By the age of 16 I was besotted with music; blues and trad jazz. I actually wanted to play the clarinet but I couldn’t afford one, so I bought a banjo from a school teacher for £2, 10 shillings and I paid him half a crown a week. I still have that banjo on the wall of my study. I then borrowed a guitar and practised playing quite a bit, trying to remember rock’n’roll tunes I’d heard on the Alan Freeman show on Radio Luxembourg – Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley. I joined a skiffle group that was actually making money going round working men’s clubs. Before that my own band had played youth clubs for a cup of tea and a biscuit.
When I first saw pictures of Buddy Holly wearing glasses, it was, thank you Buddy!
I first found out when I was nine that I needed glasses and I was very embarrassed and upset. I was a young, skinny kid with acne, not confident at all. The day I got my glasses – big round metal and tortoiseshell NHS glasses – I hid in a washhouse round the corner from school so I wouldn’t have to go in wearing them. I got all the names: specky, four-eyes. When I first saw pictures of Buddy Holly wearing glasses, it was, thank you Buddy! Interestingly, within the first few months of working with Cliff Richard in 1959, this great guitarist called Denny Wright took me aside and said, can I give you some advice Hank? Do not wear your glasses onstage. It’s unprofessional. I told him I was so blind I’d fall offstage but he said, that doesn’t matter. But I knew I’d feel extremely vulnerable without them and hey, if Buddy Holly can do it, and Eric Morecambe can do it, it’s okay for me.
My parents felt mixed about my moving to London when I was 16. My father had been in the forces away from home for much of my childhood so I hardly saw him. He was a decent man but quite quiet; I don’t think he was able to express his emotions. My mother was much more open, not well educated but very smart. I was closer to her. And we were able to talk. I convinced them moving to London was essential if I was going to give the music business a try. They were very sad to see me go but they understood. We left in April 1958, we met Cliff in September and joined him on tour right away. So when we went back to Newcastle we were playing to audiences of screaming girls. My mum told me how proud she was all the time. My dad sort of said it without words.
Cliff [Richard] and I first met in Soho. He was having a fitting for this bright pink jacket – incredible, this rock’n’roll jacket – and we met at his tailor’s. We shook hands and sized each other up. Then we got a bus back to his parents’ house, where he was rehearsing. So we had an hour on the bus talking about music and things we liked. We had so much in common, it was fantastic. We had this rehearsal and he was really happy with what we were doing. And we thought he was great. And that was it, bang! We were a band.
I think Cliff and I are alike in many ways. Cliff isn’t a guy who makes waves with people, he’s very reasonable, treats people with respect. He had three sisters so he always had respect for women. He had good manners with everyone. And I’d been brought up the same way. But at the same time, he can be stubborn. If he has an idea, he’ll push it through. He has great strength of character.
I just wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me at 16 that we’d have such incredible success. We never cracked the US because they wouldn’t promote British bands until The Beatles. But we played all manner of shows around the world, and had such experiences. Playing in African townships. Riots in Germany when there were so many people in the streets they almost turned the limo over. Police in South Africa throwing a tear-gas canister onstage to disperse audiences they thought were dangerous. I’ve had some incredible experiences, some frightening and some just wow! But trying to describe things like that to my 16-year-old self – he just wouldn’t understand.
If I could go back in time I’d tell my teenage self, do not even think about getting married at the age of 19. You are not fully grown emotionally. You haven’t matured, you don’t know what you want. The chances always were, it was not going to work. And in the end it did prove too difficult to have that kind of career and be a husband and dad to young children. It’s always sad when things don’t work out. It probably only lasted as long as it did because I was away most of the time.
The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
When I was about 26 I started looking into the Bible. I met some people who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and they made me curious. Like most people of my age, I knew nothing about it. I was nominally Church of England but that meant nothing really, just a sticker on my head. So I started doing some research and I found it fascinating. And after a great deal of studying and thinking I decided, this is where I’m going. Faith is not blind, for me it was based on evidence. And now, yes, I do go and knock on doors and talk to people about being a Jehovah’s Witness. And sometimes they say, has anyone ever told you you look exactly like Hank Marvin? And I say, yes, sure.
I have a lot of regrets, I made some wrong decisions
If I was giving my young self advice I’d tell him older people are really worth listening to. In the business, there are so many people who’ve had experiences that are worth hearing but when you’re young you just think, yeah, what do they know? Now I understand they know quite a bit. A lot more than I did. That could have saved me a few pitfalls. There are quite a few things I’d like to go back and change in my life. I have a lot of regrets, I made some wrong decisions. But I don’t want to share those with the public.
If I could go back to any time in the past it would be when we released Apache [above] in 1960. People kept telling us it was going to be a hit but we weren’t sure. It went into the chart at 19 and started creeping upwards. Then I remember we were playing the London Palladium and we got a call from the record company telling us it was number one. We couldn’t believe it, we all went potty. The funny thing was, the record it knocked off number one was Please Don’t Tease by Cliff. To be honest, Cliff thought it was great that we’d knocked him off. He still makes a joke about it when he plays that song.
Without a Word is out now on the DMGTV label on CD, vinyl and digital download