Though without doubt The Beatles and The Rolling Stones stand as the highest echelon of British Invasion groups, the British Isles had what sports fans call a "strong bench." And biting furiously at the heels of the Beatles and Stones were The Hollies.
Formed in the Northern English town of Manchester and named in tribute to Buddy Holly, The Hollies were highly regarded for their songwriting skills and vocal harmonies. They had a lot to
offer instrumentally, as well, with Bobby Elliott regarded as one of the best drummers in the land.
The Hollies began with childhood friends Allan Clarke and Graham Nash. Several years later, the band - at that point a talented but fairly standard beat group - was playing at Liverpool's Cavern Club when discovered and signed by producer Ron Richards. In a move paralleling The Beatles' last-minute switch in drummers from Pete Best to Ringo Starr -- original Hollies guitarist Vic Steele soon left, to be replaced by Tony Hicks; not much longer, and Bobby Elliott was called in to replace Don Rathbone. Both Elliott and Hicks has played in another Manchester band, The Dolphins. The near-classic Hollies line-up of Clarke, Hicks, Nash, bassist Eric Haydock and Elliott was in place.
While, like most beat groups of the day, The Hollies included many American hits - largely obscure - in their early repertoire, they were writing and commissioning new songs almost from the start. The originals wound up as "B" sides, often credited to the pseudonymous "Chester Mann" or - later - "L. Ransford," no matter what combination of Clarke, Nash and Hicks was involved. For their stage show, the group seemed particular fans of songs by the American group The Coasters, with Ain't That Just Like Me, Searchin', and Poison Ivy among their early recordings. Their first hit not adapted from an American record was 1964's Here I Go Again, followed by We're Through; and their American chart breakthrough, I'm Alive.
Though neither was a writer, the big change in The Hollies' musical direction took place not long after original bassist Haydock was replaced by Bernie Calvert - another recruit from The Dolphins, who must have felt themselves as little more than The Hollies' farm team. Suddenly, the Clarke-Hicks-Nash songwriting partnership began to flower. After hits written by Chip Taylor (I Can't Let Go) and Graham Gouldman (Bus Stop), they broke through with their group-written Stop, Stop, Stop - a tale of an unfortunate encounter with an exotic dancer with a vaguely middle-Eastern feel and featuring guitarist Hicks on heavily-echoed electric banjo.
While the group would subsequently occasionally record outside material, Pay You Back with Interest, On a Carousel, Carrie Anne, King Midas in Reverse and Dear Eloise were all written by the group.
Nash left the group at the end of 1968, evidently dissatisfied with the group's musical direction. He moved to California and formed a group with David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and (sometimes) Neil Young, who continue recording and playing in various configurations well into the 21st century. (He returned to The Hollies for one album and one less-than-successful tour in 1983.)
With Liverpudlian Terry Sylvester, formerly of The Escorts and a late edition of The Swinging Blue Jeans, in Nash's place, The Hollies continued, with He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother (written by Americans Bob Russell and Bobby Scott) topping the British and U.S. charts twice - originally in 1969, and again 19 years later, thanks to play in a beer commercial.
After recording what would be another huge international hit, Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress, Clarke attempted to launch a solo career; Swedish singer Mikael Rikfors was recruited to replace him. About two years and three solo albums later, Clarke returned, just in time to record The Air That I Breathe, an Albert Hammond-Mike Hazlewood composition that had been originally recorded by the group's early idol, Phil Everly. The Everly connection had been cemented a few years earlier, when The Hollies largely wrote and (with Jimmy Page on guitar) backed the American duo on their 1966 Two Yanks in England album. The Air That I Breathe was the last Hollies hit to be produced by Ron Richards, as the group took their own reins.
Following two solo albums recorded while in The Hollies, Sylvester left the group in 1981, replaced by Alan Coates; as did bassist Calvert, who'd be replaced by Ray Styles, formerly of glam band Mud. Ian Parker joined the group on keyboards circa 1990.
It's doubtful that anyone other than Clarke could have sung so convincingly on He Ain't Heavy... and The Air.., but he finally retired from the band - of whom only Hicks and Elliott remained from the classic years -- for good, in 1999. Called in was Carl Wayne, original lead singer for The Move, who had spent the last couple of decades as a cabaret act under his own name. Wayne continued with the group, who were still quite successful as a live act, until his death of cancer in August, 2004.
As this is written, The Hollies consist of Hicks, Elliott, Parker, Steve Lauri (who'd replaced Coates), and new lead singer Peter Howarth, who'd worked for many years with Cliff Richard and had starred in a national tour of The Roy Orbison Story - just the man, one might think, to hit those Allan Clarke notes.