Ray McFall

Biography by Jason Ankeny

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Ray McFall owned and operated Liverpool's renowned Cavern Club, the venue that launched the career of the Beatles and served as the nexus of rock & roll during the nascent months of the British Invasion.…
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Artist Biography by Jason Ankeny

Ray McFall owned and operated Liverpool's renowned Cavern Club, the venue that launched the career of the Beatles and served as the nexus of rock & roll during the nascent months of the British Invasion. McFall did not found the Cavern Club, however. That honor belongs to Alan Sytner, a devout jazz fan who opened the site after proving his mettle with another Liverpool venue, the 21 Jazz Club. A realtor soon showed Sytner a long-vacant cellar at 10 Mathew Street. Part of the subterranean tunnel system used as air-raid shelters during World War II and accessible solely by a steep flight of 18 stone steps, its brick catacombs instantly reminded Sytner of the jazz clubs of Paris, and on January 16, 1957, the Cavern Club opened to the public. Ironically, Sytner despised rock & roll. When John Lennon made his Cavern Club debut on August 7, 1957, as a member of the Quarrymen, the owner even passed him a note reading, "Cut out the bloody rock." But Sytner faced greater problems: the Cavern Club's ventilation system fell short of building codes, and proved extremely costly to repair. He also proved a poor financial manager, and despite a membership counting in excess of 25,000 card-carrying patrons, by mid-1959 the Cavern Club was in dire straits. McFall served as the Sytner family's accountant and even manned the Cavern Club cash register twice a week; he assumed ownership of the Cavern Club in early October 1959, purchasing the property from Sytner for 2,750 pounds.

Despite its popularity among locals, it seems unlikely the Cavern Club would have etched its place in history if not for the Beatles. After all, as Gerry Marsden of Gerry & the Pacemakers once proclaimed, "It stank of disinfectant and stale onions. It was very hot, sweaty, and oppressive." And with the popularity of jazz on the wane, McFall understood some dramatic changes were in order, so on May 25, 1960, the Cavern Club welcomed Rory Storm & the Hurricanes (featuring Ringo Starr on drums) as the headline act for its first ever rock & roll showcase. Upon hiring local music maven Bob Wooler as stage manager and announcer, the Cavern Club began spotlighting local rock acts during its daily lunchtime gigs as well. After succumbing to pressure from Wooler as well as Mona Best, mother of then-Beatles drummer Pete Best, McFall finally booked the group for a lunch-hour appearance on February 21, 1961. The Beatles' first evening appearance followed a month later, and in all the group played 292 Cavern Club dates through August 3, 1963, earning roughly 25 shillings per performance. Their November 9, 1961, lunch set would prove most critical. The audience included Brian Epstein, who signed on as the Beatles' manager the following spring. The Cavern Club also hosted local acts including the Searchers, the Big Three, and the Swinging Blue Jeans, and on July 1, 1962, welcomed its first big-name act, U.S. rocker Gene Vincent.

With the worldwide explosion of Beatlemania in 1964, the Cavern Club ascended to international prominence. The spot became the focal point of unprecedented fan and media attention, even broadcasting its own weekly radio show on Radio Luxembourg. McFall eventually installed a recording studio and founded his own short-lived label, Cavern Sound Recording. Up-and-coming acts like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds made their Cavern debuts before year's end, and the club also hosted American blues greats including John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, and Memphis Slim. While 1965 proved another banner year, highlighted by sets from the Who, the Kinks, Sandie Shaw, and Petula Clark, constant repairs were upsetting the balance sheet, and by early 1966 the rumor mill proclaimed the Cavern Club's imminent demise. Despite a 12-hour benefit showcase organized by local acts, McFall shuttered the venue on February 27, 1966, following one final Rory Storm & the Hurricanes gig. Facing 3,500 pounds in repairs to fix the Cavern Club's ailing sewage system, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. Liverpool bar owner Joe Davey acquired the property soon after, reopening fourth months later. However, the "new" Cavern Club boasted a liquor license, ensuring a much older clientele and effectively bringing an era to its official end. During the early '70s the spot recaptured some of its old glory, hosting gigs headlined by Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, and Wishbone Ash, but on May 27, 1973, the Cavern Club was demolished as part of a plan to extend Liverpool's underground rail system.