John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Those four names alone sum up the greatest force in modern music history, as the electric chemistry between them propelled the Beatles to immortality. But right at the peak of their fame, the Fab Four’s lineup underwent a drastic change.
An emergency forced the group to bring in a fresh face, one completely unknown to fans. For 13 nights, Jimmie Nicol played to the largest crowds in the world. Then, he just vanished. How could such a bright talent become completely forgotten by the annals of rock and roll?
In 1964, the Beatles learned a secret about being the biggest thing in music: it was exhausting. Their schedule had them playing stages all over the world while trying to survive encounters with rabid fans. Any free moments were spent toiling away in the studio.
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The band couldn’t afford to cut back their hectic schedule, as everyone was aware the Beatlemania bubble could burst at any moment. The lads had to take the insanity in stride, though that attitude wasn’t without its risks.
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As they prepared to embark on a tour that would take them from Denmark to Australia, these dangers became clear. Ringo Starr collapsed, right in front of a swarm of photographers.
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After the drummer was carted away to the hospital, his bandmates hoped it was just a simple case of fatigue. Ringo surely would be ready to leave the next day. However, a phone call brought some troubling news.
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Ringo, who’d been in poor health for much of his life, had come down with tonsillitis. Doctors informed the Beatles he needed emergency surgery, which would put him out of commission for weeks.
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This put the Fab Four in a tight spot. With all the arenas, hotels, and media appearances they booked, their tour couldn’t be postponed or cancelled. At the same time, they couldn’t play without a drummer.
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Lennon and McCartney were willing to hire a fill-in drummer, but Harrison — Ringo’s closest friend in the group — wouldn’t stand his pal getting replaced. “If Ringo’s not part of the group, it’s not the Beatles,” he argued.
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However, manager Brian Epstein knew somebody needed to get behind the drum kit. Assuring the lads that Starr’s future wasn’t in jeopardy, he searched for a temporary drummer. It’d have to be a top-class talent who was practically unknown.
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The band’s producer, George Martin, turned Epstein’s attention to an up-and-coming London drummer. His name was Jimmie Nicol, and Martin believed he had the rhythm and versatility to pick up the Beatles’ repertoire in just a few days.
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Of course, how would a session musician react in front of the wildest concert crowds? The biggest credit Nicol had to his name at that point was playing in R&B group Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. Good as they were, they were no Beatles.
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Regardless of any drawbacks, Nicol was the best option available on such short notice. Decades later, the drummer could still remember Epstein’s offer coming out of the blue. He aced his audition with the three Beatles, though Jimmie had one more task before he could hit the road.
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He’d have to get the trademark Beatles haircut to fit in with the group, even if he’d only be in their ranks for a couple weeks. One expertly trimmed moptop later, Jimmie was ready to hit the road. But was he really ready?
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Within 24 hours of speaking with the Beatles’ manager, Jimmie was stepping onto Danish soil as a member of the Fab Four. Sharp-eyed fans immediately noticed that he wasn’t one of their beloved heroes.
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Once the music started, that hardly mattered. “The day before I was a Beatle, not one girl would even look me over,” Nicol said. “When I was suited up and riding in the back of a limo with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, they were dying just to get a touch of me.”
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Besides playing for frenzied audiences, Nicol also joined the band in TV appearances and press conferences. Though he was a bit shy, it was startling how well he fit in with the group. Jimmie certainly had one person worrying.
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Ringo was suffering from more than just tonsillitis. “It was very strange, them going off without me,” he admitted. “They’d taken Jimmie Nicol and I thought they didn’t love me any more – all that stuff went through my head.”
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Luckily for him, Starr was welcomed back into the band after a 13-day recovery period. Jimmie amiably handed his drumsticks back, though according to inside sources, he felt he deserved a shot at becoming a full-time Beatle.
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After receiving a gold watch as a token of thanks, Nicol was out on his own. But that was okay — he was confident that his newly elevated status would make him the next big thing.
But Jimmie’s efforts to go solo fizzled time after time. He believed Epstein and the Beatles had blacklisted him, but that wasn’t the truth. Paul McCartney actually called his pal Peter Asher to give Nicol some studio work just to get by.
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Drugs overtook the floundering musician’s life, and he eventually quit and stopped talking to the press — or basically anyone else. For a stretch of time, Nicol’s own son was unsure if he was still alive. But Jimmie did provide the Beatles with one final contribution.
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While on the road in ’64, if someone asked Jimmie how was doing, he always answered, “Getting better.” That inspired Paul McCartney’s song by that name on the lauded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Nicol’s career never got better, but he took solace in the fact that he wasn’t the only Beatles drummer that time forgot.
When Pete Best walks down the street, nobody stops him for an autograph. His long hair betrays a bohemian touch, but you wouldn’t exactly say he looks like a celebrity. Still, he is forever connected to the biggest cultural phenomenon in modern history.
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In late 1950s Liverpool, Pete grew acquainted with The Quarreymen. The skiffle group included a few talented lads Pete’s age, including John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. A blossoming musician himself, Pete was headed on a collision course.
Pete’s mother Mona ran The Casbah Coffee Club, one of the hottest music venues around. Naturally, she urged her son to perform as often as possible. In 1960, the whole scene was abuzz with news that The Quarreymen changed their name and were hunting for a new drummer.
Now dubbed “The Beatles,” this rock-focused outfit needed a steady presence in its rhythm section. The boys knew Pete could play decently, was popular with the girls, and had connections to a key venue, so it was a no-brainer to bring him aboard.
With painter-turned-bassist Stuart Sutcliffe rounding out the lineup, The Beatles cultivated a real fanbase around Northern England. Soon, they got offers to tour all around, even in the exotic streets of Hamburg, Germany.
As the other Beatles bonded and became a tighter unit, Pete found himself the odd man out — often by his own volition. When his bandmates adopted mop-top hairdos, for example, the drummer refused to follow suit.
Pete could only watch while Stuart went back to his art and John, Paul, and George became best mates. While they would paint the town red and fraternize with other musicians, Pete lingered in the background. Or he would just go off on his own.
Pete, while handsome and mysterious, didn’t have the humor or personality to jell with The Beatles. On top of that, the other three were outpacing him musically. As they nailed daring harmonies and solos, Pete struggled with anything beyond a simple rhythm.
Pete started flaking out on paid gigs, putting up weak excuses or none at all. However, his bandmates didn’t mind. They asked Ringo Starr — known as the best drummer in Liverpool — to fill in. Ringo fit right in, but unfortunately he was in another band.
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However, all four Beatles were laser-focused when EMI invited them to audition. They already blew a chance with another record label, so they made sure to play their best for producer George Martin. After hearing the lads, he had some interesting feedback.
Besides smaller changes, Martin disclosed Pete lacked the technical skills for studio drumming. The other Beatles feared EMI would reject them if they kept Pete. They knew what they needed to do.
So, Beatles manager Brian Epstein called Pete in for an impromptu meeting and laid out the facts fairly bluntly. He stated that the band wanted him out — though they did need him to keep playing for a few weeks before they nailed down a replacement.
A shellshocked Pete agreed without really processing what had happened. Ringo Starr left his old group and assumed his seat behind The Beatles’ drum kit, despite the protests of a few hardcore Pete Best fans.
Of course, The Beatles — right after Ringo joined them — skyrocketed to unprecedented success and redefined music and celebrity as we know it. That’s all clear. But what happened to Pete?
Having built up a decent level of popularity, Pete chose to front his own band. With various backing groups, he toured in England and later moved to the United States. However, none of his efforts panned out. He retired from music a virtual unknown.
For years, Pete refused to speak about his Beatles’ association. His former bandmates avoided mentioning him in interviews as well. He undoubtedly resented his friends leaving him in the dust for fame, but Pete got a big surprise in the 1990s.
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When the surviving Beatles released previously unheard songs in 1995’s Anthology, they included recordings featuring Best’s drums. Pete never expected to see a dollar. So imagine his surprise when he got a surprise phone call from an old pal.
Pete immediately recognized the voice of Paul McCartney, who told him he’d receive a few million pounds for his contributions. Pete was floored. He didn’t get any kind of apology, but the basic contact and sudden windfall provided long-overdue validation.
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Around that time, the reclusive ex-Beatle finally opened up about his time in the Fab Four, almost embracing his role as the unluckiest musician in history. He cameoed as himself, for instance, in the similarly-plotted Rainn Wilson comedy The Rocker.
Pete also picked up his drumsticks once again — and that wasn’t all. The musician made his acting debut in the play Lennon’s Banjo, a well-received comedy lampooning The Beatles’ hallowed legacy.
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