Fifty years ago today – on February 9th, 1961 – The Beatles made their debut at The Cavern Club in Liverpool, England. The group already had a following in the dank nightclubs of Hamburg, Germany, but they had difficulty getting a booking at the popular basement club in their hometown. Mona Best, the mother of then-drummer Pete Best, had to beg the club’s booker Ray McFall to secure the band even a lunchtime slot.
“The Cavern was sweaty, damp, dark, loud and exciting,” recalled Paul McCartney in the 1995 book The Beatles Anthology. “As usual, we didn’t start out with much of an audience, but then people began to hear about us. We could always entertain them.”
John Lennon had played occasionally at the Cavern with his skiffle group The Quarrymen in 1957. During that time the club had a strict no rock & roll policy, and when Lennon played some Elvis Presley numbers McFall sent him a note saying, “Cut out the bloody rock!” By 1960 McFall had given in to changing times and allowed for weekly rock shows.
Not much is known about The Beatles’ first gig at the club, other than the group got paid three pounds for the show. “We’d play from noon till about two,” George Harrison recalled in Anthology. “It was very casual; we’d have our tea and sandwiches and cigarettes on stage, sing a couple of songs and tell a few jokes.”
John Lennon had similar memories. “In those old Cavern days half the thing was just ad lib; what you’d call comedy,” he once said. “We just used to mess about, jump into the audience, do anything.”
The group soon developed a rabid following, and over the next two and a half years they’d play 292 shows at the club. In November 1961 Brian Epstein caught The Beatles at the club and weeks later signed them to a management contract, putting them on the path to superstardom.
(There seems to be some disagreement about whether the first Cavern Club show was on February 9th, 1961 or February 21st, 1961. Most reliable sources point to February 9th, including leading Beatles
expert Mark Lewisohn.)