Jimmy Nicol, the Beatles Drummer for Ten Days
Jimmy Nicol was an adept and professional 24-year-old drummer who had played with several British bands and on many recording sessions. Jimmy, a well-respected journeyman musician, had recently formed a new band in 1964 called The Shubdubs. Ordinarily, all this would probably never meant a hill of beans to anyone but Jimmy’s friends, relatives, bandmates, and girlfriend -but things were to take a very abrupt change in the life of Jimmy Nicol. He was about to skyrocket from total obscurity to becoming one of the most famous people on the planet Earth.
On June 3, 1964, Ringo Starr, the Beatles’ ultra-popular drummer, collapsed and was hospitalized from a severe and sudden case of tonselitis. The Beatles, the four most popular and famous human beings in show business (or any other business), were on the eve of their next tour, taking in Australia, Holland, Denmark, and Hong Kong. Frantic, the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein huddled with their producer George Martin.
The “canceling the tour” option was obvious, but that would result in thousands of disappointed fans, not to mention millions of lost pounds. The Beatles were approached with the idea of embarking on their tour without Ringo, using a fill-in drummer instead. John and Paul were surprisingly agreeable and accepted the idea readily. It was George Harrison who refused. “If Ringo’s not going, I’m not going,”said George firmly. “You can find two replacements.” Finally, after much persuasion, George gave in.
Jimmy Nicol received a phone call from out of the blue, midday on June 3, 1964. “I was having a bit of a lie down after lunch when the phone rang,” said Jimmy. After what must have been the most surreal phone call of his life, Jimmy Nicol drove to the Beatles’ office, rehearsed quickly with the boys, and was packed and ready to leave for Australia.
When Jimmy’s fee was discussed, Brian offered £2,500 and a £2,500 bonus up front. “Good God,” chimed in perennial agitator John Lennon. “You’ll make the chap crazy. Give him £10,000!”
Jimmy Nicol was going to be the new drummer for the Beatles. “I got no sleep that night,” remembered Jimmy (you think?). Now one-fourth of the Fab Four, Jimmy arrived with his mated in Melbourne the next day. On June 4, 300,000 fans lined the streets and greeted the Beatles as they were driven from the airport to their hotel. (As an interesting bit of Beatle trivia, this crowd was to be the biggest to ever see the Beatles. It is quite ironic that Ringo was not there to share the experience.)
His hair now combed down into a semi-Beatles moptop, Jimmy hopped up on his drum kit and drummed on that night’s Melbourne concert, undoubtedly realizing that just a few hours ago, if he had dropped off the face of the Earth, a handful of people would have been affected or cared. Jimmy wore Ringo’s suit (the pants were too short). Paul recalled, “He was sitting up on his rostrum eyeing all the women.” The Beatles’ usual concert set of eleven songs was clipped down to ten, as Ringo’s trademark song “I Wanna Be Your Man” bit the dust.
Poor Ringo recalled, “It was very strange, them going off without me. They’d taken Jimmy Nicol and I thought they didn’t love me anymore. All that stuff went through my head.” Paul sent Ringo a telegram: “Hurry up and get well Ringo. Jimmy is wearing out your suits.”
Jimmy recalled, “The day before I was a Beatle, girls weren’t interested in me at all. The day after, with the suit and the Beatle cut, riding in the back of the limo with John and Paul, they were trying to get a touch of me. It was very strange, quite scary.” Jimmy left Australia after being delivered 5,000 fan letters written to him by his new “fans.”
Jimmy played five concerts over the course of the next ten days with his new bandmates. Another concert in Australia, as well as one in Hong Kong, one in Denmark, and one in Holland. He also made an appearance on a Netherlands television show, where he played (mimed to a Beatles’ record) and was interviewed with the boys.
Interestingly, although he was worshiped as one of them when he was with the Beatles, after concerts, Jimmy found it easy to leave the others and go out sightseeing or nightclubbing in complete anonymity. Without John, Paul, and George around, no one seemed to notice him.
On June 14th, Ringo returned and was reunited with his fellow Beatles. Jimmy Nicol’s “Cinderella story” was over. He didn’t even get to say goodbye to the others, as they were sound asleep when he left. Jimmy was given a final £500 by Brian Epstein and a gold watch inscribed “From the Beatles and Brian Epstein to Jimmy -with appreciation and gratitude.”
Jimmy waited, alone and in solitude, at the airport, waiting for his flight back to London.
George Martin remembered those crazy ten days: “Jimmy was a very good performer who came around and learnt Ringo’s parts very well. He did the job excellently and faded into obscurity immediately afterward.”
Jimmy Nicol is a rarity in the Beatle universe, as every possible Beatle friend, lover, manager, bandmate, groupie, wife, musician who knew them, etc. have all written their memoirs, their own “15 minutes of fame” by having touched the Beatles. Jimmy could have undoubtedly made a fortune by penning his story of those fabulous, unbelievable ten days, but he steadfastly refused. “Standing in for Ringo was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” he recalled bitterly, “Until then I was happy earning 30 or 40 a week.”
On the lighter side, Jimmy also remembered the “inside life” he experienced hanging out for ten days with John, Paul, and George. “I thought I could drink and lay women with the best of them, until I caught up with these guys.”
Returning home to London, Jimmy re-formed his group, the Shubdubs, renaming them Jimmy Nicol and the Shubdubs. Never achieving financial success, by 1965 Jimmy was bankrupt. He retired from show business in 1967.
As a fascinating coincidence, soon after his Beatles experience, Dave Clark, the drummer of the Dave Clark Five, fell ill. Can you guess who sat in for him for a few gigs? Jimmy Nicol -rock music’s greatest impostor.
At last report, Jimmy Nicol was living life as a recluse in London.