Gerry keeps up the pace
RACHEL BANHAM The irrepressible Gerry Marsden is renowned for his Liverpool warmth and humour – and some pretty good tunes as well. Even a triple heart bypass couldn’t stop him treading the boards, and he tells Rachel Banham why he can’t wait to get back on stage in Norfolk.
His band made history when their first three records went to number one. They were the second group signed by Brian Epstein, after The Beatles, and helped define Merseybeat in the 1960s, yet still they remain popular.
Gerry and the Pacemakers' version of You'll Never Walk Alone is arguably better known than the original song from the film Carousel. And the atmospheric Ferry 'Cross the Mersey remains as evocative as when it was first released – it's still played today as the ships make their way across the world-famous river in Liverpool.
After four decades in the business there have been numerous changes in his Pacemakers line-up – yet Gerry Marsden has lost none of his enthusiasm for entertaining. He's also well versed in speaking to the media – and it shows.
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Within the first few minutes of our chat he has extolled the virtues of Norwich and the Theatre Royal, given the date of his forthcoming show here and listed all the other bands on the bill with him. “We always do Norwich on our tours because we love it. The people are great and we always have a ball there,” he says, in a Scouse accent that remains refreshingly thick after all these years.
“The nice thing is that they all come in and sing the songs – and that's what it's all about. We want them to leave happy and most of the time they do.”
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Gerry estimates he and the other bands must have about 50 hit songs between them – attracting a wide audience at the shows.
“We have kids from 10 to kids of 110,” he continues. “The people who bought our records are now grandparents so they come and see us again with their kids – and their kids come too.
“They've heard the '60s music and they want see the bands that actually did it. When we speak to them after show, signing autographs and things, I say to the kids 'were you dragged here tonight?' and they say 'no, we've heard the records and we wanted to see the ones who recorded it.' And they love it – so that's a bonus.”
Though he's barely been away from the stage since the early days, Gerry and the Pacemakers' finest hour was arguably 1963. That was the year that they had their three consecutive number ones – How Do You Do It?, I Like It and You'll Never Walk Alone.
They began as a skiffle band called The Mars Bars which Gerry formed in the late 1950s. By the time they were signed by manager Brian Epstein in 1962, they had changed their name to Gerry and the Pacemakers and included Gerry's brother, Fred, on drums.
During their early years they toured the same Liverpool/Hamburg circuit as the Fab Four, and even matched them in terms of local popularity. There were other connections too. How Do You Do It? was a Mitch Murray composition which, it has been said, George Martin had wanted The Beatles to record first. Murray also wrote I Like It, yet it was Gerry Marsden who penned much of his band's other material, including the beautiful Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin' and Ferry 'Cross the Mersey, which was also the title of the band's film. Yet all these songs, like their singer, never seem to age, and have lost little of their appeal over the years.
“They are very simple songs. It's very commercial music,” Gerry explains. “People in the '60s remember the days when they bought them and the kids of today remember them when they hear them – so they can sing along.”
After Gerry and the Pacemakers disbanded around 1966-67, their frontman became a popular cabaret artist and children's entertainer for a while.
He also sung on the British chart-topping revival of You'll Never Walk Alone by The Crowd in aid of the Bradford Disaster Appeal in 1985.
Yet it's his more recent work performing his classic hits with the new Pacemakers for which he is arguably best known. The singer has been a regular visitor to Norfolk throughout his career, and affectionately refers to the Pacemakers as “my band of merry men”.
In recent times he's also performed Ferry 'Cross The Mersey In Concert – a show depicting his life from when he was 17 to 22 years old. In 1996, it sold out four weeks at the Liverpool Playhouse, enjoyed a packed-out summer in London's West End and finished with a sell-out week at the Liverpool Empire.
A new touring version of the production was created the following year and he brought that show to East Anglia.
Gerry's life has been all about performing. Yet even he had to slow down for a while after undergoing a heart bypass in September 2003.
“It was 40 years of abuse – the whisky, the drinks, the fish and chips, the cream pies...” he muses. Like almost everything Gerry says, the comment is undercut by humour – and you can almost see the twinkle in his eye down the phone.
“I had to go and get some new pipes. The heart was fine, the heart was brilliant, but the tubes were blocked,” he continues.
“I was just getting short of breath playing football with my grandson. I thought 'this is weird.' I went to see the doctor, and then a specialist, and I had an angiogram.”
Gerry's wife, Pauline, and daughters, Yvette and Vicky, were at his side throughout his operation and recovery. He had three 'pipes' replaced in all, but confirms he was back on the road some nine months later and back touring last July.
“I did what I was told by the doctor which I had to do. I'm feeling brilliant now,” he says seriously before joking: “I was born obese so I can't change that, but I feel great.”
This Solid Silver Sixties tour lasts until June. Gerry then plans to spend a couple of weeks at his home in Spain, before touring the USA in August and September. Another Gerry 'Cross the Mersey tour follows in October/November and he plans a tour with Peter Noone (of Herman's Hermits fame) next year.
Each show will have the audience at its heart – but the band do their best to make them all slightly different.
“We try and change it as often as we can and we do gags, too, because we like to give the public different things when they come to see the show. They want to hear the hit records so we have to play them but we also do as many different bits as we can,” Gerry says.
“I'm still a rock 'n' roller – Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry... I still play them in my car when I'm driving round and I still get that lovely buzz from rock 'n' roll. I think it's great music.”
Gerry played across Australia last summer with another '60s name – PJ Proby – and it's clear that life on the road still suits him.
He describes the UK tour of Gerry 'Cross the Mersey that followed as “great fun”. A tour he did across the States and Canada with the Pacemakers was “absolutely brilliant”.
Then it was back to the UK for a fortnight's break before heading off to Hong Kong and into China, returning on December 16 last year.
“There's no rest for the wicked,” Gerry says.
“I want to get back on the road now. I love touring, I love entertaining and if I'm away too long I get a bit bored!
“That's what my life has all been about – entertaining. I'll do it until the day I drop dead, which will be in another 30 years time which will make me about 47!”
It all means he'll have plenty to update in his biography I'll Never Walk Alone. The original book was published about 10 years ago. “They want me to do a new one so, when I get time, I shall do that. But it takes time to get it together and make it readable. The other one has sold out,” Gerry says, before adding there may be some new songs in the pipeline, too.
“I'm always writing all the time. We're hoping to get a new CD out but it's getting the time to do it.”
What leisure time the singer does have – though it sounds there's little of it – is taken up by playing golf, fishing, jet-skiing and relaxing at home with his family – he has a six-year-old grandson, Thomas. “I live just outside Chester now – 29½ minutes from Anfield football ground,” he says, adding that he continues to support his team from those hallowed terraces whenever he's able.
I wonder whether Gerry knew he was onto something special in the 1960s. After all, it's a decade that retains a great magic to those of us who didn't live through it and is often spoken about fondly by those that did. Did he expect to be singing his songs 40 years on?
“Not at all. We just did it for fun,” he says.
“We didn't know the records would be remembered or even liked. But it's great – I still enjoy it.”
Somehow Gerry doesn't even need to say that. The tone of his eternally chipper voice is proof enough. t
t Gerry and the Pacemakers play Norwich Theatre Royal on Sunday May 1, at 4.30pm and 8pm. Tickets are £4 to £20. Call the box office on 01603 630000; www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk
t Official website: www.gerrymarsden.co.uk