Born on 3 August 1939, Jimmie Nicol was a temporary member of The Beatles during their 1964 tour of Europe, Hong Kong and Australia.
In June 1964, the world tour began. We went to Scandinavia, Holland, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. Ringo missed part of the tour because he was in hospital with tonsillitis. We couldn’t cancel, so the idea was to get a stand-in. We got Jimmie Nicol, a session drummer from London. He played well – obviously not the same as Ringo, but he covered well.
It wasn’t an easy thing for Jimmie 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: ‘I was the guy who stood in for Ringo!’ But he did great and Ringo joined us out in Australia when he had recovered.
Nicol was 24 years old when a call came out of the blue asking him to be Ringo Starr’s temporary stand-in. Starr had developed tonsilitis and pharyngitis during a photo session on the morning of 3 June 1964. The following day The Beatles were due to start a world tour, and it was too late to cancel.
George Martin suggested Jimmie Nicol, who he had recently recorded during a session for Tommy Quickly. Nicol had also played the drums on an album of Beatles covers called Beatlemania, and therefore knew how to play the songs.
They nearly didn’t do the Australia tour. George [Harrison] is a very loyal person, and he said, ‘If Ringo’s not part of the group, it’s not The Beatles. I don’t see why we should do it, and I’m not going to.’ It took all of Brian’s and my persuasion to tell George that if he didn’t do it he was letting everybody down.
Jimmie Nicol was a very good drummer, who came along and learnt Ringo’s parts well. Obviously, he had to rehearse with the guys. They came and worked through all the songs at Abbey Road so he got to know them. He did the job excellently, and faded into obscurity immediately afterwards.
On 3 June 1964 George Martin called Nicol, on the order of Brian Epstein, inviting him to become a temporary Beatle. At the time he was at his home in Barnes, west London.
Nicol’s first rehearsal with The Beatles was at 3pm that day at Abbey Road, and lasted just one hour. It wasn’t captured on tape, but studio records show that they performed six songs from The Beatles’ current stage routine: ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, ‘She Loves You’, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, ‘This Boy’, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ and ‘Long Tall Sally’.
It was very strange, them going off without me. They’d taken Jimmie Nicol and I thought they didn’t love me any more – all that stuff went through my head.
Nicol played 10 concerts with The Beatles, plus a TV appearance during which the group mimed to their songs. He wore Ringo Starr’s suit on stage, with strategically-placed clothes pegs used to make his jacket fit.
The first performance took place on the evening after he was recruited, at KB Hallen in Copenhagen, Denmark on 4 June 1964. The next day the group arrived in the Netherlands, where The Beatles held a press conference at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, before recording a performance for VARA-TV.
On 6 June they performed two shows in Blokker, the Netherlands. Both shows were filmed by local news cameramen. The next day the group flew back to London, where they caught a connecting flight to Hong Kong. There, on 9 June, they played twice at the Princess Theatre in Kowloon.
The final stop for Jimmie Nicol was in Australia. On 11 June the group arrived in Sydney. The next day they flew on to Adelaide, where they played four shows over two days. One of the performances was recorded for Australian radio, and was broadcast on 15 June.
Ringo re-joined the group on 14 June in Melbourne, and Jimmie Nicol returned to Britain. The other Beatles were asleep as he left, so he was unable to say goodbye. Brian Epstein gave him a cheque, and a wristwatch inscribed with the words: “From The Beatles and Brian Epstein to Jimmy – with appreciation and gratitude.”
The boys were very kind but I felt like an intruder. They accepted me but you can’t just go into a group like that – they have their own atmosphere, their own sense of humour. It’s a little clique and outsiders just can’t break in.
Nicol met The Beatles once again on 12 July 1964, when his band The Shubdubs were on the same bill as the group at the Hippodrome Theatre in Brighton. The Shubdubs released two singles after Nicol’s time as a Beatle, although neither was a success.
He was made bankrupt in 1965. He continued to perform music, and in later years he ran a button factory in Mexico, worked as a house renovator, and as a carpenter.
Nicol had one other effect on The Beatles’ story. As documented by Hunter Davies in his 1968 biography of the group, the phrase “It’s getting better” was a particular favourite of Nicol’s, used as a stock answer whenever he was asked how the tour was going. Davies was present one afternoon in 1967 when McCartney took his dog to London’s Primrose Hill.
Martha ran around and the sun came out. Paul thought it really was spring at last. ‘It’s getting better.’ he said to himself.
He meant the weather, but the phrase made him smile because it was one of Jimmy Nicol’s phrases, one which they used to mock all the time in Australia.
McCartney suggested to Lennon that they record a song with the title, and the pair worked on it together before taking it to the studio. ‘Getting Better’ appeared on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in June 1967.
On 12 January 1969, while The Beatles recorded and filmed the Let It Be sessions at Twickenham Film Studios, a discussion took place about possibilities for a live show. McCartney was recorded as saying: “I think you’ll find we’re not going abroad, ’cause Ringo just said he doesn’t want to go abroad. You know, he put his foot down. Although Jimmie Nicol might go abroad.”
A 2005 article in the Daily Mail newspaper revealed that Nicol was living a reclusive existence in London.