Here’s the story of a guy who is a footnote in Rock n’ Roll who celebrated his birthday on this date. Never considered a great musician of note, but played drums in the tradition of the British drummers of the time, like Ringo Starr, Mick Avory, and Charlie Watts.
Of all the successful Merseybeat musicians, Freddie Marsden was the most down-to-earth. He was a friendly, charming man who enjoyed his success in the Sixties as the drummer with Gerry and the Pacemakers and then happily settled down to the routine of a daily job.
Unlike in the Beatles, there was a sharp distinction between front man and accompanists in Gerry and the Pacemakers, the other group at the helm of the 1963 Merseybeat pop craze. But behind Gerry’s grinning vibrancy, his elder brother, Freddie, who died at aged 66, was solidly at the music’s heart, ministering as a drummer with a strong tenor for vocal harmonies.
Freddie Marsden was born in the working-class Dingle area of Liverpool in 1940 and his brother, Gerry, followed two years later. Their father, Fred, was a railway clerk who entertained the neighbors by playing the ukulele. With the vogue for skiffle music in the mid-Fifties, he took the skin off one of his instruments, put it over a tin of Quality Street and said to Freddie, “There’s your first snare drum, son.”
In 1957 the brothers appeared in the show Dublin to Dingle at the Pavilion Theatre in Lodge Lane. Studies meant little to either of them – Freddie left school with one O-level and worked for a candle maker earning £4 a week, and Gerry’s job was as a delivery boy for the railways. Their parents did not mind and encouraged their musical ambitions.
On leaving Francis Xavier grammar school, Freddie bought a full kit from his earnings as a candle maker. He and singing guitarist Gerry formed a skiffle group, the Mars Bars, which by 1959 had become Gerry and the Pacemakers, priding themselves on their GP-monogrammed blazers and their embrace of everything in the week’s Top 20. Amassing a huge local following, they became a last-minute addition to the bill of a spectacular starring US rock’n’roller Gene Vincent – and all but stole the show with an emotive arrangement of You’ll Never Walk Alone. In 1961, they began the first of several clubland seasons in Hamburg.
Gerry & The Pacemakers in Hamburg
We had our own van and I did most of the driving. We got to Hamburg about two o’clock in the afternoon and when we got to the Top Ten Club, the manager said that we were on at seven. We were given [the slimming drug] Preludin to keep awake. Gerry was our main singer, and all the singing and the smoking battered his voice. When he was 12 or 13, he was in the church choir and his voice was absolutely brilliant, but he got that huskiness from Hamburg.
Their repertoire was now freighted with rhythm and blues, showbiz standards and, tellingly, originals such as Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying by the Marsden brothers. A punishing schedule of nightly performances transformed the group into a hard act to follow when they returned to less demanding tasks in Liverpool. If they and the Beatles occupied the top two positions in the first popularity poll by regional pop gazette Mersey Beat, competition dissolved into camaraderie – as exemplified when the Beatles attended Marsden’s 21st birthday party, and the two groups combined as the Beatmakers one evening at Litherland town hall.
In late 1962, Gerry and the Pacemakers was the second band to be signed up by Brian Epstein – the Beatles were the first. When the Beatles rejected Mitch Murray’s light-hearted “How Do You Do It”, Epstein told the record producer George Martin that he had just the group to do it. On 22 January 1963, Gerry and the Pacemakers traveled from Liverpool to London to record the song, as Marsden recalled:
We sat in the back of a freezing van for 10 hours in the worst weather you can imagine. The road manager slept through it all because he was shattered. We knew that the Beatles had turned down “How Do You Do It” and I thought they were silly to do that, as it was a much better song than “Love Me Do”.
The Beatles, Gerry & The Pacemakers, and Roy Orbison
The single went to No l, as did its cheeky follow-up, “I Like It”. Having seen Paul McCartney’s success around the Liverpool clubs with “Over the Rainbow”, Gerry and the Pacemakers wanted a similar, emotional show-stopper and they picked “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. With George Martin’s arrangement, they became the first UK beat group to record with strings. They also became the first act to reach No l with their first three singles. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was subsequently adopted by a Liverpool football club and became their fight song.
In 1961 they were joined by Les Maguire on piano and thus the hit-making Pacemakers line-up was complete. They alternated at the Cavern club’s lunchtime sessions with the Beatles and, one famous night at Litherland Town Hall, they combined their talents to form the Beatmakers. Freddie Marsden had his 21st birthday party in the Dingle with the Beatles as guests. It is sometimes reported that he was considered as a possible replacement for the Beatles’ drummer Pete Best after Best was sacked in August 1962, but “That’s rubbish,” he told me.
Look at my high forehead. I could never have had a Beatle haircut for a start. I considered myself a very basic drummer. I laid the beat down and didn’t do anything fancy. I knew my limitations and I stuck with the strong off-beat and it seemed to work. We were nice and tight. Ringo was definitely more technical than me.
After the three No 1 hits for Gerry and the Pacemakers in 1963, their fourth single, Gerry’s own song “I’m the One”, went to No 2 the following year. Freddie felt that they would have had a fourth chart-topper if they had picked their stage favorite, “Pretend”. Freddie co-wrote “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Cryin'”, which became their biggest US hit, reaching No 4 in 1964. He was immensely proud when José Feliciano recorded the song. Freddie Marsden also co-wrote “Why Oh Why” and “You’ve Got What I Like”, and sang the occasional vocal, joining Gerry on harmony for “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues”.
The group was featured on scooters for the film Ferry Cross The Mersey (1965), which was written by the creator of Coronation Street, Tony Warren. Although the plot is trite, the film offers invaluable views of Merseyside sights and clubs of the Sixties. The title song, written by Gerry Marsden, charted for the group in 1965. “There were lots of songs about Chicago, Broadway and London,” said Freddie, “but nobody had mentioned Liverpool until then.”
Before a last big UK hit with the movie’s title theme, there had been a breakthrough in the United States in summer 1964 with Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying. Finally, Gerry’s acceptance of a West End musical role sundered the group – though Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying was revived by Jose Feliciano, and, from the 1970s, Gerry relived past glories with a new Pacemakers.
This group did not, however, include Freddie, who had retired as a professional entertainer to run the Pacemakers driving school near his home in Southport, Lancashire. Attractive in his relaxed candor, he seemed content with his latter-day career while remaining quietly proud of his achievements during his years just beyond the main spotlight.
Looking back, I underrated myself as a drummer. I was always more into sports than playing drums and when I compared myself to some of the drummers I’d heard in America, I didn’t fancy getting up to their standards.
Freddie Marsden became a telephone operator for £14 a week but later opened the Pacemaker driving school in Formby. Although he was always courteous to his fans, he never returned to music. A few years ago, when I asked him if he still had his drums, he said, “No, I got rid of them. They took up too much space in the garage.”
Frederick John Marsden, drummer & composer, born October 23 1940; died December 9 2006. He is survived by his wife Margaret, and a son and daughter.