Ever since he first hit the charts with “How Do You Do It” in 1963, Gerry Marsden, either by himself or with his group, the Pacemakers, has been one of the UK’s leading entertainers. He will always be associated with Liverpool, and his arrangement of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was adopted as the anthem of Liverpool Football Club.
Born in the Dingle area of Liverpool on 24 September 1942, Gerry Marsden was the second son of Frederick and Mary Marsden, his brother, Freddie, being born two years earlier. His father, a railway clerk, played the ukulele in a local pub on Saturday nights, and Marsden soon learnt the instrument. He sang in his church choir, but his life changed when he heard Lonnie Donegan in 1956. He formed the Gerry Marsden Skiffle Group, and then switched to rock’n’roll when he heard Elvis Presley. His brother, Freddie, who graduated from playing a Quality Street tin to a full drum-kit, recalled: “We called ourselves the Mars Bars and we wrote for permission to use their name. We never even thought of sponsorship then. They wrote back and told us to stop using the name.”
The group became Gerry and the Pacemakers after their pianist, Arthur McMahon, heard a sports commentator refer to someone as a pacemaker. A number of fledgling Liverpool groups supported the American rock’n’roll star Gene Vincent at Liverpool Stadium in May 1960 – Gerry and the Pacemakers were chosen but The Beatles, much to their chagrin, were not considered good enough.
The show’s organiser, Allan Williams, arranged for Liverpool groups to play in Hamburg but Gerry and the Pacemakers were reluctant to go at first because of their day jobs, Gerry being a railway porter. They developed a popular act and became known for playing the hits of the day. If it made the charts on Friday, it could be in their repertoire on Saturday. They eventually went to Hamburg in 1961 to play the Top Ten Club, and Gerry Marsden was mesmerised by the Norwich rock’n’roller Tony Sheridan: “He slayed me. I watched him as much as I could and he influenced me in the way he could play rhythm guitar and drive the band like mad.”
Gerry Marsden was also traumatised by another event: “John Lennon and I went down the Herbertstrasse and the windows were full of young ladies who couldn’t afford many clothes. John said, ‘Let’s go in’ and I said, ‘No’ and so we knocked three times on one of the doors and this German geezer said, ‘Ya vol, vot?’ I said, ‘Can we come in please?’ and he said, ‘80 Deutsche Marks.’ John had 20 and so did I and we asked if 40 was any good. He shouted at us, something to do with sex and travel, and we offed. John said, ‘Let’s go next week’ and so next week, same house, knock, knock, knock, same big man. I said, ‘Here’s the money’ and he said, ‘Danke schoen’. He came back with the biggest woman I have ever seen. She looked like a brick shithouse. I looked at John and he looked at me and we jumped up and ran out of the door. I said, ‘What a waste of time, John. Eighty Deutsche Marks and we got nothing.’ He said, ‘I did. I got the shock of me bloody life.’”
In one memorable night in 1961, The Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers (by now Gerry, Fred, guitarist Les Chadwick and saxophonist/keyboard player Les Maguire) combined forces as the Beatmakers for a night at Litherland Town Hall. Gerry Marsden told me: “There were no rehearsals at all. We just got together for a laugh and started doing Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis numbers. Paul played piano, John played piano and I played piano, and it was just great, but it was a spontaneous one-off thing and we knew we couldn’t repeat it.”
Ray McFall, who owned the Cavern Club in Mathew Street, pioneered lunchtime beat sessions for students and young office workers. The regular groups were the ones who themselves did not have day jobs, namely, The Beatles and the constantly grinning Gerry with his Pacemakers. Gerry said: “The Cavern was always special, it was always like a party when we played there. They would shout out for songs and we would wear jeans and sweaters until Brian Epstein made us wear suits. It was a dirty, horrible cellar that stank of sweat and Dettol, but it had a great atmosphere.”
Some private recordings that the group made with Bernard Whitty of Lambda Records in Crosby have recently come to light and performances like ‘What’d I Say’ reveal how good Marsden’s voice was. It became huskier after several weeks in Hamburg where, unlike the Beatles, the vocals were mostly handled by one man, Gerry himself.
In May 1962, after returning from Hamburg, the group was signed by Brian Epstein. “We didn’t anticipate making records at this stage,” Marsden wrote in his autobiography, I’ll Never Walk Alone (1993), “I gave him our diary and thought no more about it. He was just this nice posh guy who spoke proper English, not Scouse like me, dressed immaculately and ran a record shop owned by his father. I thought he could also get us some records cheap. I was very unconcerned with the seriousness of having a manager, so I signed up as Brian’s second act.”
After The Beatles had had a moderate success with “Love Me Do”, their producer, George Martin wanted them to record a Tin Pan Alley song by Mitch Murray, “How Do You Do It”. The Beatles thought it too much of a jaunty pop song, and persuaded Martin to release their own composition, “Please Please Me” instead. Brian Epstein told Martin that he had another group who could perform “How Do You Do It” to perfection – Gerry and the Pacemakers. He was right – Gerry’s delivery owed something to both Tommy Steele and Bobby Vee, and the chirpy song made No 1 in April 1963. Many fans preferred the B-side, a beaty ballad, “Away From You”, which Gerry had written for his girlfriend, Pauline Behan, while he was in Hamburg. They were married in 1965, the delay caused by Brian Epstein who thought Marsden would lose some of his female following. Their first daughter, Yvette, was born in 1966 and their second, Victoria, in 1980.
Mitch Murray recalled: “I had written ‘I Like It’ for Gerry’s follow-up but John Lennon had given him ‘Hello Little Girl’. John threatened to thump me if I got the follow-up and I thought it was worth a thump. ‘I Like It’ had the same cheekiness and innuendo and it also went to No 1 – and I didn’t get a thump.”
Gerry’s voice accompanied our biggest nights. His anthem bonded players, staff and fans around the world, helping create something truly special ❤️
You’ll Never Walk Alone ❤️ pic.twitter.com/KE0tjClfqL
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) January 3, 2021
When Gerry Marsden had seen Tony Sheridan, he often included “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as the big ballad in his act, and, wanting to better Paul McCartney who was singing “Over The Rainbow”, the Pacemakers had started performing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” around the Liverpool clubs. George Martin liked the idea of this becoming their single and he added strings for effect. As with PJ Proby’s “Somewhere” in 1964, a great standard was presented in a way that everyone could relate to. As a result, Gerry and the Pacemakers became the first act to reach No 1 with their first three singles. Marsden supported Everton but he changed his allegiance once the Kop started chanting “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, loving both its sentiment and its long notes.
Gerry himself wrote their fourth single, “I’m the One”, but it was not quite strong enough to knock the Searchers’ “Needles And Pins” from the top. Fred, incidentally, thought they would have had a fourth No 1 if they had released “Pretend” from their LP, How Do You Like It?, as a single instead as that was such a popular part of their stage act.
Their fifth Top 10 single was with a group composition, “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying”, although they had to concede part of the royalties to Ray Charles’s publishers as he had recorded a song with the same title. It was the group’s first US hit, reaching No 4, and the song has been recorded by José Feliciano, who told me that he had also considered recording their next hit, “It’s Gonna Be Alright”.
Because The Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night had been such a success, Tony Warren, the creator of Coronation Street, was asked to write a film for Gerry and the Pacemakers. The film was to be set in Liverpool and Warren called it Ferry Cross The Mersey. It provided Marsden with his most poignant composition and it is used by Mersey Ferries to this day. For all its silliness, the film is a fine document about the city in 1964, but, much to Marsden’s annoyance, it has never been reissued on video or DVD.
Dave Davies of The Kinks recalled being on tour with the Pacemakers, and he and Gerry were annoyed that they could not get them some late-night drinks at their hotel: “Gerry and I decided to go downstairs to see if we could break into the bar. The lobby was quiet: only the night porter was around. The bar’s door was locked but I mentioned to Gerry that I had seen some ornamental antiques on the wall of the lobby including some swords and an axe. Gerry took the swords and I wielded the axe. By this time the night porter had disappeared. I swung the axe in the air to get the feel of it and brought it down venomously on the reception deck, which was made of fine old oak. Gerry lashed his swords at furniture, curtains and absolutely everything else that was in view. I saw the night porter approaching. We quickly smashed the only light and ran outside where we hid like two skulking fugitives.”
When Gerry had been at the Cavern, he had enjoyed hearing the record that the DJ Bob Wooler played as the patrons were leaving – Bobby Darin’s “I’ll Be There”. They group recorded it as a single and, in 1965, it became their final Top 20 hit. By now, The Beatles were experimenting with Rubber Soul, and, generally, more sophisticated sounds were coming in. The psychedelia of 1966 held no interest for Gerry and he was far too down to earth to follow The Beatles to Bangor to see the Maharishi.
In 1967, Marsden was offered a starring role replacing Joe Brown in the West End musical Charlie Girl. In taking the work, he made the Pacemakers redundant. They thought of having a replacement singer but in the end, Maguire and Chadwick bought a garage and his brother Freddie went into the GPO. Gerry made a single to promote the show with the Liverpool actor Derek Nimmo and although he released several records, none of them made the charts. He became a children’s favourite via regular appearances with the glove puppet Sooty.
Marsden returned to rock’n’roll with a new look Pacemakers in 1973. An audience of 13,000 came to Madison Square Garden to see him on a show with Herman’s Hermits, Wayne Fontana, and The Searchers. When Gerry and the Pacemakers opened for Billy Joel, Gerry became besotted with his music and when I next saw him, half his act was Billy Joel songs.
In 1982 he released his 20 Year Anniversary Album with his versions of former No 1s including “The Story Of My Life” and “Where Do You Go To, My Lovely”.
In 1985 Marsden wanted to do something for the disaster fund following the fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade stadium. He asked a host of celebrities (including Jess Conrad, Bruce Forsyth, Rolf Harris and The Nolans) to join him for a new version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Released under the name of The Crowd, it became a No 1 record. That same year Marsden was the subject of a This Is Your Life programme, and Paul McCartney wrote the sleeve notes for his new album, The Lennon/McCartney Songbook.
A few weeks after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, Marsden led the community singing at the local derby between Liverpool and Everton. He then recorded “Ferry Cross The Mersey” with fellow Liverpudlians Paul McCartney, Holly Johnson and the Christians for the appeal. It also was a No 1 record.
In 1993 Marsden released a light-hearted CD, 50 Non Stop Party Hits, and in 1996 played his older self in a musical on his life, Ferry Cross The Mersey, at the Liverpool Playhouse. The musical toured for a year and as it progressed, Marsden became more and more keen to play the songs his younger self was singing, so the production became virtually a double act. This was followed by a stage tour for the one-man show, An Audience With Gerry Marsden, a perfect format for him as he was a born raconteur. Performing onstage in any capacity did not faze Marsden at all – he was born without stage fright, but it was becoming hard to associate this Les Dawson lookalike with his hits of the Sixties.
In addition, his health problems were beginning to curtail his love of performing. He underwent a triple heart bypass in 2003 and a replacement heart valve operation in 2016, which ironically, and perhaps inevitably, led to him having his very own pacemaker. The following year he collapsed onstage during a gig in Newport, south Wales, as part of his UK tour, and eventually announced his retirement in November 2018.
Marsden was awarded the MBE in 2003 and did much to help Liverpool win its bid to become the European Capital of Culture in 2008. In the following year, he was given the Freedom of the City and also a lifetime pass for the Mersey ferry. There was a press call on one of its regular crossings and Gerry for once was a little reluctant to sing his famous song. He said, “Any of these tourists may think this is all I do now, spending my days busking on the ferry.” He paused thoughtfully. “On the other hand, I could make a few bob out of it. Sod it, let’s do it!”
Gerry Marsden, singer, born 24 September 1942, died 3 January 2021