The Story Behind “My Bonnie” by Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers (You May Know the Backing Band by a Different Name)

Charles Edward Louis John Sylvester Maria Casimir Stuart was the grandson of James VII, the King of England. The claimant to England, Scotland, and Ireland’s thrones was Bonnie Prince Charlie. In 1746, as the leader of the Jacobite rising, his army lost to the British at the Battle of Culloden. Stuart fled to France and became romanticized as a figure of heroic failure in a Scottish folk song.

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Through the years, many versions of the song were performed and recorded. Occasionally referred to as “My Barney,” but usually “My Bonnie,” the song also sparked many parody versions. Let’s take a look at the story behind “My Bonnie” by Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers.

From England to Hamburg

Tony Sheridan was from Norwich, England, but went to Hamburg, Germany with his band The Jets on June 5, 1960. The band fell apart, but Sheridan continued to perform on the Reeperbahn, the strip of nightclubs in the St. Pauli district of Hamburg. Other British groups followed: Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Derry and the Seniors, and a less successful group that had just changed their names to The Beatles. In August, during their first visit to the port city, Tony Sheridan first met the Liverpool quintet, consisting of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe, and Pete Best. Sheridan had worked as a session musician and spent time playing with British rock star Vince Taylor. The Beatles backed Sheridan at the Top Ten Club, and they learned the ways of working a crowd from the singer.

My Bonnie lies over the ocean
My Bonnie lies over the sea
My Bonnie lies over the ocean
Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me

Intros in English and German

Two different versions of the intro were recorded, one in English and one in German. Paul McCartney, who had switched over to bass by this time to fill the void after Sutcliffe left the band, remembered another important fact in The Beatles Anthology, “It was actually ‘Tony Sheridan und die Beat Brothers.’ They didn’t like our name and said, ‘Change to the Beat Brothers; this is more understandable for the German audience.’ We went along with it. It was a record.”

Mein Herz ist bei dir nur, my darling
Mein Herz fand bei dir nur das Glück
Noch trennen uns Länder und Meere
Doch bald kehre ich wieder zurück

A Record Deal

As The Beatles went back and forth between Hamburg and Liverpool, they honed their live act. In May 1961, German singer Tommy Kent visited the Top Ten Club and saw Sheridan with The Beatles. He suggested to his boss Bert Kaempfert, a record producer and A&R man for Polydor Records, that he see this young act. Kaempfert offered them a recording deal and arranged to record four songs. “My Bonnie” was popular with the German sailors and The Beatles had included it in their setlists. It was suggested they record it along with a rocked-up version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Why,” and an instrumental called “Cry for a Shadow.”

My Bonnie lies over the ocean
My Bonnie lies over the sea
Well, my Bonnie lies over the ocean
Yeah, bring back my Bonnie to me

The Recording

The session took place at Hamburg’s Friedrich-Ebert-Halle school on June 22 and 23, 1961. The Beatles were the backing group minus Sutcliffe, who left the band to devote more time to his painting. John Lennon seemed less than enthused about it in a 1963 interview that was included in The Beatles Anthology: “It’s just Tony Sheridan singing, with us banging in the background. It’s terrible. It could be anybody.”

Yeah, bring back, ah, bring back
Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me to me
Oh, bring back, oh, bring back
Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me

The Guitar Solo

George Harrison played guitar on the recording, but Tony Sheridan performed the solo, which was spliced in from a different take on the finished master recording. Sheridan spoke of McCartney’s bass playing during the documentary Are You Tony Sheridan?: “I knew he was a natural bass player, so I said to Paul, ‘Can you do the second part of my solo? Can you play just C and nothing else? The low C? You just need to stay on the same note.’ And he did. If you listen to ‘My Bonnie,’ in the second part of the solo, you will hear Paul doing exactly that, which shows he was a great bass player. He still is.” The single peaked at No. 32 on the German charts in October 1961. It was released in England and reached No. 48. After the band’s success in America, it was given a Stateside release, reaching No. 26 on the Billboard Hot 100. 

Well, my Bonnie lies over the ocean
My Bonnie lies over the sea
Yeah, my Bonnie lies over the ocean
Oh, I said, bring back my Bonnie to me

Enter Epstein

The Polydor single was the first commercially released record by The Beatles. It played an important role in the development of the band. A Liverpool fan named Raymond Jones went into the NEMS record store and asked the shop owner if that particular single was available. This sparked a series of events that led to Brian Epstein becoming The Beatles’ manager. McCartney recalled, “A kid had gone into Brian’s record store and asked for ‘My Bonnie’ by The Beatles. Brian had said, ‘No, it’s not, it’s by Tony Sheridan,’ and he ordered it. Then Brian heard that we were playing 200 yards away. So he came to the Cavern, and the news got to us: ‘Brian Epstein is in the audience—he might be a manager or a promoter. He is a grown-up, anyway.’ It was us and grown-ups then.”

Yeah, bring back, ah, bring back
Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me to me
Oh, bring back, ah, bring back
Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me

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Photo by Larry Ellis/Express/Getty Images

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