I have lost track of the number of Beatles biographies I’ve read and I have no recollection of ever coming across a mention of Harold Phillips, the calypso artiste known as Lord Woodbine. There are about twenty on my shelves at the moment and the only reference I have unearthed is in The Beatles Anthology [Cassell 2000] where on page 44 George Harrison is quoted regarding a time when Paul McCartney played the drums – “It only lasted for one gig but I remember it very well. It was in Upper Parliament Street where a guy called Lord Woodbine owned a strip club…..we were brought on as the band to accompany the stripper”. Given the millions of words that have been written about the Beatles and the microscopic details of their lives which have been sifted through it is to say the least strange that a man who gave the embryonic group his friendship, expertise and advice, should get such scant treatment.
Harold Adolphus Phillips was born in Trinidad on 15th January 1929. Lying about his age, he joined the RAF when he was 14 and served at Burtonwood. After a spell back home after the war he returned to England in 1948 aboard the famous SS Windrush and after staying a short while in London he made his way to Liverpool where, on 19th November 1949 he married Helen Agoro, known as Ena. She was a jazz singer and appeared with him in his band ‘The Cream of Trinidad’.They would live in Toxteth for the next half century and have a son and seven daughters. He was a calypso singer who performed as Lord Woodbine, the name having come from a song he wrote in which the characters were named after cigarettes. Part of the Liverpool music scene for many years he formed the All Steel Caribbean Band, later the Royal Caribbean Band. In 1965 Phillips appeared on ITV’s talent show Opportunity Knocks leading the band.
He made his living through a variety of trades, owning and managing clubs in the city, including the Jacaranda. The strip club George Harrison referred to was the New Colony Club, which Phillips co-owned with Allan Williams and this is often referred to as their first performance under Williams’ management. Whilst performing across the city he noticed two white youths often in the audience – John Lennon and Paul McCartney – and learning of their interest in his music he welcomed them into the fold of the Liverpool black music scene. He was the first singer-songwriter the duo had met and the degree to which they attached themselves to Phillips led them to being known as the ‘Woodbine Boys’. He was closely involved in their early days, getting them gigs at clubs and offering advice and tuition. At the point where they made their celebrated trip to Hamburg it was he who hired and drove the van and he was pictured with them in an iconic photo taken at Arnhem en route to Germany. In later years Phillips would attend a performance of Imagine, a play about the Beatles, at the Liverpool Playhouse. The photograph taken at Arnhem was the backdrop for the performance and Phillips had been airbrushed out – an act of such gross insensitivity it is hard to believe it really happened. It says much for the calibre of the man that he remained for the whole performance.
Harold Phillips never tried to cash in on his Beatles connection, content to pursue his music and interests in the city he had made his home. Sadly no recordings of his music exist. There is one interesting memento of him to be found in Toxteth. He modelled for the sculptor Arthur Dooley for his work The Resurrection of Christ on the Princes Park Methodist Church in Princes Way L8.
During the 1950’s he lived at various addresses, including 11 Churchill Street L8 (now occupied by Hillaby Close) c. 1951, 80 Berkeley Street L8 (1952) and 223 Smithdown Lane L7 (1955). Sadly he and his wife died in a fire on 5th July 2000 at 3 Carlingford Close L8.
Harold Phillips' final home in Toxteth.
The Beatles on their way to Hamburg with Harold Phillips seated 3rd from left.
The best account I have found of Harold Phillip's life and music is an article on the website of Backyard Magazine. The Wikipedia entry is essentially extracts from the entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Also worth a read are the obituary in The Guardian and an article from 2010 in The Independent. There is a calypso-style song about him on YouTube by Alexander D Great which is well worth a listen.
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