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Madison author Berkenstadt options film rights to Beatles book

For 13 days in 1964, a little-known session drummer named Jimmie Nicol toured with the Beatles and might have saved the legendary band from rock-and-roll infamy. Thanks to a local author and his new film-production colleagues, he’s becoming more than just a footnote in music history.

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Several years ago, when local author Jim Berkenstadt wrote the book titled The Beatle Who Vanished, he knew he had a story worthy of a screenplay, and now his hunch has been proven correct. Berkenstadt recently optioned the rights to the non-fiction book to film producers Ashley Hamilton and Alex Orbison, and it should make for a riveting piece of cinema.

In the book, Berkenstadt, a music historian who founded the Madison-based company Rock and Roll Detective, recounts a previously untold chapter in Beatles history. It’s the story of a forgotten drummer, but it’s not about Pete Best, the drummer who preceded Ringo Starr and was let go not long before the legendary band gained international fame.

It’s the tale of Jimmie Nicol, a session player who was called to substitute for a hospitalized Ringo Starr just as the Beatles were about to embark on their first world tour, a two-week trip that would take them to Denmark, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand. It was early in June 1964, four months after the Fab Four had launched the British Invasion with an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in New York.

Given the exploding fame that followed their first U.S. visit, it’s hard to believe that Beatlemania might have been stopped in its tracks without Nicol pinch-drumming for Starr. However, Berkenstadt says it’s not a stretch to say that Nicol might have saved the Beatles from a rough patch — all because Ringo became ill with tonsillitis and was rushed to the hospital the day before the tour was supposed to start.

Author Jim Berkenstadt

Berkenstadt, who will serve as an executive producer with creative input on the film project, notes how much the music industry has changed in the past 55 years. A failed tour “could have been the end of the group,” he states. “We might not have ever heard them other than their brief visit to the Ed Sullivan Show. In those days, there was no insurance for the cancellation of a tour. All of the contracts were in place. It had taken months to do this, all by letters across the globe, back and forth between Beatles manager Brian Epstein and promoters. He had scheduled all the hotel rooms. There was Beatle merchandise being put on all the shelves of stores around the world where these concerts were to take place. The tickets were sold.

“The Beatles would have been faced with massive lawsuits and horrible, very negative publicity if they would have had to cancel this tour,” he adds. “Brian Epstein, being a pretty shrewd businessman, realized that, and that’s why he had to work really hard to convince George Harrison to let the band continue without Ringo Starr as drummer.”

For a brief time, Harrison was fiercely resistant to the idea of replacing his friend, not quite understanding the consequences of a failed tour. Fortunately for the band, reason prevailed and music producer George Martin, who worked with the Beatles on some of their most critically acclaimed albums, knew of Nicol from the drummer’s session work. Martin also knew that Nicol was familiar with and had performed some of the Beatles’ musical portfolio, including songs that were on the playlist for the forthcoming tour. Nicol even had “the look,” having recently started to grow his hair in the band’s signature mop-top style.

He was a solution right out of central casting. “The stars really aligned for them because although Jimmie was the third drummer that they approached that day, with less than 24 hours before the tour, it’s just amazing that they picked a guy who had already learned and played cover songs of the Beatles. He already knew Ringo’s drum parts for seven out of the 10 songs on the concert set list, so it’s just amazing that they found someone who was ready to go and a professional — both a live and in-studio drumming professional. It was just a miracle, really.”

One would think Nicol would have parlayed his brush with fame into a lucrative career, but following the tour he bowed out gracefully and quickly vanished, according to film producer Alex Orbison. If that surname sounds familiar, it should. Alex is the son of the late singing legend Roy Orbison, who toured with the Beatles in 1963. At the time the book rights were announced, Orbison made the following prediction: “The true story of Jimmie Nicol, the man who rescued the Beatles’ first world tour from disaster, spent his 15 minutes of fame by the age of 25, then seemingly vanished, will captivate fans around the world and make for a compelling story that is both intimate and epic.”

The full-length feature film is being produced in collaboration with the British Studio Ecosse Films. The film’s producer, Robert Bernstein, has worked with Ecosse on films such as A Royal Night Out, which depicts Queen Elizabeth II when she was still a princess; Wuthering Heights, the latest film adaptation of the classic novel; and synergistically, the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy.


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