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.

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.



Mysterious disappearance

As the book’s title suggests, Nicol vanished after his brief Beatles tenure. His story includes blacklisting, drug abuse, and bankruptcy, but his life was not devoid of romance and intrigue — including some lingering doubt as to whether he is dead or alive. At the time the book was published, Nicol was very much alive after reinventing himself as a tradesman. He simply traded a drumstick for a hammer, and proudly so.

Still, his life was not without struggle in that early post-Beatle period. Within about a year of Nicol coming to the Beatles’ rescue, Berkenstadt notes that Nicol was divorced, bankrupt, and that he had been in two bands that had broken up without producing any chart-topping songs. As former Beatle Paul McCartney acknowledged, “It wasn’t an easy thing for Jimmie to stand in for Ringo and have all that fame thrust upon him, and the minute his tenure was over, he wasn’t famous anymore.”

Of all the Beatles, McCartney was the one who reached out to Nicol, or used his industry connections to help him, including the brother of British actress Jane Asher, who Paul was dating at the time. “Jimmie was basically unemployed and now living in his mom’s home, so he had hit rock bottom in a year,” Berkenstadt recounts. “Paul McCartney read this in the newspaper, and so he called up Peter Asher of Peter and Gordon and said, “Hey, do you think you can give Jimmie Nicol some work, either in studio or on tour? Actually, Peter and Gordon used Jimmie for both. I interviewed both of them for the book and they did help him out, but again, it was sort of a short-term thing because Peter and Gordon really didn’t have a band. They just would hire people when they went out.

“Then, many years later, when the Beatles were doing their anthology film and movie project, especially the film, Paul discovered that Jimmie Nicol’s son Howie was actually the sound recordist on their film. So, he approached Howie Nicol and asked Howie to ask his dad if he would consider being interviewed on the anthology for their film documentary. But Jimmie did not respond, and he would have been paid pretty handsomely had he appeared in their production.”

With Berkenstadt’s help, Nicol is gaining some long overdue notoriety. Berkenstadt has made a career of uncovering the lost history and even mysteries hidden in popular music. He is considered an international authority on the Beatles and also has co-authored Black Market Beatles, Nirvana: Nevermind (Classic Rock Albums), and The Beatles Digest. He also edited John, Paul & Me: Before the Beatles, and his books have been added to the permanent library and archives of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s also no stranger to film work, having served as the historical consultant on Martin Scorsese’s Emmy award-winning HBO documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World.

Entertainment history is filled with stories of how authors hated the film adaptation of their books, but Berkenstadt is confident that he’ll like the cinematic version of The Beatle Who Vanished. As an executive producer, he’ll have creative input on the project, and while that’s not the same as creative control, his counsel has already improved the accuracy of the unfolding screenplay.

“We’ve already created a film treatment, and there were a couple of factual inconsistencies that I brought to their attention, and they changed them and were appreciative of that information,” Berkenstadt notes. “I have also been told they boiled it down to two screenwriters, and they have told them they would each have a shot to pitch their ideas and then, once the single screenwriter, or playwriter, is settled upon, they will be hiring me to consult with him, work with him, and even provide him with information that was not put into the book.

“I don’t really think we’re at the point of casting or anything like that,” he adds. “It’s still in development, so it’s the time where the script gets written, there is a budget planned and then created, and then they raise money, etc. It’s fairly early in the process.”

While there is no timeline for the film, the project has advanced from book deal to pre-development much faster than most, which leads Berkenstadt to forecast a release in late 2020 or early 2021. Thanks to Berkenstadt’s wordsmithing and the film production talents of his new partners, Jimmie Nicol is no longer just the classiest footnote in Beatles’ history. The dues-paying drummer turned hardworking “everyman” is finally getting his due.

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