Monday, August 2, 2010

August 3

Today's the birthday of Jimmy Nicol, a rock n' roll drummer that became the Biggest Drummer in the World - for almost two weeks.
Born in London, his professional career began when he was 18, playing in rock and roll bands around the city. In those days, rock and roll was defined by Chuck Berry around the world, Tommy Steele in the UK. Steele's little brother, Colin Hicks, was starting a band as well, and his manager recruited Jimmy for drums.
Colin Hicks and the Cabin Boys had their greatest success in Italy, after filming this performance in the 1959 film, Europe By Night:

But he didn't stick around to tour Italy; he stayed in the London scene, doing session work and playing in bands for guys like Oscar Rabin and Georgie Fame. He even started his own combo, The Shubdubs.

It was a case of tonsilitis that got him his biggest gig ever. Ringo Star collapsed on June 3, 1964, on the eve of the Beatles' world tour. Manager Brian Epstein urged the other Beatles to get a replacement drummer until Ringo could get better and catch up with the rest of the band. Producer George Martin suggested Nicol, who had impressed Martin at previous sessions for other artists (and had, coincidentally, learned and recorded several Beatles songs for the studio band The Koppykats, in one of those 'inspired by' knockoff albums that record labels do.) He was auditioned, got his mop top cut, and played his first concert with the Beatles in Copenhagen, on June 4th.
For the next week, he fit well with the Beatles and kept up as best he could, while the band played the Netherlands, Hong Kong, and Australia...

On June 14, Ringo was ready to return. Jimmy was plucked out of Australia in the middle of the night, and sent back to London with his check and a gold watch, presented in gratitude. He was a Beatle for ten days.
He contributed a footnote to the Beatles songbook, too. During his time as a Beatle, whenever John or Paul would ask how he was dealing with things, he would say he was "getting better", every time. The phrase stuck with Paul, and inspired the song "Getting Better" that would end up on the 'Sgt Pepper' album.

By his own account, he never recovered from his time as a Substitute Beatle. After Australia, the Shubdubs got a boost, but it wasn't enough to get the band's music on the charts. "Humpty Dumpty" wasn't that great a song, to be honest; but the B-side, the Shubdubs' arrangement of "Night Train", was pretty good:

He eventually ended up drumming with the Swedish instrumentalists the Spotnicks for a few years; then, he ended up in Mexico learning samba rhythms and starting a button factory. Eventually, he got out of music altogether.
Today, he's rather reclusive, and hasn't recorded in decades. Meanwhile, his son, Howie Nicol, is in the TV industry, and has become an award-winning sound recordist. He's never released a tell-all book or sold the movie rights (because he respects the Beatles that much), but I'd love to know the full story of this rock and roll Icarus: why he played and what he was working for when it started, what it was like to be a rock star for a week, and how hard was he chasing it after it was gone... Fortunately, he's not a statistic or even a rock music cliche, but I feel there's something to learn from his experience...

There's more to Jimmy than the Beatles, and that's why I'm going to finish up with another song by the Shubdubs, because I love that mod-rock instrumental sound:

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