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John Lennon, African guitar player


John Winston Lennon was born to Julia and Freddie Lennon at the city's Oxford Street Maternity Hospital. Freddie, a merchant seaman, was away. He would spend most of his time at sea, and rarely saw his son. At first Julia was left alone to bring up John, but soon she began living a more carefree life, dating other men, and increasingly left John to be looked after by her sister, Mary Elizabeth " Mimi" Smith. By the age of five John had moved in with Aunt Mimi at Mendips, a house on Menlove Avenue in a pleasant area of Liverpool.

John attended the nearby Quarry Bank Grammar School, where he showed little interest in schoolwork. In an early display of artistic gifts he spent more time on his own creative projects, including a book he called The Daily Howl, which he would fill with drawings and humorous stories.

Lennon's first musical instrument was the harmonica. He later recalled, " I can remember why I took it up in the first place: I must have picked one up very cheap. [Mimi] used to take in students and one of them had a mouth organ and said he'd buy me one if I could learn a tune by the next morning. So I learned about two. I was somewhere between eight and 12 at the time - in short pants, anyway. Another time, I was travelling to Edinburgh on my own to see my Auntie, and I played the mouth organ all the way up on the bus. The driver liked it and told me to meet him at a place in Edinburgh the next morning, and he gave me a good mouth organ." 2

While living with Aunt Mimi at Mendips, Lennon would often visit his mother's home. During one of these visits, probably in 1955, Julia taught him some basic chords on her banjo, and Lennon's interest in playing a stringed instrument was underway. Lennon's teenage influences included 1950s movies such as Blackboard Jungle and The Wild One and role models like James Dean, Elvis Presley and, perhaps most significantly, the British skiffle star Lonnie Donegan. By 1956 skiffle, a crude form of homemade popular music, was all the rage with British teenagers. It was popularised by Donegan's hit recording of Leadbelly's 'Rock Island Line', which peaked at number eight in the UK charts in the opening months of 1956, although the music's roots were in the jazz, folk-blues and country-blues of American players like Big Bill Broonzy, Woody Guthrie and others.

Forming a skiffle group was relatively easy. The formula was simple and inexpensive, using cheap folk guitars, a metal washboard, a tea-chest with broomstick " neck" and single string for a bass, a drummer (if you were lucky), and any other instruments that would fit the format, from banjo to piano. Just about anything would do. Teenagers all over Britain were picking up instruments and getting groups together to play this basic new music.

Lennon was a restless 16-year-old when skiffle hit, and along with his schoolmate Pete Shotton they started their own group. At first they were called The Blackjacks, but soon became The Quarry Men - as at first all the members went to Quarry Bank Grammar. The group started to play at parties and church dances. The first line-up consisted of Lennon on guitar, Shotton on washboard, Eric Griffiths on guitar, Rod Davis on banjo, Colin Hanton on drums, and Bill Smith on the tea-chest bass. Smith was later replaced by Ivan Vaughan, then Nigel Whalley, and finally Len Garry.

John Lennon, African guitar player

The band's equipment was primitive, but that was one of skiffle's requirements. Lennon's guitar was a Gallotone Champion, which he ordered from a newspaper ad. There is a much-repeated story that Aunt Mimi bought Lennon his first guitar for £ 17, but that is not true. Mimi did later buy Lennon a guitar that involved her parting with £ 17, but it was not his first.

Lennon's biographer Ray Coleman described 3 how Lennon first tried to coax his aunt and then his mother into buying him a guitar. Mimi wouldn't because she thought it would affect his studies. Undeterred, Lennon ordered a guitar and had it sent to Julia's address, figuring that way he would run less risk of being scolded by Mimi. This was the Gallotone Champion. In 1964 Lennon recalled, " I was about 14 when I got my first guitar. It was a beat-up old Spanish model which cost about ten quid. It was advertised in Reveille magazine as 'guaranteed not to split'." 4 The Gallotone Champion flat-top acoustic guitar was crudely constructed, about three-quarter size compared to a regular model, and made from laminated woods, unlike the solid material employed for better instruments.

The South African-based Gallo company had been started when Eric Gallo opened his Brunswick record shop in Johannesburg in 1926, but gradually Gallo began to expand as they took on the South African distribution and manufacturing for big labels such as Decca and CBS, and in 1946 became Gallo (Africa) Ltd. Various subsidiary businesses began, and in the late 1930s Gallo set up a small factory next to their Johannesburg premises to build Singer-brand guitars, banjos, ukuleles and mandolins. Around 1946 the instrument factory was moved to a larger, more modern facility in Jacobs, an industrial suburb of Durban. At about the same time the company changed the name of its record imprint to Gallotone, and after a complaint from the Singer sewing machine company the instrument brandname was also changed. For more than two decades Gallo built stringed instruments for the South African market and conducted a large export business. The operation shut down in about 1969, although Gallo continues in the music and video business today.

Inevitably, Gallo's guitars found their way to Britain, where they were marketed through a number of outlets to supply the demand for cheap beginners' instruments. The Champion was the cheapest Gallotone; around 1955 it was being offered at a wholesale price of £ 2/10/-. This means it probably would have retailed in the UK for around £ 6 (about $ 17 then, and in the region of £ 90 or $125 when translated into today's buying power). The general sound and playability of the Champion reflected its low price. Inside the soundhole was a label that did indeed claim: " GUARANTEED NOT TO SPLIT", and some versions added: " Specially manufactured to withstand all climatic conditions." Even, presumably, the heat of the South African sun. Like many budget guitars of the day, it was probably torture to play- But none of this hindered Lennon's ambition.

" When I was young I played the guitar like a banjo, with the sixth string hanging loose, " Lennon remembered later. " I always thought Lonnie and Elvis were great, and all I ever wanted to do was to vamp, " he said, meaning to play simple chords to accompany songs. " I got some banjo things off OK, [and later] George and Paul came along and taught me other things. My first guitar cost me £ 10, advertised in the paper. Why did I get it? Oh, the usual kid's desire to get up on stage, I suppose. And also my mother said she could play any stringed instrument. She did teach me a bit." 5

Former Quarry Men banjo-player Rod Davis also disagrees with the story that Mimi bought Lennon his first guitar for £ 17. " The very first guitars that I remember John and Eric Griffiths having were almost identical, and I don't think they would have cost more than £ 5. Eric's was a lighter coloured wood, John's more of a brownish-red. My recollection is that John got a mail-order guitar from one of the newspapers. It had a treble clef on the headstock, between the machine-heads. The strings weren't attached to the bridge; they went over the bridge and to a tailpiece."

Davis points out that a cheap first guitar was unlikely to cost as much as £ 17 - which would be the equivalent in today's money of about £ 250, or $350. " That was an awful lot in those days, " he says. " Even a few years later, in 1960, when I first started work before I went to university, I was only getting £ 5 a week, and that was a lot of money. So £ 17 would have been a bloody fortune for a guitar." Davis says that the strings they used were mostly Cathedral-brand banjo strings and all roundwound, in other words with round wire wrapped around the central core, as opposed to flatwound strings which have a flatter, smoother surface. " Flatwounds were available, " he says, " but they were a lot more expensive - and we were at the bottom of the market."

He recalls that Lennon thrashed his Gallotone guitar and frequently broke strings. " So then he'd take my banjo and play that, and I would have the job of re-stringing his guitar ready for the next number. I frequently held that guitar and put strings on it for him. In fact, he would play it so furiously that he'd take the skin off his index finger and spray blood into his guitar. So somewhere somebody's got a guitar with brown stains inside, under the soundhole -which is John's old guitar." 6

A Gallotone Champion was sold for a considerable sum in 1999 by Sotheby's as Lennon's original guitar. The auction catalogue related that in the 1980s Aunt Mimi had donated this restored instrument - in a trunk with various other items - to a Liverpool charity that asked her for articles owned by Lennon. Among other items with the guitar in the sale was a typed and undated letter signed " Mimi", agreeing to the request.

" I must admit I didn't know these things still existed until John asked me to sort out his bits and pieces from the old days and send them on to [New York], " the letter states. " The poor old guitar was in such a state when I found it I had it professionally repaired." The auctioned guitar had indeed been restored, including a completely new paint finish, and (presumably done at the same time) a plaque added to the headstock reading: " Remember You'll Never Earn Your Living By It". The sale catalogue says the plaque referred back " to a remark [Mimi] is reported to have made out of exasperation with the hours John spent practising rather than studying".

The letter specified that there was to be no publicity associated with the donation, A handwritten addition to the letter by " Maggie", the addressee, suggests hanging on to the trunk " till I hear back from Olive Mount", referring to a local centre for disabled children. The guitar apparently stayed at Olive Mount and was played by the children there. Subsequently, the father of one of these children who came into possession of the guitar put the instrument up for auction in 1999. A percentage of the sale proceeds was donated to the Olive Mount Learning Disabilities Directorate in Liverpool.

Mimi was interviewed by The Liverpool Echo in December 1981 on the first anniversary of Lennon's murder. The paper said the Beatle never forgot Liverpool. " The empty drawers and attic at Aunt Mimi's bungalow are a testimony to that. They used to be full of mementos and souvenirs from the past that Mimi had hoarded for years... John's first school report, his early paintings, poems, songs, and even his old school tie." 7 A guitar is not mentioned.

Lennon had despatched May Pang from his new home in New York to England in the 1970s to bring back some of these treasured items, including a Rickenbacker guitar and various keepsakes from his schooldays.8 But evidently no Gallotone. Would a musician in nostalgic mood not want to have his first guitar - if it still existed? The letter allows for this. " [The restored guitar] was to have been a big surprise for |ohn, I can't bring myself to look at it now, it's just too painful." This line would place the letter after Lennon's murder in December 1980. So the donation would have taken place some time in 1981. Mimi herself died in 1991.

All these assumptions hinge on the authenticity of a letter. It's also unfortunate that a restored guitar cannot be visually compared with the few original pictures of the instrument in action with Lennon. And as we shall learn in the next chapter, in the late 1950s Lennon was without a guitar when an early group of his went to Manchester for an audition. It is quite possible that the guitar sold by Sotheby's is Lennon's Gallotone - but equally there is no absolute proof.


Rod Davis wrote about the guitar after the sale, telling of the auction house's request for him to authenticate the instrument. He had been able to do this, he reported, because of that old memory of Lennon cutting his finger while playing the Gallotone and spraying blood inside, onto and around the guitar's label. " I looked inside for the bloodstains, " wrote Davis. " Yes, they were clearly there when you knew what to look for." Davis deemed the Gallotone an " extraordinary find", and concluded, " Now I have one less guitar to look for when trawling the junk shops." 9

Davis told this author of a mysterious guitar that he recalls Lennon playing prior to that first mail-order Gallotone. Quarry Men guitarist Eric Griffiths also recalls such an instrument. " I don't know where John got his, I can't even remember where I got mine, but we had guitars prior to that mail-order one, " says Griffiths. " In the early days, the first guitars we both had were very, very cheap, and I think second-hand. I'm almost certain that would have been his original - and then he sent away for the mail-order one. I think he just felt he wanted to improve on that guitar, and so did I. I changed mine relatively soon after we started, too. The mahogany colour of his mail-order guitar wasn't much different to his first." 10

Lennon himself cleared up the mystery of this " first" guitar in a later interview. " I used to borrow a guitar at first, " he said. " I couldn't play, but a pal of mine had one and it fascinated me. Eventually my mother bought me one from one of these mail-order firms - I suppose it was a bit crummy when you think about it, but I played it all the time and I got a lot of practice. After a while we formed The Quarry Men." 11 Unfortunately there are no other details or pictures of this mysterious unnamed acoustic guitar, and no one recalls from whom Lennon borrowed it.

Davis says that when he joined The Quarry Men he used a Windsor Whirle Victor Supremus banjo. Arthur O Windsor had been a big Birmingham-based maker of banjos who'd stayed in business until 1940; Davis's instrument was probably made in the 1920s. Davis had an uncle who played violin and musical saw in a danceband in Wales. " Just after the skiffle craze had started, I was trying to find something to play. We discovered that my uncle's brother-in-law, who played in the same band, was selling a guitar and a banjo, but by the time we got around to it, he'd already sold the guitar. I occasionally wonder what would have happened if he hadn't sold that guitar.

Davis trooped off to north Wales one Sunday and bought the banjo. The following day he bumped into Eric Griffiths at Quarry Bank Grammar. " I said, 'Hey Eric, I got a banjo yesterday.' And he said, 'Oh, great. Do you want to be in a skiffle group? ' I said yes, and asked who else was in it. He told me Shotton was playing washboard, some other guy - Bill Smith - is on the tea-chest, and it's him and Lennon with guitars.

" So that's how I got into The Quarry Men, just by having an instrument, " says Davis. " Very quickly they showed me the three chords, or however many it was, and Eric would shout 'C, F, G7th' at me. I've still got the banjo tutor I bought to help me get a bit further." Davis says the book taught him to start playing " inversions", a technical term for altered renderings of chords. " But Lennon complained that he wouldn't have me playing inversions, " laughs Davis. " He didn't like that. It was too bloody fancy." 12

A Gallotone Champion (main guitar) as John's guitar would have looked. The second example (right) is the Gallotone sold at auction as John's guitar.  
Two flyers (far right) from the 1 960s issued by the South African Gallotone music company, including the Champion model as played by John.

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