Lord Woodbine was born Harold Phillips in 1928 in Trinidad. In 1948 he arrived in Liverpool, where he was to play a small role in The Beatles’ early days.
At the age of 14 Phillips lied about his age and joined the Royal Air Force. Following World War Two he returned to the Caribbean, but travelled to England in 1948 on the SS Windrush.
Upon his arrival in Liverpool Phillips restyled himself as Lord Woodbine, after the brand of cheap cigarette he chain smoked. He worked as a builder and decorator, calypso singer and barman, and formed the All-Steel Caribbean Band, which had a residency at his New Colony Club.
Lord Woodbine, often known as Woodie, booked The Beatles to play at the club a number of times, although in their pre-Brian Epstein days they often arrived to play with missing equipment or band members.
The All-Steel band also performed regularly at the Jacaranda coffee bar, which was owned by Allan Williams. Although Woodbine left the group, they continued to play at the venue, from where they were eventually spotted by a German sailor who recommended them to a Hamburg agent.
The Royal Caribbean Steel Band, as they became known, told Woodbine of the eye-opening opportunities for musicians in Hamburg. Woodbine and Williams paid a visit to the city’s notorious Reeperbahn, where they negotiated with promoters to bring over Liverpool groups. The first to arrive were Derry Wilkie and the Seniors, who played at Bruno Koschmider’s Kaiserkeller.
At the time The Beatles were occasional performers at Lord Woodbine’s New Cabaret Artists Club. There they accompanied a stripper, named either Janice or Shirley, from Manchester. She refused to perform her week-long booking without a live backing band.
Williams gave The Beatles the engagement, knowing they didn’t have daytime jobs and would be available to play. Although they resented being a stripper’s backing band, they played professionally.
We had a stream of drummers coming through. After about three of these guys, we ended up with almost a full kit of drums from the bits that they’d left behind, so Paul decided he’d be the drummer. He was quite good at it. At least he seemed OK; probably we were all pretty crap at that point. It only lasted for one gig, but I remember it very well. It was in Upper Parliament Street where a guy called Lord Woodbine owned a strip club. It was in the afternoon, with a few perverts (five or so men in overcoats) and a local stripper. We were brought on as the band to accompany the stripper; Paul on drums, John and me on guitar and Stu on bass.
Their professionalism impressed Woodbine and Williams, who had by that time become The Beatles’ first manager. So when Bruno Koschmider asked for another Liverpool group to travel to Hamburg, Woodbine went with them to Hamburg on 16 August 1960.
We probably met with the van outside Allan Williams’s club, the Jacaranda. There were the five of us and then Allan, his wife Beryl and Lord Woodbine.
It was cramped. The van didn’t even have seats; we had to sit on our amplifiers. We drove down to Harwich and got the boat to the Hook of Holland. Driving through Holland, I remember we stopped at Arnhem where all the people had parachuted out to their deaths (another little Winston Churchill trick). There were thousands of white crosses in the cemetery.
During the long journey they stopped at Arnhem in the Netherlands, where Woodbine, Williams, his wife Beryl, Stuart Sutcliffe, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best were photographed at the war memorial, possibly by John Lennon. They also spent time wandering around the city.
I had confidence in the band, even though they weren’t rated in Liverpool. It was mainly their personalities because most of the groups were a bit on the thick side, whereas they all had good educations; they were a bit posher and more articulate. So I thought, “No, I will take a chance”, and that’s when I drove them over to Hamburg. I took a wrong turning and we finished up in Arnhem in Holland. We had time to kill so we went round the town centre and into a music shop, and when we came out they were all laughing their heads off. I said: “What’s the joke, lads?”, and John pulled out a mouth organ – he’d stolen a bloody mouth organ! I thought, “Christ, we’re never even going to get to Hamburg, we’ll all be in jail.” The first time abroad and he had the audacity to rob a shop!
Although a great many people cashed in on their connections with The Beatles once fame struck, Lord Woodbine preferred to continue living largely anonymously in Toxteth, Liverpool.
He never took part in the numerous Beatles conventions or events, and resisted the urge to write his memoirs of time spent with the group. He was, however, portrayed in the 1994 film Backbeat by actor Charlie Caine.
Lord Woodbine died in a house fire in Toxteth, Liverpool on 5 July 2000, along with his wife Helen. He was 72. In his time he had worked as a lorry driver, railway engineer, builder, decorator, shopkeeper, television repairman, a barman, club owner, singer, songwriter and musical mentor.