John, Paul, George and…Jimmie? It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it? But for ten days in 1964, Jimmie Nicol was one of The Fab Four, drafted in to replace Ringo Starr on The Beatles first world tour.
Starr had collapsed with tonsillitis, and rather than cancel the tour, producer George Martin decided to call in a temporary replacement - Jimmie Nicol, an experienced session musician, who had played with Georgie Fame and jazz musician, Johnny Dankworth, amongst others. Lennon and McCartney were fine with the idea, but Harrison was a bit shirty, and at one point threatened to walk off, telling Martin and Brian Epstein: “If Ringo’s not going, then neither am I - you can find two replacements.” It was soon resolved and within 24-hours of the initial ‘phonecall, Nicol was playing drums with the Fab Three in Copenhagen. He later recalled:
“That night I couldn’t sleep a wink. I was a fucking Beatle!”
The next leg of the tour was Australia and Hong Kong, and Nicol soon found himself at the heart of Beatlemania. Fans screamed his name, his photograph was sent around the globe, and he was interviewed as one of the band by the world’s press. Nicol later reflected:
“The day before I was a Beatle, girls weren’t interested in me at all. The day after, with the suit and the Beatle cut, riding in the back of the limo with John and Paul, they were dying to get a touch of me. It was very strange and quite scary.”
He also gave an inkling into The Beatles’ life on the road was like:
“I thought I could drink and lay women with the best of them until I caught up with these guys.”
Ten days into the tour, Ringo had recovered and quickly reclaimed his place. Nicol was paid off by Epstein at Melbourne airport, given a cheque for $1,000 and a gold Eterna-matic wrist watch inscribed: “From The Beatles and Brian Epstein to Jimmy - with appreciation and gratitude.” It was like a retirement present. Within a year Nicol was bankrupt, owing debts of over $70,000, and all but forgotten. So much for his 15 minutes of fame.
“Standing in for Ringo was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Until then I was quite happy earning thirty or forty pounds a week. After the headlines died, I began dying too.”
Nicol went on to play with Swedish guitar band, The Spotnicks, but by the late sixties he quit pop music and relocated to Mexico. It was later claimed he had died, but as the Daily Mail explained in 2005, this was false:
At 66, his square-jawed looks have given way to grey jowls, the smile oblieterated by missing teeth. Anything that might remain of his Beatle haircut is tied back in a scruffy ponytail. But he still has his principles. Despite the lucrative rewards of today’s Beatlemania industry, he staunchly refuses to cash in….
It has even been reported that he died in 1988. This week, however, after a difficult search, I confirmed reports of his death are greatly exaggerated. One morning he could be foind visiting a building society, eating breakfast in a modest cafe, then returning silently to his London home. At this flat you could see sheet music through one window but no sign of any drums. He didn’t answer the door when I rang. If he got my messages about the new book, he didn’t reply.
When I eventually made contact, the conversation was predictably brief: “I’m not interested in all that now,” he said. “I don’t want to know, man.”
Here is footage of The Beatles’ tour of Australia and Jimmie Nicol’s time as the fifth Beatle - the Beatle who never was.
Rare Beatles interview (slightly tipsy) with Jimmie Nicol (with thanks to RVL)
Jimmie Nicol interview
The Beatles in Hong King 1964
Bonus - Compilation of various clips from The Beatles’ Australian Tour 1964