From the Quarrymen to the Silver Beatles to the early Beatles days, the group relied heavily on covers in their set lists. Their choices reflected the music they grew up on: American R&B and rock, along with some unusual choices (“Till There Was You,” “Besame Mucho,” and “The Sheik of Araby,” to name a few).
A favorite rocker among Liverpudlian groups was “The Hippy Hippy Shake,” a minor American hit in 1959 that later caught on with British teens. While its originator Chan Romero remains a somewhat obscure figure in early rock, the song has risen in popularity over time.
The Beatles performed it frequently, obviously intending to energize audiences and allowing Paul McCartney to utilize his screaming Little Richard vocals. While the band recorded five versions of “The Hippy Hippy Shake” for the BBC, their 1962 Star Club rendition sounds rawer and more reflective of the record’s spirit.
The song came from the mind of Chan Romero, a Latino singer/guitarist who penned the track at only 16 years old. A Montana native, the teenager and his first band were playing gigs in their home state when local DJs and audiences noted how Romero resembled Ritchie Valens in sound and appearance.
After Valens’ tragic death, Montana DJ Don Redfield sent a tape to Bob Keane, Valens’ former manager. Excited at the prospect of signing another Valens, Keane flew Romero to Los Angeles, where he recorded his first records. (As a side note, Valens’ mother invited Romero to stay with her while he was in Los Angeles; he has remained close to the Valens family ever since.)
His debut single, “The Hippy Hippy Shake,” was released in July 1959, attracting only modest interest in America. The song fared much better in England and Australia; he even toured the latter with Jerry Lee Lewis in 1960.
Meanwhile, as a teenaged McCartney was listening to as much rock and R&B as possible, he came across an import copy of “The Hippy Hippy Shake” and took an instant liking to the gritty rocker. Along with other Liverpudlian bands, the Beatles worked the song into their live repertoire. Interestingly, they never recorded a studio version, instead bringing it out for BBC sessions. In 1963, Merseybeat peers the Swinging Blue Jeans would score a major UK hit with the track.
While the BBC version sounds clearer, the Star Club take retains more of the raw rock sound of the original. Played at a slightly faster tempo, “The Hippy Hippy Shake” features McCartney at his best, shouting, growling, and howling the lyrics. Like Romero, he screams “whoo!” at various points, as if provoking the audience as well as the band to maintain the energy. In a short time those “whoos” would become a Beatles trademark, albeit in a slightly different manner. Here, McCartney does not hold the note, instead barking the “whoo” as punctuation.
Ringo Starr’s drumming style is on full display, his patented hard-pounding technique already present. George Harrison executes a fun solo, while presumably John Lennon plays pulsating rhythm guitar to accent the jubilant — if slightly naughty — bridge:
Well now you shake it to the left
Shake it to the right
Do the hippy shake shake
With all of your might.
This down-and-dirty sound is just about urging the crowd to their feet to dance and get a little wild: two major elements of rhythm and blues. Those qualities were carried over to early rock and roll, and the Beatles prove themselves adept students in both musical styles.
Their then-current single “Love Me Do” symbolized their smoother, pop-oriented sound, but their rambunctious take on “The Hippy Hippy Shake” at the Star Club represents the group in their earliest and more dangerous form. Even toward the end of their career, the Beatles enjoyed revisiting the track, as they performed a more restrained version during the Get Back sessions.