“What are you doing on your radio show this week?” asked Mrs Routemaster. “Johnny Kidd and the story of Shakin All Over” I replied. She looked at me blankly so I hummed DUM-DUM, DUM-DUM, DUM-DUM, DUM-DUM”, tapping out a rhythm with my hands at the same time. “Ah” she said. “I know that one”. And it occurred to me that that we all know that one, even just the few seconds of the intro, an electrifying, echo-drenched glissando.
It wasn’t the first British rock ‘n’ roll single – that’s probably Cliff Richard’s “Move It” in 1958 – but it can probably claim to be one of the most influential and a whole lot fresher, more authentic and menacing than the anodyne Elvis impersonators that were Cliff and his ilk. It came out in 1960 and remains a landmark as a great, great song. Johnny was a very good singer and terrific stage performer, but is often cruelly put alongside other hapless short-lived stars or one hit wonders, which he most certainly wasn’t. His was a short and eventful life, cut short aged only 30 by a car crash up North when he was out hustling for cabaret work. Johnny Kidd – or Freddie Heath to give him his real name – was born, like my dad, in 1935 in Willesden, North London. After the obligatory wartime evacuation, failed Eleven Plus and National Service, Freddie fetched up by age 20 as an odd job man working variously as a laundryman, warehouseman, bookie’s runner and house painter. With a wife and kid on the way, he was so poor that witnesses attest that the lower part of his socks were so worn out that you could see his white feet, so he used boot polish to dye his feet black so you would think he was rich enough to buy whole socks. Truly a man who was rescued by rock and roll.
Starting by jumping up on stage at skiffle competitions, he was soon gigging six nights a week and was finally spotted by EMI, who signed him to a record deal in 1959. During the session for his first single “Please Don’t Touch”, Fred Heath became “Johnny Kidd” and his backing band were re-titled “the Pirates”. No one remembers why or whose idea it was – Captain Kidd was a pirate I suppose. The Pirates got pirate costumes, Fred got an eye patch, inventing a story that he’d been hit in the eye by a broken guitar string (actually he had a squint). The record got to 25. After a couple of flops, a new single was needed. The song EMI wanted for the A side sucked but they had no choice so they did a deal to write the B side because you got as much money as a writer of the B side as for the A side.
The session was set for Friday 13 May 1960 and so after a gig the previous night, they got back to the West End and went to the ‘Freight Train’ coffee bar at the junction of Berwick Street and Noel Street and commandeered the basement to knock out the B side. In a room no bigger than a storeroom and sitting on upturned Coca Cola, they wrote “Shakin’ All Over” in six minutes. The lyrics came straight outta Willesden: when Fred and his pals spotted a pretty girl in the street, they would say she gives me “quivers down me membranes”, adapted for these purposes to ‘Quivers down the backbone, shakes down the knee bone and tremors in the thigh bone’. Witty and sexy. Now it just needed to sound good. The next morning, at 10am prompt, they arrived at the EMI Studios at 3 Abbey Road, in Studio 2 – where the Beatles later recorded almost all of their stuff – where they quickly knocked off the A side, a rocked up version of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby'” (you can see why they all thought it sucked) before committing ‘Shakin All Over’ to tape in one take. Session guitarist Joe Moretti then overdubbed the “shimmering” guitar effects at the end of each verse by sliding his Ronson cigarette lighter up and down the strings. Some present say it was all done in 6 minutes, longer than it had taken to set up their equipment.
It came out on June 10th and remains a landmark, not just in British pop, but also in the development of rock. The drums are big, the bass and rhythm guitar double each other, it’s drenched in echo, more than has ever been used before, so much that EMI technicians in their white coats said it can’t be done as it wasn’t not in their manual. Boosted by an appearance on early rock and roll TV show “Wham!”, it had reached number 1 by the beginning of August, the 7th biggest selling disc of the year. However in those days singles were 6 weeks apart, even if you were still in the charts and all his subsequent singles failed. They toured constantly, two shows a night, 1000 miles a week, making good money but barely a year later the best days of the group seemed over and the Pirates reluctantly left en masse. They didn’t care for long – they pretty much became the Tornados and became the first group to top the UK and US Charts with ‘Telstar’. Fred was devastated but simply recruited new Pirates and carried on as before with a pretty full live schedule in clubs and on national tours. It beat painting houses for a living.
One club booking was at the Cavern, Liverpool where he spotted a new sound and nicked it for the very Beatlesque “I’ll Never Get Over You” and just when you think he’s currently residing in the “where are they now” file “I’ll Never Get Over You” only goes and gets to Number 4 in July 1963. Alas, once again his further singles flopped and by 1966 regular work had dried up, so he tried his hand at the cabaret circuit.
On October 7, the group arrived late for a gig in Bolton, Lancashire, but the Manager threw a hissy and cancelled them. With free time on their hands they decided to travel over to a neighbouring town where they knew a club to see if they could drum up work as he still had to pay the band. In the early hours of October 8, three miles south of Bury on the A58 in Lancashire, the steering on his brand new GT Cortina froze at 70 mph and the car crossed the central reservation, colliding head on with one of the only cars on the road at that time of night. Fred and a 17 year passenger in the other car were killed instantly. He would have been 31 in a few weeks’ time and left a wife, an ex-wife and 3 children.
There are literally hundreds of cover versions of ‘Shakin’ All Over’, from AC/DC to the Beach Boys, from Led Zeppelin to Van Morrison, from the Who to most bizarrely of all Mae West. And whilst his version was never a hit in America, in 1965 a band called Chad Allen & the Expressions had a hit with it in the US and Canada. In an attempt to build a mystique around the record, the single was credited to The Guess Who? in the hope It that some listeners might assume it might be The Beatles in disguise. It wasn’t but they kept the name and had a few more hits. They later became Messrs’ Bachman Turner and Overdrive.
But cover versions is where the real publishing money is and Fred Heath wrote all his own songs. The royalties continue to go to his family.