One of the premier beat groups from the mid-60s Merseybeat explosion, the Liverpool-based Searchers were formed in 1959 by John McNally (rhythm guitar/vocals) and Mike Pender (lead guitar/vocals). Taking their new name from the 1956 John Ford western, The Searchers, the band backed Liverpool singer Johnny Sandon between 1960 and the start of 1962. A number of musicians passed through the Searchers in the first few months, before McNally and Pender found a steady rhythm section in Tony Jackson (bass/vocals), and Norman McGarry (drums). Chris Curtis (drums/vocals) then replaced McGarry in 1962 when the former left to replace Ringo Starr in Rory Storm And The Hurricanes.
During 1962, the Searchers appeared in Hamburg, Germany, and, after sending a demo tape to A&R representative Tony Hatch, they were signed to Pye Records the following year. Their Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman debut 'Sweets For My Sweet', previously a hit for the Drifters, was a memorable tune with strong harmonies and a professional production. By the summer of 1963 it had climbed to UK number 1, establishing the Searchers as rivals to Brian Epstein's celebrated stable of Liverpool groups. The debut album Meet The Searchers was swiftly issued and revealed the band's R&B pedigree on such standards as 'Farmer John' and 'Love Potion Number 9'. Meanwhile, Tony Hatch composed a catchy follow-up single, 'Sugar And Spice', which just failed to reach number 1. It was their third single, however, that won the Searchers international acclaim. The Jack Nitzsche/Sonny Bono composition 'Needles And Pins' was a superb melody, brilliantly arranged by the Searchers and a striking chart-topper of its era. It also established them in the USA, reaching the Top 20 in March 1964 (easily eclipsing the chart position of Jackie DeShannon's earlier version of the song). The song was followed that same year by further US Hot 100 successes with 'Ain't That Just Like Me', 'Sugar And Spice', and 'Someday We're Gonna Love Again'. Earlier that year the band released their superbly atmospheric cover version of the Orlons' 'Don't Throw Your Love Away', which justifiably gave them a third UK number 1 single and reached the US Top 20.
The pop world was shocked by the abrupt departure of bass player Tony Jackson, whose falsetto vocals had contributed much to the band's early sound and identity. He was replaced in the autumn by Frank Allen, a former member of Cliff Bennett And The Rebel Rousers and close friend of Chris Curtis. A strident reading of Jackie DeShannon's 'When You Walk In The Room' was another highlight of 1964 and showed their rich Rickenbacker guitar work to notable effect. The Malvina Reynolds protest song, 'What Have They Done To The Rain', indicated the Searchers' folk rock potential, but its melancholic tune and slower pace was reflected in a lower chart placing.
A return to the 'old' Searchers sound, with the plaintive 'Goodbye My Love', took the band back into the UK Top 5 in early 1965, but the number 1 days were over. For a time, it seemed that the Searchers might not slide as inexorably as rivals Billy J. Kramer And The Dakotas and Gerry And The Pacemakers. They had enjoyed further US success in late 1964 with their Top 5 cover version of the Clovers' 'Love Potion Number 9', and the following year 'Bumble Bee' and 'What Have They Done To The Rain' also reached the Top 30. The Curtis/Pender hit, 'He's Got No Love' (UK number 12) showed that the Searchers could write their own hit material but this run could not be sustained. The release of P.F. Sloan's 'Take Me For What I'm Worth' suggested that the Searchers might become linked with the Bob Dylan-inspiredfolk rock boom. Instead, their commercial fortunes rapidly declined and after Curtis was replaced by John Blunt, they were finally dropped by Pye. Their last UK hit was a cover version of the Hollies' 'Have You Ever Loved Somebody'; this proved to be their penultimate success in the USA, which ended with 'Desdemona' (number 94) in 1971. Cabaret stints followed but the Searchers continued playing and in the circumstances underwent minimal line-up changes, with Billy Adamson replacing Blunt in 1969. They threatened a serious resurgence in 1979 when Sire Records issued a promising comeback album. The attempt to reach a new wave audience was ultimately unsuccessful, however, and after the less well-received Play For Today (titled Love's Melodies in the USA), the band stoically returned to the cabaret circuit. Pender left in December 1985 to set up his own rival outfit, Mike Pender's Searchers. He was replaced by Spencer James, who had previously played with various bands including First Class. James adopted the lead vocalist role on Hungry Hearts, a brand new album recorded for the Coconut label in 1988. The following year they supported Cliff Richard at Wembley Stadium in front of record audiences.
Ex-member Jackson was imprisoned in 1997 for making threats with an offensive weapon. The following year Adamson retired from music, and was replaced by Eddie Rothe. Original members Tony Jackson and Chris Curtis died within two years of each other at the start of the new millennium. A full reappraisal for the Searchers is long overdue. Their choice of material was both daring an intelligent, and they have rarely been cited with being pioneering or original. For a brief while they most certainly were. Their early back catalogue sounds remarkably fresh over four decades later.
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