Losing a job you love is a challenge at any time, but losing a high-profile place in the biggest band in the world just as they were on the verge of mega-stardom has to be a particularly savage blow. This happened to Pete Best, who was sacked from The Beatles after two years in 1962. While it was devastating to the then 21-year-old man, Pete speaks without bitterness about the experience.
“The challenge in my life is proving that a catastrophe can happen to you, but if you’re strong in character and determined enough, you can overcome it,” he says. “I’d like to think people could use my experiences as motivation for themselves.”
In person, Pete (76) is warm and softly-spoken, and he has a very genial manner and a heavy Scouse accent. I’m chatting to him in the green room at TV3, as he’s over from Liverpool for a flying visit to appear on the Elaine show to talk about a new play he’s in.
Pete has an exotic background as he was born in Madras and his family then moved to Bombay. Sadly his marine engineer dad Donald died at sea during World War II when he was a baby. Pete doesn’t think his dad ever got to see him. His mum, Mona, was the musical daughter of an Irish major in the Bengal Lancers. After she was widowed, she met her second husband, John, and they moved to Liverpool on the last troop ship out of India on Christmas Eve, 1945. Pete was four when he arrived in Liverpool, but he remembers it was very cold.
He may have lost his dad, but he had a great relationship with his stepdad John, who passed away aged 50. He was a musical child and began playing guitar but then moved to drums. The family lived in a huge Victorian house in its own grounds, and Pete was a big fan of his mum Mona. “She had a wonderful outlook,” he recalls. “She was very liberal and open-minded.”
Mona had her heart set on buying this house, so she pawned all her jewellery and put it on a rank outsider called Never Say Die, which was being ridden by Lester Piggott in the Derby. It won at 33-1, giving her enough money to put down a deposit and get a mortgage. The innovative Mona then decided to open the famous Casbah Coffee Club in the basement of the house in 1959.
She had a band lined up to play a weekly residency, but they fell out and broke up two weeks before the club was due to open. Two members, Ken Brown and George Harrison, came to break the bad news to Mona, and mentioned that two other guys, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, weren’t doing much and might be interested in forming a band. The lads agreed and played as a four guitar-band called The Quarrymen every Saturday night for £3. Pete had his own band, The Black Jacks, but was planning to become a language teacher.
Ken Brown departed and the remainder of the band left the Casbah and went to Scotland, returning as The Silver Beatles. They were offered a residency in Hamburg in 1960, and Paul asked Pete to join them as a drummer. It was an exhilarating time perfecting their sound, although it was hard work and long hours.
“We were only meant to be away for a month, but that turned into four months so teaching went out the window,” says Pete. “I really liked being in the band, and although it was two years of hard graft, we achieved so much. We were the first band from Liverpool to get a German recording contract with Polydor, which was a mega label in Germany. Our A&R man, Bert Kaempfert, was a household name there, so that was a great coup for us. When we came back, we were the number one band in Liverpool and wiped the floor with everyone else, and we got our own recording contract in England. Every day was an adventure and it was a great period of time.”
In Pete’s mind, everything was going swimmingly, but in August 1962, mere weeks before Love Me Do was released to massive acclaim, his world was rocked. Manager Brian Epstein called Pete to his office to tell him that the band wanted to replace him with Ringo Starr, and his career with The Beatles came to an abrupt end. “He said, ‘Pete, I don’t know how to tell you this. The boys want you out and it’s already been arranged,” says Pete.
Pete was disappointed that John, Paul and George didn’t tell him face-to-face, and indeed John later admitted that it was a cowardly way to handle the situation. Pete was no longer a Beatle, just as they went on to achieve fame and riches beyond their wildest dreams.
People are always fascinated by the story and Pete admits that it can be difficult when people claiming to be in the know come up with all sorts of wild and wacky theories as to what happened. While losing the place in the band was a big blow, what upset him the most was the manner in which the news was delivered.
“To be quite honest, if I was to turn around and say it didn’t hurt me, I’d be a liar,” he says. “A lot of people have said, ‘Oh you must be very bitter about it’, but no, bitter is too strong a pill. I am hurt because of how it happened though, and the fact that I’d been loyal to them for two years and we’d done so much together. It was just the way it was handled, and that nobody was telling me what the actual reason was? There comes a moment in your life where you realise that it’s no good reflecting on what has happened all of the time though. I think that if you do that, you will end up being bitter and twisted, so you have to forget about it and move on.”
Pete stayed in music for another six years, and had his own band and recording contracts and toured the US, Canada and Germany. He had success – not the phenomenal success that The Beatles enjoyed obviously – and there were times when he found himself on the same bill as his former band. “I was playing with Lee Curtis and the All-Stars, and we played support to The Beatles on a few occasions in 1962 and 63,” he recalls. “We were coming off the stage as they were going on and we passed like ships in the night, and nothing was said. There has been no real communication ever since.”
While he did his best to stay strong and keep his best side out, Pete attempted suicide in the 1960s by trying to gas himself, only to be saved by his mother and brother, Rory. He ultimately decided to give up showbusiness in 1968, partly because he was a married man with children by then and he knew he had to build a future for his family.
He got married to Kathy, who is still his wife 53 years later, and they have two daughters, Beba and Bonita. Pete says that becoming a dad was the best moment in his life and he has loved fatherhood.
Pete ultimately became a training manager with the civil service and designed training courses, and says that when his clients recognised who he was, they felt they could come to him with employment problems. “I think people thought, ‘This guy is human and he’s one of us’.” he says. “It was gratifying because I could apply my knowledge and experience to helping them, and show them that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
While he didn’t perform for 20 years, Pete received many offers over the years. He was persuaded to come out of retirement in 1988 for a 1960s concert at Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel, and put together a little band, with his youngest brother, Roag, playing drums alongside him. His mum Mona was thrilled, but she died of a heart attack a couple of weeks later.
It was meant to be a one-off show but a promoter in the audience was impressed and took The Pete Best Band to Canada. The floodgates opened and after a couple of years Pete took early retirement from the civil service. He has enjoyed his music career since then, because he is past the stage of long, arduous tours and can do a little bit of cherry-picking around what gigs he does. He is managed by his brother Roag and feels he has a great balance in life. An added bonus was that when The Beatles Anthology was released in 1995, early demo recordings made by the group with him on drums went on sale for the first time, earning him royalties.
While his career never reached the dizzying height of The Beatles, Pete has been very lucky in his personal life, and he is conscious of his good fortune there. He has four grandchildren now and loves being a granddad. “I relish being a family man,” he says. “No matter where I’ve been or what I’m doing, It’s nice to come back and see the wife and daughters again and grab hold of the grandkids.”
Later this month, Pete will appear as himself in Lennon’s Banjo, a comedy play at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre. It’s about the search for the long-lost instrument on which John Lennon learned to play, and is based on the 2012 novel Julia’s Banjo by Rob Fennah and Helen Jones.
The premise is that a Beatles tour guide finds a letter written by John Lennon that unearths a clue to solving one of the greatest mysteries in pop history – the whereabouts of Lennon’s first musical instrument, which has been missing for 60 years. But the guide’s loose tongue alerts a Texan dealer to the priceless relic. In an attempt to get his hands on the letter and the clues within, he persuades his beautiful wife to befriend the hapless guide and win his affections.
The race for the holy grail of pop memorabilia is on. Pete says the play is full of pathos and Scouse humour, and he plays himself in three performances over the two-week run.
Reflecting on his life, he says that there are two ways of looking at it. He could be resentful because while he was achieving moderate success, The Beatles became icons of the music industry. “People ask if it kills me seeing that, and there was a bit of heartbreak because of what could have been, but for me it was more of an incentive to prove to them and other people that I’m not broken and I can achieve success too,” he says.
He also knows that success isn’t measured by chart hits, and the gratifying thing for him is that he has been happy with what he did with his life and what he achieved. He has plenty of fans and is grateful for them, but he keeps a level head and knows what’s important in life. “I’m just a normal guy,” he shrugs. “I hope I go to bed at night and wake up in the morning and that it continues for a long time to come.”
Lennon’s Banjo runs at the Epstein Theatre in Liverpool from April 24-May 5. Pete Best will play himself during three special guest performances on April 25 (2.30pm & 7.30pm) and May 5 (7.30pm). Tickets from www.lennonsbanjo.com
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