The debate over the Beatles’ dismissal of pre-Ringo Starr drummer Pete Best over 50 years ago on Aug. 16, 1962, calmed down some after the publication of Mark Lewisohn’s “The Beatles: All These Years: Volume 1: Tune In,” which gave what is being accepted as the definitive version that he wasn’t as good a drummer as his replacement and just didn’t fit in with the rest of the band. But other authors are still continuing to weigh in, most recently with the announcement of Liverpudlian David Bedford’s forthcoming book that also will look into it.
But another Liverpool author, longtime Beatles journalist and BBC show host Spencer Leigh, added his part to the debate earlier this year with his research published in “Best of the Beatles: The Sacking of Pete Best.” The book isn’t his first attempt at looking at the issue, but it is the most up-to-date because it does reference Lewisohn’s most recent work. Where Leigh’s book is valuable is the quotes from many of those who witnessed the events and had things to say from both sides of the issue.
One of the most interesting quotes supporting the dismissal comes from a surprising source – Jimmy Nicol, who replaced Ringo Starr for a brief time when he was ill and later found himself on the outside of the group. “Best was like a cry-baby. He didn’t want to cut his hair like the rest of the group and resented Brian telling him he had to,” the drummer was quoted by Drumming magazine in 1986. “He soon found out that Brian carried more weight in the Beatles than he believed.”
But Best also has his fans who supported him. Ray Ennis of the Swinging Blue Jeans said, “If George Martin had seen a live performance, he’d have discovered that Pete was the star. When he came to the front to sing – and he couldn’t sing very well – they would scream at him. They used to tell the other Beatles to sit down so they could see Pete at the back.”
Cynthia Lennon defended Pete’s musical talents, but admitted he was an outsider. “As far as I knew, there was nothing wrong with Pete as a musician in any way,” Leigh quotes her. “He was a very nice fellow, but I think overall, as far as I could see it from my position, their personalities were not in tune with Pete’s.”
Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers, in his autobiography “I’ll Never Walk Alone,” agreed that Best was maybe too popular. “Musically, perhaps, Ringo was slightly better than Pete Best. But the change wasn’t necessary for that reason, in my opinion. I was pretty sure it was a political firing which sprang from Pete being too handsome.”
Jimmy Tushingham, who took Ringo’s place in Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, was probably the most blunt. “Pete Best was a good drummer and I reckon he got pushed out of the Beatles because he was a good looking guy,” Leigh quotes him.
Of course, you can push up quotes forever and it won’t change history. Leigh examines the issue from every angle and concludes in a chart that it was Paul McCartney who was the strongest proponent to make the change. But the book also does a good job of providing an assortment of opinions from those who were there and keeping the question open. And certainly, the debate will, in some circles, go on and on.