When it comes down to music history, it seems no other story is more tantalizing than that looming over the name of Pete Best. Who is he, anyway?
The short answer: he played the drums for the Beatles, before the Liverpool-formed band took it to the stars and before Ringo Starr was one of its full-time members. Pete Best played gigs with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison for two years starting in 1960, during the band’s early days in Liverpool and Hamburg.
He was born Randolph Peter Scanland in Madras, British India, in 1941. However, since his father lost his life during the war, and while his mother, Mona, remarried one Johnny Best, Pete took the surname of his adoptive father. The family of three relocated from India to Liverpool in 1944.
Some 15 years later, in 1959, Mona opened a coffee bar in the basement space of the family home. The venue was named Casbah Coffee Club, and it was here that an early version of the Beatles — the Quarrymen — began to perform on August 29, 1959. At that point, Pete Best was still not playing with the four.
In fact, Best was just gearing up as drummer with his own band, the Black Jacks with Brown, which replaced the Quarrymen as Saturday regulars at the Casbah Coffee Club.
During the summer of 1960, McCartney and Lennon invited Best to join their band, right before a scheduled gig in Hamburg. Best accepted the offer, but according to statements made by John Lennon, Best was asked to join at that point out of need. They just needed someone, not necessarily with great talent, but someone able to endure the long gigs the band was due to perform in Hamburg.
Hamburg, which was a jubilant place for musicians during the 1960s, helped the Beatles get more noticed. They hosted hundreds of shows there in different venues, sometimes playing every night of the week for several hours. Best is said to have enjoyed special popularity among the girls. Take a closer look with the video below:
However, everything was just about to change. The band led a dynamic lifestyle, sometimes fueled with certain “pick me ups”. For Stuart Fergusson Victor Sutcliffe, the original bass guitarist for the Beatles, it was perhaps all too much.
Sutcliffe, who tragically passed away on April 10, 1962, is credited for devising the name “Beetles” along with John Lennon, with Lennon later amending it to “Beatles.” He had opted out of the band during the summer of 1961 in order to dedicate himself to painting, and an unwilling McCartney took over playing bass.
It was during this period that the young band finally nabbed a record deal with EMI. In studio, work got going on several demo songs included the future debut single “Love Me Do.” And in the whirlpool of changes, there he was — Ringo Starr, someone whom McCartney, Lennon, and Harrison were first introduced to back in 1959.
Starr was a drummer for the super-popular Liverpool-based band Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and his band also traveled to Hamburg to play gigs.
Sooner rather than later, Ringo would fill in the place of Best in the band, and people would be left wondering what happened. Many fans initially saw the move as a tragedy, with the most die-hard ones even camping outside Best’s home in a gesture of support.
“He was a loner, and in a group you can’t be a loner,” remarked Tony Sheridan on Pete Best to the Washington Post in 2003. Sheridan, who died in 2013, was an English musician who built his career in Germany, and who had the fortune to perform with the Beatles in Hamburg.
“He was a very quiet guy, too. Never said a thing. But I think there was some jealousy about Pete in there as well, because half the gig in those days was to look the part, and the music was almost secondary. Lennon looked like a schoolteacher — he couldn’t see a thing without his glasses. Pete looked like a movie star,” Sheridan said.
Beyond that, Ringo Starr felt like a greater match to work with than Pete Best, who was reputed for sometimes not showing up on schedule, or even bow out of gigs altogether. Rumors also flew around that McCartney felt a bit upstaged by the female attention given to Best. Ringo’s non-threatening appearance and playful personality, it was thought, would be a better match, in certain ways, for the band.
In those years before popularity hit the Beatles, Ringo would sometimes step in as a substitute when Best canceled on a show. He reportedly left an image of being not always the most reliable person, although without him there may have never been the Beatles.
Ominously, the impression among McCartney, Lennon, and Harrison was that Starr was a better drummer than Best. At least better for them.
Sheridan told the Washington Post that Ringo “was more intent on becoming a good drummer,” and that “Pete was less intent. He was a bit lazy.”
Finally, the decisive blow on ditching Pete Best came from George Martin, the producer who worked with the Beatles and supported them with the release of each album.
Namely, he proposed that since Best was an unsatisfactory performer, the band’s very future was threatened because of that. Fears were raised that the label would refuse the band if the lineup didn’t change. Which is what followed.
Three days after Pete Best was ousted from the group, Starr officially chipped in as the new drummer for the Beatles. The rest is history. In 1963, the Beatles went on to experience unprecedented popularity, making millions of their records. Best initially struggled with depression; his condition leading him to the point where he even attempted suicide in 1965.
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Best took many years to bury the hatchet, that such great fame and fortune eluded him for so little. He remained largely absent from the music scene, until the late 1980s when he initiated his very own The Pete Best Band. He is 77 today and an active professional musician.