The first song the broader world heard from the Beatles wasn’t one of the pop-music gems that seemed to flow so effortlessly from the pens of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, nor was it any of their versions of American R&B and blues songs that were a crucial component of their early repertoire.
It was a Scottish folk song, “My Bonnie,” a recording made in 1961 — two years before Beatlemania erupted. On that record, Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr’s predecessor in the group, drummer Pete Best, backed another British rocker, Tony Sheridan.
Sheridan, 72, died Saturday in Hamburg, Germany, according to an announcement from his family on Facebook.
Sheridan met the Beatles in 1960 in Germany when he was headlining clubs in the grittier parts of Hamburg at the same time the Beatles were honing their musical skills playing red-light district bars and clubs there. Soon he enlisted them as his backup band.
Upon seeing one of their performances, German producer Bert Kaempfert, who’d had his own No. 1 hit in the U.S. in 1960 with “Wonderland By Night,” offered Sheridan the opportunity to record and to bring the Beatles in to play with him.
Those recordings were the group’s first commercially released studio recordings, and included “My Bonnie,” a rocked-up treatment of a song usually played as a waltz. It became a minor hit when re-released in the U.S. after the group’s popularity exploded stateside.
Sheridan, according to later interviews, didn’t even like the song but it was a canny choice by Kaempfert, who chose it with a German audience in mind, knowing that many German youths had learned “My Bonnie” in school during English studies.
Because the name “Beatles” sounded dangerously close to a German euphemism for male genitalia, Kaempfert changed their name to “the Beat Brothers” for the sessions with Sheridan, which also yielded one song with Lennon singing the lead vocal on the 1920s pop love song, “Ain’t She Sweet,” and one instrumental credited to Lennon and Harrison, “Cry for a Shadow.”
“My Bonnie” was issued in the U.S. on April 19, 1962, making it the first recording featuring the members of the Beatles issued in this country, but it caused little stir. A week after the Beatles’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February 1964, however, “My Bonnie” was reissued and jumped onto the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at No. 26. “Ain’t She Sweet” broke into the Top 20 a few months later, reaching as high as No. 19.
Sheridan also helped introduce the Beatles to the music of seminal American rockers such as Little Richard, who strongly influenced the direction of their own music. Even though he was only five months older than Lennon, Sheridan functioned as an older, wiser mentor — McCartney sometimes referred to him as “The Teacher” — because he’d gotten his career off the ground a little earlier, having formed a skiffle group in London in 1956, the year before McCartney met Lennon in Liverpool.
“Tony was a good guy who we knew and worked with from the early days in Hamburg,” Paul McCartney said in a statement issued Monday. “We regularly watched his late night performances and admired his style. He will be missed.”
Tony Sheridan, who was born Anthony Esmond Sheridan McGinnity on May 21, 1940, in Norwich, England, also gave the Beatles fashion advice, coaching them on the black leather jackets, tight black jeans and pointed-toe boots that were a strong part of their public image until manager Brian Epstein came aboard and shifted them into clean-cut collarless suits that helped get them onto British TV and became synonymous with Beatlemania in the early going.
Sheridan made an appearance last year at a Beatles fan convention in San Diego, then returned to Germany where he recently underwent heart surgery.