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Authors: Philip Norman

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Though housekeeping was mysterious to him he applied himself doggedly to mastering its every department. He taught himself to cook and sew, to wash and to iron. Each day, after finishing work at the Cotton Exchange, he would hasten to the grocer’s and the butcher’s, then home to Allerton to tidy the house and cook Paul and Michael their evening meal. His sisters, Jin and Millie, each came in one full day a week to give the house a thorough cleaning. Bella Johnson and her daughter Olive also remained close at hand. When Paul and Michael came in from school, even if the house chanced to be empty, there would be notes left for them about where to find things, and sticks and paper laid for a fire in the grate.

Like Mimi Smith, Jim McCartney did his utmost to prevent there being a Teddy Boy in the family. The trouble was that, being at work all day, he had no alternative but to trust Paul and Michael to go to the barber’s on their own and choose clothes for themselves with the money he gave them. In genuine perplexity he wondered how Paul, in particular, was able to return from the barber’s seemingly with more hair than when he went, piled up in a cascading sheaf. There were battles, too, over trousers, which, Jim insisted, must not be “drainies” but of conventional and respectable cut. Paul would bring home a satisfactory pair
and show them to his father; then he would smuggle them out again to one of the tailors who specialized in tapering. If Jim noticed anything Paul was ready to swear that the fourteen-inch drainies clinging to his ankles were the same pair that his father had sanctioned.

In 1956, Lonnie Donegan and his Skiffle Group arrived in Liverpool to appear at the Empire theater. Paul and some friends from the Institute waited outside during their lunch hour, hoping to catch a glimpse of the star when he arrived for rehearsal. He was slightly delayed and, with great consideration, wrote out notes for the factory workers who had waited to see him, explaining to their foremen why they were late back on shift. This testament of how nice a star could be always stayed in Paul McCartney’s mind.

It was after seeing Lonnie Donegan that Paul began clamoring for a guitar. He was lucky in having a father only too glad to encourage him to take up any musical instrument. Already in the house, along with Jim’s piano, there was a battered trumpet that Paul had tried to learn, but had discarded on being told it would make a callus on his upper lip. For he had now begun to sing—or, at least, to sing in public—without embarrassment. He had always sung to himself in bed at night, not knowing that Jim and Olive Johnson were often listening to him from the bottom of the stairs.

Despite the money shortage Jim brought home a ’cello guitar with Fholes, sunburst coloring, and a white scratch plate that cost him fifteen-pounds. Olive Johnson remembers how eagerly he set about trying to teach Paul to play by giving him chords from the living-room piano. “He’d sit there for hours, shouting, ‘Come on, Paul. Now try this one!’”

Paul, strangely, made little initial progress. His left-hand fingers found it irksome to shape the patterns of black dots shown in the instruction book, and his right hand, somehow, lacked the bounce necessary for strumming. Then he discovered he could play far better if he fingered the fretboard with his right hand and strummed with his left. He took the guitar back to the shop and had its strings put on in reverse order. The white scratch plate, which carries the strummer’s hand down after each chord, could not be moved; it was uselessly upside-down in the way that Paul now held the guitar.

From that moment, he too was lost. The guitar became a passion overruling all else in his life. It was the first thing he looked at on waking each morning; at night, after the lights were out, his eyes searched the
darkness for the glow of its sunburst face. School lessons, games, bus journeys, the meals his father set in front of him—all were things to be endured and rushed through for the sake of that moment when he could pick up the guitar again and hear the hollow bump it made, and discover if the chord he had been practicing came out clearly this time. He played the guitar in his bath, even while sitting on the lavatory.

From an assortment of “Play in a Day” tutors he learned enough chords to play all the skiffle hits. Skiffle bored him after a time: What he really wanted to play were the guitar solos on rock ’n’ roll records—the interludes so magically shrill and blurred that one could not analyze them but only listen as they shivered and wailed around the voice of Little Richard, Carl Perkins, or Elvis. “All Shook Up” was his favorite Elvis record. He played it over and over on the gramophone, his voice in vain pursuit of the wonderful, mumbling incantation, his acoustic guitar strumming in a different key, and universe.

He also bought every new record by the Everly Brothers, a newly popular American act from whom he made the discovery that rock ’n’ roll could be performed at a lesser volume, in close, even subtle harmony. For a time, he and another boy, Ian James, modeled their lives on the Everlys: They combed their hair alike, wore matching white jackets, and hung around fairgrounds where the fast roundabouts always played the latest American hits. Paul’s voice was like Phil Everly’s, the higher of the duo, although he would torture it with impersonations of Little Richard, the shrieking exponent of “Tutti Frutti,” “Rip it Up,” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.”

He even made one or two desultory attempts to involve his younger brother, Michael, in an Everly-style rock ’n’ roll act. Michael McCartney, to add to their father’s difficulties, currently had an arm in plaster after an accident at Boy Scout camp. It was a serious fracture that paralyzed his fingers for several months and forced him to give up learning the banjo Jim had bought him to equal Paul’s guitar.

That summer of 1957—the first after Mary’s death—Jim took Paul and Michael for a week’s vacation at Butlin’s holiday camp in Filey, Yorkshire. There, Paul roped Michael into joining him in an amateur talent contest. They sang an Everly Brothers song that was rather spoiled by Michael’s plaster-encased arm. They didn’t win the talent contest. “But after that, we had our first fan,” Michael McCartney says. “I remember because it was me she fancied and not our kid.”

The skiffle craze had by now seeped into the ancient precincts of Liverpool Institute grammar school. Paul, however, joined none of the newly formed groups, even though his friend Ivan Vaughan repeatedly enthused about one over in Woolton to which Ivan and another institute boy, Len Garry, belonged. Ivan Vaughan offered to take Paul to meet the leader—a “great fellow,” so Ivan said. But Paul did not commit himself; nor, for that matter, did Ivan. He prided himself on taking only other “great fellows” to meet John Lennon.

The big event in Woolton each summer was a garden fete organized by St. Peter’s parish church. They made a proper carnival of it, with fancy dress and a procession of decorated floats, representing all the church organizations, that wound through the streets of the old village, gathering up followers for the subsequent gala in the field at the top of Church Road.

The fete planned for July 6, 1957, was to have a particularly elaborate program. It included, as well as the customary Rose Queen ceremony, the band of the Cheshire Yeomanry and a team of trained police dogs from the City of Liverpool force. This year, too, for the first time, the teenagers of the parish were to be catered to. That Lennon boy had been asked to bring his group, the Quarry Men, to take part in the procession and to perform afterward at the fete.

The Quarry Men’s fortunes were currently at a low ebb. A few days earlier, in common with dozens of other skiffle groups, they had gone into Liverpool to audition for a Carroll Levis
show at the Empire theater. The great star-maker Levis had been there in person, selecting local talent for what was presumed to be instant international fame. The Quarry Men had won their audition heat, and then found themselves matched in the final with the group that featured Nicky Cuff, the midget. This other group had played two numbers to the Quarry Men’s one and had, on audience response, been declared the winner. “They were miles better than we were, anyway,” Rod Davis says. “They all leapt about all over the place. We were the purists. We stood still and didn’t even smile.”

Early the next Saturday afternoon the Quarry Men climbed aboard the gaily bedecked coal merchant’s wagon that was to carry them through the Woolton streets. It had been decided that their float should bring up the rear of the procession, to allay any clash of rhythms with
the band of the Cheshire Yeomanry. In between, on vehicles borrowed from other local tradesmen, were tableaux representing the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, Wolf Cubs, and Brownies, and the motorized throne on which the thirteen-year-old Rose Queen sat, in white lace and pink velvet, surrounded by miniature soldiers and attendants.

Just as had been hoped, the Quarry Men brought a large influx of teenagers into Woolton to see the parade. Among them was Paul McCartney. Ivan Vaughan, his classmate at the Institute, had asked him over, although Len Garry, not Ivan, was playing the tea-chest bass in the group that afternoon. Another strong inducement to Paul was the possibility of picking up girls. He cycled over from Allerton, balancing his piled-up hair carefully against the wind.

It was a warm, sunny, Saturday garden party afternoon. Liverpool, its ship towers and grime, seemed remote from the village decked in faded flags, and from the little red sandstone church up the hill, in whose square tower the gold clock hands seemed to point to perpetual summer.

Beside the churchyard, a rough track led into the two small parishowned fields. Of these, the smaller one, on upland near the Boy Scouts’ hut, was too uneven for anything but the refreshment marquee. On the lower, larger field were set out stalls purveying handkerchiefs, hardware, homemade cakes, fruit and vegetables, and sideshows including bagatelle, egg-hoopla, quoits, and shilling-in-the-bucket. Beyond the Scouts’ airborne kiddy ride a blackened stone wall formed the boundary with another of Woolton’s worked-out quarries. A constant patrol of stewards was necessary to ensure that no child climbed over and fell into the deep, overgrown pit.

That Saturday had begun badly for John Lennon. In the morning, coming downstairs at Mendips, he had revealed himself to his aunt Mimi as a full-blown Teddy Boy. His toppling hair, his plaid shirt, and drainpipes seemed to Mimi to be a repudiation of all her care, self-sacrifice, and sense. There had been a furious row, after which John had stalked out of the house to find Pete Shotton. In between leaving Mimi and climbing aboard the coalman’s wagon he had contrived—in his own estimation at least—to get roaring drunk. The parade, the stalls, the Rose Queen, the opening prayers by the Reverend Maurice Pryce-Jones, all reached John through the gaseous mist of several illicit light ales.

Mimi, before she arrived at the fete, seems not to have known of the Quarry Men’s existence. “I’d just got there, and was having a cup of tea in the refreshment tent. Suddenly, in the midst of everything, came this—this eruption of noise. Everyone had drained away from where I stood, into the next-door field. And there on the stage I saw them—John, and that Shotton.”

“John saw me standing there with my mouth open. He started to make words up about me in the song he was singing. ‘Mimi’s coming,’ he sang. ‘Oh oh, Mimi’s coming down the path…’”

The Quarry Men’s big numbers that afternoon were “Cumberland Gap,” “Railroad Bill,” and “Maggie May,” a Liverpool waterfront song in which the references to a famous tart and her beat along Lime Street were, fortunately, incomprehensible to the ladies of the church committee. The whole performance was watched keenly by Paul McCartney, standing with Ivan Vaughan next to the little outdoor stage. Paul noticed the tinny banjo chords that the leading Quarry Man played, and how, while singing, he stared about him, as if sizing up or challenging the rest of the world.

While the police dogs were performing obedience trials Ivan Vaughan took Paul across the road to the Church Hall, where the Quarry Men had made a small encampment of chairs and their coats. They were due to perform again, at a dance that evening, in alternation with the George Edwards band.

Introductions were made, Pete Shotton remembers, a little stiffly. “‘This is John.’ ‘Hi.’ ‘This is Paul.’ ‘Oh—hi.’ Paul seemed quite cocky, sure of himself, but he and John didn’t seem to have much to say.” The ice positively splintered when Paul revealed a brilliant accomplishment. “He actually knew how to
a guitar,” Pete Shotton says. “Neither John nor Eric Griffiths had learned how to do that yet. Whenever their guitars went out of tune, they’d been taking them round and asking a fellow in King’s Drive to do it.”

It impressed John further that Paul knew the lyrics of rock ’n’ roll songs all the way through. He himself could never remember words, which was partly why he preferred to make up his own. Paul was even prepared, in his neat hand, to write out all the verses of “Twenty Flight Rock,” which Eddie Cochran had sung in the film
The Girl Can’t Help It
. Then, with equal obligingness, he wrote out the words of Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop a Lula.”

As church committee ladies washed up in the scullery nearby, Paul borrowed a guitar and launched into his full Little Richard act—“Long Tall Sally,” “Tutti Frutti,” and the rest. As he played, he became aware of someone getting uncomfortably close to him and breathing a beery smell. The Quarry Men’s chronically nearsighted leader was paying him the compliment of watching the way he shaped his chords.

Paul was not immediately asked to join the Quarry Men. His obvious ability, if anything, weighed against him. He was so good, they reasoned, he would hardly want to throw in with them. John in particular gave the idea what was, for John, prolonged thought. Up to that point he had been the Quarry Men’s undisputed leader. By admitting Paul, he would be creating a potential threat to that leadership. The decision was whether to remain strong himself or make the group stronger. A week after the Woolton fete Paul was cycling to Allerton across the golf course when he met Pete Shotton. Pete told him that John wanted him in.

BOOK: Shout!
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