Charles Roberts and The Quarrymen
From Beatles Wiki - Interviews, Music, Beatles Quotes
I first met Charlie Roberts online when he contacted me to remove his iconic photo of the Quarrymen performing at the Rosebery Street party on June 22, 1957. I had used the photo to support my article suggesting that a young Paul McCartney, astride his bicycle and wearing sunglasses, was also in the photo. After some back and forth, Charlie relented and allowed me to use his photo and, subsequently, we decided to properly restore the photo, rendering it as crisp and clear as possible, and make it available to Beatles fans as a limited-edition high-quality giclée print signed by Charlie.
In the following interview, Charlie digs deep to recall those magical early days of John Lennon, the Quarrymen and Liverpool of the late '50s / early '60s, revealing new details of that time.
Tell us about your background, Charlie.
I was born October 1939, and there is not much to say about Liverpool in the '40s. Liverpool 8 (Toxteth), where I was brought up, was very depressed during the 40s, 50s and 60s, although at the time it seemed quite normal to those of us who were born during or just after the second World War. I don't remember the war years very well, but I don't think we went very far from the house until it was over in '45. Liverpool was heavily bombed, especially the docks and the surrounding areas. Our house had a cellar with a reinforced roof and when there was an air raid the neighbours could all use interconnecting doors and shelter in our cellar.
It took many years to clear the debris away and it is still possible to see the scars of some of the old bombed buildings, which used to be our forbidden playgrounds. They were strictly out of bounds but we used to climb in and around the bombed buildings which were a source of adventure, albeit very dangerous. We used to walk into the city centre where large areas had been flattened with the bombing, and where street entertainers used to perform to earn some money. Life was simple then, money was scarce and food was rationed. We made our own fun with street games etc. — although we had very little we were usually happy.
Liverpool has made great strides in recent years and is now a major tourist destination in the UK.
I attended Granby Street School then progressed to the Liverpool Junior School of Art which was in Gambier Terrace on the opposite side of the road to The Liverpool College of Art in Hope Street. Bill Harry, who founded the great Merseybeat magazine, was an acquaintance who was a form higher than me. What he doesn't know about the Mersey scene is not worth knowing.
I loved my time at the Junior School and in later years I was employed at the Senior College as their Printing and Graphic Repro Supervisor. I was was there until retirement after 26 years, and I was very sad to leave.
Stories used to abound about John and what he got up to as a student, but I suspect most of them were fictional. Lots of people claimed (and still do) to have known the Beatles, especially John, simply because they saw them at the Cavern or elsewhere.
What was the Liverpool music scene like back in the 1950s?
Until the Cavern opened early '57, the only music scene for me was in a couple of black clubs in Liverpool 8, where I used to go with a black friend. There were dance halls and the like, but once the Cavern was open I would meet up with Colin and the lads, sometimes Friday, Saturday (all nighters) - not as often on Sunday as some of us had work in the morning, and we did tend to drink a lot. Initially the Cavern was jazz, and the Merseyssippi Jazz Band were top of the bill on the opening night. It must have been a bit of a come down for the Merseyssippi Jazz Band to play at Rosebery Street weeks later. In '57 there were many clubs around Liverpool and the bands used to do a spot at one club then move on to another, some doing 3 or 4 on the night. By mid-1957 jazz had been replaced by blues and skiffle, The great Lonnie Donegan appeared as did the wonderful Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, who I was fortunate to meet. There was certainly a lot going on at that time.
When did you meet John? Did you know him at Quarry Bank?
I never knew John when he was at Quarry Bank School, and I didn't know him at Art college. I went to a practice session with Colin Hanton early in 1957 and that is when I met John and the rest of the Quarrymen. There were many such sessions with additional "members" in various places that year and nothing was taken very seriously. John, who was often witty and sarcastic, would often mimic characters from "The Goon Show," which was a popular comedy radio show at the time. John and I became friends and I would knock around with him and the Quarrymen at gigs, parties and practice sessions etc.
By the way, many say that the "Quarrymen" name came from the school, but I would dispute that. At the time, we all thought that Woolton Quarry was the source of the name. Colin Hanton [the Quarrymen's drummer] also believes that. There is a public footpath that leads from Quarry Street, over the quarry and onto Church Road, where we used to walk on occasions and enjoy the views over Woolton and the surrounding area. John would take the path whenever he was going into the village.
Colin used to take practice sessions seriously, and it was always an effort to turn up with his drum kit which he used to bring on a bus. Colin was always practicing and could be heard clearly when nearing his house off Kings Drive, Woolton. Practice sessions continued to be an opportunity for fun and larking about, and, I believe, was the main reason that Colin eventually left the Quarrymen.
A big fan and mutual friend, Arthur Wong, was given a brand new "Vauxhall Cresta" for his 17th birthday in July '57. It was a two-tone pink and blue car, the nearest thing to an American style in the UK and we used to parade around Woolton in it. It was a real head turner as there were not many cars of modern style around at that time. John and Paul would sit in the back and Paul would practice stuff like "Raunchy" [by Bill Justis, 1957] as we cruised around Menlove Avenue into Woolton Village. A couple of weeks later somebody closed a passenger door and the window shattered everywhere. Obviously it was a faulty window, but we never got to ride in the car again.
Arthur also had a Grundig tape recorder and so some sessions took place at his home in Mossley Hill where he taped the lads. Sadly, none of the tapes survived. Sometime in 1958 the Quarrymen clubbed their money together to pay for the recording of "That'll Be The Day" and "In Spite Of All the Danger". They made the vinyl record at a house (studio) in Kensington, just outside Liverpool City centre. The record was passed around during the next few weeks for us all to have a listen to. I took it to work at Littlewoods in Crosby where it was played every day over the canteen's Tannoy [speaker] system for a couple of weeks. Eventually I brought the record home and after a while I returned it to the Quarrymen who really didn't seem too interested at the time. What became of it after I don't know, except that Paul bought it back in later years.
Tell us about the Rosebery Street party on June 22, 1957, where you took photographs.
We had perfect weather for our street party and everyone had a great afternoon, with all the usual fun and games. Then the Quarrymen arrived and the crowd were in awe, most having never seen the like before. A primitive mic was connected up from number 76 and placed on the flat-backed wagon. The Quarrymen performed the first session in the afternoon which was fine, but the loud evening session attracted crowds from the other streets including a local gang who did not like Lennon flirting with their girlfriends. When trouble looked likely, the lads jumped off the flat back wagon and ran into my mums house at 84 Rosebery Street, where they all had tea. Meanwhile, the wagon, tea chest and all was driven around the block and the gear was then brought into the back of my mum's house.
The gang were still hanging around waiting for the Quarrymen to appear and the police were called. The lads were escorted to the bus stop at the top of Rosebery Street, where they caught a number 73 bus to get home.
Liverpool Council awarded us another party on the following Saturday for having the best decorated street. Understandably, the Quarrymen were not too keen on another appearance and we had the Merseysippi Jazz Band instead. A week or so later John was to meet Paul at St. Peters church Hall in Woolton.
What about the picture of you with the poster for the Rosebery party?
I created the poster for the event myself. It was a one-off and is long lost. I was a trainee poster writer/silk screen printer in my teens – happy days. I went the Liverpool Junior Art School and for the last 26 years of my working life I taught printing at the senior Art College, where John attended in his youth. Here's what the poster says:
COMM. 4pm SAT.
RECORDS - SONGS
FANCY DRESS - LUCKY DIP
DANCING - PRIZES
Special Attraction 4pm
QUARRYMEN Skiffle Group!
What is the story behind the Quarrymen pictures you took? Were there more? What kind of camera, etc.?
I used a Kodak Brownie box camera which someone had loaned my mum.
Although I took more photos of the Quarrymen at the Rosebery Street party, only three have survived the decades, and only one true original survives, now brown with age. I don't know what happened to the other two.
I took a lot of photos that day, but all but five were lost many years ago when I took the negatives to a chemist to be developed. I have no idea what happened and they've never turned up, so I don't really suspect foul play.
Of the remaining 5 photos, two more were lost when a local Beatles exhibition to whom I had leant my photos allowed the exhibition to be shipped to Dallas USA, including many other loan items, all without the owners' permission. Local musician Mike Byrne (who created the Beatles Story at Albert Dock, which is the Beatles Museum) went to Dallas to manage the exhibition only to find that no inventory had been made, so he was unsure what should have been there. Later when his salary had not been paid and the exhibition was being dismantled by an inexperienced group, Mike collected some small items for safe keeping and returned home with them. I was fortunate that I got 3 of 5 back, as others lost their loan items. Fortunately, I had had all three re-photographed in a professional studio at the Art College years ago.
What you should remember is that when these photos were taken they were just about a group of mates performing live and didn't seem at all significant at that time. Hence I never took the care with them that I should have. Who could have known what historic value they would achieve in later years as the earliest photos of John and the Quarrymen playing live?
What else do you recall from those early Quarrymen days?
During '57 and '58 there were so many gigs, practice sessions and parties it is difficult all these years later to remember details. The Quarrymen had a few bookings at St Barnabas Church when they used to play during the interval. It was mainly ballroom dancing but when the lads took to the stage it quickly became rock 'n' roll with some skiffle and with Paul doing his Little Richard numbers.
On these nights we would usually meet up beforehand at the Rose of Mossley, the local pub. I think I was the only one who didn't like to drink "black velvets," a drink that was originally a mix of champagne and Guinness, but for us working class it had to be cider and Guinness which is quite a potent mix. After "Barney's" and other local events some of us would end up at the Old Dutch Cafe near Penny Lane on Smithdown Road. Dutchy's was one of the rare venues in those days where we could get something to eat and drink in the early hours. The cafe is no longer and is now a plumbing and bathroom shop called York and Young. They have retained the original Dutch windmill sign which can be clearly seen above the shop.
The Quarrymen played at Wilson Hall (now demolished) in Garston a few times, and on one occasion they were chased by a gang of Teddy Boys because John had been flirting with girls in the audience again! I suspect that it was their final gig at Wilson Hall.
I got the lads to attend a party one Friday night in a place called Ford on the outskirts of Liverpool. We all travelled on a double-decker Crosville bus which was empty upstairs, so we had the top deck to ourselves. I don't recall the lads playing too much at the party, though, as the record player was booming out most of the night.
It was around 2am when John and Paul went out looking for a cigarette machine and when they returned John was carrying what was known as a "cocky watchmans lamp" which was used in the dark to warn of roadworks. At around 8am we attempted to leave the long-dead party, but the front-door mortice lock had been blocked with cement. I am quite sure John cemented the mortice lock — he could be mischievous — and likely got some cement from the roadworks when he and Paul went out. Paul was very quiet compared to John at the time, and I am sure it wasn't him. Anyway, we all left via the back door, and with John denying any knowledge of the cement, and caught a bus back to town.
When we reached town John asked if I would go with him to collect a new guitar from Frank Hessy's, a famous Liverpool guitar shop in Whitechapel [closed since 1995]. The guitar was a Hofner that John had been paying off for some time, and he was really excited at his purchase. Hessy's was one of the few shops that would take payments off equipment in those days.
Did you know any of the other Beatles? Did you go to their shows?
I used to have the occasional chat with Ringo in the Cavern, although it was always difficult to speak over the noise. At that time Ringo was with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. The Cavern had one entrance and the acts would pass through the crowd to reach a small room to the left of the stage. Because of this it was easy to meet any of the acts and have a chat with them. I never met George, Pete Best or Stu Sutcliffe.
I saw the Beatles many times in various venues around Liverpool, including the Cavern, but I never saw them at the Jacaranda.
Tell us about your life these days, Charlie. Do you still see your musician pals from the old days?
For a couple of years we had great times, but in early 1959 Colin Hanton left the Quarrymen at about the same time that I met my wife Sandria in the Cavern. We still used to meet up for a drink at weekends before going to the Cavern, but eventually my nights out were with my future wife, and my time with Colin and the Quarrymen was more or less over. I still see the Quarrymen from time to time. Colin and Len Garry live close by and Rod Davis lives a distance away but still keeps in touch.
It was late in 1960 when I was going back to work on the top deck of the bus (smoking was allowed on the top deck in those days) and I was sitting on the front seat. When I got up to get off at my stop there was only one other person and he was sitting on the back seat. As I made my way toward the stairs I heard someone say "Alright Charlie - how's it goin'?" — it was John Lennon. There was no time for a conversation, I just asked what he was up to and he said he had just come back from Hamburg, and he was "knackered." I jumped off the bus and headed back to work. It was the last time that I saw John. I'm so proud to have known him and the Quarrymen, but John hit the big time and I got married.
After John died I found out that he longed for old friends and acquaintances to contact him. I now regret that I never did because I believed people may have thought that I was trying to cash in on his worldwide fame.
We had the time of our life during those Cavern years and I am still married to Sandria, and we are fortunate to live just by Strawberry Fields, Mendips and St Peters Church.