Hear Read

The Beatles Take a “Chants”

Editor’s Note: This is a bit longer for us than usual, but Liverpool author David Bedford has a fascinating story about how The Beatles championed a black doo-wop group from their same city. This is an edited version of two interviews he conducted.


When The Beatles refused to perform in front of a segregated audience in the US, I’m sure it raised plenty of eyebrows. Why would they take such a stance? Perhaps because of what was happening in their own hometown.

Liverpool was a multi-cultural melting pot of nationalities and backgrounds, meaning that The Beatles grew up alongside people of all races, creeds, and colors. They didn’t see or hear color, so segregation was anathema to them.

As an example of this, they championed a group initially called The Shades, who became The Chants, trying everything they could to get them a record deal and success, even backing them on stage.

I interviewed Joe Ankrah from the group who told me how The Beatles went out of their way to help them.

Ankrah grew up in Liverpool 8, like many other black musicians and singers. “One of our enjoyments was going to the Rialto, which was a cinema, and it also had a ballroom where we used to go and listen to music and dance. So we would head down there on a Monday night, all dressed up, stand around the ballroom, doing our moves. There was a movie coming on called Rock Around The Clock, mainly because there were black singers like The Platters and Gene Chandler in it. We watched this and I was impressed with them, even though it was really about Bill Haley. I just realized that I wanted to start a group, and particularly a vocal-harmony group. My brother Edmund and I were bumming around and because my dad had been a choirmaster at the church, I knew about harmony and the church was mainly black people.

“We were in the choir,” said Joe, “and singing gospel songs and hymns, and there would be different voices, black and white voices, and I loved the harmonies, and I knew how to do it. So we got together with three other guys, Edmund Amoo, Nat Smeda, and Alan Harding.

“We had moved from North Hill Street to Stanhope Street when my grandmother died. North Hill Street was a predominantly white area, and then we moved over Princes Road to this huge Victorian house at 92, Stanhope Street in a mainly black area.  My life was turned upside down by my mother going to look after my grandmother’s family. We used to go to bed at 7.30 pm at our house in North Hill Street, but now we were still playing out at 9.30 pm and music playing loud. It was so different, yet we’d hardly moved very far at all. We then moved to 39, Upper Parliament Street, which had these huge cellars with great acoustics. We started doing these harmonies and were pleased with how it was turning out. I took charge, as I was the oldest.”

At this point, they had performed and practiced a few times at Stanley House, the local youth center, especially when his mother grew sick of them.

Joe continued: “I told them we were going to form a group and we started to practice in our cellar. I knew all the harmonies off by heart and that’s how we evolved. People used to come around to the house and we would be singing on the corner. And even when we would be rehearsing, there would be big crowds standing outside the house listening. Several American singers influenced us, and here we had an advantage. I have three aunties who were courting American GIs stationed just outside of Liverpool. They would bring their records down to my grandmother’s house and we would listen to them.

“We were bored with it eventually. What were we doing? Where were we going? All we seemed to do was rehearse. During one of those periods where we weren’t singing or performing, I found out that Little Richard was coming over to Liverpool.”

At this point, Joe makes an interesting observation about the music scene in Liverpool, which showed how the black and white communities were still segregated in the Sixties. “We didn’t know that there was a live music scene in Liverpool,” observed Joe. “We didn’t know about the Cavern and clubs like that. I wouldn’t have known how to get into the clubs, and you wouldn’t see a black person in town then. I had no reason to go into town, so I didn’t know what was going on there.

“I was a big fan of Little Richard and I had some communication with him. He told me he was staying at the Adelphi and to come and meet him. So I went down and he said to me, ‘Hey man, I’m doing a thing at the Tower, a Mersey show’, so I went to see him live.”

The show was on 12 October 1962 at the Tower Ballroom, New Brighton, and was one of Brian Epstein’s marketing ideas to have The Beatles playing second to some of the biggest names around, a tactic that worked very well.

“I was backstage most of the time because I came with Little Richard,” recalled Joe, “and The Beatles were on and Little Richard was doing his famous walking around the balcony, singing all of his songs. So we were back by his dressing room and everyone was around Little Richard, so I was just standing there, not trying to get near him. These two guys were there and asked me what I was doing there, so I told them I was there to see Little Richard. I asked them what they were doing there, and they told me they’d be on stage.”

Without realizing it, Joe was talking to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who were also queuing to meet their hero. Joe didn’t know most of the groups or even their names. For that reason, he hadn’t recognized John and Paul though, by now, “Love Me Do” had just been released and they had a huge following on Merseyside.

“We had our photograph taken with Little Richard and The Beatles, plus Derry Wilkie and Sugar Dean.

“I told John and Paul that I was in a band and they laughed a bit and asked what we played. I told them we don’t, we just sing. They couldn’t quite grasp it, but they said, ‘Why don’t you come down to one of the afternoon sessions at The Cavern, and we’ll listen to your band.”

“We went down there the following day, and they wouldn’t let us in while they were on. Five black guys, standing outside The Cavern, which would have looked suspicious. So, after they’d finished and everyone was coming out, they said we could come in then. The saving grace for us was that as we walked in, Paul remembered my name and said ‘Joe, how are you?’ I told him I’d brought the band, and he was great. It was a really nice atmosphere. It was dark, the stage was lit, and people were clearing up around us. He asked us to sing, so we started to sing ‘Duke of Earl’ and they were absolutely knocked dead, which was a buzz for us, because we’d been doing all of this rehearsing for twelve months and getting everything sharp without performing anywhere. It was refreshing to see people responding to what we were doing.

“Bob Wooler, the Cavern compere, was there and he heard us and said, ‘I must go and get Brian. So, he ran down Mathew Street to NEMS to see Eppy and then came back to us. Brian can’t come down now but tell the boys not to speak to anyone or sign anything, and we were just bemused. The Beatles picked up their instruments and started playing. We were just happy to be playing with a band, as we were used to just singing together. I would start us off with the pitch and away we’d go.”

There was, however, one problem, and that was Brian Epstein. When Epstein arrived at The Cavern that night, he hadn’t realized that The Shades didn’t have musicians and objected to The Beatles providing the backing.  However, after intervention from John and Paul, he was overruled, and The Beatles backed The Shades.

“We found ourselves appearing at The Cavern that night and we turned up with these smart black shirts and suits. John or Paul said, ‘I’d like to introduce you all to some friends of ours, The Shades’, and then we walked on, wearing our dark glasses, our shades, being cool, all dressed in black, and we started singing. The place was in an uproar. We only had two microphones, with the lead singer on one, and the other four gathered around the second microphone and doing our thing, and it was great. That’s where it all started.”

The Shades performed four songs that night: “Duke of Earl”, “A Thousand Stars”, “16 Candles” and “Come Go With Me.”

“I can remember going up to the Blue Angel after The Cavern”, Joe said, “and we did a few numbers with Paul playing the piano for us for Allan Williams.”

“After appearing with The Beatles, I signed with Eppy on behalf of the band, which didn’t mean much really, as we were under 21. But at least if people asked us to do anything, we could say no, because we were under contract.

“We played with The Beatles then a couple more times–once at The Majestic Ballroom in Birkenhead on 15 October ‘62, and then La Scala in Runcorn on 16 October ‘62, which I remember because we went over the bridge to this little cinema. Then we played another couple of times with them.

With their career under the guidance of Brian Epstein, they should have had success, but it wasn’t to be. “We didn’t do much with Epstein really, because he was busy with The Beatles, Gerry, and Cilla,” said Joe. “We didn’t see them again until after they had come back from America in 1964, because they had this civic reception at the Town Hall. We were invited, and we were the only other band there. I’ve got the picture from the day to prove it, but the photo has never really been seen, maybe because it had black guys in it. It is hard to believe that it was happening back then, but we just accepted that was the way it was.”

With a new manager named Ted Ross on board, they terminated their contract with Epstein and went on to make a number of television appearances. According to Joe, “This made us stars overnight. We were suddenly being recognized by our house and being followed down the street. We were trying not to be recognized, but it meant that we had to go and wash before we went out!”

Ross also managed to secure the group a deal with Pye Records and, on a special Beatles edition of the TV show Juke Box Jury, filmed in Liverpool, the boys were asked to review The Chants’ new single.

The Beatles taped the episode of Juke Box Jury at the Empire Theatre on December 7, 1963. Juke Box Jury was a popular show hosted by David Jacobs in which panelists voted on whether forthcoming singles would be hits or misses. In the audience were members of The Beatles’ Northern Area Fan Club members. Juke Box Jury was broadcast later that evening and was watched by an estimated 23 million people.

The first song to be judged was “I Could Write A Book” by The Chants, and this is how The Beatles rated it:

John: “It’s gear. Fabulous. Fab. It’s it.”

Paul: “I talked to The Chants recently about the disc. They said it’s powerful. It is.”

Ringo: “I’ll buy it.”

George: “It’s great. Enough plugs and they’ve got a hit.”

The Beatles unanimously voted the single a hit, but sadly, despite their support, it failed to achieve chart status. None of the group’s other records fared any better: their debut single, “I Don’t Care”, released in September 1963; “She’s Mine”, released in June 1964; and their last single with Pye, “Sweet Was The Wine”, from September 1964.

Commenting on their period with Pye Records, Eddie Amoo commented, “They had no idea what to do with a black doo-wop group. They just had no idea.”

-David Bedford

Photo: The Chants at the Cavern Club, courtesy Joe Ankrah


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

4 comments on “The Beatles Take a “Chants”

  1. Mark Hudson

    Interesting. Of course the late Eddie Amoo (along with his brother Chris) went on to have great chart success in the UK with their group The Real Thing.

  2. Steven ValvaNo

    Wow, this is cock full for great (and new) information……wonderful, well done!

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