The Beatles and the First 'Fifteen Minutes of Fame' in History

"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."

John, Paul, George and . . . Jimmy?
With the growth of reality television over the last fifteen years we have grown more or less accustomed to individuals emerging from nowhere on to our television screens, newspapers and media, seemingly over night. They enjoy immense press and public attention over a series of weeks as the nation ditch their books, laptops and lives every Saturday evening in favor of watching the country’s carefully selected wannabe pop stars of tomorrow fight it out in huge live performances. Then the now familiar new year tradition kicks in, come January they’ve disappeared off the face of the earth.

So where did this phenomena begin? Well in the history of popular music an artist's name reaching number one and then fading away has a long and extensive history. But this current phenomena of overnight international fame which subsequently disappears without trace after a matter of only a few weeks has only one precedent in history. 

Jimmy Nicol was a British drummer, who temporarily replaced Ringo Starr in The Beatles for a series of concerts during the height of Beatlemania in 1964, elevating him from relative obscurity to worldwide fame and then back again in the space of a fortnight.
Ringo Starr was hospitalised on 3 June 1964 with tonsillitis on the eve of The Beatles' 1964 Australasian tour. The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein and their record producer George Martin urgently discussed the feasibility of using a stand-in drummer rather than cancelling a significant part of the tour. Martin suggested Jimmie Nicol as he had recently used him on a Beatles cover album which meant that he already knew many of the songs and their arrangements.

Although John Lennon and Paul McCartney quickly accepted the idea of using an understudy, but George Harrison threatened to pull out of the tour, telling Epstein and Martin: "If Ringo's not going, then neither am I". The arrangements were made very quickly, from a telephone call to Nicol at his home in west London inviting him to attend an audition-cum-rehearsal at Abbey Road Studios to packing his bags, all in the same day. At a press conference a reporter asked John Lennon why Pete Best, who had been The Beatles' original drummer, was not given the opportunity of replacing Ringo, to which Lennon replied: "He's got his own group and it might have looked as if we were taking him back, which is not good for him." Later, on the subject of remuneration, Nicol would recall: "When Brian [Epstein] talked of money in front of them [Lennon, McCartney and Harrison] I got very, very nervous. They paid me £2,500 per gig and a £2,500 signing bonus. Now, that floored me. When John spoke up in a protest by saying 'Good God, Brian, you'll make the chap crazy!', I thought it was over. But no sooner had he said that when he said, 'Give him ten thousand!' Everyone laughed and I felt a hell of a lot better. That night I couldn't sleep a wink. I was a fucking Beatle!" These sums of money, which would have been vast in 1964, are unverified.


Nicol's first concert with The Beatles took place just 27 hours later on 4 June at the KB Hallen in Copenhagen, Denmark. He was given the distinctive Beatle moptop hairstyle, put on Ringo Starr's suit (despite the trousers being too short) and went on stage to an audience of 4,500 Beatles fans. Paul McCartney amusingly recalled: "He was sitting up on this rostrum just eyeing up all the women". McCartney teasingly sent Starr a telegram saying: "Hurry up and get well Ringo, Jimmy is wearing out all your suits." Commenting later on the fickle nature of his brief celebrity, Nicol 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 was also able to shed some light on how they passed the time between shows: "I thought I could drink and lay women with the best of them until I caught up with these guys." In the Netherlands Nicol and Lennon allegedly spent a whole night at a brothel. Lennon said: "It was some kind of scene on the road. Satyricon! There's photographs of me grovelling about, crawling about Amsterdam on my knees, coming out of whore houses, and people saying 'Good morning John'. The police escorted me to these places because they never wanted a big scandal. When we hit town, we hit it – we were not pissing about. We had them [the women]. They were great. We didn’t call them groupies, then; I’ve forgotten what we called them, something like 'slags'". The Beatles were by now becoming more restricted by their increasing fame, spending most of their free time inside hotel suites. But Nicol discovered that, beyond acting as a Beatle, he could behave much as any tourist could: "I often went out alone. Hardly anybody recognised 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".


Nicol played a total of eight shows until Starr rejoined the group in Melbourne, Australia, on 14 June. He was unable to say "goodbye" to The Beatles as they were still asleep when he left, and he did not want to disturb them. At Melbourne airport, Brian Epstein presented him with a cheque for £500 and a gold Eterna-matic wrist watch inscribed: "From The Beatles and Brian Epstein to Jimmy - with appreciation and gratitude."

Nicol had hoped that his association with The Beatles would greatly boost his career, but instead found that the spotlight moved away from him once Starr returned to the group. Hoping to exploit the enormous exposure that playing with the Beatles had bestowed, Nicol reformed the Shubdubs, renaming themselves Jimmy Nicol and the Shubdubs. They released two singles "Husky"/"Don't Come Back", followed by "Humpty Dumpty"/"Night Train"; neither of which were a commercial success.

In 1965 Nicol declared bankruptcy with debts of £4,066, a mere nine months after being a temporary Beatle. Later that year he joined the successful Swedish group The Spotnicks, recording with them and twice touring the world. He left them in 1967, spending time in Mexico studying samba and bossa nova rhythms, whilst also diversifying into business. In 1975 he returned to England and became involved with housing renovations. In 1988 it was rumoured that Nicol had died, but an article in 2005 by the Daily Mail confirmed that he was still alive and living in London as a recluse, preferring not to discuss his connection to The Beatles and refusing to seek financial gain from it. He has a son, Howard, who is a BAFTA award-winning sound engineer.

George Martin later paid tribute to Nicol whilst acknowledging the problems he experienced in trying to re-adjust to a normal life again: "Jimmie Nicol was a very good drummer who came along and learnt Ringo's parts very well. He did the job excellently, and faded into obscurity immediately afterwards". Paul McCartney: "It wasn't an easy thing for Jimmy to stand in for Ringo, and have all that fame thrust upon him. And the minute his tenure was over, he wasn't famous any more". Nicol would himself express his disillusionment several years later: "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." He resisted the temptation to sell his story, stating in a rare 1987 interview: "After the money ran low I thought of cashing in in some way or other. But the timing wasn't right. And I didn't want to step on The Beatles' toes. They had been damn good for me and to me."