Gerry Marsden, a hitmaker with the Pacemakers, dies at 78

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Gerry Marsden, a hitmaker with the Pacemakers, dies at 78
In this file photo taken on December 12, 2003, sixties singing sensation Gerry Marsden, from Liverpool, poses with his MBE for services to Liverpudlian Charities at Buckingham Palace in London. Liverpool paid tribute to Gerry Marsden on Sunday, January 3, after the Gerry And The Pacemakers singer, who popularised the club's anthem "You'll never walk alone", died aged 78. MATTHEW FEARN / POOL / AFP.

by Jim Farber

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Gerry Marsden, whose band Gerry and the Pacemakers proved to be formidable rivals to the Beatles in the early Liverpool rock scene of the 1960s, scoring smash hits like “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” died Sunday in the Liverpool area. He was 78.

His death, at Arrowe Park Hospital in the Merseyside metropolitan area, was confirmed by his family in a statement. British news outlets said the cause was a heart infection.

Gerry and the Pacemakers were the second band signed by the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, but they earned a No. 1 single on the official United Kingdom singles chart before the Beatles ever did, accomplishing that feat in 1963 with their debut single, “How Do You Do It.” It beat the Beatles’ maiden chart-topper, “From Me to You,” by three weeks.

The Pacemakers’ next two singles, “I Like It” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” followed suit, making them the first act to summit the U.K. singles chart with their first three releases. They held that record for two decades, until another Liverpool band, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, matched it.

The Pacemakers didn’t write their first burst of hits; the first two were by Mitch Murray, while the band plucked the valiant ballad “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Carousel.” (The Beatles recorded an earlier version of the effervescent “How Do You Do It” at the behest of their producer George Martin, but they weren’t pleased with the song, so it wasn’t released at the time. It didn’t surface until three decades later on the Beatles’ “Anthology 1” collection.)

Marsden’s talent as a songwriter emerged in 1964, first as co-writer, with his bandmates, of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” then as the sole writer of “Ferry Cross the Mersey,”’ named for the waterway that flows by Liverpool.

The melodies in those songs had a grandeur that exuded both melancholy and rapture, enhanced by Marsden’s billowing voice. While he could nail the bouncy flair of the band’s lighter singles and mirror it with his brisk rhythm guitar work, his soaring range gave him the chops to turn songs like “You’ll Never Walk Alone” into anthems. His group’s version of “Walk Alone” became the signature song of the Liverpool Football Club and was later adopted by sports teams around the world.

The Pacemakers took off more slowly in the United States. Their first trifecta of U.K. hits missed the U.S. charts before “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” soared to No. 4 in Billboard magazine and “Ferry Cross the Mersey” got to No. 6. The group had two other U.S. scores, a rereleased “I Like It” and “I’ll Be There,” which each made Billboard’s Top 20 in 1964.

After Marsden’s death, Paul McCartney wrote on Twitter: “Gerry was a mate from our early days in Liverpool. He and his group were our biggest rivals on the local scene. His unforgettable performances of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ remain in many people’s hearts as reminders of a joyful time in British music.”

Gerard Marsden was born Sept. 24, 1942, in the Toxteth section of Liverpool to Fredrick and Mary (McAlindin) Marsden. His father was a railway clerk who played the ukulele, The Guardian once wrote. His parents encouraged both Gerry and his older brother, Fred, to play instruments. Gerry chose guitar; Fred, the drums.

The brothers’ first band, Gerry Marsden and the Mars Bars, played skiffle music, a British precursor to rock ’n’ roll. After the Mars company objected to the band’s appropriating the name of their signature chocolate candy, they became Gerry and the Pacemakers, rounded out by Les Chadwick on bass and Les Maguire on piano.

The quartet honed their skills in the same clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany, that nurtured the Beatles. “In 1959, we started playing rock ’n’ roll to the Germans,” Marsden told the New Zealand television show “The Beat Goes On” in 2009. “We used to play from 7 in the evening until 2 in the morning, with a 15-minute break every hour. It was a great apprenticeship in music.”

Epstein met the group at the record store he ran, NEMS Music. After seeing them play, he signed them and secured a deal with Columbia Records. To Marsden’s delight, Martin produced their early recordings. “We had only heard our voices on crummy tape recorders before,” he told the website the Beatles Bible. “We couldn’t believe we sounded so good.”

The group’s string of British No. 1s nearly amounted to four, but their single “I’m the One,” penned by Marsden, missed the top slot by one position, just behind “Needles and Pins,” by another Liverpudlian band, the Searchers. In 1965, the group played themselves in a movie musical comedy, “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” but it wasn’t popular and drew unflattering comparisons to the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” from a year earlier.

“It is mildly funny,” The New York Times wrote. “But we’ve seen it all before.”

The group had their final U.S. Top 40 score in September 1966 with “Girl on a Swing.” One month later, the group disbanded. Marsden afterward worked as a solo performer before reforming the Pacemakers in 1974, without chart success.

In the 1980s, Marsden reclaimed the No. 1 position twice in the U.K. with rerecordings of his ’60s hits for charitable causes. After a fire in 1985 at the Bradford Football Stadium in Yorkshire that killed 56 people, he formed a group called the Crowd to cut a new version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Four years later, after a fatal human crush during a football match at Hillsborough Stadium in South Yorkshire, he joined with McCartney, Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and other artists to rerecord “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” to benefit families of the victims. Marsden continued to tour the oldies circuit until retiring in November 2018.

He married Pauline Behan in 1965, and she survives him, along with their daughters Yvette and Victoria. His brother, Fred, died of cancer in 2006.

Even into his later years, Marsden remained surprised by his band’s international success.

“I used to believe you had to be something special to have a hit record,” he said on “The Beat Goes On.” “We were just kids from Liverpool.”

He recalled that even when his band’s debut single, “How Did You Do It,” took off, his mother wouldn’t let it go to his head: “When I told my mom that the song was going to be No. 1, she said: ‘That’s great. Now finish your fish and chips.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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