Money In A Brown Paper Bag: The Beatles at Shea Stadium

Beatles at Shea stadium

The Beatles at Shea Stadium/photograph by Marc Weinstein

Money In A Brown Paper Bag: The Beatles at Shea Stadium
| published August 25, 2015 |

By Kevin Robbie Thursday Review contributor

At a press conference on August 12, 1965, a reporter asked a question of the Beatles: “You’ve now conquered five continents. What do you have planned next?” John Lennon and Paul McCartney responded in unison, “Conquering six continents…”

The Beatles were in New York City to begin a lengthy tour of the United States. They had toured America over a year earlier, during the height of Beatleamania, in 1964. During that tour, they had “conquered” America inspiring large, rabid crowds at concert and airports. The group also appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in a February 9 episode that attracted approximately 73,000,000 viewers and setting what was then the all-time record for television viewership. Just prior to the ’64 tour, their first movie, “A Hard Day’s Night” had premiered and garnered positive reviews and success at the box office.

In 1965, although Beatlemania was still in full swing, the group’s music was changing and evolving into a more sophisticated sound. Over the previous year, the Beatles had released several albums and .45 records, all of which sold heavily. On August 13, 1965, “Help!” was released on the group’s American label, Capitol Records, a subsidiary of their parent label, EMI.

The Beatles’ 1965 U.S. tour began on August 15th, in New York, where the Beatles appeared at Shea Stadium. The concert had been organized and promoted by Sid Bernstein, a booking agent for General Artists Corporation (GAC). Bernstein was experienced in the entertainment industry as he had also served as the booking agent for Dion and Chubby Checker. He also was familiar with the management side of the business, having managed mambo musician Esy Morales after serving in World War II.

A self-described Anglophile, Bernstein first heard of the Beatles in early 1963 after reading about them in a British newspaper. However, his colleagues at GAC were unimpressed and the agency’s representative in London was of the opinion that the Beatles were merely a local phenomenon. Bernstein wasn’t very familiar with the Beatles’ music, but as an agent he was interested in bringing popular acts to famous venues, and he sensed something important was afoot with the British band. Undaunted by GAC’s reluctance, Bernstein contacted Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, about bringing the group to the U.S. Bernstein began building a rapport with Epstein who was also impressed by the fact that Bernstein had promoted a concert by Judy Garland, one of Epstein’s favorite singers. What really got the manager’s attention was when Bernstein assured him he could book the Beatles into Carnegie Hall. Having recently purchased London’s Saville Theatre, Epstein was enthusiastic about the idea of the band performing at Carnegie Hall. Bernstein delivered on his promise and the Beatles performed at the famous venue on February 12, 1964.

With the wild success of the Beatles 1964 tour, Bernstein wanted a slice of the concert action for 1965 as well. He contacted the management for Shea Stadium, home of the Mets, about booking the site for the Beatles in 1965. The city officials were more than a bit skeptical that Bernstein could sell 55,000 tickets for a rock-and-roll concert. Such sales would be unprecedented for anything in pop music, Bernstein understood, but he continued to sense that the Beatles were far more than just a passing fad. The average ticket price was $4.80, including taxes. Brian was also deeply skeptical. He did not like to commit the Beatles to any venue unless he was confident they would pack it to capacity, and he felt that Shea Stadium would be overreach. But Bernstein offered to pay Brian $10.00 for every unsold seat, and then remarked that his bet was safe—there would be no unsold seats.

To almost everyone’s surprise but Bernstein’s, the concert sold out quickly for the performance on August 15, 1965. Bernstein had been correct. There was no organized advertising or marketing campaign for the concert; tickets sold almost entirely on the momentum of news reports and word-of-mouth. Bernstein had rented a post office box for fans to mail in checks or money orders. After a month of waiting, he decided to go to the post office to see if anything had come in. The clerk brought out three army duffel bags stuffed with checks and money orders. Some of the money had to be returned because of the sellout.

As the day of the concert approached, both Brian and Sid Bernstein became concerned about the logistics and security issues involved for an event of that scale. The concert was shaping up to be the largest outdoor rock-and-roll event ever staged. Extra police presence was necessary for traffic and crowd control. The large contingent of media had to be considered and, of course—being as the band was now attracting masses of people and surging crowds everywhere they travelled—getting the Beatles into and out of the stadium was the most important security issue they faced.

Another issue to settle was payment. The habit at the time in the industry was for payments to managers and agents to often be made under-the-table, or in a brown paper bag, in order to avoid tax implications. When Sid Bernstein secured the rights to present the Beatles, he handed over a check for $100,000 to Brian Epstein, presumably because neither man wanted to be responsible for the security of so much cash. Prior to the Shea Stadium concert, Brian had accepted certain payments surreptitiously. When Bernstein informed Brian he could make the entire payment up front, Brian asked for a check.

The day of the concert, August 15, 1965, started out very much busy-as-usual for the Beatles. They spent most of the day taping their third and final appearance for the Ed Sullivan Show in New York. Then, they spent four hours rehearsing six songs, working diligently to achieve the best sound balance and ensuring that the show ran smoothly.

As evening approached, the group’s equipment was packed up and they were driven to a waiting helicopter at the Wall Street Heliport. The idea was for the group to descend onto a field—the site of the World’s Fair—and then driven to the stadium in armored cars. The logistics of the evening were conducted like a military operation in order to enhance the group’s physical safety and to elude cagey and fanatical fans.

As the group arrived at the stadium, the concert was already underway, opened by a host of opening acts, including King Curtis. Ed Sullivan had already arrived to film the Beatles’ appearance for his show, and he was waiting for them in one of the dugouts. When the group sprinted from the dugout to the stage placed over second base, the crowd of nearly 56,000 went into overdrive. As the group began their performance, the sound from the fans was described as equivalent to a jet engine. Police, security, stage crew, and photographers on the field and near the stage say it was the most deafening roar they had ever heard. In fact, during their time on stage, the Beatles were largely unable to hear themselves sing, and often couldn’t hear the chords they were playing—this despite fifty or more 100 watt amplifiers and dozens of massive speakers set up on the baseball diamond. John and George each acknowledged later that at some moments they weren’t even playing the right chords on their guitars, and at other times even the sounds of Ringo’s drums were buried by the enormous roar.

As tangible evidence of the crowd’s excitement level, clean-up crews after the event reported finding scattered pairs of discarded, damp female underwear—presumably soaked with urine.

The best way to get an idea of the atmosphere of the event is to go to YouTube and look for video footage of it. The sounds of the fans, as well as their reactions to seeing the Beatles, have to be seen to be believed. Their set-list included twelve songs: “Twist and Shout,” “She’s A Woman,” “I Feel Fine,” “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” “Ticket to Ride,” “Everybody’s Tryin’ to be My Baby,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Baby’s In Black,” “Act Naturally,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help,” and “I’m Down.” The entire set consumed 28 minutes.

The Shea concert was a watershed in the history of rock. Selling out a stadium of that size for a rock-and-roll concert was unprecedented in 1965. But with the precedent established by the Beatles, Brian Epstein virtually invented the rock tour industry, the outdoor concert event, along with contract riders and backstage passes. Without the success of that concert, subsequent concerts such as Woodstock and Altamont and later events such as Live-Aid might not have been possible. Groups like the Rolling Stones, The Who, The Eagles, Billy Joel, Bon Jovi and U2 owe the success of their massive outdoor venues and super-shows to the landmark moment when the Beatles performed in Shea Stadium.

The concert and the group’s continued success in 1965 proved the Beatles were not a fluke, either, but were already established as a cultural phenomenon. Through 1964, Brian had booked the group into mostly smaller venues which helped create a pent-up demand in 1965. The Shea concert grossed over $300,000 and the Beatles cut came to $180,000, catapulting them from a musical fad to the first rock and roll super group. Their pay for the Shea concert averaged $100.00 per second. Sid Bernstein estimated he personally cleared around $6,500.00.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Best of Cellars: The Beatles & Brian Epstein; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; November 28, 2014.