In the summer of 1964, Tony Jackson was considered one of the hottest talents in Liverpool. As bassist and lead singer of the Searchers up to but not including "Needles and Pins" (when John McNally and Mike Pender took over the singing), he was the most recognizable member of the one major Liverpool group not managed by Brian Epstein. He was a genuine star at the time, in a group that was about as hot as any band could be. That all changed when Jackson either left or was forced out of the group (accounts vary) that summer and formed his own band, the Vibrations -- from then on, he led a hard-luck life and career.
He was born Anthony Paul Jackson in the Dingle, a densely populated and poor area of Liverpool (the same place whence Ringo Starr and Billy Fury came into the world) in the summer of 1940. He grew up surrounded by working-class aspirations and was planning on becoming an electrician when he was sidetracked, first by skiffle music and later by rock & roll. Skiffle king Lonnie Donegan was his first musical hero and in the mid-'50s Jackson formed his first band, the Martinis, as a skiffle group. By the time he shifted to rock & roll, he was singing lead. According to his successor in the Searchers, Frank Allen, Jackson had a great voice in those early days and commanded the stage in a manner that evoked images of Elvis Presley, and was also a highly proficient bassist. Soon after seeing him perform, John McNally and Mike Pender, who were already playing together as the Searchers, asked him to join. The group, which eventually solidified around the three of them and drummer Chris Curtis, spent a couple of years backing vocalist Johnny Sandon, who left their association to work with the Remo 4, and by 1962 the Searchers were on their own, with Jackson singing most of the lead parts.
Not all was well with Jackson even then, however. He carried a range of personal demons that manifested themselves in his demeanor -- he had acquired the nickname "Black Jake" by the time he was in his early twenties, evidently a reference to his persona -- and sometimes very heavy drinking, which occasionally was plain even during their performances. Liverpool musicologist Bill Harry cites the oft-repeated story of Brian Epstein coming to the Cavern Club to see the group perform, with an idea of signing them, only to see an obviously inebriated Jackson fall off the stage. He was the face and voice of the group, however, for that first year and a half separated from Sandon, until they began recording. Jackson sang on "Sweets for My Sweet" and "Sugar and Spice," as well as on the LP track that would later become their biggest U.S. hit, "Love Potion Number 9," but his voice had apparently cracked during preparation for the recording of their single "Needles and Pins," and the group's management and producer felt -- with good reason -- that there were four good voices in the lineup; Pender and McNally ended up sharing the lead on the song, which became the biggest hit in their history (everywhere but in the United States). Jackson never accepted the new, shared frontman role and his behavior grew more hostile and erratic, leading to his exit in the summer of 1964. At the time, most of the music press wondered if the group could carry on without him.
As it turned out, they did -- and still are working as of 2006. Jackson immediately put together a new group, the Vibrations, and perhaps to make certain that this was a clean break from his previous band, they had an organ rather than a 12-string guitar at the core of their sound, and girl singers in the background, and were a more soulful outfit than the Searchers. Tony Jackson & the Vibrations cut a series of four singles (one as the Tony Jackson Group) for Pye, only one of which, the first, "Bye Bye Baby," was a hit. Their second record, "You Beat Me to the Punch," produced by Larry Page (future manager/producer of the Troggs), failed to repeat the performance on the charts.
Leading a group took its toll on Jackson's musical identity. He'd been an excellent bassist with the Searchers, as well as the band's lead singer and initially played bass and sang lead in the new band. At one point, however, guitarist Ian Buisel (aka Ian Leighton) took over a lot of the lead singing from him. Later in the history of the Tony Jackson Group, Jackson took back the vocal spotlight and deferred on bass to Dennis Thompson. Jackson and his band were dropped by Pye in 1965, after the failure of their single "Stage Door," the B-side of which, "That's What I Want," was a surprisingly forward-looking record with some strong fuzz guitar, courtesy of Buisel, and sometimes gets cited as a prime piece of proto-punk. Their version of "Fortune Teller" is also a loud, guitar-driven jewel that doesn't quite hold together to the end but does represent two-minutes-plus of punkoid posturing.
A jump to British CBS the following year failed to enhance Jackson's sales, and a switch to a solo career didn't do any more good, although "Follow Me" (written by Warren Zevon) got picked up by pirate radio in England. Following in the footsteps of several fading British beat bands, the Tony Jackson Group played out its final days on tour in southern Europe, where mid-'60s British bands still had a decent following as late as 1967-1968, and got out one ultra-obscure EP (on which they covered songs by the Byrds and Paul Revere & the Raiders, among others).
Jackson gave up performing and for a time became a producer, and also later worked as an agent, furniture salesman, disc jockey, and manager of a golf club. Of the bandmembers, only drummer Paul Francis went on to a major career, playing sessions for the likes of Bill Wyman and Suzi Quatro as well as gigs as a member of Tucky Buzzard and Cockney Rebel -- and it was Francis who persuaded Jackson to resume his performing career and reorganize the Vibrations in 1991. It turned out that Jackson was still remembered sufficiently well in England to attract and audiences. They've played many times since, especially at oldies festivals. He reportedly also played some gigs with Mike Pender's Searchers, one of two versions of the group working in the 1990s. His comeback, however, was interrupted by a bizarre incident involving a dispute over the use of a public phone in which Jackson pulled out what turned out to be a fake gun to back up his point, which resulted in his arrest. Ironically, it was during this very time that his recorded legacy with the Searchers and his own group started getting unearthed for CD reissue around the world. His health had declined in his final years, a consequence of his drinking, and he passed away in the summer of 2003. Amazingly, despite being out of the spotlight for almost 40 years, his death was widely covered by the British press, and Frank Allen also published a very moving reminiscence about Jackson. Despite his bad luck and personal problems, as a founding member of the Searchers he and his music continue to attract interested listeners in the 21st century. 2004 saw the release of the first ever Tony Jackson CD, Watch Your Step: The Complete Recordings 1964-1966.