He was once described as the man who put the beat into the Beatles but when the musician, Harold ‘Lord Woodbine’ Phillips, was invited to see a play about the Fab Four at the the Liverpool Playhouse in 1992 he saw that he had been airbrushed out of a backdrop photo with the band in Germany in 1960. As an early musical mentor to John Lennon and Paul McCartney and one of the organisers of the Hamburg gigs that would help launch the Beatles into stardom, he was bitterly disappointed. “It really hurt me,” he said. Maybe the great Beatle publicity machine did not want any black man associated with their boys.”
The story is recounted by James McGrath who first came across the Liverpool-based calypso singer, songwriter and music promoter during his PHD research into Lennon and McCartney. “The Beatles were often referred to as ‘Woodbine’s boys’ because of how he guided them through their formative musical years. They played in his club and he was absolutely crucial in their going to Hamburg,” McGrath said in a recent talk on Phillips.
“Yet Phillips’ contribution to the Beatles is not acknowledged in official narratives of them. If he is, it is only in passing with no mention of his musicianship and the fact he had a very significant career of his own.”
Organised by the Windrush Foundation, September’s online event reflects a growing interest in Phillips, a hugely popular figure in Liverpool’s L8 black community who was as well known for his second-hand furniture store, where people would sit around for a chat, as his music. More than a 100 people Zoomed in, including his daughter Carol, one of his eight children with his wife, the singer Helen Agoro.
Phillips hailed from Trinidad where his rising star as a calypso singer and steel pan player was acknowledged with the playful title ‘Lord Woodbine’, after the cheap cigarette brand of the day. He arrived in the UK in 1948 on the Empire Windrush alongside master calypsonian Lord Kitchener whom he’d just toured Jamaica with.
It was not his first time in the country. Aged only 14 he’d managed to convince the RAF that he was 17 by using his older brother’s passport to enrol for war service in 1943. He trained as a flight engineer at RAF Burtonwood near Liverpool before being demobbed back to Trinidad.
Second time around, Phillips headed for Liverpool, where he fronted the first professional calypso band to tour the country, playing regularly in local clubs and running his own. He first encountered Lennon and McCartney in 1958 as music-mad teens while playing with the Royal Caribbean Steel Band at the Joker club. “The musicians noticed two white boys regularly hanging out in the audience who let it be known that they were interested in learning how to play R’n’B music,” explained McGrath, a senior cultural studies lecturer at Leeds Beckett University.
Phillips took them under his wing and informally mentored them, teaching them new chords and rhythms and underlining the importance of writing original material: “He was the first singer song writer that they’d ever met at a time when most contemporary music consisted of doing covers. He was part of a much more audacious tradition – calypso had a real edge to it and was being seen as the next big thing in music.“
Other local black musicians also responded to the boys’ eagerness to develop their music, but it was Phillips who became their principle guide, arranging for the Beatles to perform at the fashionable Jacaranda Club in the city centre on Mondays, the only night his steel band did not appear in residency. A plaque now adorns the club building commemorating the Beatles’ before-they-were-famous appearance.
Phillips, a business partner of the Beatles’ first manager Allan Williams, had also experienced Hamburg’s hip music scene, which was hungry for new talent. He felt the Beatles were ready for wider exposure but over-reliant on guitars for rhythm. “Woodbine told them they needed a percussionist so they took the drummer Pete Best along with them to Hamburg,” continued McGrath. Phillips drove the band – Lennon, McCartney, Best, George Harrison and Stuart Sutcliffe – to the port city in his van, and the rest is history.
At first, Phillips was chuffed to be told that “his boys” were doing well, but later he felt cast aside as his fledgling chicks flew off without looking back. However, he kept his own counsel and cheerfully continued his career as a performer and jack-of-all-trades. Then came the Liverpool Playhouse blow.
Although the Beatles have waxed lyrical about their debt to Liverpool’s musical melting pot that familiarised them with American R’n’B stars like Chuck Berry, they have never given the musicians of L8 any specific credit. In a 2008 interview with Mojo, McCartney described Phillips as “a mate” the band “hung out with”.
“It is a pity the Beatles did not say more about how black musicians in Liverpool played a part in their music,” said McGrath. “On the other hand, they weren’t often asked. The story of the Beatles is mostly written by white men like myself.”
As it is, much of black Liverpool remains resentful that the Trinidadian has been left out of the Beatles’ story to become yet another forgotten black musician. So it did not pass unnoticed that when Phillips and his wife tragically perished in a house fire in 2000, McCartney left it to his agent Geoff Baker to pass on his condolences to the press.
This article was first published in the Review October 1 2020