The Hollies: Drummer Booby Elliott recalls 60s band’s roaring success
The Hollies perform ‘Bus Stop’ live in 1966
It was the Hollies first trip to the US, Good Friday, 1965, and they were playing the famous Paramount Theatre in Times Square. “We were the only white act there,” recalls drummer Bobby. “I remember walking up the concrete steps and hearing a commotion. Little Richard was half in and half out of the lift having a tantrum.
“A cop pulled out his pistol, stuck it in his neck hard, and said, ‘Hold still or I’ll blow your head off’. It was like a scene from a gangster film. The pistol was cocked, I genuinely thought he was for it.”
The rock’n’roll legend had over-run his allotted time wildly for the third time, so the orchestra had played over him. “He went ballistic,” says Bobby. “He was trying to get at the stage manager.”
Little Richard survived but he left the show that day.
Hopefully, things will be less dramatic when the Hollies tour the UK later this year.
“We’re chomping at the bit,” guitarist Tony Hicks tells me. “We were due to play the States, the UK and Europe last year…all postponed. We’ve never had such a long lay-off.”
Advance ticket demand had been huge. “I think audiences are trying to see us before we peg it,” laughs Tony, 75. “We won’t let them down!”
The Hollies are a great British success story. Their unbroken string of 27 UK hits includes Just One Look, I’m Alive, Sorry Suzanne, The Air That I Breathe and He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, most featuring their distinctive three-part harmonies.
They were Britain’s third-biggest 60s pop export behind the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
“When we played you couldn’t hear the band for the screaming,” recalls Bobby, 79. “At The Cavern, Graham Nash was hammering away on his guitar so hard that when we came off stage there weren’t any strings left.”
They’d play big package tours, doing three 20 minute sets a night, with teenage girls screaming and throwing jelly babies. “The fans were wild and as young kids, we lapped that up,” says Tony.
They often toured with the Stones, and as a side-line, Tony would sell them clothes on behalf of the Hollies’ first manager, Oldham retailer Michael Cohen.
“I’d turn up with a case and Keith Richards would come to the changing room, have a few brandy and cokes and buy all sorts.”
Unlike their peers, the Hollies didn’t dabble in drugs. “We weren’t party animals, it wasn’t in our nature,” he says. “We weren’t teetotal – we’d have a brandy and coke but that was it. It was the way we were brought up. We never threw TV sets out of hotel windows.
“We always loved performing and made sure we were never a disappointment. That was our priority.
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“I was from Nelson in Lancashire and London was so exciting – Carnaby Street, King‘s Road, I couldn’t get enough of it,” adds Tony, who had started life as an apprentice electrician. “We loved the coffee houses and going to cinemas to watch cartoons.
“It was a dream come true; our hobby turned into a profession. After our first hit, I thought great, maybe we’ll be doing it for three years and the electricians will have me back…”
Burnley-born Bobby’s chief memory of Swinging London club the Ad-Lib is that they served “the best spare ribs in town”.
He and brother-in-law Tony were slightly late to the Hollies party but vital ingredients.
Allan Clarke formed the band with his Salford school pal Nash with the dream of becoming “Manchester’s Everly Brothers”. They chose the name as they waited to go on stage at the Oasis club in December 1962 because, said Clarke, “we liked Buddy Holly and it was Christmas”.
Guitarist Vic Steele didn’t want to turn pro so they poached Tony from the local band the Dolphins.
“I caught the Ribble bus to Manchester to check them out. They were playing The Twisted Wheel club and I listened through an air vent in case they were crap.”
They weren’t so he introduced me to Graham who filled him in on the audition they had coming up at Abbey Road.
“I told me dad, a motor mechanic, that I’d have to pack in my job and he said ‘Ey lad, I’ve got a trade, it’s done nowt for me, so if that’s what you want to do, do it – but tell ’em you want £18-a-week.
“I was on £2.10 as an electrician.”
Bobby was an apprentice mechanic at a coal pit whose first drum kit consisted of tins from his mother’s grocery shop with the lids loosened so they rattled.
He’d been in jazz bands until he saw The Dolphins. “They had 400 girls around the front of the dance stand. I thought this is the way to go!”
After leaving them, he auditioned for Shane Fenton & The Fentons, beating Keith Moon and Mick Fleetwood to the job.
“Our first gig was at the Royal Albert Hall. I’d been an apprentice a few days before and I was taking a bow with the Beatles and Del Shannon…”
It was Tony’s suggestion to bring him in when the Hollies original drummer Don Rathbone left in 1963.
Guided by producer Ron Richards, they notched up eleven years of Top Tens, many written by other people.
“We knew what a good song sounded like,” says Tony. “I’d happily go to Tin Pan Alley and find one.”
And they’d transform them. “The demo of He Ain’t Heavy was much slower and one of the writers sounded completely out of it,” he recalls.
Elton John’s Your Song was the one that got away. As plain Reg Dwight, Elton had played as a £15 session musician on many Hollies tracks after Graham left to form Crosby, Stills & Nash.
“I heard the demo for Your Song and said ‘That’s for us!’ but America was going to give it a try with Reg, so the publisher made it clear Your Song was his song, not our song.”
Hollies highs include an Ivor Novello Award for outstanding contribution to British music and their 2010 induction into The Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame.
The low? Learning they owed the taxman £200,000. “We had management back then who didn’t keep any books,” says Bob diplomatically.
Thankfully big hits like their self-penned Carrie Anne kept them afloat. Their biggest US smash was Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress written by Allan with Cook & Greenway – their only release without harmonies.
The hits dried up in 1972. Why? “We released the wrong songs, and no matter how big you are if you put out a bum song it won’t happen,” says Tony.
He and Bobby are the only surviving members of the classic Hollies line-up. Getting back on the road is their priority.
“Live work is better than any drug,” he says. “We do a 130minute show every night, including every hit. “You float off stage.”
Bobby Elliott’s book It Ain’t Heavy, It’s My Story is out now.
- For Hollies dates see theholliesofficial.com
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