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Gerry Marsden, British rocker who led the Pacemakers, dies at 78

In this Dec. 12, 2003 file photo, Gerry Marsden holds his MBE. Marsden, the lead singer of Gerry and the Pacemakers, has died at age 78.

MATTHEW FEARN/PA VIA AP, FILE

By PHIL DAVISON | Special To The Washington Post | Published: January 5, 2021

Gerry and the Pacemakers were the Beatles' greatest early rivals during the "Merseybeat" music phenomenon that sprang from the city of Liverpool, on the banks of the river Mersey, in the early 1960s.

Led by Gerry Marsden, the band followed a similar trajectory to the Beatles, starting off playing lunchtime gigs in a damp, smelly Liverpool cellar club called the Cavern, honing their skills by rocking in Hamburg, West Germany, and sharing the same manager, Brian Epstein, and producer, George Martin.

The band was quick to follow the "Fab Four" as part of the "British invasion" of the United States, spearheaded by the Beatles when they first played to screaming fans at the Washington Coliseum on Feb. 11, 1964. Gerry and the Pacemakers reinforced the "invasion" in October the same year, performing at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in Los Angeles in a star-spangled bill including the Beach Boys, Bo Diddley, James Brown and some new kids on the block from London calling themselves the Rolling Stones.

Marsden, 78, died Jan. 3 of heart problems in a hospital near Liverpool, according to his best friend, radio presenter Pete Price. The bandleader had triple heart bypass surgery in 2003 and a second heart operation in 2016 when, he said, he'd been given a heart pacemaker but did not find the irony at all funny.

Gerry and the Pacemakers outdid the Beatles in one aspect: Their first three singles reached No. 1 in the U.K. in the early '60s — "How Do You Do It?" "I Like It" and what became Marsden's signature song, "You'll Never Walk Alone." (The Beatles reached No. 1 with their third single, "From Me to You.")

The next musicians to top the charts with their first three singles were Frankie Goes to Hollywood, also Liverpudlians, whose first big 1984 hit, "Relax," had a Gerry Marsden song, "Ferry Cross the Mersey," as its B-side.

After their first two jaunty pop hits, Marsden's bandmates were shocked when their leader chose as their third single "You'll Never Walk Alone," a tear-jerking but inspirational ballad written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein for the musical "Carousel." The Pacemakers's rendition of the song became an anthem to many around the world, notably to fans of Liverpool Football Club and later Glasgow Celtic in Scotland.

At Liverpool's stadium, Anfield, loudspeakers would blast out Marsden's version before matches, during halftime and after the final whistle. In between, the fans would belt it out themselves, drowning out opposition supporters. Even when their team was losing, they never stopped singing, "Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart."

The original Gerry and the Pacemakers had three years of hits during the 1960s, the last being a cover of Bobby Darin's "I'll Be There" in 1965. By then, the Beatles had raised the cultural bar, starting with their album "Rubber Soul" before moving on to psychedelic music, as in "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," and becoming spiritual acolytes of the bearded Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

But as British music writer and author Spencer Leigh wrote in the Independent newspaper: "The psychedelia of 1966 held no interest for Gerry, and he was far too down to earth to follow The Beatles to Bangor to see the Maharishi."

Instead, Marsden continued to tour with new lineups of the band for another half-century until he retired in 2018. In 1973, a new formation of the Pacemakers played to 13,000 people in New York's Madison Square Garden, joining with fellow Brit groups the Searchers, Herman's Hermits, and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders to open for Billy Joel.

Gerard Marsden was born Sept. 24, 1942, in the poor inner-city area of Toxteth, Liverpool, which, as a shipyard town, had been badly blitzed by Luftwaffe bombers over the previous two years. As a baby, he was rushed to underground shelters after air raid warnings. His father was a railway worker who taught Gerry to play ukulele.

He had switched from ukulele to guitar by 14, just as skiffle music — a mixture of folk, blues, jazz and American country — was sweeping the United Kingdom, led by the Scottish-born "King of Skiffle" Lonnie Donegan. Like future Beatles John Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney, Marsden first formed a skiffle group, with a washboard serving as rhythm and his brother using a tin of Quality Street chocolates as percussion because he could not afford a drum kit.

While working as a railway porter during the day, Marsden first formed the Red Mountain Boys with his brother Freddie on percussion (chocolate tin), Les Chadwick on guitar and Arthur "Mack" McMahon on piano. Strongly influenced by Elvis Presley, they moved from skiffle to rock, calling themselves the Mars Bars, but the chocolate-bar company legally ordered them to drop the name.

Thus began the Pacemakers.

Like the Beatles, they moved from the Cavern Club in Liverpool in 1960 to do gigs in Hamburg, sometimes playing alongside the Beatles, who at that time were known as the Silver Beetles. In 1961, McMahon was replaced by Les Maguire, who would go on to perform on their hits on keyboard and saxophone.

It was during Hamburg gigs that Marsden, along with the Beatles, met and were influenced by a wild English but German-based rocker called Tony Sheridan.

"He slayed me," Marsden recalled. "I watched him as much as I could, and he influenced me in the way he could play rhythm guitar and drive the band like mad." In his 1993 autobiography, "I'll Never Walk Alone," Marsden recalled roaming about Hamburg with Lennon looking for girls but finding themselves out of their depth when faced by local pimps.

In 1962, Martin, their producer, offered Gerry and the Pacemakers a chance to record "How Do You Do It?" a song the Beatles had made in the studio but decided not to release as their first single, instead opting for "Love Me Do." The Pacemakers's song vaulted to No. 1 in the U.K. and established them as a musical force.

Epstein counseled Marsden against marriage — not good for the female fans — but he went ahead anyway, in 1965. Survivors include his wife, the former Pauline Behan, and two daughters.

During the '60s, Gerry and the Pacemakers had a No. 4 song in the United States titled "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying." When Ray Charles's publishers pointed out that the American pianist-bandleader had a song with the same title (though a totally different song), Marsden had to pay part of the royalties to Charles. José Feliciano later covered the Englishman's song.

Marsden's daughter Yvette Marbeck told the U.K.'s Press Association: "He died in hospital, which was devastating for us because we were not allowed in due to the current [coronavirus] regulations." She added that he was proud that a cover version of "You'll Never Walk Alone," by charity fundraiser Captain Sir Tom Moore, became a hit last year amid the pandemic.

"The words of it are still so very pertinent," she said. " 'At the end of a storm, there's a golden sky.' "