1960: Chris Huston, guitarist for The Undertakers, had always liked to fiddle with electronics, and had even made a tremelo from a sewing machine footswitch. He wasn't a guitar technician, but he was, perhaps, as close as one got in Liverpool. He'd been the first guitarist in Britain to use a Bigsby tailpiece, and had recommended one to another musician, who showed up after a lunchtime Undertakers session at the Cavern Club. "I've got me guitar with me," said John Lennon. "Let's go to Hessy's."
The two walked to Hessy's Music, just
down the road from
the Cavern. "We walked in," Huston remembers,
"and John said to [salesman]
Jim Gretty, 'Is me Bigsby in?' Jim said 'Yeah,
sure,' so he got his
Bigsby, and I said 'OK, well let's put it on the
counter,' and he took
it out, and Jim Gretty looked at all this, and he said
'You're gonna put
it on here then, are ya? Hmph. All
the advent of container shipping in the late '50s and
early '60s, the vast
Mersey docklands shrank to just two docks near the mouth
of the river.
"In one fell swoop," Huston says, "thousands of people
were out of work.
It was an incredible economic downturn. But with
three chords we
were able to ride above our social position."
Huston arrived in Wallasey, near Liverpool, from Dr. Bernardo's Home, an orphanage just across the border in Caergwrle, Wales, toward the end of World War II. As a teenager he began studying commercial art, first at Wallasey Technical College and then the Liverpool College of Art, where he met a "street fighter" named Lennon. While supporting his family as a commercial artist, he also surrendered to the "black music" coming from America and in '61 was a founding member of a group called The Undertakers. "I bought a Les Paul Special from America, and was writing to a guy called Clyde Rounds of Gibson, for advice on getting American instruments." Later on, he wrote a letter to Paul Bigsby, who replied that he was making a special model to be mounted on solid body guitars. "So I ordered my Gibson with the Bigsby on it, as they weren't yet available in England, and I was the first one in England to have one."
The Undertakers soon became one of the most popular Merseyside bands. "We couldn't afford fancy suits like London bands. We would wear jeans and cowboy boots, and had a reputation for stamping holes in stages. Basically we'd be thumbing our noses at the London bands. We'd go looking for obscure material, which at the time was the black music -- it wasn't even called R&B at the time, just 'blues' or 'race music.' In London we used to go down and shop in the barrows at the open-air markets. The U.S. Air Force bases would unload their juke boxes there. We'd find the most incredible records. I found my first James Brown record in a barrow! All the groups in Liverpool would do the same stuff, so the biggest thing you could do was go on stage with three other groups and do a song they hadn't heard yet, like 'Fortune Teller,' you know, Benny Spellman, or the 'B' sides of obscure records, like 'Lipstick Traces,' which nobody ever heard of."
With Huston on lead guitar, Jackie Lomax on vocals and bass and Brian Jones on sax (no, not that Brian Jones), the Undertakers recorded for Pye Records and toured continuously throughout England and Germany, often in the same clubs the Beatles played, and were the resident band at the Star Club in the summer of '62 for the first time. There, too, Huston got to meet many of his idols, including Gene Vincent (left, with Huston and Lomax at the Star Club), Ray Charles and Little Richard. It was Germany, Huston remembers, that changed the Beatles. "When they came back, it was like they knew something we didn't know. It was the strangest feeling . We went to see them, and they had an energy, they had a fire about them. I mean, we were all doing, basically, the same numbers, but there was an undeniable excitement and look about them."
"I talked to John about it. He
said, 'It was fuckin'
over there! You wouldn't fuckin' believe
it. They roll the
bloody pavement up here [Liverpool] at ten o'clock,
and you go over there,
and it's just getting started at 12 o'clock!'
And we got to go over
there, and we saw what he meant. It was all the
rehearsals, the staying
up late, and playing with the fabulous American bands
that made the difference."
Lennon "liked the Bigsby," Huston
did, because Bigsby, by name, had it,
and this other thing
(the Rickenbacker Vibrola) -- we laughed about it
because it was so fragile.
It just didn't do it."
"You know what worried me, and I thought about this later -- what if that was too wide to go in there? What would we have done? You know, we could always file something off, but you really couldn't because of where the handle comes down and where the spring sits; how much of that can you file off? I didn't even think about that at the time. It wasn't even a consideration. I said 'Let's leave the strings on so we can align it,' when in actuality you have to take them off, but we were able to pull the strings straight as a sort of measure. If we had thought about it, we wouldn't have done it! But you know something, there were no guitar techs in those days. That species of animal didn't exist ."
Then it was time to restring. "In
those days, there
was no such thing as light-gauge strings. The
best strings we could
get were Gibson Sono-Matics, so what we used to do is
get a banjo second
[string] for a first string, then use the first five
strings [from the
guitar set] and toss the sixth string. That's
how we got our light-gauge
Undertakers, who counted
the Beatles among their fans, were one of more than 300
and roll combos but earned a special place in Scouse
sound is summed up nicely in their allmusic.com entry:
"With the saxophone,
and the thumping beat favored during this period, they
sounded very slightly
like the Dave Clark Five, but Jones was a more
articulate player than that,
and [Huston's] lead guitar always made the group's sound
and Lomax was an incredibly charismatic soul singer, the
to Eric Burdon and maybe better than that. "
The group turned down a management offer by Brian Epstein and enjoyed limited commercial success. Their first two singles -- "(Do The) Mashed Potatoes" b/w "Everybody Loves A Lover," and "What About Us" b/w "Money" -- didn't chart well, although the latter rivaled the Beatles' verison, but their third single, "Just A Little Bit" b/w "Stupidity," became a Top 20 hit in England during the summer of 1964.
Dissatisfaction with their producer led them to leave Pye and move to America, where they hooked up with New York entrepreneur Bob Harvey and his partner Bob Gallo, who were also handling Pete Best. The group endured some rough sledding in this period, but recorded one single, "I Fell In Love," written by Bob Bateman, played whatever gigs they could scrape up, and when not taking a back seat to the Pete Best Combo, managed to record an album, Unearthed (1965), which went unreleased for 30 years.
When the money ran out, the Undertakers went their separate ways, and Huston stayed in America, carving out an impressive career as an engineer and producer, working with such talents as Led Zepplin, the Who, War, the Rascals, Todd Rundgren , Van Morrison, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Mytch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, Ben E. King, the Drifters, Patti La Belle & the Bluebelles, Solomon Burke, Mary Wells, Wilson Pickett, John Hammond Jr., James Brown, ? & the Mysterians, Robben Ford, Eric Burden and many more. Among his accomplishments are several dozen Gold and Platinum records (such as the gold disc for "Groovin,'" pictured above, with Rascal Gene Cornish), as well as a Grammy (for War's "The World Is a Ghetto" ).
In addition to his many years in the studio, live and remote recording all over the world, and his work on numerous movie sound tracks, radio and TV commercials, Huston launched a career as a designer and acoustic consultant, with projects as varied as recording studios and control rooms, radio stations, dubbing and Foley/ADR stages, rehearsal studios, night clubs, video stages, video editing suites, home theaters, home studios, restaurants and churches.
Huston also lectures extensively to architects and designers on acoustics in building design and residential / industrial noise control. One of his most satisfying experiences is his lectures to graduate-student recording engineers on recording techniques and record production.
Huston saw Lennon for the last time in 1980, "at the Cherokee Recording Studios, a short while before he was murdered, actually -- three or four months. He'd come in to see Ringo. I was in one studio, producing a session for Lonnie Jordan, the lead singer of War, for a solo album, and Ringo was working in another studio. So John comes walking in with Yoko, and I'm coming out of my control room, he's in the hallway, and just then Ringo comes out, and John says, 'Hey Ringo, look who's here, it's Chris Huston, the Undertaker!' Ringo says, 'I know, he's been here all week,' So he goes back into his room, and John and I start talking, you know, just leaning in the hall for a bit, then we went off into the lounge and talked for a while . . . with friendships like that -- I mean, I didn't see him for 15 years, and our lives were so separate, but we had such a background that you pick up where you left off. There were never any airs . . ."
Having made his mark in the recording studios of New York and Hollywood, Huston now has his headquarters near Nashville, where he lectures at Middle Tennessee University and keeps his hand in production. It's a long way from his beginnings in Merseyside, but he carries many happy memories of that place and the people he met there. He still has a creased Polaroid photo of the Beatles -- with Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe -- rehearsing at the Top Ten Club, taken by the cigarette girl. "It was a very special time," says Huston. "You know, we didn't always realize it. If I'd known it was going to be important, I might have taken notes."
Photos courtesy of Chris Huston. All rights reserved.
Thanks to Chris Huston and Glen Lambert
Mr. Huston can be contacted here.