Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Annals of Music: The Mersenaries

“John and I were sitting at the piano in Jane Asher's basement when we heard ‘Strolling with My Baby.’ The bridge harmony on ‘From Me to You’ was certainly a nod.”

-Paul McCartney


Gerry & The Pacemakers had the first hit, and The Beatles wielded the greatest influence and popularity, but the Liverpool sound better known as “Merseybeat” originated with the group the British Invasion left behind, The Mersenaries.


Music historians have well-documented Merseybeat’s roots in Teddy-boy skiffle and imported rock-and-roll. While Lennon and McCartney were playing skiffle as The Quarrymen in 1957, fellow Liverpudlians Tony Vaughan (guitar), Michael Kinsley (bass), Billy Kramer (vocals, occasional keys and rhythm guitar), and Arthur Mason (drums) had begun to incorporate the American sound of lyric-driven tunes and catchy beats as Tony and the Tornadoes. The Tornadoes combined a set of energetic covers and simple self-written songs, taking the Merseyside County art hall scene by storm, cementing their reputation by becoming the house band for the Leeds Plaza Ballroom in Woolton Street in 1960.


In mid-1961, the group landed a two-week engagement at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London and changed their name to The Mersenaries as a nod to their hometown cross the Mersey River. At the Empire, the group drew notice from Decca A&R man Mike Smith on the strength of the Kinsley-Kramer original “Strolling with My Baby” (Strolling with my baby near the Mersey riverside/ I looked at her, she looked at me with magic in her eyes). Smith signed The Mersenaries without an audition and started the Mersey Beat newsletter in anticipation of the single’s release. In January 1962, confident on the eve of the U.K. release of “Strolling with My Baby,” Smith denied The Beatles a contract, famously using the polite excuse that guitar groups were on their way out. EMI, however, rushed the release of Gerry & The Pacemakers’ “How Do You Do It?”, crowding the market on the Merseybeat sound The Mersenaries had invented. “Strolling with My Baby” failed to crack the top 20, and The Beatles’ success with EMI in the following year caused Decca to drop The Mersenaries in favor of The Rolling Stones. Vaughan tried to keep the group together as The Merseys, but Kramer left to become frontman for The Dakotas, whose two hits, “I’ll Keep You Satisfied” and “Bad to Me,” were both ironically Lennon-McCartney numbers.


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