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August 3, 2023

The Story of Jimmie Nicol, a Forgotten Beatle

Born on August 3, 1939, Jimmie Nicol is best known for replacing Ringo Starr in the Beatles for eight concerts of the Beatles’ 1964 world tour during the height of Beatlemania, elevating him from relative obscurity to worldwide fame and then back again in the space of a fortnight.
“In June 1964, the world tour began. We went to Scandinavia, Holland, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. Ringo missed part of the tour because he was in hospital with tonsillitis. We couldn’t cancel, so the idea was to get a stand-in. We got Jimmie Nicol, a session drummer from London. He played well – obviously not the same as Ringo, but he covered well.” – Paul McCartney
When Ringo Starr became ill with tonsillitis and was hospitalized on June 3, 1964, the eve of the Beatles’ 1964 Australasian tour, the band’s manager Brian Epstein and their producer George Martin urgently discussed the feasibility of using a stand-in drummer rather than cancelling part of the tour. Martin suggested Jimmie Nicol as he had recently used him on a recording session with Tommy Quickly. Nicol had also drummed on a ‘Top Six’ budget label album as part of an uncredited session band, as well as an extended play single (with three tracks on each side) of Beatles cover versions (marketed as ‘Teenagers Choice’ and titled Beatlemania) which meant that he already knew the songs and their arrangements.

Although John Lennon and Paul McCartney quickly accepted the idea of using a temporary substitute, George Harrison threatened to pull out of the tour telling Epstein and Martin: “If Ringo’s not going, then neither am I. You can find two replacements.” Martin recalled: “They nearly didn’t do the Australia tour. George is a very loyal person. It took all of Brian’s and my persuasion to tell George that if he didn’t do it he was letting everybody down.” Tony Barrow, who was the Beatles’ press officer at the time, later commented: “Brian saw it as the lesser of two evils; cancel the tour and upset thousands of fans or continue and upset the Beatles.” Starr stated that “it was very strange, them going off without me. They’d taken Jimmie Nicol and I thought they didn’t love me any more – all that stuff went through my head.”

The arrangements were made very quickly, from a telephone call to Nicol at his home in West London inviting him to attend an audition/rehearsal at Abbey Road Studios, to packing his bags, all in the same day. At a press conference a reporter mischievously asked John Lennon why Pete Best, who had been the Beatles’ previous drummer for two years but dismissed by the group on the eve of stardom, was not rehired, to which Lennon replied: “He’s got his own group [Pete Best & the All Stars], and it might have looked as if we were taking him back, which is not good for him.”

Nicol’s first concert with the Beatles took place just 27 hours later on June 4 at the KB Hallen in Copenhagen, Denmark. He was given the distinctive Beatle moptop hairstyle, put on Starr’s suit and went on stage to an audience of 4,500 Beatles fans. McCartney recalled: “He was sitting up on this rostrum just eyeing up all the women. We’d start ‘She Loves You’: [counting in] ‘one, two’, nothing, ‘one, two’, and still nothing!” Their set was reduced from eleven songs to ten, dropping Starr’s vocal spot of “I Wanna Be Your Man”. McCartney teasingly sent Starr a telegram saying: “Hurry up and get well Ringo, Jimmy is wearing out all your suits.” Commenting later on the fickle nature of his brief celebrity, Nicol reflected: “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 dying to get a touch of me. It was very strange and quite scary.” He was also able to shed some light on how they passed the time between shows: “I thought I could drink and lay women with the best of them until I caught up with these guys.”

In the Netherlands, Nicol and Lennon allegedly spent a whole night at a brothel. Nicol discovered that, aside from acting as a Beatle, he could behave much as any tourist could: “I often went out alone. Hardly anybody recognized me and I was able to wander around. In Hong Kong, I went to see the thousands of people who live on little boats in the harbor. I saw the refugees in Kowloon, and I visited a nightclub. I like to see life. A Beatle could never really do that.”

Nicol played a total of eight shows until Starr rejoined the group in Melbourne, Australia, on June 14. He was unable to say goodbye to the Beatles as they were still asleep when he left, and he did not want to disturb them. At Melbourne Airport, Epstein presented him with a cheque for £500 (equivalent to $10,780) and a gold Eterna-matic wrist watch inscribed: “From the Beatles and Brian Epstein to Jimmy – with appreciation and gratitude.” George Martin later paid tribute to Nicol whilst recognizing the problems he experienced in trying to readjust to a normal life again: “Jimmie Nicol was a very good drummer who came along and learnt Ringo’s parts very well. He did the job excellently, and faded into obscurity immediately afterwards.” Paul McCartney acknowledged: “It wasn’t an easy thing for Jimmy to stand in for Ringo, and have all that fame thrust upon him. And the minute his tenure was over, he wasn’t famous any more.”

Nicol had hoped that his association with the Beatles would greatly enhance his career but instead found that the spotlight moved away from him once Starr returned to the group, and in 1965 his subsequent lack of commercial success culminated in bankruptcy.

Nicol himself expressed his disillusionment several years later: “Standing in for Ringo was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Until then I was quite happy earning £30 or £40 a week. After the headlines died, I began dying too.” He resisted the temptation to sell his story, stating in a rare 1987 interview: “After the money ran low, I thought of cashing-in in some way or other. But the timing wasn’t right. And I didn’t want to step on the Beatles’ toes. They had been damn good for me and to me.”

In 1975, after having worked with a number of different bands which included a successful relationship with the Spotnicks, and several more while living in Mexico, he left the music business to pursue a variety of entrepreneurial ventures.

Over the decades, Nicol increasingly shied away from media attention, preferring not to discuss his connection to the Beatles nor seeking financial gain from it. He has a son, Howard, who is a BAFTA award-winning sound engineer.


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