by Ian Wright
In late 1960 at the tender age of 15, I was being interviewed for the position of junior darkroom boy at The Northern Echo, a provincial newspaper in the north east of England. Also on the same day an older chap aged 33, (we were both the same size and weight, it was difficult to distinguish us from the back, and he was also doing his best to impress), auditioned to become the papers new editor. Both would become successful.
Harold Evans had his first editorial post. He was a modernist and brought sweeping changes to this low circulation liberal broad sheet still labouring, on post WW2 editorial policies. To survive it had to have a new voice. He said to me later in life: “I heard it coming, the Sixties Revolution. Together I chronicled and you illustrated the greatest decade of the last century.”
By 1962, 20 million Baby Boomers flowered in America, and 5 million in the U.K., these figures were of biblical proportions, and he realized they had to be acknowledge and needed a voice. He would provide it, by publishing a four page fold over supplement titled ‘The Teenage Special’ published each Monday. He had acquired a team of journalists that had endured the war and had enjoyed the comforts of the fifties. He had a couple of junior reporters and one junior photographer, ME. We were the only ones who knew the scene, who was playing at which theatre, night club and dance halls.
Evans elevated me to the post of photographer, alas there were stipulations, you have to do it in your own time, no time off, no overtime and no expenses. I put both hands up. This was the opportunity I was waiting for to show what I could produce. Too young to drive I was instantly elevated to a mod on a bike. I was out every night peddling all over the region to capture some of the earliest photographs of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Animals, Dave Clark Five, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Ike and Tina Turner, Chubby Checker, Cliff Richard. My first portrait was of Miss Ella Fitzgerald. I had to padlock my bike to a drain pipe outside the La Dolce Vita night club, the casino was straight from a Bond movie. What no one realized, and if it had been brought to the editor’s attention my meteoric rise would have died in a second. In Britain it mattered not a jot to the local police if you were a sixteenyearold member of the press, the law stated NO ONE UNDER THE AGE OF 18 ALLOWED ON LICENCED PREMISES.
I was in and out of a choice of thirty night clubs to ply my trade. I knew all the managers, strippers, card sharps, waiters, croupiers and of course all the stars. I was the only photographer taking these images, and they loved it.
On February 9th 1963, a tour bus carrying The Helen Shapiro Variety Show ploughed through snow drifts to arrive at Sunderland’s Empire Theatre in the North East of England, for a onenight performance during their U.K. tour. Aged fifteen with two number one hits, “You Don’t Know” and “Walking Back To Happiness,” Helen Shapiro had recently been voted top female singer of 1962 by readers of New Music Express. Second on the bill, South African, Danny Williams, had a number one hit with; “Moon River” the title song from Audrey Hepburn’s smash hit film, “Breakfast At Tiffany’s.” Filling out the cast were a fabulous singing trio, The Vernon Girls, a trio of female singers, The Kestrals, another girl group, The Honeys and at the bottom of the bill, earning wages of approximately £40 a week including expenses were four lads from Liverpool called the Beatles who had a song in the charts at number 39.
As the occupants of the tour bus unloaded at the stage door, I arrived on my rusty, bone shaker of a bicycle. Consequently my huge 5x4 glass plate camera and a flash the size of a Bentley head lamp were strapped to my bike’s frame. Evans directive to me: "Photograph everyone on the bill. You never know who will become famous.” After photographing all the performers backstage, I was busy packing up my equipment as Don the Doorman said, “You better get off home, its really starting to snow” I was just about to leave when I stopped dead in my tracks by a voice with a heavy Liverpudlian Scouse accent from the stage. "Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Those of you who want to sing along can or clap your hands if you can’t do that just take off your shoes and socks and hum. Our first song is, "Love Me Do. A one a, one two three four” The incredible sound of a mouth organ intro and the first lyrics to the song, rooted to the spot. I hadn’t ever heard anything like it, I grabbed my camera and shot into the auditorium as four lads in matching black silk and mohair suits were singing, "Kansas City.” I took one photograph and stood there mesmerized. I’d been photographing pop groups for several months and they had all acted and sounded pretty much the same. This group was completely unique. Rather than just standing there singing, they shook their heads in time to the drummer’s back beat, moved about the stage, were completely animated and obviously having fun. They encouraged the audience to clap their hands over their heads, told silly jokes and the only half full theatre loved it. Until that moment audiences only applauded between songs, but now something new happened. Little fledgling screams emanated from some of the young girls sitting in the front row seats. The Beatles sang “Mr Postman” followed by “Twist and Shout,” before bowing in unison and walking offstage. The crowd went wild. Even mums, dads, aunts and uncles were on their feet shouting for more. The boys ran back onstage plugged in the guitars and performed “Please Please Me”. One month later that song, reached number one.
Before the song was over, I shot back stage. There was no need for passes in those days as I was usually the only photographer there. I found their dressing room which by day was a broom cupboard and knocked on the door. A shout from within said, "Yeah. What is it?” I explained I was with the local paper and had an idea for a photograph. The door opened and the lad who seemed to be the leader said again, “Yeah. What is it?” I pointed across the hall at the open elevator door and said “I want you all in the lift. The caption will be, “On The Way Up”. All he said was, “In the lift lads.” Flash Bang Wollop, the Bentley flash momentarily blinded the four Beatles. Rubbing their eyes they began spilling out of the lift. I yelled, ”STOP” and motioned for them to stay put. I had no idea who they were and I needed the names left to right. They all had a good laugh and spelled out their names. “What did you say your name was?” asked John Lennon. I told him, "Ian Wright.“ John said, “From now on you’re known to us as Wrighty, OK? Do us a favour will you? Can you send the photos and cuttins to my Auntie Mimi in Liverpool? She thinks were crap and won’t make it but she’s keepin a scrapbook anyway.” He wrote down the address on the back of the show’s flier; “Mimi Smith, The Mendips, Melove Avenue, Woolton, Liverpool.” As John wrote, I told him my mum was keeping a scrapbook of all my pictures that got put in the papers.
Whilst I had been out pedalling in the snow storm the cast of the Helen Shapiro Variety Show had finished their second show and loaded into the tour busses, hoping to catch a fish and chip shop still open. There were no pizza, curry or kebab houses in those days, no fast food restaurants or toilet facilities. Everything had to be done on the bus. As the bus with no heating left Sunderland that night, the windows were frozen on the inside. Tour manager Joe Collins, (Father of Joan and Jackie), had provided sandwiches, crisps and wooden crates full of beer. Those empty bottles would be used later to pee in. The performers started off sitting bolt upright in the seats wearing over coats, woolly hats, scarves and gloves. Some started a sing song, others read. Some played cards while others cuddled together to keep warm and tried to get some sleep. The back seats had been removed and a single bed installed exclusively for the star. By the time they reached the next destination the interior of the bus had a pervasive overpowering stench a combination of stale beer, cigarette smoke, piss, puke and deadly farts.