Before they were Beatles, they were Quarrymen

By Gillian G. Gaar

Most Beatles fans know that on July 6, 1957, then 15-year-old Paul McCartney accompanied his friend, Ivan Vaughn, to St. Peter’s Church in the Liverpool neighborhood of Woolton. He went to see his friend’s band, The Quarrymen, led by John Lennon. It was the historic day “when John met Paul.” A few weeks later, McCartney was invited to join the band, and the groundwork for the eventual emergence of The Beatles was laid.

Quarrymen with John Lennon courtesy Rod Davis

John Lennon (third from right) was the first of three future Beatles to join the Liverpool skiffle group The Quarrymen. Although the day when Lennon met Paul McCartney at a church picnic on July 6, 1957, is considered a momentous occasion for Beatles fans and rock historians (and even is recorded in this photograph), Quarrymen member Rod Davis says he honestly doesn’t remember anything about it. Photo courtesy Rod Davis.

The Quarrymen fizzled out by 1960, while The Beatles went on to worldwide fame. Ten years after that, The Beatles split up. But The Quarrymen are now back in business, having reformed in 1997 and still playing today.

“Before the mid-’80s, nobody was interested in The Quarrymen at all,” says Rod Davis, who played banjo in the original Quarrymen and now plays guitar for the group. “I think people thought The Beatles just sprang out of nothing. However, in the mid-’80s, people started saying ‘Well, hang on a minute; what went on before we heard about The Beatles?’ So, of course, they then got interested in The Quarrymen.”

Davis had first met John Lennon when they were in the same Sunday School class in Liverpool.

“I was a fairly well-behaved kid,” Davis says. “But John was a villain from the word go. John was the sort of lad that would lead people into bad ways, so I was always told ‘Keep away from that Lennon!’ He and [future Quarryman] Pete Shotton used to spend the couple of pennies that should’ve gone into the collection plate on bubble gum; they would arrive chewing, and the teacher wouldn’t be very happy about that.”

Davis took piano lessons as a child, but he became more seriously interested in music when he first heard Lonnie Donegan’s “Rock Island Line.” Donegan’s lively take on a song originally popularized by Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter became a smash hit in the U.K., peaking at No. 8 (and reaching the same position in the U.S.), kicking off a national craze for “skiffle,” a homespun music with roots in jazz.

John Lennon copy Rock Island Line

Rod Davis treasures this copy of Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle record, “Rock Island Line.” It once was owned by Davis’ one-time bandmate in The Quarrymen: John Lennon. Rod Davis photo.

“All you have to do is talk to a rock and roller whose age is on the wrong side of 70 and they will say, ‘Oh yeah, it was “Rock Island Line” that did it for me,’” says Davis. “And it had that effect on everybody (in Britain), really. It was such a contrast from the music that had gone on before. And this was music that was within reach; you didn’t have to be classically trained to play it. It was just a fantastic opportunity for me and tens and thousands of other kids to get up onstage and enjoy themselves, have some fun and play music.”

Soon after being entranced by “Rock Island Line,” Davis purchased a banjo. The following Monday at school, his friend, Eric Griffiths, told him that John Lennon had formed a skiffle group including Griffiths and Pete Shotton; would Davis like to join? He would. The lineup featured Lennon and Griffiths on guitar, Davis on banjo and Shotton on washboard. All four went to Quarry Bank High School for Boys. Len Garry, who attended the Liverpool Institute (where Paul McCartney was also a student) next joined on tea chest bass. Colin Hanton, who had already left school, played drums and came to the group through Griffiths.

Though the group came together in 1956, no one is certain exactly when.

“We have various theories, but no hard evidence,” says Davis. “I personally think it started some time in early 1956.” But Hanton, in Hunter Davies’ book “The Quarrymen,” thinks it was the summer or fall of 1956. “And I spoke to Pete Shotton about this some time ago, and he said he didn’t think the summer of 1956 was when the Quarrymen started, because ‘That was the summer John and I discovered girls,’” Davis says.

Since most early shows were at friend’s parties, there are no records of exact dates played.

“It’s so long ago,” Davis says. “And it was obviously totally unimportant to us then.”
The name “Quarrymen” was chosen as most of the members went to Quarry Bank (and despite the various name spellings that have appeared over the years, the group’s name is spelled as one word). “We started out by pinching just about every skiffle number Lonnie Donegan had ever recorded,” Davis says of the band’s repertoire. “So there was quite a lot of acoustic country stuff. There was ‘Rock Island Line,’ there was stuff like ‘John Henry’ and ‘Bring a Little Water, Sylvie,’ and quite a few old Carter Family numbers which had been recycled by Lonnie Donegan, such as ‘My Dixie Darling,’ ‘Worried Man Blues.’ We played all that kind of thing.

“And then gradually, people realized that the same chords that worked for skiffle also worked for rock ’n’ roll. And whilst Donegan was pretty good, he wasn’t anything like as sexy and glamorous as Elvis. So most people were knocked sideways by Elvis, and wanted to be Elvis and play rock ’n’ roll. Personally, I didn’t. I wasn’t terribly impressed by Elvis. I was much more interested in the American acoustic country end of things, rather than rock ’n’ roll.”

John Lennon Quarrymen

This early photo of John Lennon (center) with his Quarrymen bandmates sold for $1,195 via Heritage Auction Galleries.

The group also had a uniform of sorts, black jeans and white shirts. This caused some embarrassment for Davis when the group played the Lee Park Golf Club in 1957. The zipper on Davis’ second-hand jeans split right before the group went on, “And I spent the entire gig crouching behind the banjo,” says Davis. “And the joke I say now is thanking the Lord I wasn’t a ukulele player! So that particular gig stuck in my mind.”

Alan Sytner, who’d just opened a new club in Liverpool in January 1957 called the Cavern, was also at the Golf Club show, and he offered the Quarrymen the chance to play the venue. Though Aug. 7, 1957, is given as the date the band first played the club, the band members insist they played the Cavern before then; the Aug. 7 date simply marked the first time their name was mentioned in the club’s ads. And though billed as “Quarrymen Skiffle Group,” the band was already straining to move over to rock ‘n’ roll.

“I remember arguing on stage with John, because he wanted to play rock ’n’ roll, and the Cavern was actually a jazz cellar in those days,” says Davis. “There was quite a big divide — people who liked jazz, which was considered to be a bit more intellectually student-like, and the rough-and-tumble world of rock ’n’ roll. Because skiffle had emerged from traditional jazz music, you absolutely had no problems playing skiffle, because you’d be playing quite a few blues numbers and this kind of thing. But if you played rock ’n’ roll, then the audience got annoyed, and so did the management. And I do remember arguing with John; I don’t know which tune it was he wanted to play, but it was a rock ’n’ roll number, and I was saying ‘Don’t do it.’ John used to say things like, ‘Now we’re going to play you a Leadbelly number,’ and then play a rock ’n’ roll number just to annoy everybody. And the management would send down a note saying, ‘Cut out the bloody rock ’n’ roll!’ You were living on the edge playing rock ’n’ roll in the Cavern, because the audience and the management did not like it one bit.”

At this stage, shows were more about having a laugh.

“Yeah, we were just up on stage trying to impress the young ladies in the neighborhood — failing miserably, in my case, but it wasn’t for want of trying!” says Davis. “It was really just a bunch of kids having fun.”

That began to change when McCartney came into the Quarrymen’s orbit. The Quarrymen played three sets at the St. Peter’s Church Garden Fete on July 6, two in the afternoon on the church grounds, and an evening performance in the church hall.

“On the day Lennon met McCartney, I personally don’t remember anything about it,” Davis confesses. “At least, I don’t remember anything about Paul McCartney. I had started saying to people, well, I think it happened during the gap between the afternoon performance and the evening performance; I’d gone home for my dinner. However, that didn’t get much of a laugh. So I started to say I went for a pee. It’s just a cheap laugh. The greatest moment in rock ’n’ roll history, and I went for a pee! But I have to be very careful when I make jokes like this, because people soon believe you; I’ll start yet another myth. And, of course, you can’t remember things straight yourself, and then it gets even worse.”

McCartney impressed Lennon by not only being able to tune a guitar, but also to play one fairly well himself, famously demonstrating his skills with an impromptu performance of “Twenty Flight Rock.” Lennon later asked him to join the group — by which time Davis had left. Though the Hunter Davies book says his last show was the Aug. 7 Cavern date, Davis has since realized he was actually in France with his family on holiday at that time. By the time he returned, he could see The Quarrymen were heading in a more rock ’n’ roll direction, and he lost interest.

“I’d faded out at the end of July, and Paul McCartney came in to take over my slot,” Davis confirms. “It wasn’t ‘You’re out and he’s in.’ In fact, the group really left me. But there we are.”

He also notes that McCartney’s arrival gave the group a new direction.

“When Paul came in, things started to get a little bit more serious,” he says. “Paul’s father had actually had a band, Jim Mac’s Jazz Band, so Paul was much more aware of the career possibilities than any of the rest of us were, because here his own dad had had a band. So things got a lot more structured and serious when Paul arrived. You can tell that by looking at the photograph of us in July ’57, when we were at St. Peter’s Church, a bunch of guys in checked shirts, and in November ’57, when you have John and Paul in smart white jackets and everybody in little bootlace ties. I mean, already Paul’s influence was evident, you know?”

The Quarrymen never did play many shows; Mark Lewisohn’s “The Beatles Live!” lists only five known dates for 1958. By then, George Harrison had joined the group, and sometime during that year Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Colin Hanton and John “Duff” Lowe (on piano) recorded two songs at a private home studio; “That’ll Be The Day” and “In Spite of All the Danger” later appeared on “Anthology 1.”

In 1959, The Quarrymen played a handful of dates at Liverpool’s Casbah Coffee Club. A year later, when the band was headed to Hamburg, Germany, band members contacted Pete Best, whose mother owned the Casbah, to be their new drummer. By then, only Lennon, McCartney and Harrison remained in the group, and they had just changed the name to The Beatles.

Davis, who’d gone on to Cambridge University, never saw The Quarrymen or The Beatles play again. But he continued expanding his own musical horizons, taking up guitar, mandolin and fiddle and joining a band while at university called the Trad Grads, who released the single “Rag-Day Jazz-Band Ball” on Decca in 1962.

That same year, Davis ran into Lennon in Liverpool. He was interested to hear that Davis was still making music and asked if he’d consider joining The Beatles in Hamburg.

“My mother was going on for weeks afterwards, mumbling under her breath, ‘He’s not going to Hamburg with that Lennon!’” Davis recalls. He ultimately elected to stay at university, meaning he ended up walking away from The Beatles twice.

“Well, there you go,” he says philosophically. “Maybe third time lucky! Who knows.”

But, Davies was nonetheless pleased when The Beatles became successful.

“All of us were absolutely delighted,” he says. “Because in the U.K., there’s London, and there’s everywhere else. Anything that was really important had to happen in London. And so it was quite fantastic that a group of our mates who were from Liverpool and not from London were actually making it big. And, of course, when they went really, really big, that was even better; we were even more delighted.”

Despite what he says in Hunter Davies book, Davis is no longer sure that he did see The Beatles playing on the rooftop of their Apple Corps. Headquarters on Jan. 30, 1969.

“I’m now beginning to think that was imagination and I never actually saw them in the first place,” he says. “I’d been working near London at the time, and I had to go into London quite a lot. And I always tried to make a point of going to a particular museum which was just at the end of Savile Row. So I was in the right part of the world at the right time, put it that way. And maybe I’d seen it on television and … it’s very difficult to know. So all I am certain of is that I am uncertain as to whether I saw them or not!”

But he does have a priceless relic from his Quarrymen days: A 78 RPM disc of Donegan’s “Rock Island Line” that he purchased from Lennon in 1957 for two shillings and six pence.
“It was a shellac 78, so it was quite brittle,” Davis says. “And the hole in the middle of the record was all chipped and banged. My father repaired the hole by sticking a piece of plastic over it and re-drilling it, because the 78 had been skidding around on the gramophone, ’cause the pin wasn’t tight in the hole. And I subsequently got it autographed by Lonnie Donegan, by the lady who played the washboard, and by the man who played the double bass. And it’s actually in the British Music Experience museum in London. But I still own it. So one day, when I’m short of a few bob, as we say in England, I may have to sell it.”

Quarrymen in 2006

The Quarrymen in 2006: Len Garry, Colin Hanton, John “Duff” Lowe and Rod Davis. Hanton and Lowe are featured on The Beatles’ “Anthology” for their work on “That’ll Be Teh Day” and “In Spite of All The Danger,” which they recorded with George Harrison, Paul McCartney and John Lennon in 1958. Photo courtesy Rod Davis.

Davis had kept in touch with Colin Hanton over the years, and finally met Duff Lowe in the early ’90s. Davis and Lowe released a CD in 1995, “Open For Engagements,” and attended a Beatles convention in Los Angeles that same year. Davis was surprised at the great level of interest in his former group.

“I was astounded,” he says. “They knew more about me playing with The Quarrymen than I knew about playing with The Quarrymen. People were asking me things; I would confess I hadn’t got a clue. It was quite extraordinary.”

The original Quarrymen finally reunited in 1997, thanks to the efforts of Cavern City Tours, which hosts Beatle Week in Liverpool. The company threw a party on Jan. 16, 1997, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Cavern, and all The Quarrymen were invited.

“They invited dozens of people from all over the U.K. to the Cavern for a fantastic booze up,” Davis recalls. “Loads of free booze. At one point we decided to go out and have a meal, and someone said, ‘Hey, you can’t go now, there’s a TV crew coming to film you guys.’ And we said, ‘We haven’t even been together for 40 years, let alone played together!’ And they said, ‘Ah, come on, everybody’s having drink; it’s only a bit of fun.’ So we got up on stage and staggered through a couple of numbers. We had a Paul McCartney lookalike and a John Lennon lookalike with us. I think we just played two numbers, but I honestly can’t remember what they were. And after that, there were some Beatles fans in Liverpool and they said, ‘We want to try and recreate the day Lennon met McCartney, in July ’97; are you up for it?’ Eventually we agreed. And that’s how we got back together again.”

The Quarrymen ended up recreating the group’s original 1957 performance on July 5, 1997, at St. Peter’s Church, unveiling a commemorative plaque on the church hall the following day. Since then, the band members have appeared at numerous Beatles-related events and released various recordings. The group’s shows endeavor to give people a taste of what those early days were like.

“We mostly start off with ‘Rock Island Line,’ because that’s where it all came from,” says Davis.

Len Garry has moved to guitar from tea chest bass, and Pete Shotton left the group in 2000 for health reasons, meaning there’s no regular washboard player.

“So we always take a washboard with us. And sometimes we take a tea chest bass with us; I’ve got one which collapses and goes into a suitcase. So we get people up from the audience to play the washboard and the tea chest bass. You’d never get the opportunity to do that with Paul McCartney or with Ringo! If it’s a charming young lady playing the washboard, we tell her every time she drops the thimble, she has to kiss the drummer, so the drummer has a good time. And so we play a couple of rock ’n’ roll numbers, skiffle numbers — the stuff that influenced John, Paul, George and Ringo. We play more or less in the same style, a fairly rough-and-ready, thrown-together style. Although, in the last year or two, I have started doing lead guitar solos, which we never did in those days, because nobody had any electric guitars or amplifiers, and we couldn’t do it anyway! But we have made a few concessions to modernity. And in our introductions, we tell the odd little story. So that’s what it’s all about really, a bit of nostalgia and a bit of fun, and we don’t take the music or ourselves too seriously.”

These days, with The Quarrymen living in different parts of the country, shows happen when their schedules allow.

“We don’t go out actively searching for gigs very much,” Davis admits. “We just wait for them to come to us on the Internet. And if they’re interesting and they fit in with our otherwise hectic lifestyles then we do them. Last year was a bit quiet. This year’s also a bit on the quiet side. It just depends.”

The group did play in Hamburg at the 50th anniversary of the Star Club. Davis maintains the band’s website (www.originalquarrymen.co.uk), where you can read the latest news, order CDs and see video clips. There’s also an interesting “Myth Busting” section. Davis hopes the band will be able to put out a DVD next, “a live concert in front of an English-speaking audience. Therefore, hopefully, they’ll understand our jokes.”

In 2004, Davis got the chance to catch up with another ex-Quarryman, Paul McCartney, when Davis was in Hove attending a wind surfing competition.

“I was sitting outside my camper, and a friend came up and said, ‘I’ve just seen Paul McCartney with his dog, going for a walk,’” he says. “Paul had a house there. I said, ‘I can’t miss this opportunity,’ because I hadn’t actually ever spoken to Paul since 1957. So I went around the block very quickly, and there was a man in a hoodie with a scruffy dog talking to a couple of officials from the wind surfing event. They know my history, so they said, ‘Hey Rod! Look who this is!’ So I walked over there and shook hands with Paul.”
“Who the heck are you, then?” McCartney asked. “Well, I’m the guy you replaced in the Quarrymen in 1957,” said Davis.

“Wow, that’s going back a bit!” McCartney exclaimed. “What did I do? Did I elbow you aside?”

“Not really,” Davis laughed. “I was a banjo player, and it was becoming a rock ’n’ roll group, and you can’t really be a banjo player in a rock ’n’ roll group. And I didn’t really like rock ’n’ roll anyway!”

“What I should’ve said — but I wasn’t quick enough — was ‘They weren’t going anywhere at the time!’” says Davis today. “Which was true, of course. Who knows? If I’d been a guitar player, or a better banjo player, he wouldn’t have had a career, would he? Anyway, that was really quite nice. One day it would be very nice to find Paul McCartney sitting in, playing bass with the Quarrymen. That would be a lot of fun. I’m sure he’d enjoy it.”

So Paul McCartney has a standing invitation to sit in with The Quarrymen?

“Oh, absolutely!” says Davis. “Absolutely!”

 

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