Meet the man who taught the Beatles to sing
There was a young man from Trinidad who went to England on the celebrated Empire Windrush ship. He played steel pan and sang calypso. He helped build the creative counter-culture that put Liverpool 8 on the post-World War 2 art map. He was the first singer-songwriter the Beatles ever met. His name is rarely repeated though a legend in his own right. This is the story of the Black Beatle
Harold Adolphus Phillips was born on the 15 th of January 1929 in Laventille, Trinidad. Laventille today is one of the toughest communities on the island, but (as is always true), there will forever be jewels in the jungle and roses rising from the rough.
This Black Beatle was a true child of the Caribbean in the island of steel pan and carnival. His mother, Edna, came from the spice island of Grenada only 115 miles north, the closest nation to Trinidad. His father was a butcher, from the South American country of Venezuela. Harold was the fifth of seven children.
By the time the Second World War erupted, Phillips was ten years old experiencing wartime West Indies. Trinidad and Tobago (and indeed, other countries in the region) was strategically located in America’s ‘backyard’ and the people watched (some were displaced) as Allied troops and bases sprung up in the north-west of their country. Calypsonians at the time, recited songs about the war and its more taboo effects on Trinidadian society; most popular is Lord Invader’s 1943 ‘Rum and Coca-Cola’, a song about the increase in sex work to whet the appetite of American troops who hired the services of “mothers and daughters workin’ for de Yankee dolla”.
In that same year, Phillips lied about his age and signed up to the British Royal Air Force. He was 14 years old but evidently, quick-witted enough to fool recruitment officers by using his older brother’s passport to get World War 2 action. The ambitious youth wanted to get to Great Britain, expecting better opportunities, and he had found a way to do it. He left for England and was based at Burtonwood in Lancashire, but the nitty gritty of his wartime experiences seem to be unknown and one is left to wonder of the excitement and heartbreak that the young pioneer must have faced in a foreign land. The war ended in 1945 and Harold Phillips stayed in the UK for two more years before returning to his island home. Somewhere along the line here, the teenager started singing calypso.
Calypso has its origins in West African Kaiso music whose narrative form invokes the spirit of the griot or the tradition of orally recounting stories with song and music. The griot was an animate, travelling newspaper. Listen to any calypso song from that era and you are bound to learn something about the social or political context of when the calypsonian is singing from. Once back in Trinidad, Phillips stood on street corners in Laventille performing his social commentary through calypso verse. He became friends with other performers, including the ‘king of calypso’ Lord Kitchener who won the carnival competition of 1947. Kitchener put together a band of young, talented men that he called The Young Brigade and set out on a regional tour after the Trinidad carnival season. Lord Kitchener stopped in Aruba and Curacao before heading to Jamaica where the historical records of Phillips reappear. They were to have an influence on the music scene there, bringing calypso to the fore alongside the more popular local mento music. From Kingston, musicians Lord Woodbine, Lord Kitchener, Lord Beginner and Mona Baptiste boarded famed ship, the Empire Windrush and set sail towards ‘the motherland’.
On the 22 nd of June 1948, the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury near London with 492 official (mostly male) passengers and multiple unofficial male and female passengers. Under the British Nationality Act of 1948, citizens of British colonies had free movement to the ‘motherland’ and so, the arrival of this first ship heralded a shift in national consciousness for the UK as the population came to terms with more and more black immigrants claiming Britishness. The new arrivals to London were housed at a shelter in Clapham South and Harold Phillips stayed here before finding work as a machine operator in Shropshire. He gained his moniker when he rhymed through the names of popular cigarettes in one of his sharp freestyles, ‘Woodbine’ was a ciggy brand. The song was so good that his listeners called him Lord Woodbine and it stuck. Mere months after arriving in Great Britain, he formed a band dubbed Lord Woodbine and his Trinidadians who are hailed as one of the first (if not the first) calypso bands to tour Britain. Lord Woodbine met his British-Nigerian wife, Helen Agoro Phillips (known as Ena) at a talent show and the couple married on 19 November 1948. He then reconceptualised his band as The Cream of Trinidad with his wife, a jazz singer, as vocalist. Helen and Harold made a home in the Toxteth area of Liverpool, and had eight children – one boy and seven girls. The band performed together until 1952.
Lord Woodbine held down quite a few different jobs in Liverpool; he worked as a lorry driver, decorator, builder, clock mender, carpentry teacher, railway engineer – but there was still one constant that kept him busy in the evenings too – calypso. In 1955 he opened a drinking spot called The New Colony Club and formed the All Caribbean Steel Band which featured some of the best pan players at the time. Lord Woodbine himself played tenor pan. In 1958, the All Caribbean Steel Band snagged a nightly gig at the Jacaranda, owned by well-known Welsh entrepreneur Allan Williams. Phillips and Williams became close and they soon noticed two white teenagers hanging around the black music clubs – The Jac’, The Joker, New Colony etc. – the youths were often seen observing the blues and jazz musicians and steel bands. Phillips welcomedthem into the fold. With this action, the youths were invited into a musical world they were eager to encounter up close, so much so that they became known as “Woodbine’s boys”. The youths were John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Lord Woodbine was the first singer-songwriter the boys would meet and he became an early promoter of their band. Allan Williams would manage them. By 1960, Lord Woodbine left the All Caribbean Steel Band and put together the Rhythm Calypso Boys, a group that fused calypso with electric guitars. His knack for invention was endless. He and Allan Williams opened a strip joint called the New Cabaret Artists Club. Then going by the stage name The Silver Beetles, “Woody’s boys” played a gig backing a performer as she seduced on stage. When they willingly took to the task, Williams and Woodbine recognized that the boys were ready. Woodbine continued to work with the All Caribbean Steel Band, booking them in the different clubs around town. Renamed the Royal Caribbean Steel Band, they were poached by German promoters and found success across Europe. Lord Woodbine and Williams soon followed to Hamburg where they met promoter Bruno Koschmider who requested more British bands to feed the hungry German fans at his popular night spots. “Lord Woodbine’s boys” were about to catch a break. Phillips’ close connection to the band is further revealed by his next move. Then a four-piece set with no percussion, he encouraged the boys to audition a drummer – they didn’t think they needed one. With Stuart Sutcliffe on bass and John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison playing guitar, drummer Pete Best joined the group in August 1961, only a few days before the cross-continent excursion to play in Koschmider’s Indra club. The five Beatles, Lord Woodbine, manager Allan Williams, his wife Beryl and her brother Barry, plus translator Georg Sterner piled into a beat-up Volkswagen and drove to Germany. Let us not forget that it was Lord Woodbine’s insistence that birthed the drum set that has become a part of their music’s incredible legacy. He hired the van, drove them there and was the opening act for The Beatles’ first Hamburg show.In Beatles history, Hamburg is where the band honed their skills as excellent performers and perfected a tight musical set. These years were necessary and needed and instigated by the Trinidadian Lord Woodbine. These facts must not be forgotten, because all of us need to be reminded sometimes that we can make magic by multiplying our passions. The Beatles were a ground-breaking group who no doubt changed the landscape of music with their immense talent and personalities. The promotion machine behind the band was also noteworthy; happening in the early days of big consumerism, Beatlemania has been well-documented and marketed. Yet Lord Woodbine and the fact of “Woodbine’s Boys” has been grossly left out of the narrative. So have all the other great musicians from Liverpool’s teeming Black arts scene who evidently broke bread with and even mentored the Beatles. The teenagers shadowed many of the musicians in Liverpool, not only Lord Woodbine; Somali-Irish rhythm guitarist Vinnie Tow (later Vinnie Ismail), jazz guitarist Odie Taylor, steel pannists James ‘Jimmy’ Taylor and Gerry Gobin… the list seriously goes on. In fact, one of the few times the Beatles went against manager Brian Epstein was to back Liverpool vocal band The Chants on stage in 1962 after being told not to do so! Let us not forget that societal boundaries were being crossed then, and with more command of the means of making art and media, we can keep the tradition and continue to break through oppressive glass ceilings. We have always contributed to art and culture, and science and philosophy; the difference today is that we refuse to have our names left out of the history books.
After the Beatles
Back in England, Lord Woodbine began managing another of Williams’ clubs called The Blue Angel in 1961. He would lose contact with the Beatles soon after they fell out with Allan Williams for accepting a trip back to Hamburg without his knowledge. They signed instead with Brian Epstein in 1962, and Epstein (one of almost a dozen men called the “fifth Beatle”) managed the group to superstardom. In July 1965, Lord Woodbine led the Royal Caribbean Steel Band on the nationally broadcast ITV show Opportunity Knocks. His contribution and portfolio expand even further into the arts. Lord Woodbine is stamped onto Liverpool’s physical environment. In 1969 he sat for Liverpool artist Arthur Dooley as the model for The Resurrection of Christ sculpture found at the Princes Park Methodist church in Toxteth. Woodbine played the Liverpool scene until the 1980’s and is noted to have never tried to cash in on his association with the Beatles. Likewise, the Beatles machine has hardly tried to exalt Lord Woodbine. In fact, it might have pointedly tried to avoid it. In 1992, Lord Woodbine accepted an invitation to see Imagine, a play about The Beatles at the Liverpool Playhouse. Lord Woodbine arrived that evening to see the backdrop, taken from a picture of him and the other passengers of that cramped Volkswagen in 1960 at the Arnhem Memorial in the Netherlands (on their way toHamburg). But Lord Woodbine was airbrushed out of the photo. How utterly disrespectful and demeaning, but Woodbine stayed through the play. Actor Charlie Caine played Lord Woodbine in 1994 film Backbeat and he has featured as erroneously having only a ‘walk-on role’ in the Beatles’ evolution in documentaries and books on the band. Journalists didn’t take much interest in Liverpool’s black music influence on the Beatles until Lord Woodbine returned to Trinidad in 1998 at the 50 th anniversary of the Empire Windrush sailing to England. A documentary of his life was recorded for the BBC and a newspaper article published in The Observer. Lord Woodbine ran a second-hand shop and taught carpentry up until the 1990’s. He and his wife Helen unfortunately, died in a house fire at their home in Liverpool in 2000. He was 72 years old. There are no known recordings of Lord Woodbine’s music and this makes it even harder to assert his important position in modern music. Yet the evidence is clear; he was a transnational Caribbean pioneer and his name should be added to our book of heroes.
Words by Zakiya McKenzie