Many clubs have played a significant part in shaping popular music, but none are as well-known or as influential as Liverpool venue The Cavern.
On 16 January 1957, The Cavern opened as a jazz venue in the basement at No.10, Mathew Street, Liverpool, that first evening’s programme headlined by the Merseysippi Jazzmen, supported by two other jazz bands, along with the Coney Island Skiffle Group. The venue was the brainchild of Alan Sytner, a 21-year-old jazz aficionado, who aimed to provide Liverpool’s first jazz club with its own premises, dedicated to the performance of live music on a nightly basis.
Five months earlier, in August 1956, Sytner was shown an abandoned cellar in Mathew Street, which reminded him of a jazz club he had visited in Paris called Le Caveau. Accordingly, he decided to name his own venue The Cavern, looking to turn it into the country’s leading jazz centre outside London.
When American rock’n’roll pioneers Bill Haley and His Comets arrived on 5 February 1957 for their first tour of the UK, Sytner came up with the idea of inviting the band to begin their nationwide jaunt from The Cavern, but jazz enthusiasts frowned at the idea of ‘upstart’ rock’n’rollers playing their venue, and the owner quickly changed his mind.
Instead, The Cavern booked some of the biggest names in British jazz, along with blues and gospel legends from across the Atlantic. Skiffle was only allowed on Wednesday nights, that particular scene soon coming to an end. And Sytner’s plans proved successful until November 1958, when the Mardi Gras jazz club opened elsewhere in Liverpool city centre, competition between the two venues becoming fierce and The Cavern starting to lose money.
Although jazz remained popular, the rapidly growing interest in rock’n’roll began to have a far-reaching effect on popular music. In turn, Sytner decided to leave The Cavern for his father to sell, moving south with his wife to work on the London jazz scene.
When Liverpool accountant Ray McFall took over ownership of The Cavern on 3 October 1959, initially the music policy remained the same, featuring a mix of traditional and modern jazz plus American blues artistes. By then though, many local skiffle groups had already gone through a transition to become beat groups, this new brand of music increasing in popularity and enjoyed throughout Merseyside, in suburban village halls, social clubs, church halls and dance halls, collectively known as ‘jive hives’.
Tellingly, at a time when jazz venues were struggling financially, McFall decided to celebrate The Cavern’s fourth anniversary with Britain’s finest jazz players. But his week-long festival in January 1960 proved a costly failure. McFall then realised he needed to make changes to his music policy, and that led to The Cavern’s slow transition from jazz to beat. Throughout the suburbs of Merseyside, the emerging beat scene was growing in popularity and quality, with audiences increasing, along with increased financial returns for its promoters.
On Wednesday evening, 25 May 1960, The Cavern’s first beat night took place, and performing that evening were Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, with Ringo Starr on drums. This new sound coming out of Liverpool imported American influences but also incorporated its own style, and was soon christened Merseybeat.
Under the management of Allan Williams, The Beatles – newly turned professional – spent three months in Hamburg between August and November 1960, in what amounted to an apprenticeship that would ready them for world fame. And on their return, it was Bob Wooler – away from his new lunchtime role as The Cavern’s in-house disc jockey and compere, a role he commenced that October – who arranged their homecoming appearance at Litherland Town Hall, set for 27 December. And the power of The Beatles’ performance that night heralded a new era for Liverpool’s music scene, Bob Wooler among those who witnessed that performance and the wild reaction to the band, wasting no time in securing The Beatles’ first Cavern lunchtime appearance, set for 9 February 1961.
As The Beatles’ fame increased, The Cavern acquired something of a magical status. And although the band and other successful local artistes would in time outgrow the venue, The Beatles’ connection with the club continued to attract mainstream artistes from both sides of the Atlantic, with newsreel and TV companies, film-makers, record companies and media from across the globe visiting this ‘Cathedral of Pop’ to capture their own experience of life in The Cavern, post-Beatles.
Even at the height of its fame though, The Cavern was not a secure business. By December 1964, rumours of its financial plight and possible closure were circulating around Liverpool. Attempts to introduce more life into the Mathew Street venue throughout 1965 became the responsibility of Bob Wooler. His input was successful, but ultimately proved too late. On 28 February 1966, it was Bob who announced that bailiffs were due to arrive, The Cavern about to be closed down. With debts of £10,654, owner Ray McFall was facing bankruptcy proceedings.