Siren of The Merseybeat
the north of England's Madame of rhythm and blues
by Sam Leighty
Beryl Marsden first came to my attention about 15 years ago when I was going through some VHS tapes of German TV's Beat Beat Beat from 1966 and I saw her do an exciting performance there. Today, she's probably best known for her 1965 cover of Irma Thomas' "Breakaway," which was a blockbuster hit on UK/Europe pirate radio and was later covered by Tracy Ullman on her 1983 album You Broke My Heart In 17 Places.
But when I first came across her in my music collection, I considered the unhappy prospects that she could be dead or decrepitly old. After all, 1966 was a hell of a long time ago. Much to my relief, I found out about six months ago that she's still acitve and a grandmother too. I decided I would get all the info I could about her. Various magazine articles about her and renewed interest in offshore pirate radio and recordings such as Beryl's early singles have brewed up curiousity about Marsden and her career. The black shoe polish hair color has been gone for years and nowadays she's a bleached blonde, but her career never really stalled and she's still going strong.
She was born Beryl Hogg in Liverpool's Irish enclave in 1947. Toxteth was the name of the district where Beryl was raised as one of ten children. She won a prize for a short story when she was 10 years old and she got her scholarship at the same time to study in a special school which she found was too religious. Beryl read Herman Hesse's Siddhartha while she was still young and she is still very fascinated with Buddism. When Beryl was growing up, all of her clothes were hand me downs and a long time went by before the family owned a TV set. While she was still quite young, she was fascinated with rhythm and blues and rock like The Shirelles and Elvis Presley. She started singing all the time, with her mom later saying that "Beryl could sing before she could walk." When Marsden was 14, she entered and won an amateur talent contest where she got up with a friend and they sang "Boys" by the Shirelles (the same song later covered by the Beatles).
Speaking of which... another singer who also was from Liverpool named John Lennon had a few drinks once in awhile with Beryl when they were both older. When he was growing up, he made it his business to budget his (then) paltry income to buy certain rhythm and blues records being brought into Liverpool by merchant marine sailors who hunted these records up in the USA and bartered in town for the best prices they could get. John would pick out raunchy tunes like Richard Barrett's "Some Other Guy" or Richard Berry's "Money (That's What I Want)" and look for ways to arrange them into workable songs for The Beatles. John and his friend Paul McCartney were also very fond of the Brill Building/Girl Groups sound and they had an ambition to become "England's Goffin and King" songwriting team. Which brings us back to Beryl, who began to develop a style when she was very young based on those same kind of imported records which came off the Liverpool docks. Try to envision a very captivating and good looking young woman with tons of that "mod" revlon and makeup, a mini-dress and that black Vidal Sassoon hairdo singing songs like "Shake" and "Midnight Hour."
She started calling herself "Beryl Marsden" when she began singing professionally and she's the first to point out she's no relation to Gerry Marsden (of Gerry and the Pacemakers). Beryl started sitting in as a guest singer at all the clubs and hangouts in Liverpool like The Cavern and The Casbah where the local Merseybeat groups all played.
She got an offer to join a group called The Undertakers and go to Hamburg, Germany with them for awhile. Beryl's mom wasn't crazy about the idea, so she stayed home for the time being until she joined Howie Casey and The Crew a couple of days later and they became regulars at the Cavern (eventually, Beryl did play Hamburg in 1963, just prior to signing with Decca).
She sang her first record at the Cavern Club which was called "I Know You Don't Love Me Anymore"- this was a near hit but it didn't crack the UK top 10 (YouTube has the sound portion of the performance with still pictures accompanying). Marsden had cultivated a musical mixture of early sixties soul music, very hard rock and roll ala Jerry Lee Lewis and touches of the American girl group sound, all delivered in her almost Wanda Jackson-ish singing style.
At that time, Beryl was signed to Decca records and Tony Stratton-Smith was her manager and later managed the Creation, Lindisfarne, Nice and Genesis. Obviously, he seemed to have a good eye for creative talent and seemed to associate his management with "intelligent" acts.
Beryl followed up "I Know You Don't Love Me Anymore" with a nice cover of "When The Lovelight Shines through his Eyes." This had been a B-side for The Supremes. Many of Beryl's records didn't crack the top 10, yet her career definitely had its highs. After all, she got the plumb spot as the opening act on The Beatles 1964 UK tour.
In 1965, Beryl left Decca records for Columbia/EMI. She did "Breakaway" which I've mentioned before and it was a big record. A few months later, she followed it up with "What's She Got," which was another great record and it proved to be a near hit.
There is a lot of really cool stuff by Beryl Marsden on YouTube. I especially recommend the clips from the spring of 1966 Beat Beat Beat show that I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Beryl was very eye-catching in a black hairdo, makeup and sort of a short skirt suit. By the camera angles, she looks to be about 5'6". More importantly, she was a very good singer and she was very musical, like Julie Driscoll. She appears on the show with a 10 piece soul review band called Johnny B. Great and the Quotations. Beryl and the group look like something out of that movie about a makeshift Irish soul band called the Commitments. It seems strange that this woman who was the prototype Mod/R&B female singer is in relative obscurity.
Beryl joined with Rod Stewart in the spring of 1966 to form Shotgun Express which was successful for awhile but broke up in January 1967 when Rod joined The Jeff Beck Group as lead singer. After they broke up, she went with a female group called the SheTrinity. She then formed a group called Sinbad with Paddy of Paddy, Klaus and Gibson. In the seventies, Beryl was a session vocalist and a member of a group called Gambler. She fronted Beryl Marsden Band for a time. In the eighties, she was paid an immense compliment and was asked to join Martha and the Vandellas.
Beryl would keep going for years. Musically, she stands out a bit too much to limit herself to an "oldies" and "nostalgia" context- her mod/blue-eyed soul style was very raw and her singing has been described as "powerful and soulful" (not only her sixties work, but everything else too). She has a certain musical relevance like The Searchers (also from Liverpool) and as such, was more recently on various BBC TV and UK radio shows. I'm fairly certain that some UK female singers were probably influenced by Beryl even when they were small children- singers such as Chrissie Hynde or the sadly late Amy Winehouse, who was an immense talent.
Beryl is 64 years old now and she can still deliver the goods onstage. She still gigs often and all of the new releases of hers are played on the radio in England. She has a new CD single out in the UK and will probably have a new CD out in early 2012. She went for a long time without a new release until she came out with One Dream in 2004. She is very busy making music in the Liverpool vicinity although she still does odd gigs out and about in The British Isles. Like Sandie Shaw (who happens to be a fan of hers), before too long, Beryl will be celebrating 50 years in the music business.
Marsden has had (and continues to have) a very prestigous career but it's true in a way she has been one of the most sorely ignored and neglected major talents of The British Invasion and Beat Music nevertheless. I think this has been part of the problem for her is that 80% of her output hasn't registered with the public in England, the British Isles or Europe which is the market she's in. I do think with good promotion and with just the right exposure of her selection of songs on radio, she could play the USA if she hasn't done it already. She's probably has been here before- remember, she was a member of Martha and the Vandellas. It's my hope that we'll see her here in the USA for some American gigs albeit with careful and intelligent promotion and radio airplay to make damn sure things don't go over like a lead balloon.
NOTE: there is a very nice Beryl Marsden website at: www.beryl.moonfruit.com
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