From A Storm To A Hurricane: Rory Storm (Book review)

Rory Storm was a pivotal figure in the history of Merseybeat. With his band the Hurricanes he was reputedly the first act to play rock’n’roll at the Cavern, and Ringo Starr was the group’s drummer for three years. They introduced other Liverpool bands to electric guitars, had a dynamic stage act and for a while were the city’s most popular group, bigger than the Beatles. But the national fame that came to so many other Merseyside acts in the early Sixties eluded them, and not long after his singing career had petered out Rory Storm was dead, aged just 34.

It’s a fascinating tale and Anthony Hogan tells it well in this colourful and informative account of Rory’s short life. He was born Alan Caldwell in 1938 and from an early age suffered from a bad stammer which he never lost, though it disappeared whenever he sang. He met John Byrne – who’d later be known as Johnny Guitar, another noted Merseybeat figure – in 1956 and they formed a skiffle group. A few years later, after numerous name changes and after Ringo Starr (then Richard Starkey) had joined them, they became Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Around the same time the Quarrymen were evolving into the Beatles, and the members of the two groups knew each other well, spending time at each other’s houses and sharing the bill at countless venues. Rory’s younger sister Iris was George Harrison’s girlfriend for a while. Other familiar Merseybeat names enter (and re-enter) the story at regular intervals: Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes, Faron’s Flamingos, the Swinging Blue Jeans and many more. The book gives us a real sense of what life was like for these bands: gigs in local venues such as the Jive Hive and the Jacaranda, interspersed with summer seasons at Butlins in Pwllheli and gruelling spells playing several sets a day in Hamburg. Then there were the big Merseyside shows supporting American rock’n’roll stars: Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis.

Hardcore rock’n’roll was Rory’s music of choice, with a set list dominated by songs such as Rip It Up, C’mon Everybody and Brand New Cadillac. His trademark was a spectacular, athletic stage act (a sports fanatic, he’d won trophies as a runner and swimmer). The book is full of descriptions of him jumping off stages – crashing through one in Hamburg – and leaping from balconies. At the New Brighton baths he famously climbed up to the highest diving board during a performance of What’d I Say, dived into the pool, climbed out and continued singing.

Audiences loved him, but as Merseybeat conquered Britain success began to slip out of his grasp. The band’s big opportunity came when Brian Epstein arranged a recording session for them in London in 1964. Several tracks were recorded, but the choice for release as a single (apparently made by Epstein) was a poor one: a lightweight, throwaway version of America from West Side Story which unsurprisingly flopped.

Rory’s moment had passed. The band’s set was becoming stale, with Rory sticking to Fifties rock’n’roll and reluctant to learn new material. Other Merseybeat groups had prospered by writing their own songs and exploring American r’n’b and soul (as with the Beatles’ championing of Tamla Motown), but Rory preferred to stick with what he knew. As Hogan argues, the lack of proper guidance from a manager didn’t help. Bookings dropped off, and the band slid down the rankings in the annual Merseybeat magazine readers’ poll to find Liverpool’s favourite group. The final straw was the sudden death in 1967 of lead guitarist and longstanding band member Ty O’Brien. The rest of the group had no will to continue and the Hurricanes disbanded soon after. Rory drifted from job to job and location to location: working as a DJ, a taxi driver, a coastguard (in Hoylake), a hairdresser and a water ski instructor, living in Benidorm, Amsterdam and Jersey.

Eventually he returned to Liverpool and lived with his mother, who suffered from depression. He became reclusive, shunning company and often refusing to answer the door. In September 1972 the bodies of Rory and his mother were discovered in the house they shared. Rory had taken painkillers, but Hogan dismisses talk of suicide and believes he died of natural causes. His mother however had taken her own life, it’s believed after she found Rory’s body.

In subsequent years Rory Storm has become a legendary figure, a pioneer of Merseybeat who gave unforgettable stage performances and died a tragically premature death. There have been stage plays about his life and the character played by Billy Fury in the David Essex film That’ll Be The Day (‘Stormy Tempest’) was based on him. In interviews Ringo Starr has often talked of his time in Rory’s band, and a recent album by him has a track called ‘Rory And The Hurricanes’.

Anthony Hogan has researched his subject well and gives a detailed, year by year account of Rory’s life and career, carefully taking us through the Hurricanes’ personnel changes and listing the venues Rory played and the acts he shared the bill with. He’s spoken to many people who knew or worked with him, including Rory’s sister Iris Caldwell and former band member Lou Walters. This gives the reader real insights into the singer’s character: charismatic, unpredictable, occasionally difficult but good-natured and popular. Hogan’s approach is anecdotal rather than analytical and personally I would have preferred fewer funny stories about Rory’s madcap antics – though these are often very entertaining – and a bit more on the band’s music and their place in Merseybeat history. But the book is an absorbing read and the many photographs (often provided by Rory’s sister) are a delight: Rory at different stages of his life, on and off stage, by himself or with others, many of them famous. This has clearly been a labour of love for Hogan, and he can be proud of the result.

From A Storm To A Hurricane by Anthony Hogan is published by Amberley Publishing, priced £14.99.