Jimmie Nicol: The drummer who replaced Ringo Starr and lived as a Beatle for two weeks in 1964

Magda Origjanska
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Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

The Beatles caused intense fan hysteria around the world during the 1960s. “Beatlemania” was a cultural phenomenon that brought massive popularity as well as financial success to the members of the band. At the time, millions of fans were dying to see the Beatles performing live, and the band was often overwhelmed with tour demands. The entire production machinery behind them was trying hard to keep it all going.

In June 1964, when Beatlemania was at its highest point, the band was preparing for its tour to the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Denmark, New Zealand, and Australia. Unfortunately, just before taking off, drummer Ringo Starr collapsed at a photo shoot and was immediately taken to hospital, where he was diagnosed with tonsillitis.

The upcoming tour was threatened with a possible financial catastrophe due to the millions of sold tickets and the booked venues and hotels. The band’s producer, George Martin, and their manager, Brian Epstein, understood that they had to either cancel the tour and upset the fans or find a replacement and thus upset the Beatles.

Epstein had to persuade the other Beatles to accept a substitute drummer, but George Harrison was strongly against it. He threatened to hinder the tour, telling Epstein and Martin, “If Ringo’s not going, then neither am I. You can find two replacements.”

A square quartered into four head shots of young men with mop top haircuts. All four wear white shirts and dark coats.

Martin recalled in an interview, “They nearly didn’t do the Australia tour. George is a very loyal person. It took all of Brian’s and my persuasion to tell George that if he didn’t do it, he was letting everybody down.” John Lennon and Paul McCartney, however, quickly accepted the idea of using an understudy.

Although it was quite hard to imagine that there was actually someone able to replace Starr, Martin proposed Jimmie Nicol, a 24-year-old London drummer whose studio work had impressed him. Nicol had drummed on a budget label album and played Beatles covers, which meant that he was familiar with the songs and their arrangements. McCartney also knew Nicol, having seen him perform with George Fame and Blue Flames.

The arrangements were made and Nicol was invited to an audition-rehearsal at Abbey Road Studios. Nicol was hired after a successful performance of six songs. He was given a Beatles haircut and was ready to hit the stage. Starr became very sentimental over the situation. “It was very strange, them going off without me,” Starr said in Anthology. “They’d taken Jimmie Nicol and I thought they didn’t love me any more–all that stuff went through my head.”

The Beatles arrive at Schiphol Airport. Author:Harry Pot. CC BY-SA 3.0 nl

Epstein offered £2,500 per gig and a £2,500 signing bonus to Nicol who, reportedly, was so thrilled that he couldn’t sleep a wink that night. His first concert with the Beatles was in Copenhagen. He went on stage in front of 4,500 fans, playing 10 songs except “I Wanna Be Your Man,” which was focused on Ringo’s vocal spot. He played eight concerts and taped a TV show as a Beatles drummer.

Regarding his brief status as a celebrity he 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.”

On the other hand, he felt really fortunate for not being an actual Beatle because he wasn’t shadowed by their increasing fame, which brought many restrictions to the members of the band. He discovered that besides being a Beatle, he was able to behave as any tourist when he wanted to: “I often went out alone. Hardly anybody recognized me and I was able to wander around. In Hong Kong, I went to see the thousands of people who live on little boats in the harbor. I saw the refugees in Kowloon, and I visited a nightclub. I like to see life. A Beatle could never really do that.”

McCartney, Harrison, Lennon, and Nicol in the Netherlands on June 5, 1964. Author: VARA – Beeld en Geluidwiki. CC BY-SA 3.0 nl

Nicol was a Beatle for 13 days before Starr rejoined the group in Melbourne, Australia. At the airport, Epstein gave him a gold Eterna-matic wristwatch that was inscribed with the words: From The Beatles and Brian Epstein to Jimmy– with appreciation and gratitude.

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As soon as his stint was over, he wasn’t famous anymore, which made him face reality. It wasn’t pretty. He later declared that “Standing in for Ringo was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Until then I was quite happy earning £30 or £40 a week. After the headlines died, I began dying too.” Later, Nicol worked with many different bands before he finally left the music business in 1967. Over the decades, he has been living away from the public eye, preferring not to discuss his connection to the Beatles.