Helmed by child actor turned pop-rock idol Peter Noone (born Peter Blair Denis Bernard Noone), Herman’s Hermits scored big stateside by upping their Manchester game, meaning they broadened their accents, adopted the mod haircuts popular at the time, and wore the crisp suits of cheeky boys playing at being young men.
And they were quite young when they first started out. Noone, a regular on the British soap opera, Coronation Street, was just 15 when his group, the Heartbeats, joined with members of the Wailers to become Herman and the Hermits. The resulting band – Noone on vocals, Barry Whitwam on drums, Derek “Lek” Leckenby on lead guitar, Karl Green on bass, and Keith Hopwood on rhythm guitar – became the pet project of London power producer, Mickie Most. He invited them into the studio to cover Earl Jean’s “I’m Into Something Good,” and the single soon hit No. 1 in Britain and No. 13 on the U.S. charts.
Having rebranded themselves Herman’s Hermits (“Herman” was a shortened version of Sherman from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, whom Noone was thought to resemble), Noone and company were signed onto an American tour group, Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, and appeared in a 1965 teen musical comedy, When the Boys Meet the Girls, about a pretty young postal worker (played by Connie Francis), who saves her father’s rural Nevada ranch from a cabal of unscrupulous creditors.
U.S. audiences couldn’t get enough of Noone’s boyish good looks and soft, Mancunian vocals. Soon, they had more radio-friendly hits that youngsters could dance and fall in love to, including “Listen People,” “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” and “Silhouettes,” all of which hit the top ten. The band was a smash on TV as well, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, and The Tonight Show, among others.
Love like that comes at a cost. Noone told Classicbands.com that Herman’s Hermit fans could be rabid at times. For instance, at a Louisville, Kentucky, show, Noone accidentally exited the stage into a crowd of young girls who let him know instantly just how much they adored him and his music.
“I had a 14½-inch neck, but my tie was one inch. They just pulled my tie and ripped my hair out. The ones at the front were shoving back and the ones at the back were shoving. I basically got trampled and beaten up, same as if 40 guys jumped you.”
Much of that fever was caused by the popularity of “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am” and “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” the latter sung first by Tom Courtenay for the British TV show The Lads.
What many people don’t know is that the Herman’s Hermits version of “Mrs. Brown” almost never was. They recorded it as an afterthought, a fun send-up. The song was already a standard in the U.K. where bands would play it at birthday parties and subsitute the birthday girl’s last name for “Brown,” so Noone didn’t really take recording the song all that seriously.
In America, though, the song was a phenomenon, propelled by Noone’s vulnerable vocals and the uniquely muted guitar stylings of Leckenby and Hopwood. In 1968, it even became a movie whose posters declared, “You’ve got to sing...swing...and do your own thing...and no one does it better in merry young London than Herman’s Hermits.”
Like many pop acts of the time, the band began by recording other people’s songs. In the mid-sixties, they recorded Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World,” Kenny Young’s “Just a Little Bit Better,” P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri’s “A Must to Avoid,” George Formby’s “Leaning on a Lamp Post,” Les Reed and Geoff Stevens’ “There’s a Kind of Hush,” and Ray Davies’ “Dandy.”
Media reports have also claimed that the musicians rarely performed on the group’s seven studio albums, and it is true that Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Big Jim Sullivan, Vic Flick, and Bobby Graham did sit in on several sessions. But Noone and the rest of the Hermits did their fair share of heavy-lifting, too, and they shared songwriting duties on their 1967 record, Blaze. But despite acclaim from critics, it failed to chart as the others had.
Four years later, Noone left the group to pursue a solo career. In the ’80s, he starred in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of Pirates of Penzance. Leckenby and Hopwood paired up to start a music company, and Green went on to manage sound systems for London concert venues. The group reunited once during the Me Decade, but split for good after that.
Now Noone is keeping the Herman’s Hermits name alive with gigs all over the world where his diehard followers, so-called “Nooniacs,” show up year after year to hear hits from their past and pass them on to their children and grandchildren.
Herman’s Hermits Starring Peter Noone will be at the Foellinger Theatre at 8 p.m. Saturday, August 11, as part of the venue’s summer concert series.
Noone told UK Music Reviews that he and his band work hard every day to keep things fresh.
“Repetition is very dangerous, so much so that some of the songs can become hybrids,” Noone said. “So what we do every week is we listen to the original recordings and I always say the biggest insult to my musicians when I say to them, ‘No, no, no you just have to be able to play it as good as those 16-year-old boys on the record.’ That is actually a great compliment to those 16-year-old boys playing on the records, but at the time we didn’t know just how good it was. I am so grateful that there are just so many great songs for me to choose from.”
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