Bob At The ‘Phil’: The Return Of The Ghost Of Mersey Beat Past.

'For One Nite Only'.

This is not a review. A tribute, yes. Joe Riley’s Liverpool Echo review of the recent Bob Wooler Tribute at The Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool, stressed that ‘the star of the show wasn’t there’, but he might as well have been. In the guise of a dramatic rendering of Spencer Leigh’s witty, biopic book ‘The Best Of Fellas’, the ex-Cavern DJ’s musical preferences and presence, hung over the whole proceedings like some semi-benevolent older brother.

I say ‘older brother’, because Bob, referred to in The Echo review as ‘the Godfather’ of Mersey Beat, would have much preferred the fraternal pseudonym to the Mersey Mafia moniker he became labelled with. I mention this only because of the Beatle DJ’s long term efforts to conceal his actual age from the mostly younger musicians on the early Mersey Beat scene.

When John Lennon introduced Bob to Brian Epstein as ‘me dad’, Bob said nothing. But this only illustrated his innate modesty, though he was later to protest that at 29, ‘he was older’, but not ‘that much older’ than the then leader of the pre-fab four. Since Bob’s actual age at that time was 35, what this reveals is that despite his concealment, his relatively veteran status still managed to reassert itself, (as music raconteur Leigh deftly demonstrates in the book), through Wooler’s very own particular, very knowledgeable, but rather older musical tastes.

And so this tuneful tribute at ‘The Phil’, adequately reflected these pre rock and roll influences on Bob Wooler, along with a staple diet of Mersey Beat luminaries who stayed true to the spirit and the ghost of what Bob once called ‘Those Zany Grainy Mersey Beatle Days’.

But Bob being Bob, he was more into Nat ‘king’ Cole, than Teddy ‘kingsize’ Taylor of Dominoes fame. Though it has to be said that Merseyside’s answer to the ‘Big Bopper’ himself, more than did justice to this night of tributes, by being bigger and better than the largely local legend portrayed in many Beatle books.

As for the tribute itself…..Well, as I’ve already said, Teddy Taylor’s powerhouse vocals and ratchety guitar was one of the highlights of the show for me, as was the incomparable and mini-kilted Beryl Marsden doing the beatlesque ‘Baby It’s You’. The Merseybeats held the musical bits of the show together with a professionalism and downbeat wit which Bob Wooler would definitely have appreciated. The Dakotas did an emotionally charged version of the George Martin-Bob Wooler song ‘I Know’. Ray Ennis’ of Swinging Blue-Jeans fame on-stage antics were hilarious, and his rendition of ‘Hippy Hippy Shake’ was what Bob would have called a ‘wow!’ Beryl M. still rocked like ‘our Cilla’ never really could. Pete Wylie of The Mighty Wah! (a neighbour and friend of Bob Wooler’s), did the obligatory take on a couple of Beatles numbers, and threw in an Elvis track for good measure. Whilst the ubiquitous talents of Howie Casey on sax, demonstrated just why his services have been called upon by the likes of Sir Elton and Sir ‘Macca’ himself.

In keeping with Bob Wooler’s rather down to earth thoughts on the Mersey Beat ‘scene’, it was only right to hear from the likes of Stu James of The Mojos, who was excellent. After we were told that they ‘Should have been massive…’ he  got to work on the exhilarating ‘I Got My Mojo Working’, and the audience were up for it. The Beatles Story Mike Byrne popped up with ‘I’ll Be There’, and Country and Western Singer Phil Brady (of The Ranchers), did a very plausible job on the Wooler lyric ‘Sidetracked’, - which in many ways seems to sum up what happened to ‘The Best Of Fellas’.

As for the none Mersey Beat contributions. I thought the best segment was with ex-Spinners guitarist Hughie Jones and friends, alternating on vocals with banjo player Eddie Hughes and Jack Owen. Their version of ‘Mist Over The Mersey’ was simply stunning, and Jone’s take on the Bob Wooler lyric ‘Strawberry Field’, (without the ‘S’), was further proof that B.W.’s  lyricism was another missed opportunity for the elder brother of Mersey Beat to shine. Clinton Ford, ably backed by the impeccable Merseysippi Jazz Band, oozed a cool that younger folk have simply forgotten. Still, the MJB’s elderly virtuosity seemed only to underline why John Lennon being John Lennon, he once referred to them as ‘the old farts’. But as early Cavern jazz stalwarts they were there to honour Bob, and quite right too.

Anyway, all this music was interspersed with quite a few colourful if rather theatrical vignettes, in which T.V. actor and ex-Bilbo Baggins musician Roy Brandon played the ex-Cavern DJ. Noel Alley, (local theatre actor and soon to be film actor in the American movie ‘The Nod’), - portrayed Bob’s latter day tormentor, BBC music historian, author and Journalist, Spencer Leigh.

While ‘Bob’ lamented that  ‘the book is off !’, that ‘b*s!a*d, Spencer Leigh’, (I’m only quoting the script here - honest!) – continued to question and probe ‘Bob’ about his real age. But B.W. would have none of it, and I quite sympathised with the on-stage ‘Spencer’, as I too, had spent a considerable time with Bob Wooler, getting him to tell the whole truth and nothing but.

My own efforts eventually came to nought. Yet I am still proud of the fact that I knew Bob Wooler. I helped him prepare both his thoughts and written notes for the book that was eventually transposed into ‘The Best Of Fellas’; - Spencer Leigh’s witty account of the herculean efforts it took to get Bob to ‘spill the beans’. (*** See the link to ‘Merely Spinning Discs And Nearly Spilling The Beans.’ – below).

As the onstage ‘Bob’ continued to question Leigh’s parentage, the author  simply confirmed Wooler’s by producing a birth certificate which also confirmed that his real name wasn’t Bob but Frederick, and that he was 6 years older than he was letting on. ‘The book is off !’

The DJ once more pronounced, and in the final analysis, Bob meant it. So even Spencer Leigh had to wait until Bob had died, before he was persuaded by others who had been on the Mersey Beat scene, to tell the still unfinished tale of Bob’s chequered and eventful life. That Bob might have thought his story to be just one of forgotten, obscure curiosity, (see Lew Baxter review: Daily Post, January 13th 2003), somehow added to the poignancy of the occasion for me.

When Bob Wooler’s protégé and friend, BBC Radio Merseyside broadcaster Billy Butler spoke of those on the evening’s bill as ‘gladiators in a Roman arena’, he could only follow it up with a fitting tribute to the man who introduced the Fab Four on stage over 400 times. "Bob, we who are about to sing, salute you!

Speaking of The Beatles, whilst Pete Wylie introduced his Fabs tribute to Bob by stating that the ex-Cavern DJ thought J. P. G. & R. were a bit over-rated, I think this only underlined the overall differences in Bob Wooler’s lyrical tastes from theirs. After all, this was the man who once said ‘When I did hear The Beatles, -  I was fab-ergasted.’

Bob thought their live performances ‘rocked the joint’ and ironically enough, it was only their much lauded songwriting talents which sometimes left him cold. But there’s the rub. The Beatles not only revolutionised the music business but changed the whole process by which songs were composed and recorded. So it is not too surprising that Bob Wooler, a great admirer and sometime exponent of the conventional ‘golden age’ of songwriting and big band balladeers, was aesthetically and emotionally challenged by the likes of ‘I Am the Walrus.’

Again, the early Fabs were not really all that interested in the words they wrote but the sounds they made, so it was little wonder that Bob, punster and  traditional wordsmith extraordinaire, disapproved. In all truth, it would have been more surprising had he gone along with the mounting mania, (especially when the ‘Fabs’ first exploded in and then engulfed the states), where according to the charts, they could do no wrong.

I think Bob was never one to run with the crowd. By blaming the influence of The Beatles for what he regarded as a subsequent decline in the craft of songwriting generally, this does not mean that he thought they could not write well, or that he did not like any of their songs. He was very, very fond of ‘She Loves You’ for instance. It’s just that given his age, background and rather prudish intellect, his own musical preferences generally lay elsewhere, as Spencer Leigh’s book proves.

In all honesty, I also think Bob was filled with a mixture of pride and regret that he had had a pivotal role in the early history of a group which was so influential, as it swept so much of the older music world away. Given his own tastes, this I believe was a perfectly natural way to feel.

It probably also irked him that he hadn’t made more of his undoubted talent as a DJ and songwriter. For instance, when he appeared on TV with fellow Cavern DJ Billy Butler on ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’, he later said he wasn’t  ‘friends with the lens’. Yet for me, what Cavern owner Ray McFall once called the elegance of his voice, could surely have gotten him a place in radio or TV, had he had a bit more belief in himself. But hey! Regrets. As Bob would have said.’ You wince some and you lose some.’

Returning to the tribute night itself, Beryl Marsden told me in the pre show soundcheck/rehearsal that because she hadn’t heard about Bob’s death until some time later, ‘this was her chance to make up for it’. There was certainly a genuine feel to the whole  performance as the stage filled with those taking part at the end of show, for an uproarious version of What’d I say. (See photos below).

There was no doing that with Bob Wooler. He told it as he saw it, ‘from the horses mouth…and not the other end.’ If the whole evening was a little disjointed at times, it didn’t really matter. Indeed, when ex-Spinner Hughie Jones turned up on stage after a few minutes unexpected and unintended delay, Bob must have been looking down on proceedings with a wry smile. It probably would have reminded him of the several occasions when local groups turned up late, sometimes worse for drink, to one of his jive shows, only to be told that they were still expected to perform in the late slot.

Bob may not have been everyone’s friend on the Mersey Beat ‘scene’ of the 1960’s, still less did he suffer fools gladly. But he was admired, for his knowledge of music and the local groups, his memory, and not least his acid wit and friendly support to those who asked for it.

The Beatles may have left the ‘scene’ and most of their Mersey contemporaries far behind, taking popular music to heights no-one had even dreamed of between 1961–63. Yet Bob was always conscious that once they had gone and taken wing, not only the Liverpool scene, but the rest of the western world, was never quite the same again.

It seemed that he was left only with Mythew Street as he called it, and a double act with The Fabs first agent/manager Allan Williams, touring the ‘menus and venues’ and Beatle convention haunts in Liverpool and elsewhere. He liked a drink, since the pubs and clubs of Merseyside have always been part of this city of culture.

But he also drank from the trough of truth. So let’s finish off with a home truth about one of our very own. As Billy Butler put it ‘Without Bob Wooler there would have been no Mersey Beat.’ And without the Mersey Beat, surely no Beatles… No Beatles ?  - Now that doesn’t bear even thinking about.


A full list of performers and songs, (including photographs follows below).

Joe Robinson.
January 17th2003.

Running order of Artists & Songs Bob Wooler Tribute at
The Philharmonic Hall Liverpool, 12th January 2003.

1.  Poor Boy from Liverpool. The Merseybeats
2.  Don't Ever Change. The Merseybeats
3.  Wishin' and Hopin'. The Merseybeats
4.  At 2.22 Today. Clinton Ford & The Merseysippi Jazz Band
5.  Side By Side (Medley). Clinton Ford & The Merseysippi Jazz Band
6.  Are You Lonesome Tonight ? Pete Wylie & The Merseysippi Jazz Band
7.  Muskrat Ramble. The Merseysippi Jazz Band
8.  The Mole of Edgehill. Hughie Jones, Jack Owen & Eddie Hughes
9.  Mist Over The Mersey. Hughie Jones, Jack Owen & Eddie Hughes
10.  Strawberry Field. [Scarborough Fair]. Hughie Jones, Jack Owen & Eddie Hughes
11.  Oh, Liverpool. [Londonderry Air]. Hughie Jones, Jack Owen & Eddie Hughes
12.  Price Of Love. (*)The Merseybeats
13.  I Think Of You. The Merseybeats
14.  Baby It’s You. *Beryl Marsden
15.  Slow Down *Kingsize Taylor & Howie Casey
16.  Hippy Hippy Shake. *Ray Ennis & Howie Casey
17.  I’ll be There. *Mike Byrne
18.  The Cruel Sea...(**)The Dakotas
19.  Sidetracked. **Phil Brady
20.  I Know. The Dakotas
21.  Do You Want To Know A Secret. The Dakotas
22.  Yesterday. **Pete Wylie
23.  Here, There And Everywhere. **Pete Wylie
24.  Let It Be Me.  The Merseybeats
25.  I Got My Mojo Working. *Stu James
26.  Boys. *Beryl Marsden
27.  Stupidity. * Kingsize Taylor & Howie Casey
28.  Good Golly Miss Molly! * Ray Ennis
29.  Sorrow. The Merseybeats
30.  What I’d say. (Medley – All Artistes)

To view exclusive photos of 'The Bob Wooler Tribute' as taken by Joe Robinson (with our thanks!) just click on the active numbers below...


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    Copyright 2003. Joe Robinson. (Text and Photographs). No unauthorised reproduction.
    This article may only be reproduced in full.
    Photo credit: Joe Robinson, copyright, 2003. All rights reserved.
    Unauthorized publication of photo is prohibited unless permitted by the owner.
    Used with permission from Joe Robinson for the Ottawa Beatles Site, 2003