie's story with a script and actors as opposed to a documentary, is that the case? As the author, what do you hope to see in this adaptation, in terms of the tone it takes and its scope?
The plan of producers Alex Orbison (son of singer Roy Orbison) and Ashley Hamilton is to transform “The Beatle Who Vanished,” into a dramatic feature biopic or TV series. In terms of the adaptation, I am hopeful the project will feature Jimmie’s back-story leading up to his selection by The Beatles; and of course, his experience in the eye of the Beatlemania hurricane, with all of the pressures; and especially his post-Beatles life. I want the viewer to feel what it was like for Jimmie as he made choices in his post-Beatles career, in his efforts to re-create the fame he experienced as a Beatle. How does a person live with 15 minutes of fame the rest of their lives? I want people to appreciate why the mysterious Mr. Nicol kept vanishing.

It's obvious in reading the book why you took on this project. You covered a fascinating story and uncovered a lot of information not just about Jimmie's life before and after the Beatles, but also about how he was picked to deputize for Ringo. But what made you think there was something there to begin with? You obviously had a sense there was a good story that hadn't been covered.
At first, I was curious why Jimmie Nicol was always a one-sentence footnote in every Beatles history book. So I began to wonder how his career had put him in position to be selected to replace Ringo. No one had ever looked into this.

I knew I could write an entire book about just his two weeks with The Beatles. However, the more I discovered about him, the more I wanted to flesh out his entire career. He was beloved by all of the musicians he played with. Yet he also virtually abandoned his family to pursue his career. As I began to slowly locate and interview the people in his life, it became clear that this story was much more than an untold chapter in Beatles history.

Then, as I began to find out where Jimmie worked and lived around the world after his first disappearance, I became intrigued, searching for his every move. The book moved from music history to a true mystery. For example, it took six years to locate and interview his ex-wife Julia in Mexico. I couldn’t finish the book until I was able to fill in his Mexican life. It was a combination of my research skills as a former trial attorney and a bit of good fortune that led me to discover so many people connected to Jimmie Nicol’s life.

What are some of the things that surprised you most as you researched Jimmie's life?
I was intrigued to find out that Jimmie started out in the first wave of British Rock and Roll and played behind many of the old stars that The Beatles looked up to, including a short stint in Tony Sheridan’s early London band. Then when he moved from rock into big band touring and even briefly recording with a ska band, I realized he really was a serious student of the drums who wanted to learn every style.

His big band era led him into the exclusive and lucrative world of London recording sessions. Then I located some amazing lost BBC video footage of Jimmie playing drums on a Tommy Quickly session with Brian Epstein watching him inside the studio! When I interviewed Sir George Martin, I discovered that it was Epstein who told George Martin to call Jimmie in for The Beatles tryout, not Martin. The myth of Martin working with Jimmie Nicol before The Beatles continues to be perpetrated online today! Fake news from the Sixties…

I was also surprised how many albums Jimmie recorded after The Beatles, but not as a session player. For example, he became a full member of Sweden’s Spotnicks, who were thrilled to have him in the band for his playing, not for his Beatles connection. And they had a number one hit with Jimmie in Japan. Another stunner was Jimmie recording a psychedelic album in 1967 in Mexico (called “Nicolquinn” on RCA Mexicana) at the same time The Beatles were recording “Sgt. Pepper”.

The funniest discovery was finding a lost Mexican underground film in which Jimmie composed and performed the soundtrack. The highlight was clip of him playing butt bongos on a naked woman in the film! Oh the Sixties, and experimental films…

What are your impressions of Jimmie as a drummer? By all accounts, he was very good from a technical standpoint - maybe the most-skilled drummer the Beatles ever had, Ringo included.
Jimmie Nicol was an excellent drummer. He could play rock’n’roll, blues, R&B, ska, big band and jazz; so he was quite versatile. Unlike Ringo, Jimmie also learned to read music, which was important in big bands and in the studio for recording sessions.

Ringo, as your readers know, was not flashy and did not really go in for drum solos. However, Ringo was perfect for - and complimented - the Lennon-McCartney songwriting style. He was part of a four-person team that put the song above the individual players.

Jimmie was used to playing wild solos. There is a perfect example of his wild solos in a video posted on my author site, www.thebeatlewhovanished.com. He liked to take the spotlight in concert. In “The Beatle Who Vanished,” I placed a photo of John, Paul and George bowing at the end of a song in Adelaide. Meanwhile, the photo shows Nicol playing a drum flourish after the song has ended! Ringo would have ended at the same time as the others, and bowed with The Beatles. Jimmie was playing a post-song flourish to milk applause, something that was totally unnecessary with The Beatles! Yet something he had learned along the way.

From a stylistic standpoint, Ringo played live what he had recorded with the group on record. Ringo sat low and used mostly his wrists to play drums. Whereas Jimmie raised Ringo’s stool and used more of his arms and hit the drums much harder and louder than Ringo in concert.

Were you surprised that Jimmie's story wasn't discussed at all in the "Eight Days a Week" documentary film? It seems like a major oversight and a lost opportunity.
I wasn’t surprised at all. It was no oversight. There was an attempt to locate Jimmie, get him on camera and have him tell his story for potential use in the film. But, as you know, Jimmie is still missing in action. He was also shown and discussed by The Beatles in “Anthology.”

By nature, it sounds like Jimmie was a free spirit. He was fairly relaxed and easy to get along with. It seems like the other Beatles liked him and got along well with him? Do you think that's the case?
Yes I do. Jimmie was well-liked by every musician I interviewed. It helped that Jimmie had played with many of the early British rockers The Beatles looked up to as kids; such as Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Joe Brown and Tony Sheridan. When Tony Sheridan accidentally turned up on The Beatles plane ride from London to Hong Kong, I relate in the book how Sheridan’s stories of Jimmie bridged the gap and helped The Beatles begin to bond with Jimmie socially on tour. And of course, when Paul asked Jimmie on tour each day how he was doing, handling the drumming, press conferences and pressure, Jimmie told Paul, “It’s Getting Better every day”. Everyone I interviewed on that tour said that Jimmie and The Beatles got along very well and enjoyed each other’s company.

Brian Epstein reportedly asked concert promoters to treat Jimmie "like a Beatle," yet Jimmie later blamed Brian for sabotaging his post-Beatles career. Is this more a case of him needing a scapegoat? Do you think his brush with Beatles-level fame unmoored him in regard to his musical career? He had such high expectations of himself for what he could accomplish, as if he were on the same plain as the Beatles because he'd played with them.
That is an excellent observation and question. First, I read the entire archive of the Australian promoter’s letters and plans for the tour Downunder, in a Melbourne museum vault. This took about 10 hours! The letters from Epstein did in fact state Jimmie should be treated as one of The Beatles in every aspect - from first class seats on the plane; using the same car as The Beatles in all parades; room accommodations; and much more.

Perhaps the strangest story I found was that Jimmie truly believed Brian Epstein had blacklisted him from getting lucrative gigs when he formed a solo band after The Beatles.

I do think Jimmie’s brief brush with Beatles-level fame gave him unrealistic expectations about his own career potential. If he had gone back to London and kept his session work, he could have retired by 1970 as a rich young man of 30. Also, if he had stayed in Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames, he would have ridden a wave of popularity that that band was about to experience both in Europe and the U.S.

Instead, Jimmie invested all of his money in paying musicians to tour with him, even as attendance began to wane after his “Fifth Beatle” glow wore off. His choices for 45-rpm singles on Pye were misguided in that his B-sides were usually superior to the A-sides. He got very little airplay and virtually no record sales other than through his “Fifth Beatle” connection. And, most of all, he used a nameless, faceless lead vocalist, while he sat in the back playing drums. Imagine if Dave Grohl had started a new band after Nirvana, sitting back on drums while a “nobody” sang songs written by another nobody. Would we ever have heard about the Foo Fighters?

The biggest revelation of your book is that, contrary to long-standing rumors, Jimmie is still alive, yet he did "vanish." He seems uninterested in talking about the Beatles - or about anything else - with the media. His son, Howard, recently said Jimmie would be "horrified" about plans for a TV series or film based on his life. What is your response to that? Do you hope that Jimmie might emerge to comment or help with this project?
I believe Jimmie is alive. He was definitively alive when I published the book. However, at this point even his own son cannot confirm if he is dead or alive.

Jimmie Nicol’s story is both fascinating and mysterious. I would love to hear from Nicol himself as to what he thinks about “The Beatle Who Vanished.” However, no one has seen him since the mid 2000s. His son Howie has not seen or heard from him in over a decade. So really, we don’t know what Jimmie would think about “The Beatle Who Vanished” being turned into a film or TV series.”

I spent six years researching his career before, during and after The Beatles, across eight countries; reading through archives; listening to his recordings; talking to musicians, friends, and family members; all in order to build an accurate profile of Nicol’s remarkable career. I believe the producers of the film or TV series intend to make a beautiful, respectful movie about his fascinating, mysterious and enigmatic life; hardly ‘mortifying’ or ‘horrifying’ as described by Howie Nicol.

Is there a timeframe, yet, for production of the book's adaptation?
There is no time frame yet for production. There are many details to work out during pre-production, such as: financing, securing a director, leading men and women, a screenwriter, music and budgets.

Will you be involved in the production?
I am an executive producer on the project. However, I hope to assist in two ways: I would of course like to serve as a historical consultant like I did for Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World, and I would like to assist the musical director with the selection of music that best represents Jimmie Nicol’s entire career.

What’s next? Do you have any other projects, Beatles or otherwise on the horizon?
As for other projects, I can be seen on the TV show Celebrity Legacies as an expert on the Reelz Channel, and I am working on a new book at this time. There is a Beatles connection to the book, and it does involve another mystery or two. Stay tuned.

Jim Berkenstadt’s book is available at thebeatlewhovanished.com and amazon.com. He can be reached at jim@rockandrolldetective.com.