So here’s the skinny with the new two-disc set, First Recordings – 50th Anniversary Edition, credited to The Beatles with Tony Sheridan: before they had their own recording contract – and before Ringo Starr joined the band – The Beatles cut their first professional records primarily as a backing group. The story is familiar to Beatlemaniacs, but might be less so to casual fans. Two recording sessions in the summer of 1961 and one session in ‘62 yielded the eight songs found on First Recordings. The Beatles were in the midst of a residency at Hamburg, Germany’s Top Ten club in ’61 when producer Bert Kaempfert hired them to back the English rock and roller Sheridan. Two more songs were cut during the ’62 session, only one of which has survived.
This is John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Pete Best – with only two songs boasting this line-up: a Lennon-led cover of “Ain’t She Sweet” and the instrumental “Cry for a Shadow.” They’re the best known tracks here, as they were included most notably on Anthology 1 in 1995, along with the Sheridan-led “My Bonnie.” In fact, “Ain’t She Sweet” and “My Bonnie” were both top forty hits in the U.S. after the band broke through to that market in 1964.
Although he was a capable (if derivative) vocalist, Sheridan is remembered today largely because of these recordings. They’ve been packaged and repackaged over the years, remaining a curiosity as they present The Beatles in an immature, formative state. These covers, of tunes like “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Nobody’s Child,” are not especially interesting except for historical reasons. But historical reasons are all that’s needed when it comes to The Beatles.
Thirty-four tracks are spread over the two discs, meaning there is a lot of repetition. But for Beatles completists, it’s only appropriate. The first disc contains the mono mixes while the second features the stereo versions. And as if that wasn’t comprehensive enough to please most listeners, this set also includes a number of variants on each disc – alternate intros (English vs. German on “My Bonnie”), so-called “Medley Version” edits of several tracks, as well as a few overdubbed U.S. versions.
Apparently the company responsible for the North American releases didn’t think all the material had a thick enough sound. They brought in session players to beef up a few tracks, including “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Take Out Some Insurance On Me, Baby,” and “Ain’t She Sweet.” We get both the original and dubbed versions of each.
Speaking of the overdubbed versions, it was legendary session drummer Bernard Purdie who did the drum overdubs for those aforementioned tracks. These are, in fact, the only examples of Purdie playing on Beatles records – and it was, of course, Pete Best’s drumming that he overdubbed.
Somehow over the years, Purdie got it in his mind that he filled in for Ringo Starr on a bunch of early Beatles recordings. His persistence has convinced many people that this actually happened, yet there is not one shred of evidence to back up his claims. Three songs sung by Tony Sheridan, all recorded prior to Starr’s first appearance with the band, were his only contributions to The Beatles discography.
Incidentally, Sheridan also overdubbed new lyrics to “Sweet Georgia Brown” that directly reference The Beatles. This version was released after Beatlemania had begun. The very different original version (the lone surviving recording from the ’62 session) is included as well, featuring piano playing by Roy Young (who was present at the original session).
In a way, it’s actually too bad that Sheridan was involved at all, as it would’ve been much more preferable hearing The Beatles sing these songs. First Recordings – 50th Anniversary Edition isn’t likely to interest anyone except for hardcore Beatles fans, but of course there are millions of those. So it’s great that Time-Life has issued them again in such a complete and excellent sounding release. Extensive liner notes provide the historical context needed to enhance your enjoyment of these recordings.