Jacob's Ladder: People...You Are The Reason I Am...

Tony Jackson

Tony Jackson was one of the founding members of the early 60s Liverpool group The Searchers, who were second only to the Beatles in the early Merseybeat scene. In addition to being the bass player, he was also the lead singer on their first three hits – “Sweets for My Sweet”, “Sugar and Spice” as well as on early album tracks such as “Love Potion Number Nine”. He left the group in the summer of 1964 to pursue a solo career. After many years of ill health, he sadly died on 18 August 2003.

This tribute to him was written for the Searchers Official Website by Frank Allen, who replaced Tony on bass in 1964, and who is now the front man of the group, which is still successfully touring and celebrating its 40th anniversary.

It was so sad to hear of Tony Jackson`s death. It wasn`t entirely unexpected. When he visited our dressing room earlier in the year at Nottingham`s Royal Concert Hall it was immediately apparent that he was far from being a well man. In fact the deterioration from his appearance at our Appreciation Society Convention less than a year ago was quite shocking. He could not walk unaided by a stick and had difficulty speaking.

One of the more pleasant aspects was that all the old troubles and resentments following his departure from the Searchers in 1964 had evaporated and we could at last reminisce like old friends. If he held a grudge at me for taking his job he did not show it. Time had mellowed Black Jake as it does with us all I suppose. There`s not much to recommend about old age but the calmness and contentment that often comes with it is some small consolation.

Tony himself had phoned John McNally barely a week before to let him know that there was not long to go. I can`t begin to imagine how difficult it must be to make a call like that. We had no idea just how little time left there was.

It was more than four decades ago that John and Mike Pender went to hear this guy with a great voice and an Elvis attitude at the Cross Keys in Liverpool. They asked him to join them - after all he owned his own bass and amplifier - and soon, following a few temporary line-ups, the magical combination with the flamboyant Chris Curtis on drums and fronted by the country & western influenced voice of Johnny Sandon was in place. The Searchers were on their way.

On reflection Johnny Sandon may have regretted his decision to leave and join the Remo Four but would the group have possessed the same commerciality with him in their ranks? I doubt it. Tony`s sharp edged vocals on Sweets For My Sweet, Sugar & Spice and Love Potion Number Nine (not to mention a host of other much loved album tracks) hit the spot perfectly. The energy in those early singles was a record company`s dream.

When the change came and the vocals were distributed elsewhere it`s a shame that Tony should have resented it so much. Who knows? Maybe the wheel would have turned and his chance to shine would have returned in time. But by then there was too much bad blood and clash of characters.

Which of course was my good fortune. I played no part whatsoever in the popularity of this group. It was a ready-made Cinderella story by the time I took over on bass in August `64. I had made friends with the others in Hamburg and Chris Curtis in particular was rooting for me. Without a doubt Chris was the star of the band at that time despite being tucked away behind his drum kit. It takes a big personality to shine from that position on stage. A guy with a lot of charisma and a big heart. And there were few people with more forceful personalities in Liverpool at the time than Chris. When there are two people in a group with characters as strong as Chris and Tony there will be fireworks. The fireworks exploded and Tony was suddenly out.

Soon he was launched with his new outfit, the Vibrations. Sadly the hits never came and eventually Tony had to return to ‘real life'. That can never be easy for any musician. Let all those precious little pop stars of today complain about the unwanted attention they have to suffer. They will soon find out how much they miss it once it disappears.

After various jobs (entertainments rep, furniture salesman, deejay, golf club manager) ill health finally forced him to retire. A lifetime of heavy drinking, not to mention three marriages, had taken its toll. And as if the heart attacks, diabetes and arthritis that resulted from a wild rock'n' roll lifestyle were not enough, a disastrous error of judgement involving an argument over a phone booth and a replica gun landed him in jail. How rock‘n'roll do you want life to be?

His final years could not have been pleasant. I`m sure that, quite naturally, he was envious, and probably even resentful, of the way we had carried our earlier success into the revival years of the ‘80s and onwards. But if it`s any consolation to him those weary times from the late sixties into the mid seventies when we were far from being the flavour of any month were not much fun. Too much travelling in uncomfortable vans that seemed to be forever breaking down. Too many nights in shabby boarding houses because we could afford little else. And too little reward for a whole lot of work. After being feted as superstars around the globe, Tony would not have enjoyed it.

I hope he is at peace now. It was so gratifying to find that all the major newspapers devoted so much space to his passing. I did not expect that. We don`t command much attention in the eyes of the media these days. It is a testament to the esteem in which he was held and to his importance in the history of British pop music. We will all miss Black Jake.

Frank Allen
August 2003

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