Thursday 18 January 2018

Obituary: Allan Williams

Coffee-bar owner who introduced The Beatles to Hamburg, then 'sacked' them and waved goodbye to a fortune

YESTERDAY: Picture taken by John Lennon at the Arnhem War Memorial in Holland in 1960. From the left: Allan Williams, his wife Beryl, his business partner and Calypso singer Lord Woodbine, and Beatles Stuart Sutcliffe, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best
YESTERDAY: Picture taken by John Lennon at the Arnhem War Memorial in Holland in 1960. From the left: Allan Williams, his wife Beryl, his business partner and Calypso singer Lord Woodbine, and Beatles Stuart Sutcliffe, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best

Allan Williams, who has died aged 86, was popularly proclaimed "The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away" but some identified him as pop music's most spectacular loser, the small-time coffee bar owner and self-confessed "bloody fool" from Liverpool who let a fortune slip through his fingers.

Although he promoted The Beatles and acted as their first booking agent, Williams never formally managed the group. It was true that in 1960 he drove the fledgling band to Hamburg and a seedy nightclub called the Indra that proved a forcing-house on their road to stardom. But his relationship with them was always indeterminate and never enshrined by the law of contract.

With his sleek Jaguar car, shock of curly hair and piratical black beard, Williams liked to pass as a hustler from Denmark Street, London's Tin Pan Alley. A plumber by trade if not by training, his early efforts to establish himself as a wheeler-dealer had reaped rewards, suggesting something of a Midas touch. But for all his stocky pugnacity and colourful panache, Williams was no hard-nosed manager. Lacking polish or refinement, he was, as one observer of the Merseybeat scene put it, better suited to running "slightly shady clubs" back home on Merseyside.

During hitch-hiking tours of Europe with his young Chinese wife, Williams had admired the cellar clubs they visited in Paris, as well as the raffish 2i's club and coffee bar in Soho, epicentre of the emerging London skiffle scene. In 1958, in an attempt to replicate such a club in Liverpool, the couple converted an old clock repairer's building at 23 Slater Street near the city centre into a coffee bar at a cost of £300.

Their club, the Jacaranda, was an instant success. Students from the Liverpool College of Art gravitated to it because one of the tutors, Don McKinlay, had decorated the walls with original paintings. One such student, John Lennon, a scruffy youth then playing in a group called the Silver Beetles with his friends Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Stuart Sutcliffe, became a regular customer.

Even though Williams regarded Lennon as little more than "a bum", he booked the band to play at the "Jac" and in May 1960 got them several gigs in Scotland as the backing group for a singer called Johnny Gentle.

That August, he was able to secure them a booking in Hamburg, and with Williams at the wheel of a battered Commer van, the group (now augmented by a drummer, Pete Best) drove to Germany for the first time. On his return to Liverpool he set to work on plans to open a luxurious nightclub, the Blue Angel, as well as a rock and roll club to be called the Top Ten. But after falling out with the band the following year over their refusal to pay his 10pc commission, Williams severed his ties with them - sacked them, in his words - and had no further business dealings with the group.

In 1962, before Brian Epstein became The Beatles' manager, he contacted Williams to check there were no outstanding contractual ties. Assuring Epstein that there were none, Williams added a forthright piece of advice: "Don't touch them with a f****** bargepole," he told Epstein, "they will let you down."

Williams never recovered from his split with what would become the world's most famous band. In the 1970s, he helped stage the first Beatles conventions in Liverpool, and for many years was a familiar figure in the pubs around Mathew Street, site of the original Cavern Club and a place of pilgrimage for Beatles fans from all over the world.

With what one biographer described as his "devil-may-care" manner, "a picareseque rascal... on the slippery side of mercurial", Williams continued to appear at Beatles conventions as far afield as Singapore and South America, rheumy-eyed and living on his wits as a full-time purveyor of Beatles lore and legend.

The son of a council building inspector of Welsh ancestry, Allan Richard Williams was born in Bootle, a dockland suburb of Liverpool, on March 17, 1930. As he noted in his memoir, his formal education amounted to very little, and on leaving school he drifted in and out of plumbing.

In the evenings he became a familiar figure in the rough and ready pubs of Toxteth, Liverpool, where he would entertain drinkers with tenor renditions of Welsh hymns and sentimental pre-war ballads. By day he scrabbled to find work as a door-to-door salesman, and at one point moved to London, and a poky cellar in Bayswater where he joined "half-a-dozen half-starved Indians" making artificial jewellery.

Having diversified into running his Jacaranda venture in 1958, Williams encouraged local beat groups to practice and play in the basement. One of them, Gerry and the Pacemakers, made it on to the bill at a sell-out rock and roll concert at the Liverpool Stadium staged by the young London impresario Larry Parnes, who suggested that Williams represent the growing slew of Merseyside bands and develop his own northern talent stable.

Driving between Chester and Liverpool, he picked up a young German hitch-hiker who invited Williams to visit Hamburg, a bustling German port with a thriving red-light district. On arrival, Williams ventured into a garish club on the Reeperbahn called the Kaiserkeller and got chatting to the manager, Bruno Koschmider, about the possibility of his booking Liverpool bands to play there.

The first to do so was a group Williams managed called Derry and the Seniors, followed in August 1960 by The Beatles (as they had rebranded themselves) who played at another, shabbier, club run by Koschmider on the Grosse Freiheit (the Indra). After a faltering start, The Beatles' all-night sessions were soon packing in the crowds.

When The Beatles visited a nearby glitzier venue called the Top Ten, they jammed with a British singer called Tony Sheridan, incurring the displeasure of Bruno Koschmider, who terminated their Indra contract and tipped off the German police that George Harrison was under age and held no work permit. Deported back to Liverpool, the band discovered that Williams had set up his Liverpool version of the Top Ten club, only for it to mysteriously burn down six days after opening. To add to Williams's woes, Koschmider had witheld his 10pc commission, The Beatles having insisted that it was their drummer, Pete Best, not Williams, who had secured them their booking in Hamburg. Shortly thereafter, Williams and the Beatles parted company, the group insisting that he had never formally served as their manager in any case.

At the time, Williams called the band "thieves" and "a right load of layabouts", but years later they spoke warmly of one another, with McCartney describing Williams as "a great guy". His fortunes continued to fare badly, and by the early 1970s he was stripping furnishings from derelict churches and selling off their stained-glass windows, floor tiles and pews.

In 1975 he published a memoir, The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away, an amusing but unreliable account of his links to the group, to which Lennon gave his endorsement. Williams complained of night-time torments when "my teeth make a gritty noise in my skull and the sweat starts to pop out of my brow as I think of how I let the band and a million quid slip through my fingers".

Allan Williams married, in 1955, Beryl Chang, with whom he had two children. He also had a tempestuous long-term relationship with Beryl Adams, Brian Epstein's secretary, until her death in 2003. He died on December 30.


Sunday Independent

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment