Fridge freezers, Wranglers, records – the ‘Cunard Yanks’ had their hands in every pie. Seamen by necessity, taste-makers by design, these cultural shapeshifters were responsible for many of the seismic changes that swept Merseyside and beyond in the fifties and sixties. They even sold George Harrison a guitar. By Alan O’Hare. 

It was Hank Williams who convinced photographer, filmmaker and original ‘Cunard Yank’ Billy Harrison to join the merchant navy. Well, sort of: “I sat on a wall to listen to a record when I was 15,” he says, “and this fella’ came out of the house where it was playing in a beautiful midnight blue suit and a pair of oxblood slip-on shoes with a brass bull’s head on the top… I thought ‘he’s a film star’.” He wasn’t though – the catalyst in question was a seaman who was listening to the hillbilly Shakespeare on a spot of leave. The rest is history.

Harrison signed on the dotted line and began a dual career, shuttling between Liverpool and New York, as a kitchen worker by day and an importer of twentieth century gold by night: “Liverpool in the early fifties was a dark place – so going over to America was like going from black and white into Technicolor,” says Harrison. Him and his crew mates starting buying up rock ‘n’ roll records – ‘jukebox returns’ – to bring home and became just one of those responsible for bringing American music to England… inspiring a generation of rockers, such as The Beatles.

We all know what happened next… but Billy and the ‘Cunard Yanks’ were also some of those responsible for putting on the style from New York and bringing it back to Liverpool – with brand new clothing, hairstyles and vocabulary from across the Atlantic causing seismic cultural shifts. “That wasn’t on my mind at all,” laughs Billy. It happened, though, and it’s time to celebrate it all this month, with an exhibition to be held at The Shipping Forecast in Slater Street.

Harrison extensively photographed his experiences aboard the great liners and onshore – on both sides of the Atlantic in Liverpool and New York – and his pictures convey working life on the Cunard line, periods of leave in fifties Liverpool, the evolution of the ‘Cunard Yank’ style and images of New York City. There’s also the tale of Billy and his ‘fab’ namesake’s guitar: “My friend Ivan Hayward told this kid with greasy hair and black plastic clothing that he wanted £90 for his Gretsch Duo Jet guitar… but the lad only had £70. So, I told him to write an IOU on the back of the customs receipt – I knew he’d need that if he ever took the guitar abroad – and he signed it ‘G Harrison’. We didn’t know who it was at the time… we hadn’t heard of The Beatles. He never came back with the £20 either!”

Hosted by Harry Stedman, and presented by Next Stop New York, the exhibition will include a limited edition screen-print by illustrator Ben Newman and primary source images from Harrison’s personal collection. Also featured are photographs from Stedman’s personal archives – collected during Liverpool-born Stedman’s years at sea discovering variations of the classic dockers’ work-wear he was used to seeing in Liverpool. Stedman, Harrison and their crew mates also brought back the slang, sounds and looks that arguably kick-started the youth explosion of the fifties and sixties that continues to influence us all six decades later.

Liverpool music, fashion and culture has spent a long time trying to escape the shadow of The Beatles and all that came after their breakthrough. It’s ironic, then, that the city was already ahead of the rest a decade before. How does that song go? And if you know your history…

Next Stop New York presents Harry Stedman & The Cunard Yanks
14th October – 28th October 2016*
The Shipping Forecast, Slater Street, Liverpool

* On Saturday 22nd October there will be an ‘Open Archiving’ day for members of the community to bring in their own pieces of Liverpool’s seafaring history – photographs, film, clothing and anything else. These will be then photographed by the Next Stop New York team. 

Pic courtesy One Fell Swoop