I admit, I’m very surprised to be so surprised by once again hearing the first tracks the Beatles laid down in Hamburg back in 1961 and ’62. I can’t say how many times I’ve heard the eight songs produced by German bandleader Bert Kaempfert over the years, but I’d assumed I knew as much about them as any Beatles fan needed to know.
I was dead wrong.
It’s rather strange to report that while other countries have enjoyed full collections of variant versions of these records for decades, it took 50 years for U.S. listeners to get an “official” package of songs which were intended to launch the career of British singer and guitarist Tony Sheridan. True, a two-CD set with the same eight tracks repeated over and over in often very similar mixes is likely to interest only collectors, completists, and musicologists. But when it comes to the Fabs, there are plenty of us around even if we’re likely to give this collection serious attention just once before filing it away for archival purposes.
The story behind these recordings is, more or less, well-known. After seeing Sheridan and the Beatles perform together at the Top Ten Club in Hamburg, Kaempfert signed the singer and the band to his own company and then to Polydor Records. In June 1961, the musicians recorded five songs for which the Beatles were back-up players and de facto Jordanairres for Sheridan’s Elvis impersonations. These included “My Bonnie,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Why,” “”If You Love Me, Baby (Take Out Some Insurance on Me, Baby),” and “Nobody’s Child.” John, Paul, George, and Pete Best were allowed to record two numbers of their own, “Ain’t She Sweet,” featuring Lennon on vocals, and “Cry for a Shadow,” an instrumental written by Lennon and Harrison. The following spring, the Beatles returned to Hamburg after a stint in Liverpool, backing Sheridan on his next single, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and also recording “Swanee River” with him — the latter track long lost in the mists of history.
From the beginning, different takes of these songs were recorded for different audiences. In particular, slow introductions to “My Bonnie” were recorded in both German and English but many releases dumped both these sections. Two versions of this song are known as the “twist” and “rock” versions for their respective approaches. There’s one version of “If You Love Me, Baby (Take Out Some Insurance on Me, Baby)” where Sheridan sings “some God damn insurance,” a take that didn’t see much airplay. Some songs were over-dubbed later.
Sheridan even wrote new lyrics for “Sweet Georgia Brown” that poked fun at the growing Beatles fame: “In Liverpool she even dared to criticize the Beatles hair/ with their entire fan club standing there.” Both the original and later recordings of this song featured piano player Roy Young. A lost figure in Beatles lore, Young was unable to accept an offer from Brian Epstein to return with the band to Liverpool as he already had a three-year contract with the Star Club.
Prefiguring the American tendency to “butcher” the Beatles’ albums, in 1964 U.S. companies MGM and Atlantic tinkered with the songs for their own versions, cutting a minute from “Nobody’s Child” and adding a guitarist and drummer — probably Cornell Dupree and Bernard “Pretty” Purdie — to several tracks, unbeknownst to U.S. buyers.
Disc One of this set is all this in mono; Disc Two is essentially the same playlist in stereo. In addition there are a number of “medley” versions, which for some reason feature the opening bars to other (unrelated) tunes. For example, one take of “My Bonnie” suddenly jumps into a short bit of Herb Albert’s “A Taste of Honey.” What’s the story behind these “medley” tracks?
That’s one answer you won’t get in the otherwise quite decent collector’s booklet accompanying the discs. There are photos by the legendary Astrid Kirchherr, original artwork taken from posters and records, replicas of record contracts, as well as the handwritten biographies the Beatles wrote on Kaempfert’s kitchen table when they signed those contracts. In addition, Hans Olof Gottfridsson provides a serviceable if not exhaustive history of the recordings. He chronicles most of the credible information the majority of listeners will need; the serious collector will no doubt want to seek out further details. For a few examples, other sources claim Sheridan was a major influence on Harrison’s guitar work; also, both Sheridan and Lennon recalled recording four additional songs that have apparently disappeared.
So, one really needs to be a dedicated Beatles fan to need this collection, but you don’t have to be so earnest to enjoy listening to at least one disc of these songs. I liked hearing tunes that are, in many ways, far superior to the Decca demo discs John, Paul, George, and Ringo put down shortly after the “Sweet Georgia Brown” sessions. I was fascinated to hear the different mono and stereo mixes, allowing me to focus on the playing and background singing that didn’t yet have the distinctive Beatlemania harmonies. On the other hand, it’s a tad disconcerting to think, “Hey, that’s a great solo, George,” only to learn it’s actually Sheridan rocking instead. All in all, though, It’s worthwhile to hop into the time machine and go back to the beginning at least one more time. I wonder if Sheridan was the “Elvis Beatle” Lennon was worried about becoming.