In 1960, the Liverpool entrepreneur Allan Williams arranged for a fledgling group, the Beatles, to undertake a residency at a club in the red light district of Hamburg. It transformed the way they played and set them on a course that was to change popular music. Williams, who has died aged 86, later fell out with the band, leaving the field clear for the record store manager Brian Epstein to become their manager.
Williams warned Epstein to have nothing to do with them. He became known as “the man who gave the Beatles away”, and he would recount his experiences in pubs, clubs and Beatle conventions and, indeed, to anyone who would listen. He was a superb raconteur, who undoubtedly embellished his tales, but never out of self-interest – it was simply to make his remarkable tales even more entertaining.
Williams was born into a Welsh family in the Liverpool suburb of Bootle. His father, Dick, was a joiner who also promoted concerts. When Allan was still young, his mother, Annie (nee Cheetham), died giving birth to twins, who also died, and it was some years before Allan learned that the person he called his mother, Millie (nee Twigg), was actually his stepmother. On leaving school, he worked as a plumber, and in his spare time sang as a tenor with the Bentley Amateur Operatic Society, where he met Beryl Chang, a domestic science teacher, in 1953. They married two years later despite encountering hostility from both their families to a mixed-race marriage.
Keen to follow the London trend for teenage coffee bars, Williams opened the Jacaranda in Liverpool in September 1958. Some students at the nearby art college, including Stuart Sutcliffe, were asked to paint the toilets and provide a mural for the cellar. Sutcliffe was then a guitarist with the Beatles, and the band made early appearances at the Jacaranda.
When Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent played the Liverpool Empire in March 1960, their British manager, Larry Parnes, agreed to organise a one-off concert at Liverpool Stadium with Williams that May. Cochran was killed in a road crash in April, so Williams added local groups to the bill, but not the Beatles. He did not consider them good enough.
After the concert, Parnes asked Williams to organise an audition for potential backing groups for his artists. As a result, the Beatles went to Scotland for a week to back the singer Johnny Gentle. As they had no drummer at the time, Williams found them a stand-in, Tommy Moore. Moore hated John Lennon’s sarcasm, however, and on returning to Liverpool decided to stay with his job at Garston Bottle Works. Williams had a share in the New Cabaret Artists’ club, a strip joint in Liverpool, and booked the Beatles to accompany a Manchester stripper for a week. When he sold the venue, he and his partner, a calypso singer called Lord Woodbine (Harold Phillips), went to Amsterdam and then Hamburg to assess the club life.
At the Indra in Hamburg, Williams heard a German band attempting rock’n’roll and told the club’s owner, Bruno Koschmider, that he could supply Liverpool bands to do a better job. He recommended the Beatles, not because they were good but because they were available – they did not have day jobs.
A few weeks later, Williams was with another Liverpool group, the Seniors, at the 2i’s coffee bar in London and found Koschmider there, looking for “the Peetles”. As a result, the first Liverpool band to play in Hamburg was the Seniors, with the vocalists Derry Wilkie and Freddie Fowell (later better known as Freddie Starr). Koschmider wanted more. Howie Casey, the Seniors’ saxophonist, told Williams not to send “that bum group, the Beatles” because of their inexperience.
Williams and Beryl drove the Beatles to Hamburg. The band did well but fell out first with Koschmider, when they moved to a rival club, the Top Ten, and then with Williams, over commission on subsequent appearances. Williams felt he was still entitled to 10%, but they thought otherwise, and they parted company.
In 1960, Williams opened the first beat club in Liverpool city centre, also called the Top Ten. It burned down within a week, but his late-night cabaret venue, the Blue Angel, thrived and in 1963, he promoted a beat festival at the Stanley Stadium, one of the earliest open-air rock concerts in the UK, perhaps the first. He admitted he had wasted his big chance, though. He watched the Beatles on the Royal Variety Performance in November 1963: “That’s when I knew I’d blown it. I threw a cushion at the TV – I wish I’d had a brick.”
In 1975 Williams wrote his autobiography, The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away, with the journalist Bill Marshall. When he told Marshall that he could not remember any more anecdotes, Marshall invented some for his approval and Williams was soon telling them as his own. After a series of personal appearances to promote his book, in 1977 Williams, in partnership with the disc-jockey from the Cavern Club in Liverpool, Bob Wooler, organised the first Beatles convention. It promised an appearance by a Beatle. The tension mounted as the audience wondered who it would be. It turned out to be Moore. To make matters worse, Moore could remember little about his time with the Beatles.
Williams himself appeared at many conventions around the world, and sold antiques and memorabilia at flea markets. He was always cheerful but he drank too much and Beryl told him to leave. He got together with Wooler’s former wife, Beryl, and he would refer to them as Beryl 1 and Beryl 2. Beryl 2 died in 2003.
In 2002 a play based on Williams’s experiences, The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away, written and directed by Ronan Wilmot, was premiered in Dublin. A second volume of his memoirs, The Fool on the Hill, this time written with Lew Baxter, was launched at the Beatles festival in Liverpool in 2003.
Over the years, Williams had been vituperative about his relationship with the Beatles, but, in order to promote the book and prompted by Baxter, he became a changed man. He told audiences: “I am a millionaire. I am a millionaire of memories and no one can take that from me.”
He is survived by his wife, Beryl, and his son, Justin, and daughter, Leah.
• Allan Richard Williams, entrepreneur, born 21 February 1930; died 30 December 2016