Jim Berkenstadt calls himself the rock and roll detective, and a few years ago he took on his toughest case: Whatever happened to Jimmie Nicol?
Berkenstadt, a retired Madison attorney—he was corporate counsel for the Wisconsin Cheeseman—thought there might be an interesting magazine article in the story of Nicol, who for a brief time in 1964 played drums for the Beatles when Ringo Starr was ailing. It lasted less than two weeks, but Nicol was at the drums when the Beatles set off on their first world tour.
After that brief shot of blazing fame, Nicol kept his own music career going for a few years, but in 1967, while touring with a band in Mexico, he disengaged and…nobody really knows what became of him. Despite purported sightings and a laundry list of rumors—including reports of his death—the whereabouts of Jimmie Nicol remain a mystery.
Berkenstadt’s fascination grew as he learned more about Nicol, and the imagined magazine article grew instead into a book, “The Beatle Who Vanished,” self-published in 2013. Berkenstadt had pieced together much of the story, interviewing former bandmates and Nicol’s ex-wife, but Nicol himself remained elusive.
That the story lacked a definitive ending did not diminish interest in it, as Berkenstadt learned last summer when he received a somewhat mysterious email.
“Just wondering if you have sold the film rights to your book?”
Berkenstadt wrote back: “Just wondering who you are?”
It turned out his correspondent was an attorney representing two families with significant music industry connections, and eventually Berkenstadt was put in touch.
The result, announced late last month in articles in Billboard and Rolling Stone magazines, was the acquisition of the film rights to Berkenstadt’s book by Alex Orbison and Ashley Hamilton.
Orbison is the son of Roy Orbison, the music legend who toured the United Kingdom with the Beatles in 1963 and joined Beatle George Harrison in the Traveling Wilburys. Hamilton is the son of actor George Hamilton and actress Alana Stewart, meaning Rod Stewart is his step-dad.
“Quite an unexpected development,” Berkenstadt said, when I caught up with him last week.
I first met Jim two decades ago when he supervised the cleaning up and transfer to CD of old big band recordings from the 1950s at Madison’s Edgewater Hotel.
Berkenstadt has had his hand in the music business in one form or another for a long time. His interest in the Beatles began when he was a teenager in Chicago and found one of their bootlegged recordings in a record shop in Old Town. Eventually Berkenstadt published a book, “Black Market Beatles,” an exhaustive listing of the bootlegged music that established Berkenstadt as one of the go-to experts on the band.
Berkenstadt is savvy enough in the ways of show business to know it is one thing to have the film rights to a book purchased—it is another altogether to see a film actually made.
But he likes Orbison and Hamilton—“we get along famously”—and thinks they may have the contacts and moxie to pull off the film.
Berkenstadt, meanwhile, has engaged a literary agent who is talking to publishers about a second edition of “The Beatle Who Vanished,” with a new introduction, updated material and the possibility of a publication date around the time the film is released.
“I’m on the trail, still,” Berkenstadt said, when I asked if there was any update on Jimmie Nicol. “I believe that he is alive. I can’t guarantee it.”
In some ways, it’s an irresistible story—the man who might have had the original “15 minutes of fame.” In 1964, Nicol, who was known to Beatles producer George Martin, got a last-minute phone call saying Ringo Starr was hospitalized with tonsillitis on the eve of the band’s first big world tour.
Nicol was a Beatle in Denmark, Hong Kong, and Australia before Ringo showed up. Epstein gave Nicol an engraved watch and a plane ticket home.
How do you live a life after that? Much of the answer is in “The Beatle Who Vanished.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. See his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.