He was one of the "nearly men" of 1960s
pop music. He nearly made it big. Johnny Guitar, who has died aged 59 from
motor neurone disease, was a founder member of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes,
the first beat group to play at Liverpool's Cavern
club, the first to back Cilla Black, and
a group which shared equal billing in Hamburg with the Beatles, who eventually
hired the Hurricanes' drummer, Ringo Starr.
Guitar - real name John Byrne - was inspired
to learn the instrument during the '50s skiffle movement. With his friend
Alan Caldwell (the future Rory Storm), he formed an amateur group in Liverpool.
As the Texan Skiffle Group, they won first prize at
a talent contest at Butlins, in Rhyl,
By 1959 they had turned to rock'n'roll
as Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and recruited drummer Richard Starkey.
During 1960 they became one of Liverpool's most popular acts, playing at
the Liverpool Jazz Festival, and then at the first "beat night" at the
Cavern. That summer the group were paid
£25 a week each to play at Butlins, in Pwllheli, and decided to turn
This was also when Richard Starkey became
Ringo Starr, and Byrne was renamed Johnny Guitar in homage to the 1954
western movie of the same name. In October the group shared top billing
with the Beatles at the Kaiserkeller in Hamburg.
In 1961 they were the first group with
which Cilla Black sang. The song was Fever and the audience response was
favourable but, as she later recalled, the group "could only play in one
key and it certainly wasn't mine". These musical limitations (a later drummer
once said that "Johnny Guitar was a brilliant rhythm guitarist as far as
his right hand would go") would eventually contribute to the Hurricanes'
demise, but now they were at their peak, being voted fourth most popular
group in the magazine
In the summer of 1962, disaster struck
when Ringo Starr left to join the Beatles halfway through a summer season
at Butlins, in Skegness. Johnny Guitar later recalled the morning when
John Lennon and Paul McCartney turned up without warning at the
caravan shared by Ringo and Johnny. Ringo
left Johnny Guitar with the caravan rent to pay (although he later made
amends by paying a Hurricanes' tax bill).
By 1963 Rory Storm and the Hurricanes were
on the slide. In the Mersey Beat poll they slumped to 19th in 1963 and
18th in 1964. They continued to perform around Liverpool, though, and played
at the Cavern the night it closed, in 1966. The club went into liquidation
and the group never received their £15 fee.
Soon afterwards the Hurricanes split up
and a disillusioned Rory Storm died from an overdose in 1972. John Byrne
joined the Merseyside ambulance service as a technician in 1974, and retired
last year. He was twice married, with a son and daughter.
Dave Laing, The Guardian, London