Johnny Kidd: The tragic death of the British rock 'n' roll icon remembered

17 November 2022, 12:44

Johnny Kidd and the Pirates
Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. Picture: Getty Images

By Mayer Nissim

The life and untimely death of British rock 'n' roll icon Johnny Kidd, who conquered the world with 'Shakin' All Over'.

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After the initial wave of American rock 'n' roll, us Brits swiftly picked up the baton and ran with it.

First was Tommy Steele, then Cliff Richard, then Larry Parne's stable of Marty Wilde, Johnny Gentle, Vince Eager, Adam Faith and Duffy Power.

Then came the likes of Tony Sheridan, Vince Taylor and Billy Fury, but one of the few British rock 'n' rollers who enjoyed a massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic was Johnny Kidd.

Released by Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, no rock 'n' roll compilation is complete without the classic 'Shakin' All Over'.

Kidd never quite matched the success of that mega hit before his life was cut short in 1966, but his impact on pop goes beyond that massive hit. This is the story of his remarkable life and tragic death.

Johnny Kidd & the Pirates on TV
Johnny Kidd & the Pirates on TV. Picture: Getty Images

Johnny Kidd was born Frederick Albert Heath in Willesden, North London on December 23, 1935.

Like many young Brits of the time, Freddie was a big skiffle fan, and he played guitar in group first The Frantic Four, then The Nutters.

The band stretched their limbs by playing a mix of skiffle, pop and rockabilly, and unlike many artists of the time, Freddie also was a songwriter.

He churned out song-after-song-after-song in a dizzy three month period. His 31st song was a little number called 'Please Don't Touch'.

The band has a recording test, going on to earn a deal with the HMV label who told them that they were no longer Freddie Heath and the Nutters. They were Johnny Kidd & the Pirates.

The newly-rechristened group released 'Please Don't Touch', which went all the way to number 25 in the UK singles chart.

In 1960, Johnny Kidd & The Pirates went all the way to number one with 'Shakin' All Over', which would swiftly become Kidd's signature song and the track that defined his legacy.

Like so many classic singles, 'Shakin' All Over' was originally slated to be a B-side, when Kidd was charged with writing the flip of their cover of Ricky Nelson's 'Yes Sir, That's My Baby'.

Kidd wrote the song in the basement of the Freight Train coffee bar the day before it was recorded.

Backing Kidd were his Pirates Alan Caddy on guitar, Clem Cattini on drums and Brian Gregg on bass, while that distinctive guitar sound came from session player Joe Moretti sliding Gregg's cigarette lighter up and down his fretboard.

'Shakin' All Over' didn't chart outside of Europe at the time, but it's since become part of the rock 'n' roll cannon.

It's been covered many times over. The Guess Who recorded it as early as 1965, taking it to number 22 in the US and even topping the Canadian charts.

The song won an even bigger audience in 1970, when a storming version was recorded by The Who at the University of Leeds Refectory on Valentine's Day in 1970.

It was released just three months later on the original six-track Live at Leeds album – often hailed as one of the greatest live albums of all time.

The original Pirates fell apart soon after. Cattini, Caddy and Gregg all going on to play superproducer Joe Meek's band The Tornados – Catttini and Caddy featured on the charttopping 'Telstar' in 1962, while Gregg played for the group in 1963.

That didn't bother Kidd, who formed a new lineup, with Johnny Spence on Bass, Frank Farley on drums and Johnny Patto on guitar – though Patto was swiftly replaced by Mick Green.

Their first release was a cover of Arthur Alexander's 'A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues', written by Terry Thompson, which set out the group's new sound.

Johnny Kidd & The Pirates on the water at Regent's Park
Johnny Kidd & The Pirates on the water at Regent's Park. Picture: Getty Images

Moving with the times, Johnny Kidd & The Pirates scaled the charts once more in 1963 with the clearly Merseybeat-inspired 'I'll Never Get Over You', written by Gordon Mills.

That single reached number 4, and was followed by the top 20 hit 'Hungry For Love, also written by Mills.

Foreshadowing the dress-up of Alice Cooper, David Bowie and the rest, Johnny Kidd decided to start taking his bandname literally, dressing up as an actual pirate in photoshoots and onstage, complete with eyepatch and cutlass.

By now, The Beatles had swept the globe, conquering all that came before. Like so many pre-Fabs artists, Johnny Kidd suffered in their shadow.

The Pirates fell apart once more, but Kidd persevered – first as a solo artist and then with The New Pirates.

The New Pirates were named to avoid confusion with the past Pirates, who had released 'Shades of Blue' without Kidd.

In January 1966, Kidd married his partner Jean Heath, and there were soon murmurs of a serious musical comeback.

After a full year with no new material – practically a lifetime in the fast-moving '60s – Kidd and the Pirates returned with new single 'It's Got To Be You', backed with 'I Hate to Get Up in the Morning' in April 1966.

Then, tragedy struck.

In the early hours of October 8, 1966, Kidd was a passenger in a Ford Cortina travelling on the A58 Bury New Road in Breightmet, returning from a cancelled gig at the Imperial venue in Bolton.

The Cortina had a head-on collision with a Mini being driven by a trainee accountant named Peter Metcalfe. Kidd died in the accident, as did Metcalfe and his 17-year-old girlfriend Helen Read.

Aged just 30, Kidd was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium in London, just a few miles from where he was born.

Johnny Kidd at his wedding to Jean Heath
Johnny Kidd at his wedding to Jean Heath. Picture: Getty Images

Also travelling with Kidd was his New Pirates bandmate Nick Simper, who survived with a broken arm, later becoming a founding member of Deep Purple.

A posthumous single 'Send for That Girl', backed by a cover of Sanford Clark's 'The Fool' (written by Naomi Ford and Lee Hazlewood) was released in November, but failed to chart.

In the years that followed various lineups of Pirates formed and disbanded, often but not always featuring at least some of the key members from past Kidd-era lineups.

Despite not boasting any original Pirates, the lineup of Mick Green, Johnny Spence and Frank Farley had been given Kidd's blessing to use The Pirates name.

They reformed a decade after Kidd's death in 1976 to release four albums.

Original Pirates Brian Gregg and Clem Cattini have also played shows as The Pirates, together with Joe Moretti Jnr. – the son of the original 'Shakin' All Over' session player, who died in 2012.

The legacy of Johnny Kidd himself lives on, and not just through all those Pirates playing his songs.

As well as The Who's 'Shakin' All Over', you get a sense of how widespread Kidd's influence was, with supergroup Headgirl (half Motörhead, half Girlschool) covering 'Please Don't Touch', and Dr Feelgood naming themselves after Kidd's cover of bluesman Willie Perryman's hit.

His mix of rock 'n' roll swagger with a distinctly British voice showed that you didn't have to put on an American accent to play this music, while you can sense echoes of his style in very rockstar who put on eyepatch, from Adam Ant and David Bowie to Pete Burns and Gabrielle.