To get out of dreary old England and see the world, a young, streetwise Gerry Marsden figured he had only two options: Either learn to box or take up an instrument.
Though he was pretty good with his fists, the affable Marsden found out fairly early that music was his way out.
“I had my first fight when I was five years old,” laughs Marsden. “I loved boxing, but a guy named Alan Rudkin gave me a right pasting in the ring. He actually fought a guy in Los Angeles [for the WBC and WBA World bantamweight title], Ruben Olivares — [he] beat [Rudkin] sadly. [Rudkin] was our British bantamweight champion.”
Realizing that pugilistic glory probably wasn’t in his future, Marsden took up his other love: rock ’n’ roll. And with Gerry & The Pacemakers, one of The Beatles’ strongest early rivals, Marsden would, initially, become one of the biggest stars of the British Invasion and the Mersey Beat groups.
Right out of the gate, in unprecedented fashion, the group’s first three singles — 1963’s “How Do You Do It?”, “I Like It” and the Rodgers & Hammerstein cover “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — all zoomed up to #1 in the U.K.
“It was a big shock for everybody,” says Marsden of the accomplishment. “What happened was, when we got the third one, we didn’t realize it had never been done before.” Not by The Beatles. Not by anyone until Frankie Goes To Hollywood in the mid-’80s.
It was a whirlwind love affair England and the world shared with Gerry & The Pacemakers that year. Three years later, in 1966, it was all over. The Pacemakers gave out and went their separate ways. But it was a great run while it lasted, one that got its start in 1959, the year they formed.
Before that, however, as a boy, Marsden watched his father entertain friends and family with his ukelele.
“They had a small gathering one night, and they’d gone out for a drink and brought their friends, and they came home and they all sang,” remembers Marsden. “And I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ So [my dad] influenced me that way. He taught me a few chords, and he bought me a guitar. I loved the fun he brought into people’s lives.”
In that way, Marsden is a lot like his father. Quick with a laugh and a smile, Marsden’s jovial onstage demeanor made it easy for him to connect with fans. He learned how to have fun and entertain not only from his dad, but from skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan, as well.
“The fun he had in his voice, he always sounded happy,” says Marsden. “He had a great personality on stage.”
Marsden wasn’t so much drawn to the sound of skiffle as he was to the idea of it being a way to make music for not a lot of money.
“It was good for us,” says Marsden. “We lived in the poor part of town. And you could use a washboard for drums, a tub with a string for a bass and a tambourine and make music.”
There was also an Irish influence that Marsden couldn’t escape, being from Liverpool.
“They used to say that Liverpool was the capital of Ireland,” says Marsden. “The folk songs and the dancing made their way there. Liverpool was a swinging town before the ’60s, and every family had somebody Irish in it.”
Skiffle and Irish folk traditions played a big role in Marsden’s musical development. However, he would gravitate to more electric instruments, and American rhythm and blues.
“We’d get records from the States,” recalls Marsden. “The music we’d listen to … well, there was Cliff Richard, Billy Fury … nice guys, but it wasn’t our scene. We wanted real rhythm and blues, and we’d get it from sailors, who’d come back [to Liverpool] with Arthur Alexander, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino. That’s how we met Brian Epstein, going to his father’s shop. We’d ask, ‘Can you get us records from America?’ And we’d get so many records in.”
Epstein, of course, is more well-known for managing The Beatles, but Gerry & The Pacemakers were the second band to sign with him. Formed in 1959 by Marsden with his brother, Fred, Les Chadwick and Arthur McMahon, the group, who reportedly used to rehearse at Cammell Laird shipping yard at Birkenhead, was originally called The Mars-Bars. But the Mars Candy Company threatened legal action, and a name change became necessary.
Like their fellow Liverpudlians, The Beatles, Gerry & The Pacemakers — who would replace McMahon, also known as Arthur Mack, on piano with Les Maguire around 1961 — served residencies in Hamburg, Germany, and Liverpool clubs, like The Cavern.
Initially, though, Marsden’s mother didn’t like the idea of her son going to Germany, and especially Hamburg. World War II was still fresh in her mind, and she thought Germans might treat these British youths badly.
“Well, Hamburg … we had flattened Hamburg [during the war], really made a mess of it,” says Marsden. “But the kids accepted us. Hamburg was a sea port, like Liverpool. So they were just like us. We made great friends over in Germany.”
Still, Gerry & The Pacemakers had business to attend to in Hamburg.
“It was a great experience,” says Marsden. “We played there on and off. We could play at 7 in the evening ’til 2 in the morning. We learned our craft. We learned how to play.”
Not only that, but Marsden also used the down time in Hamburg to write.
“We’d get to bed about 4 a.m. after being out with [Lennon] having a drink,” he laughs. “Get up around noon, go have lunch and then start about 2 p.m. There was lots of time to write. And there was nothing at all to do, especially in the winter, when it’s cold and there’s three feet of snow.”
The Cavern offered its own challenges. In a new DVD that’s part of a British Invasion box set being released by Reelin’ In The Years Production, Marsden jokingly called the place “the black hole of Calcutta.”
“I enjoyed it at the time,” says Marsden. “But when we made our first record, and we were playing theaters, I thought, ‘No, I ain’t going back to The Cavern.”
There was little need. Gerry & The Pacemakers, much like The Beatles did, had developed a following, both in England and Germany. And as a unit, there were as tight as could be. Now, it was time for Epstein to work his magic and swing a record deal for the band.
Few acts have ever had such meteroic success. First, there was “How Do You Do It?” Written by Mitch Murray, the song was turned down by Adam Faith, and though The Beatles recorded a version of it, they decided against releasing it, choosing to go instead with “Love Me Do.”
Gerry & The Pacemakers wasn’t about to let an opportunity like that pass by. Recorded in early ’63, their version was produced by George Martin. Because he was friends with John Lennon, especially, and the rest of The Beatles, Marsden enjoyed getting in a jab at Lennon over the song hitting #1.
When it did, Marsden couldn’t wait to call Lennon up and tell him the news. “After the swearing, he loved [that it hit #1],” laughs Marsden.
Lennon would let more invectives fly when Gerry & The Pacemakers again struck gold with Murray’s “I Like It.” Lennon had written “Hello Little Girl” and wanted The Beatles to do that song, not “I Like It.”
Marsden and company again took the table scrap and made it their own, with their uniquely sunny and irresistibly peppy pop stylings. And again, it went to #1.
“As soon as I heard it, I told John, ‘Sorry, son, I’m doing this,’” says Marsden. “He swore again,” he laughs.
When he believed in something, Marsden was a bulldog. Take the group’s next single, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” He wanted The Pacemakers to re-make the Broadway song from “Carousel,” but there was resistance from management.
“The thing was, I can’t write rock ’n’ roll,” says Marsden. “So, I thought to get a ballad out, that might open the door to throw one or two ballads out on to the record scene. ‘Oh, no. That’s too slow,’ they said, ‘and it’ll be on your head.’ But it opened the door for me for ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’ and ‘Ferry Across The Mersey.’”
Marsden was right. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” also hit #1, and it may not have been a rock ’n’ roll song to start with, but it did become a smash with the football set in England, as the Gerry & The Pacemakers’ cover became the theme song for the Liverpool Football Club. It’s still a football anthem.
That would be the last U.K. hit the band would have. But Gerry & The Pacemakers were establishing a beachhead in America, and their first U.S. hit, the lush, moving “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying,” rose to #4 Stateside.
Breaking it big in America was different than being a hit in England for Marsden, and seeing the country for the first time was an eye-opener.
“Oh, yes. I couldn’t believe the size of the buildings,” he says. “I was gobsmacked. Thousands of kids showed up.”
Though more hits would come, and the group would appear in a 1965 film titled “Ferry Across The Mersey,” with Marsden writing the soundtrack, their popularity began to quickly drop, and in October 1966, the band was no more. But the hit song of the same name ensured that Gerry & The Pacemakers would forever be linked with the rise of the Mersey Beat sound.
What legacy did the band leave behind?
“I think we brought a bit of fun to kids, no trouble and no hassle,” says Marsden. “I remember this kid in Chicago came up to me and thanked me for what we did. I asked him what that was, and he said, ‘You made us realize that four ugly guys could make it in entertainment.’ If that’s what we did, then I’m very, very proud.”