As you may already know, this reporter is a big Beatles fan. Because of this, you won’t find yet another recap of the Beatles’ beginnings. Instead , you will find tales of lesser-known Beatles’ buddies. Your favorite scribe is always hoping to share “something new” with readers.
This particular column will focus on a group “related” to Beatles: The Big Three. Any rock journalist who has been to England in the recent past knows that there are still Merseybeat veterans there who will tell you that the best band to ever play the Cavern Club was NOT The Beatles but their buddies, The Big Three. Who were The Big Three? Travel back through the mists of time with me once again to a time we called the sixties.
It’s 1961 and here in America, Mr. and Mrs. Willard W. Phoenix have just produced the talents of yours truly. At the same time, across the pond in the UK, the end of a Liverpool Merseyside band called Cass and the Casanovas is signaling the birth of The Big Three. The Big Three consisted of Adrian Barber on guitar, Johnny Gustafson on bass and Johnny Hutchinson on drums.
(For a short time they had a drummer named Brian Hudson. According to Barber, Hudson had a black beret and beard and played jazz.) Johnny Hutchinson replaced him, and Barber added, Hutchinson “could do all the patterns that Brian couldn’t – he was a rock ‘n’ roll man.” Hutchinson was even known to sometimes sit in for Beatles’ drummer, Pete Best, was unavailable.
The Beatles with Hutchinson sitting in on drums for the late-arriving Tommy Moore (1960). In fact, Tommy Moore is sometimes erroneously identified as drumming here because Hutchinson was simply doing The Beatles a last-minute favor. Gustafson had actually been recruited by Hutchinson and—just like the Beatles’ Stu Sutcliffe–did not have his own bass nor could he even play. Barber converted a Hoyer Acoustic for Gustafson and put bass strings on it.
The Big Three appeared on many different bills with The Beatles. Their earth-shattering R&B and American covers soon made them the favorite act in the Cavern. Their secret to success: an energetic act and never-seen-before huge five foot amps. Barber himself had built the amps and affectionately nicknamed them “coffins”.
In fact, The Beatles and other groups often asked Adrian to make “coffins” for them. A Mersey Beat columnist “Onlooker” noted in the November 30 1961 issue “I wonder who carried their coffins upstairs. (The band) The Undertakers probably – they were there as well. These enormous amplifiers on wheels always intrigue me. They must have quite a job getting them on some stages I’ve seen.”
Gustafson added “Our speakers were five feet high by one and a half to two feet wide. Adrian Barber was a bit of an electronic wiz – he concocted these things. He got two Goodmans 15-inch speakers and made up this great big amp – it was only 50 watts but he acoustically designed the cabinets to give it the most oomph and they did sound very, very loud.” Add the out of control, rough, wild onstage performance and they couldn’t be beat.
Singer Cilla Black, who originally sang regularly with the Big Three, when drummer Pete Best was fired from the Beatles in 1962, Hutchinson, was first choice as his replacement. It is believed by some that Epstein had learned that “Hutch” was the best drummer in town and asked Hutchinson to play with The Beatles. In fact, “Hutch” said: “Brian asked me to join the Beatles” but he replied “I wouldn’t join the Beatles for a gold clock.”
He further told Epstein “There’s only one group as far as I’m concerned and that’s the Big Three. The Beatles can’t make a better sound than that, and Pete is a very good friend of mine. I couldn’t do the dirty on him.”
The Beatles may also have had second thoughts of their own due to Hutchinson’s reputation for belligerency and they may have thought they needed a drummer with a more subordinate personality such as Ringo Starr. (Both Best and Hutchinson had the same non-Beatle haircut.) Whatever the case, in the few dates between Best’s departure and Ringo’s joining, Hutchinson played with the Beatles.
Brian Epstein, spurred on by his still-new relationship with The Beatles, signed the Big Three to his select stable. They were among the first three groups to be chosen along with The Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers. In the summer of 1962, he sent The Big Three off to Hamburg, Germany to follow in the footsteps of their buddies, The Beatles.
They became the new resident band at the Star Club. Sometime after arriving in Germany, what was to be a significant blow came when Epstein said that for the German job they had to be a four piece band as the contract demanded. They were joined by another guitarist from Liverpool, Brian Griffiths, who once was a member of Howie Casey & the Seniors. When asked about The Beatles in an online interview he replied: “The Beatles were just guys from Liverpool like ourselves, who loved playing rock “n” roll. We shared ideas, traded guitar licks, drank beer together, and played lots of gigs with them. I started playing the same clubs as them in Hamburg (Kaiserkeller) when I was with Howie Casey and the Seniors in 1960.”
Griffiths also added: “They always worked very hard at what they did, and they had the sound and talent as a group. I always thought it could have turned out differently if they hadn’t been managed by Brian Epstein. I remember we did a TV. show with them (Thank Your Lucky Stars)and there were hundreds of fans outside the studio going crazy for them. It was at that time Epstein had said ‘these guys are going to be bigger than Presley’. With the absurdity of that statement I remember thinking this guy could be right and as they say the rest is history.” But before The Big Three had to change their name to The Big Four, Barber—like Stuart Sutcliffe of The Beatles before him—announced that he would be staying in Germany.
“We were supposed to be the Big Three, not the Big Four,” Barber stated. He became the full-time stage manager of the Star Club. In fact, the Star Club owner, Manfred Weissleder, wanted to start a Star Club record label and record the acts on stage, so he also hired Barber to develop a special sound system to capture the sounds of Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes and The Beatles.
Barber had been trying new ideas with a domestic tape recorder to check out the acoustics. Using only a single mic in the right position, he was able to get pretty good results recording not only The Beatles on stage, complete with dialogue between the band and the audience, but the jokes, ribald repartee and even a tune from Horst Fascher, the club manager. Adrian finished the recordings on New Year’s Eve, 1962 and was approached by Taylor who wanted the recordings of the Dominoes.
The Beatles recordings from their final engagement at the Star Club were also on those tapes and were eventually used for the double album, “The Beatles Live! At The Star Club in Hamburg, Germany: 1962”. According to Mersey beat-related sources there are some interesting anecdotes about the Big Three in Hamburg.
One involved Barber and his pet pig used to walk around the St. Pauli District on a leash. Yet another concerns a “rumour” that Brian Griffiths drank an entire month’s worth of his club beer allocation in a one night!
After Joey Dee & the Starliters played the Star Club the group was so impressed with the sound system that they asked Barber to fly to New York City and design and install a sound system for the Peppermint Lounge. Not soon after The (new) Big Three left for the UK, Barber went to America and installed a special sound system in the Peppermint Lounge. (Later, he would eventually become a recording manager at Atlantic Records and promoted a group named the New “Aerosmith” produced by Adrian Barber in 1973
York Rock and Roll Ensemble. Even later, he went on to become the recording manager for such big acts as Lou Reed, the Allman Brothers and Aerosmith.)
Meanwhile, The Big Three returned to the UK albeit having gone through a change in line-up as had their stable-mates The Beatles before them. Upon arriving back in Liverpool, Epstein whisked the boys away to the studios of Decca. Decca, having recently made the now-historic mistake of turning down The Beatles, were more than happy to work with The Big Three.
The band recorded a song The Beatles also performed, Ritchie Barrett’s R&B classic “Some Other Guy”. When Epstein announced the recording was to be released as it is the band was furious. Gustafson recalled: “”This was actually a demo tape for Decca.”
He added: “My voice was completely gone. We’d come back from Hamburg that very morning and were thrown into Decca’s No. 2 studio in the basement. It was horrible. We were croaking like old frogs.”
Epstein had no intention of allowing them to record it the way they wanted to record it. Gustafson reflected: “Eppy wouldn’t let us do it again and we went berserk. The bass sound was non-existent and the drum sound was awful.”
The group tired to make it clear that this track simply didn’t capture their aggressive, on-stage energy. When Epstein and the label made them do Mitch Murray’s “By The Way” as the next cut, they were even more discouraged. Gustafson recalled: “It was arms up the back. ‘Do it, boys, or it’s all over.’ We didn’t like it but we tried our best.”
Neither number was quite able to capture the “je ne sais quoi” of their live performances. Additionally, the absence of their Ray Charles and Chuck Berry covers failed to demonstrate that The Big Three was a louder, harder-rocking and more powerful band than The Beatles.
Gustafson continued: “We hated ‘By The Way’ and ‘I’m With You’ because they were pop songs: poppy, horrible, three-chord Gerry & the Pacemakers type songs.”
Additionally, Epstein had earlier repackaged The Big Three. The Big Three originally wore creamy yellow and pink suits which Epstein said were “always dirty” and had to be disposed of. He also told them that –like The Beatles– them they were not allowed to smoke on stage and then even insisted that they put some “ soft numbers” into their act. Barber fought with Epstein on certain points but was often upset when the others didn’t always back him up. Where they had once been a raunchy, rockin’, R&B combo they were now fast becoming something else.
So it was no surprise that by July of 1963 they had decided to leave Brian Epstein’s stables, freeing up Epstein to spend more time with their former stable-mates The Beatles. The Big Three would now try to salvage the act that had originally made them almost bigger than The Beatles. In 1963 the band’s A&R man Noel Walker (a former Liverpool jazz musician) recorded them live at the Cavern. The label’s group of engineers had spent approximately three days working out the microphone positions and the recording took roughly ten hours because of various technical difficulties. The following November the live EP, “The Big Three at the Cavern” hit the record racks.
It featured club legend Bob Wooler introducing the band as well as the songs “Don’t Start Running Around”, “Reelin’ and a Rockin’”, “What’d I Say?” and “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”. The equipment only managed to capture a mere fraction of the true, raw-edged sound of The Big Three in the Cavern. Shortly after the recording was released, Hutchinson left to try to form a new band, while Griffiths and Gustafson, still disillusioned with Epstein’s previous handling of their group and disappointed with the end results of Decca’s efforts, told the press they would be returning to Germany to play the club circuit.
Gustafson went on to join the Merseybeats for a brief time, the Spencer Davis Group and (among other gigs)years later played on three albums by Roxy Music in the ’70s. He also worked on the cast album of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and wrote “Dear John”, a Status Quo hit in 1982.
The original group had only managed to cut a few singles in 1963 in addition to the album and even dented the British charts. (A new “Big Three” lineup carried on through 1964 to record a couple more numbers, but met with no greater success.) In 1973 Gustafson and Griffiths even tried to bring back the classic band with the help of Elton John’s drummer, Nigel Olssen.
After that brief reunion it was not until years later that Ex-Apple Exec, Tony Bramwell, produced put out an album titled “Resurrection” which was made up of previously recorded songs and issued on Polydor. While their songs can also be found on almost a dozen compilation albums released between 1964 and 1983, the band’s discography includes only a few entries.
A good, independent record store can get you a vinyl copy of the above-mentioned “Resurrection” a 1981 re-release of the previously-noted live album, “The Big Three at the Cavern”, and a 1985 project, “Cavern Stomp”, by The Big Three. The “Cavern Stomp” record includes all 13 tracks recorded by the band. It would seem from this material that The Big Three simply did not get enough studio time nor were they given as much a chance to work on their own songwriting as The Beatles were. In fact, according to the liner notes, the boys in the band felt Epstein spent most of his time promoting The Beatles.
Oddly enough, there still remains three numbers that have never been released: “Fortune Teller”, “Walkin’ The Dog” and—a song the Beatles also recorded—“Long Tall Sally”. Today, Barber resides in Hawaii where he is writing his autobiography. Hutchinson is a property magnate in the UK and Griffiths has seemingly retired to Canada. To this day, the former band mates still disagree with the previously-mentioned story concerning their signing with Brian Epstein.
The Big Three might have been like The Beatles or at least The Who. While John, Paul, George and Ringo went on to conquer the world, The Big Three broke up—perhaps at least proving early on that not everyone and everything Brian Epstein touched turned to gold.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.