Johnny Gentle & The
By Bill Harry
Prior to the advent of the Mersey Sound, Liverpool had been supplying artists in the popular music field for some time. When the official charts were launched in Britain in the 1950s it was to see hits by Liverpool artists such as Lita Roza, Michael Halliday and Frankie Vaughan. Impressario Larry Parnes was to sign three Merseyside singers – Billy Fury, Lance Fortune and Johnny Gentle.
Fortune, real name Chris Morris, had begun life in a group formed in Birkenhead School – The Firecrests (see Dave Williams’s entry). His No. 4 chart hit ‘Be Mine’ was produced by Joe Meek and was the first hit Meek had as a solo producer. Fortune also hit the charts with ‘This Love I Have For You.’ He later left the Parnes stable and gave up singing for a while to run a club in Portsmouth. Later in the Sixties he was then invited to join a vocal group the Staggerlees.
It’s interesting to note that when Lance left him, Parnes gave the name Lance Fortune to a new signing, Clive Powell from Leigh, Lancashire (near Merseyside). There were now two Lance Fortunes, until Clive suggested he have another name and became Georgie Fame.
Johnny was born John Askew on December 8 1936 in a terraced house in Nightingale Square, off Scotland Road, Liverpool. He became an apprentice carpenter and in 1957 made his own guitar. He says, “I saw a woodwork magazine, which had an article on how to make a guitar in editions spread over three months. After I completed the guitar I took lessons to play. My tutor was amazed at the sound of my guitar. He always played it when I came for my lesson.”
He recalls, “Being an apprentice meant learning how to use your carpentry tools correctly, learning how to boat build and going to night school to learn the theory of carpentry. My best friends at school, Peter Reilly and Stan Phythian went into the army, although several lads I knew served apprenticeships at Harland & Wolff.”
He teamed up with Bobby Crawford and the two began making appearances at local social clubs. Johnny recalls, “We sang Everly Brothers songs, ‘Bye Bye Love’, ‘Wake Up Little Susie’, ‘Bird Dog’ etc and we would go to a club in Walton on Saturday afternoons and audition for the agents looking for acts for the working men’s clubs, that’s how we got our bookings.”
When his apprenticeship ended in 1958, Johnny became a ship’s carpenter on a cruise liner. Following the initial voyage, he entered a talent competition at Butlin’s under the name George Baker – but the contest was won by Jimmy Tarbuck. By that time John had changed his name again to Ricky Damone. He says, “I first changed my name to Ricky after Ricky Nelson and Damone because I thought it was show business sounding.”
He moved to London and worked on a building site whilst writing to record companies and agencies. He says, “After winning a competition at the Locarno Ballroom I was given some contacts in London by the band leader Jan Ralfini whose son worked for Pye Records. I wrote to Larry Parnes who gave me an audition with Philips Records and signed a contract for six records.”
When Larry Parnes decided to sign Johnny up he initially suggested that he call himself Tim McGhee. Johnny didn’t like the name so Parnes said, “Your name is Johnny and you’re a quiet guy – so how about Johnny Gentle?”
Parnes also appointed him a tour manager – another famous Scouser: Hal Carter.
Johnny’s debut record was the self-penned ‘Wendy’, but it wasn’t successful. He followed with ‘Milk’, but it only managed to reach No. 28 in the charts. An EP ‘The Gentle Touch’ followed.