The Searchers' History

The Searchers' History

The Searchers have been recording and performing since the early 1960s. In spite of their longevity and contribution to the British Invasion no comprehensive history has been published to date. The Searchers' History is an attempt to "write" this wrong by posting an unofficial history online. This is an unofficial history, of course, however your comments with regard to errors and suggested topics are most welcome.

"Johnny Sandon and The Searchers"
Circa 1961
Photo 1961-2001 Dick Matthews

Searchers' History - Chapter 1: Let The Four Winds Blow

The British Invasion has its roots in Liverpool and owes its fervor and subsequent global domination to such local artists such as The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas, Cilia Black and The Searchers. Any comprehensive review of the history of rock and roll will validate that The Beatles' music shone brightest above a constellation of emerging talents from Liverpool. It was The Searchers, however, that eclipsed the Beatles with "Needles and Pins" and caught the gaze of a galaxy of music lovers. This moment in time created a sound that continues to endure after the earth has completed more than three dozen revolutions of the sun. So it was then that "Needles and Pins", "Love Potion No. 9" and "When You Walk In The Room" in a flickering candlelight moment in Rock History has illuminated the hearts of three generations - the baby boomers, their parents and now their children.

So this is an attempt to repay The Searchers with a history that is most deserving but one that has never been written. It is motivated by the love of their music and the need to leave generations of their fans with a point of reference. Time marches on and it would seem that those who are able to write such a history do not have either the inclination or perhaps the time. This effort is a first attempt a documenting The Searchers' musical journey. While every attempt has been made to ensure the accuracy of reporting, this is not meant to be the definitive work and it is unofficial. As it is an oline document, corrections are expected and will be made as new information becomes available. So let the four winds blow.

The Searchers Get Their Name

The Searchers did not seem to have spent much time labouring over the name that they would choose for the group. They chose their name based on the Hollywood movie entitled "The Searchers." This movie was hailed by many as a classic and based on the fans that follow this movie more than 40 years later, it would certainly seem to fall into the blockbuster category. This movie, a Howard Hawks film, was directed by John Ford. Staring with John Wayne were Montgomery Cliff, Natalie Wood and Jeffrey Hunter. When one gives this name some thought, it is an interesting choice. By association "The Searchers" would have received considerable attention in the late 1950s and early 1960s. So while not necessarily the most creative choice, from a public reations point of view the name was a success.

So what were the circumstances surrounding the selection of the name for the group. While there would appear to be different versions of which Searcher may have thought of the idea first, the question of the origin of the group's name was recently put to Mike Pender. In response, Mike Pender writes "I have now seen on more than one occasion references to the history of The Searchers and in particular to whom founded the Band.

The Band was founded by myself and John McNally. In 1957 John and I went to see the movie "The Searchers" starring John Wayne. I was an ardent Western Fan and so I dragged John along with me to see it. I take the credit for choosing the name 'The Searchers' and for co-founding the Band in its original form."

John McNally, cofounder of The Searchers, has gone on record with a slightly different recollection of the origin of the group's name. According to McNally, the idea of taking the name of the movie was first made by a singer who sang with the group for only a brief time known as Big Ron. Big Ron, whose surname is forgotten by McNally, appeared before the days of the lead singer, Johnny Sandon. Rumour has it that Big Ron was known to be in Scotland in the 1970s. It would certainly interesting to discuss the matter further with him.

Da Do Ron Ron, Da Do Big Ron

It has been difficult to obtain information with regard to the history of Big Ron until very recently. Through the big heart and good fortune of one Mike Gargrave, some of Big Ron's music career has come to light. It is hoped that Big Ron will add much more information, however, the following historical facts are added to this online biograpy at this time.

Big Ron's real name is Ron Woodbridge and in the year 2001 is a man in his early sixties. It would seem that he is about two or three years older than John McNally. Age sleuths should know that Tony Jackson is about the same age with his stated 1940 birth date perhaps a tad optimistic, having Tony more youthful than his birth records might allow. But such comments are tangential at this point and will be explored further when appropriate.

Ron Woodbridge was raised in Anfield and as a young man sang with early skiffle as well as rock and roll groups around Liverpool in the late fifties. Ron has been apparently commented that he didn't remain with the early Searchers very long as "they were too young" for him.

In 1960, Ron auditioned for Mecca with the aim of singing in their ballrooms. He successfully passed the audition and embarked on a successful singing career, perfoming in Liverpool's ballrooms. In 1963, Mecca transferred him to Edinburgh where he worked in the Palais ballroom until 1970. Ron reckons that the motivation for his transfer was related to the Mersey boom. Mecca transferred a couple of other scouse singers as it was considered that they would bring in the punters. Delighted with his raise in pay, Ron was happy enough to come north.

Upon is arrival in Edinburgh he would soon adopt the stage name of Shorty Rodgers. It is of interest that he continues to use this name up until the present day. His backing band was known as "The Giants". Shorty developed a fine reputation as a dynamic performer. Apparently Mike Pender has made reference to Ron's act describing Shorty's stage act as an energetic one in which he danced and jumped around a lot. Ron is approximately six feet tall with blond hair and there are some who have conjured up images of Ron on stage as being comparable to that of Rory Storm.

In 1970, Mecca changed their policy and Shorty was given the sack. The dawning of disco could been seen on the horizon and and the once brilliant and rising Mersey boom had finally set. As a consequence, Ron took a day job in the construction business but continued to perform in Edinburgh pubs and clubs in the evenings. A revolving cast of "Giants" continued to back him up, with new artists replacing the old. Ron continues to sing as Shorty Rodgers to this day and is a semi-legend in Edinburgh.

Mike Gargrave played with Shorty in in 1998-99 and has some interesting observations to make concerning Shorty and The Giants. Mike writes "During my time with the Giants, who were all under five foot eight I may add, Ron's set was made up of rock and roll songs from the fifites and early sixties. I dont recall one song dating from after 1963. He didn't feature any Searchers songs or Merseybeat numbers. He has never traded on his Searchers connection, regardless of how tenuous it may be, and I respect him for this."

Mike also had a number of pertinent comments about the connection between Big Ron and The Searchers. Mike related "A couple of points that I would like to correct regarding various web pages which mention Ron. He has never lived in Glasgow and I have never heard him claim that he thought of the Searchers' name. He has claimed to have introduced Mike, who he met first, to John but I am not sure of this point, and that's as diplomatic as I can be. Ron has said that he never met Tony or Chris as they joined after he had moved on.

Mr. Gargrave explains Big Rons' interview with Spencer Leigh in the late 1990s. He recalls "In 1998 I contacted Spencer Leigh on Ron's behalf. Spencer invited Ron down to Liverpool to be interviewed for his BBC Merseyside radio show. This thrilled Ron as he was getting some recognition after forty years."

From Skiffle to Rock and Roll - The Searchers' Musical Chairs

Many Liverpool groups in the late fifties, came from a Skiffle Group tradition. The Searchers were no exception. For those who have followed the Searchers from their modest beginnings, it should come as no surprise that they had more than their fair share of group members. The Searchers' musical chairs would continue throughout their history and would have devastating consequences for them during several stages of their recording and performing career.

So the Searchers bgan as a Skiffle group in 1959 according to comments made by both John McNally and Mike Pender. John McNally has confirmed that this period was taken up with trying to learn basic guitars skills while emulating such artists as Lonnie Donegan and successful British performers such as Tommy Steele. It was during this time that McNally was joined by friends Brian Dolan on guitar and Tony West on bass. The chairs were arranged quickly the enthusiasm of both of these young men soon waned. Very soon after the departure of Dolan and West, a neighbour and guitarist by the name of Mike Pendergast teamed up with McNally. Prendergast would eventually change his name to Mike Pender as the group began its climb to fame. Tony Jackson joined the group soon after Prendergast. In a most amusing comment made by John McNally in an interview conducted by John Morris, in reference to Jackson McNally comments "He was playing in a pub nearby and he not only had a bass guitar that he made himself but he had an amp as well, so he was in." In the early 1960s, if you had a guitar it was important but if you had an amp, you had almost univeral acceptance. Whether it was because he had the amplifier or a good lead voice, the group was known for a brief period as Tony and The Searchers.

The Searchers' first drummer was Joe Kelly who was almost immediately replaced by Norman McGarry. This quick change in drummers was an omen that would follow the Searchers throughout their 40 year career. McGarry would be replaced by Christopher Crummey, from Bootle. Crummey would later change his name to Chris Curtis following his introduction of the same by Tony Jackson in an early press interview. Ron Woodbridge emerged as a vocalist would be backed by Pender, McNally, Jackson and Curtis. Ron eventually left for Scotland and Billy Beck took over as lead singer. Billy would change his name to Johnny Sandon and the quintet emerged as Johnny Sandon and The Searchers. Sandon would eventaully leave with the hope of beoming a solo artist and comedian. "The Searchers" were now a quartet and with the personnel lineup of Jackson, Pender, McNally and Curtis would reach their highest and longest level of chart success. While hits would continue into 1965, most of their recording success was in 1963 and 1964.

The changes in personnel would continue, however, from 1959 to 1962 the group had rearranged itself numerous times, each change resulting in an improvement. McNally, Prendergast, Dolan, West, Kelly, McGarry, Crummey, Beck and Jackson. The Searchers would have more substitutions than the Liverpool Football Club but bounced back each time for the win. Additional changes, however, were devastating for the group and will be discussed in detail later in the history.

Chapter Two - Let's Stomp - The Searchers' Recordings

This chapter will focus on the more successful recordings of The Searchers during the early "Sweet Nothings" until "When You Walk In The Room." The group recorded many other songs, some of which will be examined in future chapters. The purpose of this chapter is to provided an interpretation of the Seachers' style and to document information with respect to "behind the scenes" events. During the early 1960s, The Searchers would eventually take up residence, at the Iron Door Club at 13 Temple Street in Liverpool. For general information about the club the interested reader is referred to a history of the Club at At was at the Iron Door that a tape of a number of the Searchers' songs was made that would lead to a recording contract with Pye Records. Tony Hatch would produce the group for Pye and in addition to becoming their producer also played piano on several of their recordings and wrong their second number one record "Sugar and Spice" under the name of Fred Nightingale. He did not let The Searchers in on this little secret until sometime later on and Chris Curtis, for one, did not like the song and figures that he was tricked by Hatch.

Unearthing The Roots of "Saints And Searchers"

"Saints and Searchers" was the B-Side to the Searchers' popular hit single "Sugar and Spice" and released in the UK on October 16, 1963. Avids riding the wave of this popular Liverpool group during the 1960s, would never be swept away by this flip-side. Nonetheless, the song has a fascinating historical roots that originated in America. The unique arrangement, under the guidance of PYE's Tony Hatch, in concert with the skillful musicianship of band-members provided a song with a musical depth and texture that arguably surpassed a number of their more successful releases.

By way of introduction, "Saints and Searhcers" is a cover of the well-known American spiritual, "When The Saints Go Marching In." The melody was composed by James Milton Black and the lyrics written by Katherine E. Purvis. The song appears to have been written in the 1880s when Black was employed as a music director at Pine Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. It clearly has its roots in the days of slavery and was made popular by Dixieland bands in the southern United States in the early 1900s. That it has been an American classic, gains support from the list of famous American artists who have performed this song. These have included such greats as Louie Armstrong, Big Bill Broonzy, Harry Belafonte, Fats Domino, James Brown, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Lightnin' Hopkins, Lionel Hampton, Little Richard, Louis Prima, Mahalia Jackson, Trini Lopez, Elvis Presley and the Kingston Trio. The Searchers then, were in very good company with their version of "Saints."

Chris Curtis, the Searchers' drummer, was heavily influenced by American music and Fats Domino was a favourite. It is likely that the band got the idea of using "saints" from the Fats Domino arrangement, which he had released in the US on March 2, 1959. The Searchers also played the well known Domino song "Let The Four Winds Blow" in their stage act. "When The Saints Come Marching In" was also part of The Beatles repertoire at one time, and as such the song was certainly doing the rounds in Liverpool at the local clubs. The Beatles' version appeared on the Polydor album along with Tony Sheridan which was released in 1961.

The Searchers "Saints and Searchers" was a bit of a play on words as most of the fans saw the group as being quite tame and benign compared to the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for example. Nonetheless, it was also a propo in some respects as Tony Jackson, the lead vocalist of the group during the early days, was a bit of a rebel himself and was rather well-known for his excessive drinking. In support of this observation, his nickname was Black Jake.

Black Jake was the lead vocalist on "Saints and Searchers" which was a departure from most of the groups' music that consisted of the harmonic blend of several voices. The song was released as a single in the UK in October 1963 on the Pye label and in US in 1964 in the US under the Liberty label. The song was also released on the album "Sugar and Spice" in October 1963 in the UK. The tracks on that album were as follows: Sugar And Spice / Don't You Know / Some Other Guy / One of These Days / Listen to Me / Unhappy Girls / Ain't That Just Like Me / Oh My Lover / Saints & Searchers / Cherry Stones / All My Sorrows / Hungry For Love. "Sugar and Spice" reached number 2 in the UK, but only barely made the top 50 in the US, reaching #44. For this reason, in spite of its American roots, "Saints and Searchers" would have a minimum of exposure in the US relative to the UK.

Tony Jackson had the perfect bluesy voice for "Saints and Searchers" which was performed by the Searchers in the key of E. A simple three chord blues number, the song begins with John McNally intoducing a most interesting rhythm pattern. The thin treble tonality, a salient feature of his Hofner Club 60 model, is ideal for this performance and is the prefect background for Jackson's vocal rendition. For a detailed review of this Hofner electric guitar the reader is referred to the article "Liverpool's Fastest Guitar." McNally's masterful but understated rhythm keeps the song going and becomes the foundation for the tasteful instrumentation of the track. Jackson's Hofner violin-bass can be heard on this track but is most subdued in comparison to his usual booming style allowing his voice to take center stage. This is, in part, due to the fact that he was playing while he sang and, in the days of four track technology, there appears to have been little option for adding an additional bass line later.

McNally is playing E7 on the fifth fret, using the first fret conventional fingering of the C7 chord. This is a favourite position for playing an E7 chord and has an unmistakeable sound which allows for its identification. This chord configuration has been used by many artists, John Lennon. being a noteable example. Jackson's distinctive voice softly begins the first verse pushed on by the steady beat of Chris Curtis on drums -

"Well when the saints, go marchin' Yeah when the saints, go marchin'in I tell you something gonna be, hey I'm gonna be in that number Yeah, when the saints go marchin' in"

In the background, Mike Pender is playing soft blues riffs on his Gibson ES345. This added texture is subtle but fits in very nicely with the instrumentation of Jackson and McNally. Jackson begins to emphasize his vocal lines ever so slightly in the second verse. Chris Curtis, makes changes to the percussion and changes the sound by making effective use of his tom tom. The reference to "bands go swinging in" is most appropriate here even though it referred to marching bands originally. Jackson continues to swing, however, reminding the listener where he stands on the subject -

"And when those bands go swinging in Yeah when the band goes swinging in I tell you something gonna be, hey I'm gonna be in that number Yeah, when the band goes swingin' in"

John McNally begins to add some timely rapid rhythm strumming which he learned from McGee, a pub performer in Liverpool. This technique is most effective and adds extra texture to the performance at this point. Curtis becomes more forceful on the traps and Jackson begins to turn up the heat adding vocal edge in the third verse, which is a repeat of the first verse -

"Well when the saints, go marchin' in Yeah when the saints, go marchin' in I tell you something gonna be, hey I'm gonna be in that number Yeah, when the saints go marchin' in, Aaall Right!"

Jackson uses his range at the end of the verse and in his most distinctive style offers an "All Right" which beckons Mike Pender to join in on the march with his first lead break. This is were the Gibson ES345 "begins to shine" and the added reverb allows a very nice break to cut through the mix adding an essential blues tone. Jackson pickups up the bass and Curtis accentuates the beat. As sure is the sun shines through adversity Jackson reminds us that he is going to be in that number.

"Well, when the sun begins to shine Hey when the sun, begins to shine I tell you something gonna be, hey I'm gonna be in that number Aaah when the sun begins to shine Aaaah yeah!"

At the end the verse shouts an "Aaaah heah!" once again signalling Pender to take the floor and pull out all the stops for another lead break. This break pushes his amplifier offering just a tad of tube distortion sending the break further than the previous one. In live performances this is a show stopper selection and is a real attention grabber. It is reminiscent of the blues riffs of the days so commonly heard in association with songs by Chuck Berry. George Harrison of The Beatles played in a similar style.

In a technique borrowed from gospel performances, Jackson lowers his voice at the beginning of the fifth verse offering a more reflective tone. As sure as the sun is going to shine, he is "gonna be in that number." Through the lowering of his voice, the gentle but persistent cadence of McNally's rhythm guitar becomes more apparent. As Jackson begins to sing verse 5, simply a repeat of verse four, McNally performs more rhythm magic with a accented strums. but still restrained so that the lead vocal isin the forefront. In his softer tone now Jackson begins makes an impression with gentle "Ooos" and "Aaahs" -

"Ooo, when the sun, Aaah gonna shine Hey when the sun, Aaah gonna shine I tell you something gonna be, hey I'm gonna be in that number Hey when the sun begins to shine"

Jackson's voice builds again for the finale and McNally, Curtis and Pender add to this effect.

"Aaah when the saints go marchin' in Yeah when the saints go marchin in I tell you something gonna be, hey I'm gonna be in that number Aaah when the saints go marchin' in"

The song ends cold after the last "saint's go marchin' in."

"Saints and Searchers" is the Searchers at their best in the early days without all the bells and whistles of the recording studio. It certainly demonstrates why they were popular from the beginning and why for certain songs, Black Jake had no equal. The collective talents of the artists provide a song that is a tad thin by modern day producton standards, however, it has a fresh live feel to it. Without question the whole is gresater than the sum of the parts here. This is a song with great texture and several parts that balance one another. Pender plays lead guitar in a way that shows off his talents and pushes this song to the zenith. There are very few recordings in his career as a Searcher that allow for lead guitar as heard here. This is The Searchers in the rough and on that should not be savoured and not skipped by as it does not have the fullness or trademark harmonies were are used to. So give "Saints and Searchers" and Black Jake another listen. You'll be glad you did.

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