‘‘This is by far the longest vacation I’ve ever had,” jokes 79-year-old ex-Searchers leader Mike Pender in his charming Liverpudlian accent, referring of course to the pandemic that has wreaked havoc on his livelihood and passion.
“If you’ve been performing for most of your life as I have for over 60 years now,” he admits, “you miss it. You can sometimes take a few months off once in a while, but when it goes this long, you really miss that buzz you get from being onstage in front of an appreciative audience.”
However, while Pender had been absent all year from the concert stage, 2020 was made quite memorable after being invited to Buckingham Palace to receive the very prestigious Member of the British Empire award.
“When I first got a letter from the cabinet office of Buckingham Palace saying, ‘Dear Michael, your name has been put forward to get the award,’ I couldn’t believe it,” he recalls in amazement. “I originally thought somebody must be winding up, but it was quite an honor when Prince Charles pinned the medal on me. Because of the coronavirus, we couldn’t shake hands, but we sort of gave each other a sign of peace. He was a great guy, and actually remembered ‘Needles and Pins’!”
Born Michael John Prendergast on March 31, 1941, in the relatively small Bootle section of Britain’s Liverpool, he gained fame as the principal founding member of The Searchers. Early contemporaries of another famous Liverpool outfit known as The Beatles, The Searchers’ classic lineup of Pender on lead guitar and vocals, bassist-singer Tony Jackson (replaced in ’64 by Frank Allen), rhythm guitarist John McNally and singing drummer Chris Curtis were responsible for some of the best Merseybeat recordings released during those halcyon British Invasion days of the mid-’60s.
Some of their classics like “Love Potion No. 9,” “Don’t Throw Your Love Away,” “When You Walk in the Room,” and especially their signature hit, “Needles and Pins,” sound remarkably fresh six decades later, due in no small part to the band’s otherworldly harmonies, Tony Hatch’s sparkling production and Pender’s chiming guitar sounds which, although he modestly refuses credit, have undoubtedly influenced the likes of Tom Petty, The Byrds, Bruce Springsteen and others.
In December 1985, Pender left the group to form a new band, Mike Pender’s Searchers, while McNally, Allen and long-time drummer Billy Adamson retained The Searchers name, adding Spencer James as the new lead singer and primary guitarist till the group retired last year.
GOLDMINE: How did The Searchers actually get started?
MIKE PENDER: That goes back to 1957, when we were four guys, John, myself, Tony West on bass, but I can’t remember the drummer’s name. Before we started the band, we were all great mates back in Liverpool. I met Tony by chance in a pub. We just started talking, and I found out he was a huge Elvis fan. He said, “Do you think we can get a band together?” I said, “Sure, of course we can.” Then I got back in touch with John who I knew for some time, and we originally went out as a threesome, no bass or drums. It was just John and I playing guitar, and Tony doing the singing.
GM: When did Chris come into the picture?
MP: Just by chance I was walking around Bootle one day and ran into Chris who said, “I’ve just been in Liverpool to pay my monthly subscription for my drums.” I said, “You play drums?” He said, “Yeah, I’m learning.” I said, “Me and two mates are looking to form a real band. Would you like to join us as our drummer?” He said, “Wow, that sounds great!” So that’s how the famous Searchers, who went on to make all those hit records, got together.
GM: I would imagine, like many of your British contemporaries, you had a passion for American cowboy stars.
MP: For sure. I was cowboy crazy when I was a kid. Guys like Hopalong Cassidy, Johnny Mack Brown, The Durango Kid … all the ones we’d see on British TV. But around 1957, John and I went to the cinema to see John Wayne’s movie The Searchers and decided that would be a great name for our band.
GM: Of course, Buddy Holly got the idea for his song “That’ll Be the Day” from a line Wayne uses a few times in the movie.
MP: That’s right. I always tell people that The Searchers movie had a few connections with show business, so yeah, the movie was great for both of us.
GM: Did you ever get to see Holly when he came to Britain in 1958?
MP: Yes, and he was the main guy who inspired me musically. I vividly remember when he and The Crickets came to Liverpool. It was March 3rd, 1958, at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, and they just blew me away. Absolutely fantastic. They did two shows that night, and I remember looking up at Buddy onstage and thinking, “Man, that’s exactly what I want to be,” but I couldn’t get a real Stratocaster like he had because of an embargo at the time. That was the guitar every British guitarist wanted. I finally got one when we were doing some shows in America in ’64, which I still have.
GM: And what a tragedy for Holly to be gone at 22, when he had so much more great music to offer the world.
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