The Beatles, “Ain’t She Sweet” from Anthology 1 (1961): Deep Beatles

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The Roaring ’20s seem to have little in common with the Swinging ’60s. Yet both eras involved an artistic renaissance as well as changing attitudes toward gender roles, sexuality, recreational drugs and politics. Thus, it made some sense that the Beatles – a group that would soon change popular music and culture – would cover a tune from the late 1920s: “Ain’t She Sweet.”

Recorded during the Hamburg sessions with Tony Sheridan, the tune would not see official release until 1964, when “Ain’t She Sweet” was issued as a single in the U.S. and U.K. It performed modestly on both charts, perhaps because their cover sounded different from other Beatles hits during the height of Beatlemania. Yet the Beatles’ take on “Ain’t She Sweet” remains notable not only for being one of their earliest recordings, but also as a snapshot of their nascent days in Hamburg.

The story begins not in the 1960s, but back in 1927. Composer Milton Ager, then best known for hits such as “I’m Nobody’s Baby” (1920), also wrote several songs with lyricist Jack Yellen including “Who Cares?” (1920) and “Hard Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah)” (1924). Reportedly Ager wrote “Ain’t She Sweet” for his daughter Shana, but the song also perfectly suited the upbeat mood of the era. Hugely popular, the tune quickly became a standard and was covered by everyone from Ben Bernie and His Orchestra to Pearl Bailey, from Tommy Dorsey to Frank Sinatra.

A new entry to the list occurred in 1961, when the Beatles were offered the opportunity to record some tracks with Tony Sheridan. Sheridan, an English rock singer who performed material by Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly as well as hits from the early 1960s, had experienced success in Hamburg as a club draw. He would perform with various “pickup bands” consisting of local musicians instead of his own permanent group. The Beatles, then a largely unknown band honing their chops in Hamburg clubs, were admirers of Sheridan and occasionally served as his backing band; in turn, Sheridan would sometimes play guitar during the Beatles’ gigs.

Among the audience members of these raucous shows was German Polydor producer / A&R man Bert Kaempfert; while he viewed Sheridan as a potential star, he enjoyed the pairing of the singer with these enthusiastic young musicians. He signed the band to back Sheridan on recordings, although Kaempfert ordered one change: the group’s name. The word “Beatles” sounded too close to the German word for “penis,” so the foursome was billed as “The Beat Brothers.”

The recording session took place on June 22, 1961 at Hamburg’s Friedrich-Ebert-Halle and Kaempfert served as producer. (Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Chronicle also lists June 23.) Sheridan and the Beatles recorded six songs, including “Take Out Some Insurance on Me, Baby,” “My Bonnie,” “Nobody’s Child,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “When The Saints Go Marching In,” and “Why (Can’t You Love Me Again).” The Beatles were then permitted to record two tracks on their own: “Cry for a Shadow” and “Ain’t She Sweet.” The Beatles hoped those two songs would earn them a recording contract with Polydor; ultimately it did not, and the songs were shelved until 1964 – when they were unearthed during Beatlemania.

“Ain’t She Sweet” seems a curious choice for a solo number, but the track had been a staple of their live shows for years. Their version was modeled less on the 1927 original and more on Gene Vincent’s hit 1956 version. At first lead vocalist John Lennon modeled his performance on Vincent’s echo-heavy, Elvis-esque treatment; according to Anthology, Lennon eventually sped up and rocked out their version to excite the Hamburg crowds. Personnel included Lennon on lead vocals and guitar; Paul McCartney on bass; George Harrison on guitar; and Pete Best on drums.

By choosing “Ain’t She Sweet,” the Beatles demonstrated their broad musicality and potential multigenerational appeal. Why did they choose to record “Till There Was You,” and even perform it on their first Ed Sullivan Show appearance? By selecting tunes from musicals or classics from the 1920s, they proved their versatility and respect for previous generations. In other words, parents need not fear that the group would corrupt their sons and daughters. Alienating parents may not have been foremost in the Beatles’ minds in 1961, but they did want to impress Bert Kaempfert and gain a record contract.

Today, “Ain’t She Sweet” stands as a snapshot of the Beatles’ Hamburg years. In Anthology, Lennon recalled that Vincent’s version initially inspired his own performance, explaining that he imitated Vincent’s “very mellow and high-pitched” delivery. However, German audiences “said ‘Harder, harder — they all wanted it a bit more like a march — so we ended up doing a harder version,” Lennon said.

Indeed, Lennon’s raucous interpretation sounded edgier, giving the lyrics a much sexier meaning. “Ain’t she nice? / Well look her over once or twice,” he almost yells, his gritty tone accentuating the lyrics’ underlying innuendo. As he sings lines such as “Oh me, oh my / Ain’t that perfection?” one can picture Lennon delivering the words with a wink. Harrison executes a rhythmic guitar solo that echoed Lennon’s driving guitar and McCartney’s chugging bass. The song ends somewhat abruptly, with Lennon repeating the title phrase.

Clearly, the Beatles retained affection for the track. During July 1969 recording sessions, John Lennon suddenly led the group in an impromptu rendition of “Ain’t She Sweet”; this version is available on Anthology 3. Twenty-five years later, Harrison, McCartney, and Ringo Starr would reunite to film the definitive documentary Anthology; during one sequence, the three sat in a garden on Harrison’s property, reminiscing about old times.

Harrison strummed his ukulele, and the trio started singing a charming version of the song. As they harmonized on the lyrics (although McCartney flubs the lyrics at one point), Harrison and McCartney demonstrated that they still possessed musical chemistry. Yet one more version would appear on the Lennon Anthology box set, a humorous thirty-second rendition recorded during the Walls and Bridges sessions. Unlike McCartney, Lennon intentionally sang the wrong lyrics.

Ultimately the Beatles (or the Beat Brothers) did not receive their big break from the Tony Sheridan sessions. They resumed playing gigs in Liverpool and Hamburg, but the “My Bonnie” single did attract the attention of future manager Brian Epstein. Although the group did not pass the audition with Decca, they ultimately signed with EMI/Parlophone.

All of these events occurred less than a year after recording “Ain’t She Sweet,” and the song would present fans with one of the final glimpses of their early performing years, particularly their energy-filled Hamburg shows.

The Beatles never included the track as part of their subsequent tours, increasingly focusing on original material rather than covers. However, “Ain’t She Sweet” represents another phase in their artistic development: choosing seemingly unusual songs and transforming them into their own style. They were still forging their unique sound, but “Ain’t She Sweet” represents another important step in that journey.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Kit O'Toole
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  • HMVNipper

    I absolutely love the Beatles’ version of this song — thank you for this article and interesting analysis, it’s long overdue! 🙂

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