Quick backstory: In June of 1964, Ringo Starr was hospitalized for tonsillitis and pharyngitis, leaving The Beatles down one drummer right before the launch of their first world tour. A 24-year-old journeyman drummer named Jimmie Nicol received a fevered phone call from producer George Martin asking if he could fill in immediately. He agreed, auditioned, dropped everything and set off on the tour. He proved a fine choice for the gig; a gifted, hard-working percussionist — respected, personable and adaptable. He even sported a mop-top and fit (snugly) into Ringo’s suit. These guys had no time to lose! Off they went for Denmark.A recovered Ringo rejoined the band in Australia. Nicol departed with an inscribed gold watch, 500 pounds in payment, and a flight back to London. He then proceeded to drop off the face of the earth. His fellow musicians, friends and family had no idea of his whereabouts. What happened to him? Respected author and “Rock and Roll Detective” Jim Berkenstadt took six years and a global journey to answer this question and in 2013 published a thorough, achingly poignant, historically significant book called The Beatle Who Vanished. The movie rights have been optioned by producers Alex (son of Roy) Orbison and Ashley (son of George) Hamilton, and perhaps the elusive Ringo substitute will get the recognition and respect he deserves. Author Berkstadt gives us a little bit more on the story behind getting the story.
Q: Jim, your sleuthing yielded so much obscure information about Jimmie Nicol’s life, before and after his Warholian “15 minutes of fame.” How much footwork was involved in this search and how cooperative were the surviving contact people?
A: Well, I needed to flesh out this untold chapter of Jimmie Nicol as “the classiest footnote in rock ‘n roll history,” and get his backstory. I grew up as a trial attorney and general counsel, so as an attorney that’s what your job is: to learn about the background and all the players. I parlayed those skills into being “The Rock and Roll Detective.” Along the way to tracking down the people in his past, all these flukey things happened that filled in the pieces. Rock and roll fan and history sites filled in a lot of details, as did his surviving friends. It all became a great mutual sharing of information. Almost every person I talked to was happy to talk, they felt they were friends with Jimmie, liked him and had no idea where he had gone after he left their life. There was no standoffishness. One person who never got back to me was his son Howie Nicol. He refused to make contact with me, though people had interceded on my behalf. In the British press, he said his dad would be mortified (or horrified, in another article), if he were aware that his life was being made a movie. But I have a quote from his ex-wife, Julia Villasenor, who said that if he knew the book was about his whole life and career, not just the interval with The Beatles, he would appreciate it.
A: Well, I talk to a million blogs, podcasts, radio shows and newspapers…all this information gets shared, and at some point I believe Alex Orbison told me that he had read about the book and became intrigued and ordered it from Amazon. He’s friends with Ashley, and they were talking about how interesting fame is and how fleeting it can be. Roy Orbison was a huge star in the ‘50s through the ‘60s — he even toured with The Beatles in 1963. And then he dropped out of sight until the ‘80s when, on the cusp of a huge comeback…he passed away. That was another connection for his son Alex. And Ashley had an amazing musical career in Europe with a band himself, and then one day — it just ended. Why did the hits stop? Why does the fame just end? So Ashley read the book and they decided to purchase the movie rights. They connected to the story on many specific levels.
Q: How do you think The Beatles themselves fared in Jimmie Nicol’s sad story?
A: They were all sociable and pleasurable in their interactions with him. I found lots of footage of Jimmie Nicol with The Beatles on tour, and even though George Harrison was against Jimmie (or anyone) replacing Ringo at first, he treated him with great kindness and respect, patting him on the back and joking with him. Even afterwards, the newspapers did a story a year after Jimmie’s stint with The Beatles, saying he was bankrupt, divorced, out of work…a piece where they build you up and tear you down. Paul McCartney read this and wanted to help Jimmie, but he knew he would be too proud to directly talk with him, so he made phone calls on his behalf that gave him studio session work and tour work. He was solicited for other kinds of paid work in later years and I think Paul’s goal was to help him. The Beatles conducted themselves with kindness throughout, but Jimmie’s own perspective in 1984 made him see things with some bitterness and it was so interesting that I was able to acquire an interview that told of his feelings at the time.
Q: Is this more a tragic story of the weird collision of people and circumstance, or a cautionary tale about the mixed blessing of fame?
A: It is somewhat of a cautionary tale, and I think it’s a story that’s both epic and intimate. Epic in terms of the whole Beatlemania thing, but it’s also an intimate story about him. It’s not just for Beatle fans; I consider it a human interest story that touches on the values of perseverance, networking, developing relationships and dealing with fame as both a blessing and a curse. I think it’s uniquely instructive in our modern world, where celebrities are celebrated on social media for doing nothing other than taking selfies. This is a guy who worked so hard, but had to deal with the other side of fame. It’s a great untold chapter; it should interest people who are intrigued by the dark side of fame as well as people who like a good mystery.