Born in 1926, Bob Wooler had left school by the time he was 14, starting work as a junior clerk for the London, Midland and Scottish (LMS) Railway, based at Garston Docks, South Liverpool. But from an early age Bob enjoyed listening to music, and by the early 1950s his overriding ambition was to be a songwriter. Despite writing numerous songs and seeking advice from the British Songwriter Club, the Anglo-American Correspondence School of Music and Melody Maker’s Songwriters’ Advice Bureau though, his attempts failed, never finding the right collaboration with a composer that could lead to success.
When Lonnie Donegan, the King of Skiffle, burst on to the national music scene in 1956 with hit single ‘Rock Island Line’, nobody could have imagined the effect this US-inspired craze would have on teenagers. Bob Wooler, based in the district of Garston, had reached the age of 30 by then, and skiffle wasn’t something that appealed, yet when he was approached by a young band of fellow railway workers who had formed their own skiffle group, The Kingstrums, asking if he could help them get some gigs, he agreed to get involved, despite having no experience of managing. And he first entered them for a talent contest at Gateacre Labour Club, that particular competition won by a band called The Mars Bars, later renamed and finding international fame as Gerry & the Pacemakers.
In time, Bob would realise he was more suited to a compering role, and by 1958 he was promoting extremely popular ‘beat nights’ for teenage audiences at venues throughout Liverpool. As the first local disc jockey, specialising in playing rock’n’roll, his style and pioneering choice of music became the cornerstone for growing success and popularity with audiences at his ‘jive nights’, Bob’s influential approach helping bands in venues throughout the area develop a strong repertoire of songs, many having first heard from Bob’s collection music by lesser known American rock‘n’roll artistes, those tracks mostly new to Merseyside bands and their audiences.
His growing confidence and sense of forward thinking soon led Bob to contact Britain’s most influential music impresario, Larry Parnes. With a stable of recording ‘stars’, Parnes’ musicians toured the country together, playing two-show, one-night stands. Bob’s letter to Parnes in June 1959 championed Liverpool’s growing live music scene, creating an important dialogue between the pair. And in May the following year, Parnes auditioned a number of local groups at Liverpool’s Blue Angel club, consequently selecting The Silver Beatles to take a 10-day tour of Scotland backing Johnny Gentle, another of Parnes’ artistes.
On their return, Parnes decided against taking on The Silver Beatles (often misspelled by promoters and on bills as The Silver Beetles, their name soon shortened to The Beatles), but that’s when Blue Angel club owner Allan Williams stepped in. That August, as a five-piece – including newly-recruited drummer, Pete Best, and original bass player Stuart Sutcliffe – Williams secured them a residency in Hamburg, and they spent the next three months playing for long hours, developing their style of music and sense of stagecraft.
It was while The Beatles were in Germany that Bob Wooler made his first visit to The Cavern, during a lunchtime session on 26 October 1960. At the end of a set by The Big Three, drummer Johnny Hutch asked his friend on stage to make an announcement. Surprised by the invite, Bob made the following off-the-cuff announcement, “Remember, all you cave dwellers, The Cavern is the best of cellars”. Cavern owner Ray McFall heard him and consequently offered Bob a job introducing Cavern lunchtime sessions. His offer was accepted on the condition that Bob could carry on promoting his own beat nights at various Merseyside venues and regular DJ slots for certain promoters. And that previous ‘cave dwellers’ announcement became his signature greeting at The Cavern.
Over the next six years, Bob proved to be the driving force behind the Mathew Street club’s success, his attention to detail and planning a much sought-after skill. He organised The Cavern’s live music programme for house bands and visiting bands, becoming the resident compere, DJ, promoter, broadcaster and publicist. And his most important contribution by far was his belief in The Beatles, who made 292 Cavern appearances between February ‘61 and August ‘63. What’s more, he also had the privilege of introducing large numbers of mainstream rock‘n’roll, blues and soul artistes from America and across the UK.
Always paying close attention to helping the acts who showed the greatest potential, he made himself and The Cavern big favourites with many featured artistes, promoters, managers and record companies. Not until The Beatles returned home from their three-month marathon residency in Hamburg did Bob become involved with the band that would become Liverpool’s most famous export though. Asked by Allan Williams to arrange their ‘homecoming’ appearance at Litherland Town Hall on 27 December 1960, the impact The Beatles had that night was telling, the audience going crazy, with local promoters and musicians somewhat in a state of shock, including Bob. And having witnessed the tremendous impact The Beatles had in Litherland, he wasted no time in securing the band a Cavern lunchtime slot.
The Beatles made their Cavern debut on 9 February ‘61, and as it turned out, 291 appearances later Bob introduced what became their final appearance there on 3 August ‘63. And when the first edition of locally produced music magazine Mersey Beat was published on 6 July ’61, it was Bob who penned the first media article published about The Beatles. The Stuff That Screams Are Made Of described the band as ‘music revolutionaries’, the likes of which would never happen again. And history would prove how prophetic those words were.
Prior to focusing on his new full-time role at The Cavern, Bob presented his own show, Rockerscope ’62, across the Mersey on the Wirral peninsula on 17 May 1962, featuring America’s ‘Mr Rock’n’Roll’, Jerry Lee Lewis. Appearing at New Brighton’s Tower Ballroom, Lewis was supported by a galaxy of supporting artistes as part of the Louisiana legend’s second UK tour, involving a 22-night run from 29 April to 19 May. The bill-topper had first reached the heights of stardom in 1957, the unique piano-driven sound of single ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ cracking the American Bandstand Hot 100, Pop, Country and R&B charts. Its follow-up, ‘Great Balls of Fire’, hit the singles chart that December, Lewis’ impact continuing, this remarkable artiste finally inducted into America’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame some 29 years later.
There were other notable engagements, and a letter sent to Bob Wooler on 6 December ’62 involved a request from agent Chris Wainwright, looking to secure appearances at The Cavern for Manchester-based band The Hollies. Confirmation arrived on 3 February 1963, Bob on hand to introduce the band for the first of 19 Cavern appearances. Suitably impressed, he notified Parlophone record producer Ron Richards, who approached the band during a Cavern lunchtime session on 27 March that year, inviting them to audition at Abbey Road Studios, London. Success soon followed, Richards producing their debut single, ‘(Ain’t That) Just Like Me’, which entered the UK chart on 30 May, peaking at No.25. The Hollies’ next 21 singles included 16 top-10 hits and five top-20s, the Manchester outfit becoming one of the leading British groups of the 1960s, achieving considerable popularity at home and overseas.
Furthermore, Bob Wooler’s professionalism impressed Brian Epstein, to the extent that he offered him a position within NEMS Enterprises Ltd in April ‘63. However, Bob turned down the job at London’s new NEMS offices, a second offer from London-based agents Lewis-Joelle Ltd on 17 April offering an opportunity for his own 15-minute DJ spot on a radio show in the capital also rejected.
Back in Liverpool, Bob stage-managed a Lancashire and Cheshire Beat group contest at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall on 9 and 10 May ’63, organised by London-based Liverpudlian agent Harry Lowe (real name Harry Swerdlow). The main sponsor, Decca Records Ltd, advertised exciting prizes, including a contract with the label, judges including Beatles guitarist George Harrison and Decca’s Dick Rowe, the latter infamously turning The Beatles down after a Decca Records audition on 1 January 1962.
In a conversation between the judges, the Beatle suggested Rowe would find a good house band called the Rolling Stones in the Crawdaddy Club at the Station Hotel, Richmond, London. Rowe consequently left for the capital and signed the band on George’s top tip, their debut single, ‘Come On’ entering the UK chart on 25 July ‘63, peaking at No.21. The Stones’ second single, ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’, written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, then entered the chart on 14 November and peaked at No.12, nine days after their sole appearance at The Cavern, that booking based on a promise made by Brian Epstein to Bob Wooler.
Further high-profile acclaim for Bob was provided by Joe Meek, Britain’s premier record producer of the early 1960s, renowned for his pioneering recording techniques. In July 1963 he thanked Bob for promoting his current single, played during intervals between bands at The Cavern. Meek then visited The Cavern in February ‘64 during recordings by Decca Records for the Live at The Cavern album. Not only did Meek – ranked the greatest record producer of all time by the New Musical Express – thank Bob for his hospitality, but he also wrote an impressive summary of his visit, glowingly describing the fans and the atmosphere inside the Mathew Street club.
In January 1964, The Cavern was approached by Ross Radio Productions Ltd to host a series of programmes called Sunday Night at The Cavern. Broadcast in the evening on Radio Luxembourg, sponsored by UK household electrical retailer Currys, Cavern owner Ray McFall discussed the idea with Bob Wooler before agreeing. The first broadcast was on 15 March that year, those weekly 30-minute programmes all presented by Bob, running through to the following February. He chose in advance which four bands would appear, along with the numbers played. He also wrote the programme’s script and decided which discs would be broadcast, the shows recorded in advance in front of a live audience, the workload for Bob and his Cavern team colossal.
“The Kinks still haven’t been paid,” it was pointed out in a letter from Arthur Howes Ltd, dated 8 April 1964, after the North London group’s first Cavern appearance on 21 February. Their fee of £15 should have been paid on the night, but bands not being paid was becoming a common occurrence at the club. Ray McFall was experiencing serious financial difficulties, resulting in Bob Wooler taking over responsibility for contracting and paying all artistes, major and minor.
Bob’s DJing and compering duties also included a Marathon Floodlit Beat Festival headlined by The Searchers and The Merseybeats on Thursday 14 May at New Brighton Football Club, the former act by that month having emerged as global hitmakers. Debut single, ‘Sweets for my Sweet’ reached No.1 in the UK on 8 August 1963, a feat establishing them as a major addition to the Merseybeat boom, along with Gerry & the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas, and The Beatles. In fact, John Lennon referred to The Searchers’ debut 45 as ‘the best disc ever by a Liverpool group’ at that time, their popularity growing to almost rival that of the Fab Four.
The Searchers’ follow-up single, ‘Sugar and Spice’ stalled at No. 2 and couldn’t dislodge ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ by Gerry & the Pacemakers. But their third single, ‘Needles and Pins’, zoomed to No.1 on 30 January ’64, preventing the Pacemakers from a fourth straight No. 1 with ‘I’m the One’. And a hat-trick of Searchers No.1s was completed on 7 May ’64 when ‘Don’t Throw Your Love Away’ topped the charts. By the end of 1963, they were widely regarded as the second-best band, if not in Britain then certainly in Liverpool, jostling for space with The Beatles at the top of the UK music charts in 1963 and 1964.
Meanwhile, The Merseybeats scored their first top-30 hit single in September 1963 with ‘It’s Love That Really Counts’, followed in January 1964 by million-selling single ‘I Think of You’, which reached No.5 and led to the band’s first gold disc. They achieved further chart success that year with ‘Don’t Turn Around’ in April and ‘Wishin’ & Hopin’’ in July, both reaching No.13. Their chart success continued until 1966, by which time they had achieved international recognition.
Herman’s Hermits also made a huge impact, Harvey Lisberg of Kennedy Street Enterprises Ltd, in a letter dated 23 September 1964, sending personal thanks on behalf of the management and the boys in the band for all the help and support received from Bob Wooler, Ray McFall and all the staff at The Cavern, since the first of their 10 appearances at the Mathew Street club on 3 January that year. Their debut single, ‘I’m into Something Good’, released on 26 August, became their sole UK No.1 hit single, also reaching No.13 in the US Billboard Hot 100.
Cavern owner Ray McFall went on to acquire the ground floor and basement at No. 8, Mathew Street, in November 1964, part of his improvement plan for an underground link into the club at No.10, Mathew Street, linking the cellars of both premises, hoping to provide new toilet facilities and a much-needed fire exit from No.8’s cellar. Meanwhile, the ground floor of No.8 would provide offices for The Cavern and Cavern Artistes Ltd. Unfortunately, increased financial pressure on McFall put his basement plans on hold, but this turn of events led to the idea of creating a recording studio for Cavern Sounds Ltd, paid for in full by its co-founders, directors Nigel Greenberg and Peter Hepworth, sound technicians already known to Ray McFall and Bob Wooler whose company rebuilt the Cavern sound system in 1963, the new studio opened in November 1964, Bob and the club owner becoming directors of Cavern Sounds Ltd.
But by January 1965, The Cavern was in serious financial difficulty, in danger of being closed down. A new company, Bob Wooler Productions Ltd, was registered to ensure continuity in the event of closure while taking advantage of the various resources The Cavern was still able to offer, and at the same time promoting and operating the venue at a lower cost to the owner.
With its own offices and a stable of bands, Bob’s company managed the finances for The Cavern’s live music programme throughout 1965 and on to February ’66, also providing bands from his own stable to appear at venues throughout the North of England, Wales and the Midlands.
In May 1965, he opened discussions with Ember Records and agreed to the production of a Cavern album, the decision to go ahead proving a defining moment for Bob’s promotions company. The bands and tracks were chosen by him, and included his trademark introduction, with the tracks recorded at Cavern Sounds Ltd studios and the LP sleeve designed in-house at The Cavern, under Bob’s watchful eye.
Those first recordings were severely criticised, proving embarrassing for the managing director of the company, but recording improvements were made, the UK version of the LP released in 1965 with the title, Liverpool Today: Live at the Cavern, while the US version, released on the Capitol label in 1966, was named Liverpool Today: Where it all Began.
In June 1965, Bob Wooler also came into contact with American TV producer Jules Power, who proposed a number of projects. Power was the executive producer of a television programme called Discovery, produced by ABC News, a weekly series aimed at children and teenagers, exploring various topics in science, culture, history and the arts. His first proposal was for a Bob Wooler radio show to be transmitted to the US, with the working title, Mr Mersey Beat Presents. The second proposal was for a Discovery production called The Swinging Sounds of Liverpool, soon becoming Liverpool a Go-Go, featuring Bob as the presenter and various local beat groups touring the city on an open-top bus. The programme was televised in 1966 and can now be found on DVD.
A further Bob Wooler Productions Ltd success followed with The Walker Brothers’ show on Thursday, 23 September 1965 at New Brighton’s Tower Ballroom, the American outfit having reached No.1 in the UK singles chart the night they appeared across the Mersey. That booking again showed Bob’s vision and forward thinking. However, that was the only concert his promotions company staged at that Wirral venue.
The date 28 February 1966 marked a forced closure of The Cavern, with owner Ray McFall declared bankrupt. This proved a life-changing moment for Bob Wooler, the heady days of the venue over. Barely six weeks later, The Cavern ownership changed hands for a third time. The new owners, local businessmen Joe Davy and Alf Geoghegan, asked Bob to return as general manager, initially offering advice on financial changes they would introduce. Plans for a grand opening included a formal invitation to UK Prime Minister, the Right Hon. Harold Wilson. Once the PM accepted, a date was set for 23 July, and Bob made a considerable contribution to the event.
A new beginning soon followed for Bob, and for the new owners there was a real learning curve. Despite its legendary status, The Cavern never regained the popularity it had enjoyed during its golden period in the first half of that decade.
Beyond the musicians themselves, it can be argued that Bob Wooler was the most important figure in the development of Liverpool’s beat music scene. Sadly though, he went from being an iconic personality during the most remarkable period in British pop music to describing himself as ‘a spent force’ by 1967.
Realising the heady days of the early 1960s were over, he felt he needed to find something new, yet felt exhausted. He married his partner of six years, Beryl Adams, but a week later – on 27 August 1967 – came the shocking news that his good friend, Brian Epstein had been found dead at his London home.
After Bob walked away from The Cavern, he never truly adjusted to his new surroundings. Over the next three years, although jaded and unhappy, he became a compere and disc jockey at Liverpool’s Silver Blades Ice Rink. And his fortunes hadn’t improved by 1970, when he started work for the Mecca Group as a bingo caller. By then, he needed any work he could get though, in a bid to pay off income tax on his undeclared income.
By 1971, Bob and his wife Beryl had divorced, and – steeped in nostalgia – a large part of Bob’s life over the next 30 years was spent reminiscing. In later years he admitted his life after 1966 was full of missed opportunities.
There were noteworthy moments though, and BBC Television paid Bob 10 guineas for a one-hour interview as part of retrospective film The Sound of Change, recorded in The Cavern on 20 March 1968. The BBC also went on to confirm another date for Bob on 3 January 1972 for contributions to The Beatles Story.
Radio broadcasts were part of a world Bob Wooler had enjoyed during his years at The Cavern. But after leaving the club in 1967, his involvement with the media reduced considerably.
Bob and Allan Williams would go on to stage annual Beatles conventions in Liverpool, but a letter to his friend dated 7 January 1975 outlined Bob’s fears that Williams’ soon-to-be-published book, The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away, would remind readers and the music media of a drunken incident between Bob and John Lennon at Paul McCartney’s 21st birthday party in June 1963, during which Bob received a broken nose. After that incident, Bob received a telegram from John, apologising for his behaviour. Furthermore, Beatles manager Brian Epstein arranged for him to receive an undisclosed sum as compensation and to prevent any legal action. For Bob that was the end of the ordeal, and when subsequently asked about the incident he always refused to comment.
Bob remained in his home city for the rest of his life. But having suffered a heart attack in the 1980s, he battled with his health. He died at the Royal Liverpool Hospital on 8 February 2002, following a long illness.