He may be best known not for his own career, but for providing the first big break for one of the most important bands in rock history.
Tony Sheridan, who passed away February 16, 2013, was the Gene Vincent of Hamburg, a star at the Top Ten Club who wowed audiences with his raw energy. But when he took the struggling Beatles under his arm, he gave them their first official recording opportunity which helped launch them into eventual stardom. Sheridan’s death represents another lost linkage to the “savage young Beatles” period, but the rocker’s place in modern music history is assured.
Born Anthony Esmond Sheridan McGinnity on May 21, 1940, the Norwich native grew up in a classical music-dominated household. At seven, he learned the violin; late in school he played in the orchestra, sang in the choir, and appeared in school theatrical productions. But like the young John Lennon, Sheridan fell under the spell of the skiffle movement; after learning the guitar, he formed a group and ran away to London in 1956. Experiencing homelessness and long nights playing in local clubs, he finally got a break three years later when he appeared on the BBC music show Oh Boy! His guitar dexterity and enthusiastic performance of the now-classic “Blue Suede Shoes” earned him fans and a slot on a package tour with Vincent and Eddie Cochran.
In 1960, Sheridan went the route of many British musicians: he played in the then rough-and-tumble Hamburg, Germany, eventually landing a residency at the Kaiserkeller nightclub. Over time he became infamous for his eccentricities and unpredictable performances; often he would show up drunk, if he appeared at all, and did not always bring his guitar. He was known to moon audiences and forget lyrics. However, his slightly Elvis Presley-reminiscent voice and raw renditions of rock and roll classics won over audiences.
Later changing to the Top Ten Club, he met an up-and-coming band named the Beatles that eventually became his backing band. Their raucous shows caught the ear of Polydor talent scout Bert Kaempfert, who signed Sheridan and his backing band to a contract. The backing band underwent a name change; since Kaempfert felt that “Beatles” sounded too much like the German word “pidels,” a crude term for the male anatomy, he redubbed Sheridan’s backing group the “Beat Brothers.”
The quintet entered the Friedrich Ebert Hall in Hamburg on June 22, 1961; over the next two days, they would record the standards “My Bonnie,” “When the Saints Come Marching In,” “Why,” and the Lennon and George Harrison-penned instrumental “Cry for a Shadow.” “My Bonnie” features Sheridan playing the guitar solo, but Harrison plays the lead guitar fills. They recorded two versions of the track — one in English and one in German. After the Friederich Ebert Hall sessions, the Beatles and Sheridan moved to Studio Rehlstedt, where they recorded the additional tracks “Take Out Some Insurance on Me Baby,” “Nobody’s Child,” and “Ain’t She Sweet,” where Lennon took over on lead vocal. Shortly thereafter the single of “My Bonnie,” with “The Saints” on the B-side, was released in Germany and the UK in 1961.
The rest has been debated over time — the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein claimed that he first heard of the group after a teenager walked into Epstein’s NEMS record store and requested “My Bonnie.” Supposedly this led Epstein to check out the “Beat Brothers” at the Cavern Club, and he immediately pitched his managerial services to them. According to the Beatles Rarity website, the Beatles’ prior contract with Polydor required them to return to Hamburg on May 24, 1962, where they recorded the backing tracks for “Sweet Georgia Brown” and the now lost “Swanee River.” Sheridan did not join them on this session, but returned to the studio two weeks later to record his vocals for “Sweet Georgia Brown.” When the Beatles skyrocketed to fame, Sheridan rerecorded his vocals to add a Beatles reference. EPs and other compilations included these tracks once the Beatles became extremely popular.
Sheridan continued recording after his association with the Beatles ended. According to the Telegraph, he changed his sound to a blues and jazz feel, releasing his solo album Just A Little Bit of Tony in 1964. In the years since he toured, gave talks about his Beatles days, and released another album, Vagabond, in 2002.
While he may not have reached the top of the charts, Sheridan’s influence on the Beatles leaves an important legacy. He advised them to adopt stage personas through their wardrobe — back then that meant head-to-toe leather and cowboy boots — and listen to more R&B records by such artists as Little Richard. To keep up the energy needed for their seven-hour gigs, Sheridan introduced the group to Preludin (commonly known as “prellies”), a popular amphetamine in Hamburg. The last element may have been of questionable benefit, but otherwise Sheridan was instrumental in giving them their first big break and opportunity to reach a wider audience.