Gerry Marsden (1942-2021)

Yerror-riyt, La.

You have to say that in a thick scouse accent to get the full sense of its meaning. The Cockney equivalent might be “Diamond Geezer,” but scousers wouldn’t make it sound as glamorous as that. Something as simple as You’re alright, lad is the highest accolade a Liverpudlian is most likely to give, or receive. If you want to be particularly appreciative you might say Boss rather than La.

Gerry was Boss. He was always more than just the front man of Gerry and The Pacemakers. Remember them? The second band to come out of Liverpool in the 1960s? (The Searchers were probably the third, but you can argue the respective positions of the others among yourselves.)

The Beatles were better, sure. John Lennon and Gerry Marsden were mates from their old skiffle group days (and both were too proud to ever consider playing in each others bands) but The Beatles drifted away from Liverpool to become part of the “swinging London” scene, with its discos, the boutiques, the galleries, the parties, the night clubs. Gerry spent time in London too, making records, appearing on TV, being interviewed in the press, but he stayed a scouser. It didn’t do him any harm and Gerry’s first three singles went straight to number one in the charts; their third hit was his version of You’ll Never Walk Alone (or YNWA) which became the anthem of Liverpool Football Club and it’s still played before every game. That’s immortality in itself.

The beat groups in Liverpool in the early 1960s weren’t into football in a big way because soccer wasn’t a mega-sport then. England hadn’t won the World Cup and footballers didn’t earn more than £20 a week. In Liverpool a lot of us were bi-curious in our football allegiances; families were a blue and red mix, would go to the derby matches together, and stand side by side on the terraces. Everton had heritage – they were “the school of science”; Liverpool were the poor relatives and very often were a division below Everton in the 1940s and 50s. The only zealots who saw everything in strict “us vs them” terms were nutters like Bill Shankly – and we loved him for it. Bill probably changed football history. The rivalry between Liverpool and Everton football clubs was only just starting to move the balance of accumulated honours away from Everton and towards Liverpool. I can’t say with any certainty that Gerry had always been a Liverpool supporter, but it didn’t matter because he could relate to everyone, and Everton had grabbed that other Liverpool anthem – The Z Cars theme tune – as their stadium favourite.

In those days there wasn’t much in the way of public entertainment on a Sunday night because the cinemas and theatres would be closed, so there were odd times I spent a Sunday evening talking to him in The Hillfoot Hotel in Hunts Cross; it wasn’t his local pub, but Pauline – his fiancee – lived nearby, and The Hillfoot was quite a nice pub. He’d always give you his autograph on a beermat. too

By the late 60s we’d stopped buying those Merseybeat singles and were getting into bands like Traffic, Pentangle, John Mayall and Hendrix; Gerry packed it in with The Pacemakers and went into musical theatre, cabaret, one man shows, and became more of an entertainer. He started to sing the old hits again on nostalgia tours, and in 1985 he released a new version of You’ll Never Walk Alone to raise funds after the Bradford City stadium fire in which 56 people died. In 1989 he recorded another version of Ferry Cross The Mersey with other artists to raise funds after Hillsborough disaster when 96 Liverpool supporters died; only last year another version of You’ll Never Walk Alone was released to support of NHS workers during the current Covid-19 pandemic. For his services to charity, Gerry was awarded an MBE in 2003, freedom of The City of Liverpool in 2009, and an honorary fellowship at Liverpool John Moores University in 2010.

Was there a musical legacy? Like many of the beat musicians in Liverpool in the early 1960s he loved to cover the classics, the standards. You could judge bands on the basis of how well, or not, they could play What’d I Say, or Some Other Guy, or Brown-Eyed Handsome Man, or Long Tall Sally. Even The Fabs started off by playing covers, and their first two or three albums include some great ones, before they established their reputation by writing their own material. Gerry’s preferred material was Jambalaya or Besame Mucho, and was no John-Paul-George, but he wrote Ferry Cross The Mersey (and most of the songs in that film), and Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying, and both are worthy inclusions in any Merseybeat medley. Listening to some of those early recordings today you can’t help but notice how bad some of the guitar picking is: all those musicians became more proficient after they were no longer famous.

One of my favourite acoustic instrumentals is Pat Metheny’s Ferry Cross The Mersey from his One Quiet Night album – performed hers with 60s images of those ferries.

Anyway, Gerry Marsden died on Sunday. At least it wasn’t Covid-related, but he succumbed to complications deriving from a heart condition. It was in his local hospital on The Wirral, a posh part of Merseyside just a short ferry ride away from Liverpool city centre. Thanks mate – sorry I never got you that pint I’ve owed you for the past 55 years.

Photo of Gerry with Jurgen Klopp by Paul Baker from The Liverpool Echo, 3 January, 2021

Photo of Gerry aged 15 in The Red Mountain Skiffle Group at The Florence Institute in 1957 from There Are Places I Remember blog by Mark Ashworth