[by Ken Hunt, London] In June 1960 a beat group called The Jets hit the St. Pauli district of Hansastadt Hamburg. With their arrival the British music invasion began. Rick Hardy was one of the original five-piece Jets, the first British group to perform in the clubs on the Reeperbahn, a district famed for ultra-violence, cameraderie and the richness of its lexicon of sexual services. Many other groups followed them to St. Pauli, notably a group that grew wings and became The Beatles. Hardy was more than a footnote in the history of rock music. He linked skiffle and rock, linked Soho and Hamburg and linked Joe Brown, Cliff Richard, The Shadows and The Beatles.
The guitarist, singer and music historian Richard William Hardy was born in Islington, a district of North London on 17 October 1933. He grew up in North London’s Edgware district and Watford in Hertfordshire. Hearing a Bob Crosby’s Bearcats record “entranced” him and throughout his life his interest in jazz never waned and wavered. He was especially interested in modern British jazz (collecting Tubby Hayes scores) and, latterly, Portuguese fado and the singing of Mariza. The skiffle master Chas McDevitt recalls him buying the shawl off one fado singer’s back in Portugal.
Hardy bought his first guitar - a Hofner - in Selmer’s instrument shop in Charing Cross Road in 1956 in that section between Cambridge Circus and Tottenham Court Road that nowadays only retains a semblance of its music shop past. Shortly afterwards, he upgraded to a Gibson model and joined the Watford-based trad. jazz band, the Colne Valley Stompers on rhythm guitarist. Jazz and skiffle were bedfellows. Brian Bird in Skiffle: The Story of Folk-Song with a Jazz Beat (1958) wrote, “Skiffle has come along and filled a vacuum in the musical life of Britain.” Hardy was soon fronting - “under [his] new professional name” - the Rick Richards Skiffle Group. An unreleased 1957 session including Putting On The Style, Last Train To San Fernando and House of the Rising Sun appeared as Shake It Daddy (2001).
Les Hobeaux had a residency at arguably Soho’s most important coffee bar, the 2i’s. On their departure the Worried Men Skiffle Group filled the vacancy. Britain was experiencing its first taste of youth culture. When the Worrieds’ Terry Nelhams left to go to pop stardom as Adam Faith, Hardy stepped in as his replacement. For a Soho cellar, the 2i’s exerted a massive gravitational pull. One day, Hardy recalled, “a young singer by the name of Harry Webb came down the narrow steps of the 2i’s and asked if he could sing. He had two musicians with him, a drummer and a guitarist, and he called his group ‘The Drifters’.” Webb changed his name too, to emerge imago-like as Cliff Richard. He later signed a photograph, “To my pal Ricky, sorry I pinched your name, Cliff.” It was mostly viewed as a light-hearted wheeze than delivering some inner Cliff Richard gospel truth. Hardy was invited to join The Drifters but declined - foolishly, he later reflected. The Worried Men’s drummers Tony Meehan and Brian Bennett did go on to play with The Drifters’ offshoot - The Shadows. In 1958 it was Hardy who told Hank Marvin about the audition for the Shads’ lead guitar job. For his part in the formation of The Shadows, Hardy received a Hank Marvin signature guitar in 2004.
In 1959 Hardy went to work at Butlin’s holiday camp in Filey, Yorkshire. The group included Clay Nichols on vocals and Joe Brown on guitar. Engagement over and back in Soho the following year, Bruno Koschmider arrived and spoke to the pianist Iain Hines about booking a group for the Kaiserkeller, his club at Grosse Freiheit 38 - Grosse Freiheit was the main drag on the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s red-light district. Koschmider wanted a British act with greater authenticity and authority than the available German groups - though The Rattles, one of Germany’s greatest beat groups, also came out of the St. Pauli scene. Hines put together a group-for-hire for the five-month hitch. They chose the name Jets and entered the history books.
One short of the contracted sextet - Hines had some domestic bother and failed to make the train for the Harwich-Hamburg ferry - Hardy, Colin Melander on guitar and vocals, Tony Sheridan on lead guitar and vocals, Jimmy Ward on piano, vocals and drums and bassist Peter Wharton started their residency. (Hines arrived later.) By July 1960 Peter Eckhorn, a rival club-owner, had poached them for the Top Ten. Koschmider promptly returned to secure two replacement Liverpudlian groups - Derry and the Seniors for the Kaiserkeller and The Beatles for his ‘downer-market’ Indra club at Grosse Freiheit 64. Hardy reminisced how The Jets “went to see the Beatles there and honestly [we] were not impressed. They were quite raw, had little idea of showmanship and at that time of course didn’t do any original material.”
The Beatles improved, learned from their Hamburg days and moved on. Alongside picking up strong reading and speaking German skills, Hardy cut two sides for Philips in October 1960, released with, he recalled with worldweariness, “true German efficiency (.) under my passport name of Richard Hardy”. Okay Madame and Tanz mit mir Dixieland (Dance Dixieland With Me) were reissued on the Hamburg-era anthology Damals in Hamburg (generally translated as ‘Once Upon A Time In Hamburg’, actually Back Then In Hamburg’) in 1999, alongside material by Tony Sheridan, Tony Sheridan and the Beatles and Tony Cavana and His Beat Boys. Hardy observed, “It is interesting to note that of the 28 songs on the album only two are not by members of the Jets - if you count in our adopted member Tony Cavanaugh.”
After The Jets broke up, Hardy stayed on playing the army base circuit. He got as far as Turkey, Japan and Thailand - where he recorded Our Last Kiss in 1968 with the delightfully named Porn Piroon. Around 1975 he began reinventing himself as a professional Cockney, recording cod Cockneyisms like The Befnal Green Cow’and (The Bethnal Green Cowhand) and revisiting them on Cockney Favourites and Sling Yer’ook. “He also did a very good Johnny Cash,” McDevitt told me. Along the way, he was the Pearly King in the film Trainspotting (1996) and had a place on an (actors’ union) Equity regional committee.
Hardy died in a road traffic accident on 11 December 2006, an innocent party in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like the Everly Brothers sang, oh, the stories he could tell. The September before his death, a plaque was unveiled in Old Compton Street on the site of the 2i’s. Hardy, McDevitt and Richard were amongst those attended the ceremony. He had been due to appear at the 50th anniversary of the 2i’s opening at the 100 Club on 28 January 2007. Before his death he had become one of the most important chroniclers of the skiffle-into-rock’n'roll youthquake. His photo-archive, much of it held by the Redfern’s photo agency, was impressive. His photos and recollections grace histories like ex-Shadow Jet Harris’ Live Inside CD on Roller Coaster and McDevitt’s book Skiffle - The Definitive Inside Story. Increasingly he wrote the story down. It wasn’t even his side of the story. It was the great story.
A far fuller version of this tale, where it came from and where it went appears in Pete Frame’s The Restless Generation - How rock music changed the face of 1950s Britain (Rogan House/Music Sales, 2007) - ISBN 978-0-95295-407-1. Frame is also the inventor and calligrapher of the famed Rock Family Trees.