“Love Me Do”: John, the Harmonica, and Arthur?

1966: John Lennon (1940 - 1980) of the Beatles.

John started his musical journey not on a guitar, but the harmonica, or mouth organ. 

When we think of those early Beatles records, the harmonica was front and center. When The Beatles went to EMI Studios for their audition with George Martin on 6th June 1962, it was John’s harmonica that made the difference.

George Martin wasn’t in on the session, having left it to producer Ron Richards to oversee. It was engineer Norman Smith and tape operator Chris Neal who, in an interview with Mark Lewisohn, said that they were stopped in their tracks. “They [The Beatles] ran through a couple of tunes, which Norman and I were not at all impressed with, and then they did ‘Love Me Do’ and all of a sudden there was this raunchy noise, which struck a chord in our heads. Norman said to me, ‘Oi, go down and pick up George from the canteen and see what he thinks of this’.”

George Martin concurred with Neal and Smith. “I picked up on ‘Love Me Do’ mainly because of the harmonica sound. I loved wailing harmonica – it reminded me of the records I used to issue of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. I felt it had a definite appeal.” The harmonica sound, made popular by “Hey Baby” by Bruce Channel, was the latest sound at the time, and ensured that, after a few false starts, “Love Me Do” was selected as The Beatles’ first single. The harmonica would feature on many other Beatles songs, like “From Me To You”, which took the Beatles to the top of the UK charts.

John had picked up some tips from Delbert McClinton, though McClinton did not teach John to play harmonica as has often been thought. “It’s chiseled in stone now that I taught Lennon how to play harmonica,” McClinton said in a Rolling Stone interview. “John said, ‘Show me something. It’s been romanticized. I didn’t really teach him, but gave him tips.”

Who Did Teach John The Harmonica and Who Gave it to Him? 

The harmonica was a popular instrument, especially in the Lennon family, with his father Alf and his uncles all playing the ‘gob-iron’ (as we call it in Liverpool). John’s first ‘gob-iron’ was given to him by one of Mimi’s lodgers, Harold Phillips. On the promise that if he learned a tune on it by the next day, he could keep the harmonica, young 7-year-old John did more than just that by learning two songs. Although Mimi made him wait until Christmas, John became obsessed with the instrument.

“I felt the stocking and there was a mouth organ in it,” recalled young John in an interview with Ken Zelig. “A harmonica. That was one of the great moments of life, when I got my first harmonica.”

On a bus trip to see his Auntie and Uncle in Edinburgh, John played his harmonica on the journey. The kindly bus driver gave John a really good harmonica that had been left by a passenger. This was a serious upgrade. But how to master this more complicated gob-iron?

Arthur Pendleton

I asked Julia Baird, John’s half-sister, what she remembered. “John loved that harmonica. He would carry it in his pocket, or in his mouth, and make a noise. He brought it over to show Mummy,” she remembered, “who couldn’t play it herself, but knew a neighbor who played it well, Arthur Pendleton. He lived next door but one and our mother sent John there, to learn the basics. John lived with it as an attachment for some time, even while he was practicing the banjo, as he could grip it with his teeth and suck and blow air, creating a din, until something resembling a tune began to emerge.” 

Arthur Pendleton,, courtesy of Arthur Pendleton, Jr.

Arthur Pendleton lived two doors away from Julia Lennon at 5 Blomfield Road, and they were good friends, with Arthur and his wife often socialising with Julia and Bobby Dykins. I spoke with Arthur’s son, also called Arthur, who told me how his dad would never be seen without at least one harmonica in his pocket. At the local pub, he would often be found entertaining everyone or leading a singalong. He took young John under his wing and showed him how to play the harmonica that had been given to him. John would play it over and over till his lips went numb, just like what happened when they were recording “Love Me Do.” 


There was another famous harmonica and this one could have spelled the end for The Beatles before they had got going! On their first journey to Hamburg in August 1960, taking a stop in Arnhem, John couldn’t help himself from enjoying his favorite pastime – shoplifting. He went into a music store and stole a harmonica. If they had been caught and sent home, they never would have made it to Hamburg. What would have happened to them then?

Courtesy of the author

The Goons

One possible reason for John’s particular interest in the harmonica could be traced to The Goon Show, one of his favorite radio shows. Every show had two musical interludes. One of them was performed by Max Geldray, who would play a different song on the harmonica every week, accompanied by his band. 

Sleepy John

Another inspiration for John in his teens was Sleepy John Estes, whom John says he listened to at Art College. The blues artist was a great proponent of the harmonica in a lot of the songs that John would have listened to. 

With these inspirations and several harmonicas, it was this one that John stole in Arnhem that was used on “Love Me Do” and those other Beatles recordings, using the lessons he had learned from his mother’s neighbor, Arthur Pendleton. A simple, but very important, contribution to The Beatles story. 

-David Bedford

Photo: John Lennon (Getty Images)

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David Bedford grew up in The Dingle, where Ringo was born, and attended the same school as Ringo and now lives Penny Lane. He started to write for the British Beatles Fan Club magazine in 2000. His first book was Liddypool: Birthplace of The Beatles, followed by The Fab one hundred and Four:The Evolution of The Beatles; The Beatles Book, with Hunter Davies; Finding the Fourth Beatle; The Country of Liverpool: Nashville of the North, and in 2021, ACC published The Beatles Fab Four Cities. He was also the Associate Producer and historical consultant for “Looking For Lennon” (2018). Podcast Liddypod: www.liddypool.com Website: www.davidabedford.com Twitter/X: @liddypooldave Youtube: Youtube.com/brightmoonliverpool The Beatles Detective: www/thebeatlesdetective.com

7 comments on ““Love Me Do”: John, the Harmonica, and Arthur?

  1. Richard Cecil Short

    Hey David, very nice article. I personally always loved their “harmonica” songs and John was awesome and I thought he was often overlooked as a player. The early songs were peppered with his harmonica, from the songs you mentioned to others such as “Please Please Me”, ” I Should Have Known Better”, and one of my favorites “I’ll Get You”. I really missed those kind of songs and the energy they produced as they evolved musically over the years. Great stuff, thanks for a very interesting and informative article.

    • Thanks Richard, glad you enjoyed it. I agree, I love the harmonica and John played it well. As George Martin alluded to, it was the harmonica that made “Love Me Do” stand out, for what, in my opinion, is quite an ordinary song. David

  2. Philip Geldray

    My dad is Max Geldray from the Goon show, the Beatles were always huge in my house from my older siblings down to me, I used to ask my dad if he thinks the Beatles knew the Goon show and he said “I would think so, but I’m not sure”. My dad recorded an EP in 1958 called “Goon with the wind” and George Martin produced it, so there was always that Goon show/Beatles connection.
    Now a days with the internet all of that info is at your finger tips and my dad passed away when the internet was still in its infancy (dial up) so we had no idea. I wish he was still around to see this article, I believe he would have been very surprised! Thank you for putting this article out!

    • Hello. I put together a quarterly magazine for The Goon Show Preservation Society and will be running a short feature on your father in September issue. Obviously there’s a lot that has been written about him and even by him, but I wondered whether there might be, please, any memories of him and his work with the Goons, either on radio or on stage that you might be willing to share? Please?
      Thank you.
      Peter Embling

    • Sorry for missing your comment and not replying sooner. I think the fact that John was constantly hearing those songs on the harmonica from your dad would have been a big influence, so I am glad I could mention him. You should be very proud of him! David

  3. Thomas M Vitucci

    Great article! If I wanted to pick up the harmonica and play along with the Fabs records, what type would I buy? Is there a certain key or a chromatic one? Thanks!

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