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Sacked Beatles drummer still on the beat

Pete Best still playing old Fab Four staples for small-town crowds
/ Source: The Associated Press

As the live beat of Beatles classics begins bouncing off the walls of the Elks Lodge, a man with a gray mustache stands before his drum set and speaks up in a Liverpool lilt.

"Let's take you back," he tells the crowd, "to the days when I used to play with a bunch of guys by the names of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison ..."

Ringo Starr's playing the Elks club?

No.

Meet Pete Best, the drummer booted from the band just before Beatlemania exploded. John, Paul, George and new guy Ringo went on to become voices of a generation, musical and cultural history.

Best became a civil servant.

If there was bitterness — and Best says there was not — he doesn't show it. In fact, the 64-year-old drummer immerses himself in his Beatles past. He regularly bangs out the same beats he played as a young man in the seamy clubs of Hamburg and the crammed confines of the Cavern in Liverpool. Only now he plays with his self-named band in clubs and parks and places like this lodge in suburban Albany, N.Y.

"I was strong enough to put it behind me," Best says. "You wake up one morning and say ‘What's that use of crying over spilled milk?'"

The Pete Best Band is a six-piece outfit that rips through chestnuts like "Roll Over Beethoven," "Please Mr. Postman," and "P.S. I Love You." Sets center around music the Beatles cut their teeth on from 1960-62, when the band featured Best, whose mother owned a Liverpool club called the Casbah. Just like the old days, Best leaves the singing and harmonizing to his bandmates, content now to split drumming duties with his brother Roag.

He also stages more intimate shows in which he tells anecdotes from the old days and takes questions from the audience. The most common question, of course, is: Why were you replaced?

It's a mystery"A mystery," Best says during an interview. His mates never told him, he says, and they left the unpleasant deed to the group's manager.

"Lo and behold, after playing the Cavern one day, Brian Epstein called me into his office and told me that was that," Best recalls.

The consensus among Beatleologists is that the other three and the band's new producer George Martin felt Best's drumming was simply not up to snuff. Personality issues may have played a part, too. Best was reserved and displayed little of the trademark Beatles cheekiness. He never got a mop top. Maybe worse, Best was very popular with the Liverpool girls. As Bob Spitz recounts in his exhaustive 2005 book "The Beatles," Paul in particular noticed the "orgasm of shrieks" when Best was introduced on stage.

Best shrugs off reasons offered over the years as "conspiracy theories," though he insists the criticism of his drumming "doesn't hold water," since he had a crackerjack reputation in Liverpool.

Best is grayer and a tad heavier than the leather-clad looker in old Beatles pictures, but he retains the unassuming manner ascribed to him as a young man. At the Elks Lodge show, he slips back behind his drum set after his introductory remarks and spends the set knocking out a beat with his head bowed down. If he had stayed a Beatle, he would have given George a run for his money for the "quiet one" tag.

A few hours before the gig, Best shows up in sweats and sneakers for a meet and greet at the local veteran's hospital. Introduced to patients as the Beatles' original drummer, he genially shakes hands and answers questions he's heard again and again.

"So, you know George Harrison and Paul and all those guys?" one patient asks.

"Yeah, played with them for two years," Best says.

"You know Pete Townshend?" the patient asks.

Not really, Best says.

Another patient in a wheelchair, who keeps two Beatles posters by his bed, acts thrilled to shake Best's hand. Still another asks him about being replaced by Ringo.

"It was a long time ago," Best says, "a lot of things have moved on since then."

After his sacking, Best landed a gig playing with another Liverpool band, Lee Curtis and the All Stars. He saw his old mates when the All Stars played on the same bill as the Beatles, but they never spoke.

"We passed like ships in the night," he says.

He quit show business in 1968 for a job with Britain's civil service and worked his way up to training manager, a job in which — ironically — he prepared workers for new jobs. He returned to the stage around the end of his government career in 1988 for what he thought would be a "one-off concert" and pretty much has been going ever since with his own band.

He could be excused for brooding over the life Ringo has led — the riches, the Bond-girl wife, touring with all-star bands. But Best stresses his blessings. He's been married for going on 44 years, with children and grandchildren. Women still scoot near his drum set to take his picture. His band has an album of original material coming out next year.

"In hindsight, that was my karma," he says," he says. "I still have my health, I have a beautiful wife, a family, a band."

"I'm the happy one, no matter what happened."

And he finally showed up on a best-selling Beatles album in 1995, the first of three releases in the vault-clearing Anthology series. Though Anthology 1 deals Best yet another indignity — he's beheaded in the main picture of the cover collage — he still gets residuals for tracks that feature his work. He says the money will provide security for his family after he's gone.

Best also is happy that he got to tell his version of what happened during the band's formative days in the slyly titled "Best of the Beatles," which showed on PBS last year and is now out on DVD. And he gets to play the old songs to appreciative crowds like the Elks, a show that ends with a one-two punch of "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Twist and Shout."

Middle aged couples jam the linoleum in front of the stage, twisting, smiling and singing along to the ascending "Ahhhh"s of the final song's chorus. As Best pounds away with his head down, lead singer Chris Cavanagh raps over the big beat, "Ladies and gentlemen, Pete Best is the ORIGINAL drummer of the Beatles," drawing a cheer.

The scene brings to mind a really fun wedding reception more than Beatlemania, but it's enough to bring a smile to Best's face as he comes out from behind the drums to ask the crowd a question.

"Would you like another one?"