50 Years of Beatles: It's Getting Better All the Time

2013-14 Penn State Laureate Kenneth Womack’s essay series “50 Years of Beatles” continues with a look at fill-in drummer Jimmie Nicol.

Five decades ago, as the Beatles prepared to embark upon their first world tour, the unthinkable happened when Ringo Starr suddenly fell ill, thrusting one man from virtually anonymity into international stardom in the blink of an eye.

On the morning of June 3, 1964, the Beatles’ lovable drummer collapsed during a photo session for the Saturday Evening Post. Suffering from acute bouts with tonsillitis and pharyngitis, Ringo was transported to London’s University College Hospital under orders for strict bed rest. The bandmates and their manager Brian Epstein briefly considered canceling the tour before producer George Martin suggested bringing in a replacement drummer for the upcoming concert tour, which was scheduled to begin the next evening in Copenhagen. Martin called up 24-year-old Jimmie Nicol, a drummer that the producer had recently employed for a Tommy Quickly recording session.

Born in Battersea, London, on Aug. 3, 1939, Nicol began his professional career in 1957, when music promoter Larry Parnes invited him to become a member of Colin Hicks and the Cabin Boys. Parnes would later be instrumental in arranging for the Silver Beetles’ 1960 Scottish tour as Johnny Gentle’s backing group. During the early 1960s, Nicol shared his talents by playing as a studio musician for a host of artists, including Vince Eager, Oscar Rabin and Cyril Stapleton, among others. In mid-1964, Nicol founded the jazz-oriented Shubdubs with former Merseybeats bass guitarist Bob Garner. But nothing could compare, of course, with his life-changing experience with the Fab Four in June 1964.

As Nicol later recalled, “I was having a bit of a lie down after lunch when the phone rang.” Within a matter of hours, Nicol found himself face-to-face with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. “I was floored,” Nicol remembered, “The Beatles were actually there to meet me! Me mind was blown. I would have played for free for as long as they needed me. I shook all their hands and blurted out tones of admiration that I think made them embarrassed. They were very nice.” Not surprisingly, Epstein wasted little time in getting down to business. “When Brian talked of money,” Nicol recalled, “I got very, very nervous. They paid me 2,500 pounds per gig and a 2,500 pounds signing bonus. Now, that floored me. When John spoke up in a protest by saying ‘Good God, Brian, you'll make the chap crazy!" I thought it was over. But no sooner had he said that when he said, ‘Give him 10,000!’ Everyone laughed and I felt a hell of a lot better.”

That same afternoon, Epstein hired a barber to reshape Nicol’s mane into the famous Beatles cut. As Nicol later remarked, “A hairdresser cut me hair in a mop-top. In the mirror, I cut a mean figure as the new Beatle. I was on top of the music world, for sure.” At 3 p.m., Nicol joined his new bandmates at Abbey Road Studios for a quick rehearsal of the group’s latest setlist, which included “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “This Boy,” “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Long Tall Sally.”

In total, Nicol played eight shows with the band until Ringo was cleared to rejoin the group in Melbourne, Australia, on June 14. At the airport, Epstein presented him with a gold wristwatch with the inscription, “From the Beatles and Brian Epstein to Jimmie — With appreciation and gratitude.” It had been a bizarre experience for everyone involved, including Starr, who admitted 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.”

As Martin later recalled, “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.” As McCartney added, “It wasn’t an easy thing for Jimmie 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.” As Nicol observed years later in an interview with Mojo magazine, “Standing in for Ringo was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Until then I was quite happy earning 30 or 40 pounds a week. After the headlines died, I began dying too.”

In his post-Beatles life, Nicol continued his work with the Shubdubs, with whom he released a pair of unsuccessful singles. In July 1964, Nicol was briefly reunited with the Beatles when the Shubdubs were on the same bill as the Beatles during a concert at Brighton’s Hippodrome. Ironically, Nicol would serve as a stand-in, yet again, for the Dave Clark Five after their touring drummer fell ill. In 1965, Nicol joined the Swedish band the Spotnicks, with whom he went on several tours. In 1967, he left the band to pursue his interests in studying samba and bossa nova music in Mexico, spending much of the rest of his life in relative obscurity and never taking advantage of his brief brush with fame.

As it happens, Nicol’s fortnight with the Beatles would be memorialized in the song “Getting Better” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “Getting Better” came into being on a spring day in 1967 when McCartney recalled the optimistic words of Nicol, who employed “getting better” as his stock-phrase during his brief stint as Starr’s replacement during the early summer of 1964.

Kenneth Womack is the author of numerous works of nonfiction, including "Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles" (2007). He has also written three novels: "John Doe No. 2 and the Dreamland Motel" (2010), "The Restaurant at the End of the World" (2012) and "Playing the Angel" (2013). A professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State Altoona, Womack was selected in April 2013 to serve as the sixth Penn State laureate for the 2013-14 academic year.

Last Updated June 23, 2014