When we think of the 1950s, and the music that influenced the young Beatles, we think first of skiffle – a music with its roots in American jazz of the 1920s, but adapted and popularized in Britain by Lonnie Donegan. Next, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and above all, Elvis Presley, awoke the boys to the excitement and sheer energy of Rock & Roll, and we may think that the next stage, adding the influence of music hall and the American crooners, was The Beatles themselves, but this would overlook another influence on the unique sound that was to emerge in the early sixties, and which came from a very different source.
For a very brief period during 1957-58, calypso almost overtook Rock & Roll in popularity in the United States, finding its way to the other side of the pond. The young Beatles took notice, and John Lennon in particular absorbed the black influence in general. So much so that The Beatles’ debut album, Please Please Me, was as much a tribute to black American singers as it was a showcase for the emerging songwriting talent of Lennon and McCartney. Of the fourteen tracks on the disk, six were originally recorded by black artists, and a seventh, Ask Me Why, was Lennon’s attempt to emulate the sound of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
Calypso had been around in the USA for many years before – Hubert ‘The Lion’ Charles’s 1934 record, “Ugly Women” is often cited as the starting point, as it was the first recording in New York by a Trinidadian calypso singer, but during that brief period in the 1950s, the success of such songs as Harry Belafonte’s rendition of the traditional Jamaican song, ‘The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)’, and Norman Luboff’s calypso adaptation of “Yellow Bird”, led to artists as diverse as Rosemary Clooney, Hank Snow, Louis Armstrong and Chubby Checker jumping on the bandwagon.
Lennon and McCartney’s first-hand introduction to this Caribbean music came a few years later through an older Trinidadian musician named Harold Adolphus Phillips. Phillips was was born on the 15th January 1929 as the fifth child of seven to a women from the island of Grenada and a Venezuelan father. Having ambitions to explore the world outside the Caribbean, Harold managed to sign up to serve in the British Royal Air Force during World War II. He was, in fact, only 14 years old but incredibly was able blag his way in by using his older brother’s passport. He remained in Britain for two years after the war before returning to Trinidad, where he started to sing calypso on the street. The following year, he returned to Britain on the SS Empire Windrush, among the first West Indian immigrants taking advantage of the British Nationality Act of 1948, which allowed citizens of British colonies free movement to the ‘motherland’. After spending some time with the other new arrivals at a shelter in London, Phillips moved to Shropshire where he had found work as a machine operator. He continued performing his calypso songs full of social commentary, gaining a reputation as an able songwriter. One of his popular creations was a song where he named characters after cigarette brands. The choice of working-class smokers of that time was the ‘Woodbine’ brand, to which his followers appended the faux-ennoblement beloved of many West Indian performers, and he became known as ‘Lord Woodbine’.
Things happened quickly once Woodbine was back in England. He met and married, on 19th November 1948, his British-Nigerian wife, Helen Agoro (known as Ena), a jazz singer, whom he met at a talent contest. They went on to have eight children together, and moved to Liverpool, settling in the Toxteth area. The same year, he formed a group known as ‘Lord Woodbine and the Trinidadians’, later morphing into ‘The Cream of Trinidad’ with Ena on vocals. During the next few years he doubled up, playing his music in the evenings, and working during the day, variously as a truck driver, decorator, builder, clock repairer and carpentry teacher, among other jobs, until he branched out on his own in 1955, opening the ‘The New Colony Club’ in Berkeley Street. At the same time he formed the ‘All Caribbean Steel Band’ as resident group for his new club.
It was not long after this that Lord Woodbine’s influence on the fledgling Beatles began. In 1958, the ‘All Caribbean Steel Band’ started a residency at Allan Williams’ Jacaranda Club. Williams and Woodbine started working together, and noticed Lennon and McCartney hanging around both the New Colony Club and the Jacaranda, trying to see what they could learn from the black musicians, and Woodbine was happy to take them under his wing, leading to them being known by those same musicians as ‘Woodbine’s Boys’. Other black musicians from Toxteth had similar memories. An Irish guitarist originally from Somalia, Vinnie Tow attempted to teach Lennon how to play seventh chords like Chuck Berry, and Lennon was always pestering him to teach him other tricks he knew. The Guyanese guitarist, Zancs Logie, was another willing teacher, and in later life was proud of how he taught John Lennon to play guitar.
In 1960, Woodbine again changed clubs and band. Together with Williams, he started a strip joint called the ‘New Cabaret Artists Club’, and invited the Silver Beetles to back a stripper called Janice. He also created the ‘Rhythm Calypso Boys’, possibly the first electric calypso band in the country. Despite this, he embarked on a new venture as a promoter, and continued to work with the ‘All Caribbean Steel Band’, renamed the ‘Royal Caribbean Steel Band’. As well as Liverpool gigs, German promoters found them work in continental Europe, including Hamburg, thus planting the seed which would be the making of The Beatles. When Williams and Woodbine followed the band to Hamburg, they met Reeperbahn promoter, Bruno Koschmider, who asked them if they knew any other bands in Liverpool that could come to his clubs. The first was another black performer, Derry Wilkie, with his group, The Seniors. Their success started the ball rolling, and the newly named ‘Beatles’ came into consideration. The Seniors’ saxophonist, Howie Casey, was appalled at the idea, knowing the group as an amateurish ensemble that would ruin the reputation of Liverpool musicians in Hamburg. Williams and Woodbine, however, were convinced they were ready, with the proviso from Woodbine that they found a solution to their perennial drummer problem. Pete Best was hired, and the rest is history. Lord Woodbine travelled with John, Paul, George, Stuart Sutcliffe, Pete Best, Williams, and his wife, Beryl, and is pictured sitting between Beryl and Sutcliffe in the main photo of this article during a stop-off at the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery in the Netherlands.
After the success of The Beatles in Hamburg, and the rupture of their relationship with Williams due to them accepting another residency without involving him, the relationship with Lord Woodbine also largely came to an end and, according to many accounts, his part in the Beatles’ story was erased from history, not only by the public and Beatles’ writers, but also by the group themselves. Evidently this is not true, as during the Anthology project, McCartney commented about his influence on them, and remember him affectionately. Back in Livepool, Woodbine became manager of Williams’ ‘Blue Angel’ club and also started a second-hand shop. He also taught carpentry up until the 1990s. In 1965, he also had his own stab at finding national fame, appearing on the BBC talent show, ‘Opportunity Knocks’ with the ‘Royal Caribbean Steel Band’. In 1969, as a curious diversion from his artistic endeavours, he was the model for the Liverpool artist, Arthur Dooley, for The Resurrection of Christ sculpture at the Princes Park Methodist church in Toxteth. He also continued to play gigs in Liverpool with his band up until the 1980s.
On 5th July 2000, Lord Woodbine’s house at 3 Carlingford Close, Toxteth, caught fire, and both he and his wife perished. He was buried at Allerton Cemetry. The history books often talk of him as a peripheral figure in the Beatles’ story, but when we consider the musical and professional development of the group, we can see that he earned his right to take his place among, and possibly, above the dozens of figures that regularly feature in that story.
Copyright 2017 Philip Kirkland. No original part of this work may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of the copyright owner.