The Cavern Club opened in Mathew Street on Wednesday 16th January 1957. Its policy was to put Liverpool on the map as having the leading jazz cellar in the country, outside of London. Opened and owned by ALAN SYTNER it was named after the Parisienne Jazz Club "Le Caveau."
The opening act on that first night was the Merseysippi Jazz Band and over the next three years many of the great names of British jazz performed on the same stage. During that period the club became a focal point for jazz enthusiasts. However, although it attracted the big names the limited capacity of the club meant profits were not great.
By 1959 Alan Sytner had sold the club to Ray McFall, who continued to maintain it as a leading jazz venue, however, the days of jazz at the club were numbered.
The opening of the Cavern had coincided with the skiffle craze. Skiffle was an improvised form of jazz and the hillbilly sound that was popularised in Britain during the early 50s was produced with rudimentary instruments such as guitars, washboard, jug and packing case single string bass.
The release of Rock Island Line in 1956 sung by Lonnie Donegan created a boom in skiffle that sent shock waves through teenage Britain. Nowhere was the craze more evident than in Liverpool. Although skiffle disappeared as quickly as it started, the Cavern had provided the perfect setting. The sheer simplicity of skiffle had given many budding teenage musicians the ability and confidence to perform, however rock ‘n’ roll became the driving force behind their development.
Most of the big names in the Liverpool music scene of the early sixties can trace their roots back to the skiffle period.
The Quarrymen Skiffle Group, featuring John Lennon, made their first appearance at the Cavern on Wednesday 7th August 1957. A week earlier Ringo Starr is thought to have made his debut with the Eddie Clayton Skiffle group. Paul McCartney did not made his debut until 24th January 1958 with the Quarrymen. George Harrison had to wait until the Beatles made their first appearance at a lunchtime session on 9th February 1961.
The Cavern lunchtime sessions were first introduced in April 1957, to cope with demand from audiences and to cope with the boom in skiffle. Years later people reflected on the Beatles lunchtime sessions as the best times at the Cavern.
This was not a sentiment shared by the jazz fans who detested the noise that these amplified bands produced.
By 1960 the demand for Beat music at the Cavern was increasing, which would ultimately turn around the financial fortunes of the Cavern. On 25th May 1960 Rory Storm and the Hurricanes featuring Ringo Starr on drums performed the opening set at the Cavern’s first beat night session. Little did they know they were striking the first chord of the most exciting period in British Rock ‘n’ Roll history, in what was to become the most famous club in the world.
Gradually the standard format became Beat group sessions, with interludes of the hit records of the day. Bob Wooler became the presenter of the lunchtime sessions and jazz became confined to weekends until mid 1963 when it disappeared altogether.
Throughout 1960, 1961 and 1962 the club became the great spawning ground for the Merseybeat sound that swept the world of music. In 1963 the skiffle era and the extensive local music scene enabled bands to develop their various genres of music but it was the Beatles upon their return from Hamburg in December 1960 who soon became club favourites, following their first performance at the club in February 1961. Audiences and fellow musicians couldn’t believe how good they were and they soon began drawing large crowds. Gruelling night after night performances in Hamburg developed their repertoire and stamina and helped develop their distinctive sound and look.
Equally important was the influential impact artists like Tony Sheridan had on the Beatles during their Hamburg days. The movement of the Liverpool bands backwards and forwards to Hamburg gave the young musicians inspiration and confidence. By mid 1961 the Merseybeat scene was in full flow, the Cavern and the Beatles held centre stage. Unlike other Liverpool Beat groups the Beatles had turned professional (May 1960), this not only gave them the time to develop their repertoire, but also for John and Paul to harness their natural talent and establish a song-writing partnership which ultimately determined their success.
At a lunchtime session on November 9th 196, Brian Epstein from Liverpool’s NEMS record store watched the Beatles perform. By this time the Beatles were arguably the most accomplished group on Merseyside. Epstein offered to become their manager and by May 1962 he had secured a recording contract for them.
Although Brian introduced many changes to the band’s appearance and the venues they performed at, he realised how important the Cavern was to the bands success and their valuable fan base there. John, Paul, George and Pete seemed such a stable line-up, it is no surprise that fans were so shocked when Pete was replaced by Ringo Starr. Pete played his last gig at the Cavern with the Beatles on 15th August 1962, exactly one week later Ringo Starr was playing drums. Ironically, the performance that day was an historic moment as Granada TV filmed some of the Beatles set. This archive footage features the songs ‘Some Other Guy’ and ‘Kansas City’. Voices in the crowd can be heard chanting ‘we want Pete’. This historic moment sealed the lifelong association between the Beatles and the Cavern.
Sadly the Beatles recording success and breakthrough into the national music scene meant they were rapidly outgrowing the club. Their last lunchtime performance was 4th February 1963 and their last performance was at a special show on 3rd August 1963. Although the Beatles went on to completely overshadow the other Merseybeat bands they left a thriving music scene behind in the Cavern.
The scene at the Cavern had increased in popularity throughout 1961 and 1962, bands such as Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Swinging Blue Genes, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, the Big Three, King Size Taylor, the Searchers and the Chants had all built up their own fan base. Some of those bands would register their own success in the world of music..
Bob Wooler had become the driving force behind the Beat scene in the Cavern and by the summer of 1962 had persuaded Ray McFall that the time was right to start booking big names. On 1 July 1962 Gene Vincent (with the Beatles on the same bill) made his debut at the Cavern.
Just over a year later the Beatles made their last performance but Gene Vincent’s appearance started the long line of big names that would appear at the club over the next eleven years.
By 1964 the Beatles had taken the world by storm and with the success and popularity of Brian Epstein’s other Liverpool groups and artistes, Liverpool and the Cavern had become the focal point. Celebrities, performers and the media clamoured to get a glimpse of the club.
Bob Wooler insisted that he needed help to cope with the situation and a young man named Billy Butler stepped in. By this time young bands like the Escorts, the Hideaways and the Klubbs had become the new kids on the block. However by mid 1964 Mersey Beat had peaked. Ray McFall’s attempt to enter the world of recording with ‘Cavern Sound Recording’ ended up a financial failure. Even as the home of the Beatles the Cavern became a victim of changing trends and bad financial management. The need to carry out major renovation to comply with health and safety regulations was the last straw. The costs were out of Ray McFall’s reach and the club had to close. Despite vain attempts by Bob Wooler, groups and fans, the Cavern closed on 27 February 1966. Ray McFall was declared bankrupt.
An appeal fund was set up as people clamoured to re-open the club. An offer of £5500 was made by local businessmen Joe Davey and Alf Georghegan (pronounced Geegan), which was accepted, and they set about developing and improving the club.
On 23 July 1966 the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, officially opened the club. The outcry at the closure of the club had resulted in a group of Cavern supporters presenting the Prime Minister (who was also a local member of parliament) with a petition. Wilson offered his support and obviously saw the PR opportunities it presented. Jimmy Saville, Ken Dodd and a host of local dignitaries joined Harold Wilson. Brian Epstein and the Beatles sent a telegram wishing the club every success.
Although the club would remain an important local venue for another seven years, it proved impossible to restore the club to its former glory.
The general opinion seemed to be that the club had lost its uniqueness and originality that had set it apart from other venues.
On 9 August 1967 the club started to sell alcohol. By this time Bob Wooler had less involvement and Billy Butler had become the principal DJ and compare. The music policy was moving towards a mix of live music and discotheque.
In 1969 Roy Adams took over the management. Although he continued to provide a good standard of music and bringing in top acts together with a mix of top quality local musicians, the halcyon days of the Beatles and the Cavern had become fading memories.
Once the club closed in May 1973 and Roy Adams re-opened a new Cavern Club over the road the Cavern members and regulars moved elsewhere.
The Cavern would have to wait until the 1980s and 90s before it would receive its legendary status based on its affinity with the greatest band of the twentieth century.
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