Mersey Beat, a newspaper founded in 1961 by devil-may-care independent publisher Bill Harry, came along just in time to document a musical groundswell destined to turn the world's eyes in the direction of Liverpool, where nearly half-a-thousand of the area's rock and roll bands made names for themselves, at least to fans residing five miles or so in any direction (which might include a few schools of fish dwelling in the Irish Sea). The city became England's hot spot thanks to native sons The Beatles, one of a handful of record shop owner Brian Epstein's management clients, though as of March 1963 they had yet to reach number one on the G.B. best seller charts. Then the first week in April, a different Liverpool group pulled off the difficult feat: Gerry and the Pacemakers hit number one...with a song the Beatles had rejected!

Freddie Marsden and his younger brother Gerry had an obsession for music as kids thanks in large part to their dad's hobby of singing and strumming his ukulele (Gerry also considered boxing as a vocation, but he outgrew the idea - or maybe just chickened out). They lived in the Dingle, on the southwest side of Liverpool by the River Mersey; by 1956 Freddie was regularly pounding a drum kit while Gerry sang and played guitar and a friend, Arthur McMahon, accompanied them on piano. After spending time with a couple of skiffle groups, the high schoolers discovered American rock and roll (Fats, Chuck, Ray, Jerry Lee and Elvis were among their idols) and in 1957 started a band, The Mars Bars. According to Gerry and others, the Mars candy company was concerned enough about the name to pressure the teenagers into changing it; around 1959, with Gerry established as the lead singer, Gerry and the Pacemakers became the permanent moniker. About this time they got a lucky break and were hired to open for U.S. rocker Gene Vincent on a performance jaunt through Liverpool.

Fellow Liverpudlians the Beatles (under The Quarrymen, Johnny and the Moondogs and other names) were simultaneously experiencing a similar development curve. Going to Hamburg, Germany to perform in the many clubs there became part of the routine; Gerry and the Pacemakers (including Arthur and a fourth member, bassist Les Chadwick) headed to Hamburg at the end of 1960 (about four months after the Beatles made their first trek) for an ongoing gig at the Top Ten Club...and guess who was there! The octet of Liverpool lads had mostly-fun times in a country that, just 15 years earlier, had been a wartime enemy. As soon as Marsden's band returned home, Arthur McMahon decided he'd had enough and bailed. Les Maguire took over as permanent pianist.

North End Music Stores (NEMS) manager Epstein (his family owned the company) was a go-getter with an eye and ear for the best of the local Liverpool talent. The Marsden brothers were regular customers and usually asked for hard-to-get American 45s (as did some other Mersey musicians including the Beatles), which made Brian all the more aware of the sounds coming from the other side of the Atlantic. He caught the Beatles and Pacemakers on separate Cavern Club outings. In December '61, a Mersey Beat poll of the most popular local acts ranked the Beatles first (leading to the now-famous cover of the January 4 issue with its headline "Beatles Top Poll!" above a not-particularly-elated John, George, Paul and Pete). Second place finishers? Gerry and the Pacemakers! Epstein signed the Beatles to a management contract in January 1962 and locked up Gerry's band five months later (Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, The Fourmost and Cilla Black came later; all evenutally had hits in the top ten).

In September '62, at the urging of producer George Martin, the Beatles recorded Mitch Murray's "How Do You Do It," which Martin, as yet undecided about the foursome's songwriting capabilities, intended to release as their first Parlophone single. But the band, particularly head Moondog John, wouldn't have it (after some pushing and shoving, their own "Love Me Do" got the nod with sticksman Ringo replacing the recently-banished Pete Best). Martin offered Murray's tune to Gerry and the Pacemakers, who were open to any suggestion. In March, EMI's Columbia label issued "How Do You Do It?" (with question mark), recorded at Abbey Road studios just like the Beatles' output. The song those madcap moptops had passed up hit number one (they'd made it to number two with "Please Please Me," so it couldn't have been all that disappointing). In May, the third Beatles single, "From Me to You," knocked Gerry and his buds off the top spot...and the battle was on to see which Liverpool group could rack up the most chart-toppers (and they weren't the only two in competition)!

"I Like It," another song penned by Murray, was the follow-up Pacemakers disc despite differing little from its lead-in. In June it too hit number one, pushing the Beatles' single off the summit...and the friendly competition got a little more heated. The summer progressed with Frank Ifield ("Confessin' (That I Love You)"), Elvis Presley ("(You're The) Devil in Disguise") and a Liverpool group managed by Tony Hatch, The Searchers ("Sweets For My Sweet"), all reaching the top. The next Epstein-controlled act to top the U.K.'s singles chart did so in August: Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas (Billy lived in Bootle, just north of Liverpool; the Dakotas hailed from Manchester, 35 miles to the east) ruled the nation's roost with a Lennon-McCartney song, "Bad to Me." Then the Beatles, as a band, evened the score with Gerry and the Pacemakers, taking "She Loves You" to the top in September.

"Hello Little Girl," another number penned by Lennon and McCartney, was offered to Gerry for the next Pacemakers single. Would Mr. Marsden agree to do a song by their amiable rivals if it meant - as Epstein and Martin assured them it would - securing a third number one hit (something no one had done with their first three releases)? He refused, much like John and the other Beatles had, insisting on an out-of-left-field choice, "You'll Never Walk Alone" (from the 18-year-old Broadway musical Carousel), a song they had performed in clubs for a few years. Epstein and Martin scoffed, Gerry did it anyway, they took an "Okay, it's your funeral" attitude...and in November it knocked "Do You Love Me" by Dagenham rockers Brian Poole and the Tremeloes off its perch. Three-out-of-three, a new record, much to the surprise of most everyone...perhaps even Marsden himself. "Hello Little Girl" had been handed down to The Fourmost (Liverpool boys, one of them from Dingle, all of them regular Cavern Club performers signed by Epstein) and hit the top ten at about the same time. So everyone was happy! Except maybe the Beatles, who were trailing Gerry's Pacemakers three-to-two in the race to rule the record charts.

Les Chadwick, Les Maguire, Gerry Marsden, Freddie Marsden

The "We're not from Bootle" Beatles got their third number one hit in December: "I Want to Hold Your Hand," which happens to be the magic disc that held the United States and much of the rest of the world hypnotized in the early weeks of 1964. The so-called "British Invasion" was under way and The Dave Clark Five, Dusty Springfield, the Searchers and even old-hat Brit hitman Cliff Richard participated in the early charge...but not The Guys That Beat the Beatles to Number One...not yet, anyway. New York's Laurie Records had been putting out the group's singles all along including the fourth one, "I'm the One," written by Gerry, which had gone up against a seemingly easy competitor back home, the Searchers' recording of "Needles and Pins" (an American song by Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono and minor hit for Jackie DeShannon), a tough nut that succeeded in holding G&TP at a number two U.K. in February '64. Still, none of the Laurie singles had done anything, a situation not unique as few British singles had caught on in the States. But in 1964 the Invasion started to steamroll...Gerry's time for across-the-pond expansion was near.

Things fell in place for the fifth single, "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying," an exquisite ballad by Gerry that hit the U.K. top ten in May and U.S. top ten in July. "I'm the One" charted briefly in America and a reissue of "How Do You Do It" (without the question mark) gave them three concurrent U.S. Hot 100 singles. Then ' an arrow...' it went top ten. When A Hard Day's Night transformed the Beatles into movie stars upon its North American premiere in August, Epstein set to the task of getting a movie deal for Marsden's band. Ferry Cross the Mersey was filmed in Liverpool, a chance for wild westerners to get a look at the mysterious city that spawned such awesome music stars. "The Big Beat is Back with the Excitingest New Pacemaking Pack!" was how the posters played it up; the film was directed by Jeremy Summers, who cut his teeth on TV productions in 1960 and had subsequently built a strong resumé.

Rocking track "It's Gonna Be Alright" (fall '64) was the next hit in England for Gerry, Freddie, Les and Les, while "I Like It" continued the stateside game of catch-up. Movie title track "Ferry Cross the Mersey" (some American singles showed it as "Ferry Across the Mersey") went top ten on both shores (January there, March here, both songs peaking in sync with each country's release of the film); Cilla Black performed "Is It Love" in the film and reviews were good, though no sequel was planned. "I'll Be There," a remake of one of Gerry's favorite songs by Bobby Darin, hit in the U.S. before repeating the feat back home. In May '65 "It's Gonna Be Alright" peaked in the U.S. top 30, then "You'll Never Walk Alone (Carousel)" was wedged in...bringing the scrambled mess to an end and Laurie Records up to speed. Right before it slowed.

There were some low-charting singles, starting with the U.S.-only Marsden original "Give All Your Love to Me" followed by "Walk Hand in Hand," the group's final U.K. hit, a song by Canadian Johnny Cowell that had been big for Tony Martin in 1956. "La La La," a catchy Gerry composition, hovered around the bottom of the U.S. charts for a few weeks just after April Fools' Day '66. Then "Girl on a Swing," an album cut by New Jersey group The Happenings that was written by the quartet's lead singer Ralph ("Bob") Miranda, got the Pacemakers cover treatment; unexpectedly it reached the top 30 in October 1966. By the time "Looking For My Life" became the final single on Laurie near the end of the year, the band had broken up. Having been together since they were kids, and with hits getting harder to come by, it seemed like as good a time as any to throw in the towel.

Imagine starting out on equal footing with a neighboring band like The Beatles, following a parallel path to success, matching them hit-for-hit for a year or so, then standing by as your popularity withers while the "Fab Four" thoroughly conquers the worldwide media. Freddie Marsden gave up drumming and the music business altogether and later founded the Pacemaker School of Motoring, a driving lesson service in Liverpool. Gerry, on the other hand, signed on as a solo act with CBS Records, recording songs by contributing pop composers like former Hamburg colleage Tony Sheridan ("Please Let Them Be") and Barry and Robin Gibb of The Bee Gees ("Gilbert Green," also released on Columbia in the States) while knocking 'em dead on the West End stage in the musical Charlie Girl (which had opened in 1965 with singer Joe Brown in the lead role) from 1968 until the show closed in '71. He and cast member Derek Nimmo duetted on the old-timey "Liverpool," a summer '68 single. In 1972 Gerry was in another musical comedy, the much shorter-lived Pull Both Ends.

The stage provided a steady income for Gerry, as none of the records he made after 1966 sold particularly well. In the 1970s he appeared regularly on The Sooty Show, a children's series starring Matthew Corbett and his puppets Sooty (a bear) and Sweep (a dog); Gerry typically ended up being sprayed with water, having paint dumped on him or getting pies thrown in his face. Amazingly, the show is still going strong several decades after its 1948! A new Pacemakers band was formed in 1973 (with bassist Billy Kinsley, pianist Chris Foley and drummer Pete Block) and took part in a British Invasion reunion concert in Madison Square Garden and other cities with fellow Liverpool pals Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas and The Searchers, in addition to Herman's Hermits and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders.

Not long after, Marsden put together yet another lineup (Baz Coleman on keyboards, Billy Wheeler on bass and Keith Hall on drums) and recorded "Remember (The Days Of Rock And Roll)," a nice nostalgia track, as Gerry Marsden and the Pacemakers. He spearheaded a charity record, a remake of "You'll Never Walk Alone" by The Crowd (consisting of several dozen top British music acts), a number one U.K. hit in June 1986 that raised funds for victims of the Bradford Football Club stadium fire the previous month. A new version of "Ferry Cross the Mersey" made to raise funds for another sports tragedy, the Hillsborough disaster of April 1989, was credited to Christians, Holly Johnson, Paul McCartney, Gerry Marsden and Stock Aitken Waterman and went to number one a month later.

Gerry Marsden has been a vital part of the rock scene in England since his peak year of 1963. So what if he and his Pacemakers got crushed under the weight of the Fab Four (or Fab Five if you count Best...or Fab Six if you count Epstein...or Fab 147 if you count Murray the get the picture). Gerry was there at the beginning and just got overshadowed, as someone always will. Ultimately he'll have his laurels to rest on, and they're quite formidable.

- Michael Jack Kirby



How Do You Do It Ferry Across the Mersey