George Martin, the dapper, classically-trained music producer who helped to guide the Beatles from obscurity to being the most influential rock band of all time, died recently in his sleep at the age of 90; Martin also collaborated with performers as diverse as Jeff Beck and Cheap Trick. Read the full article about George Martin here.
Thursday Review‘s Kevin Robbie tells the story of how The Beatles played at New York’s Shea Stadium in 1965, overnight changing the way rock and roll fans would see live music, and in the process putting on the most famous outdoor concert ever held. Read the full Music Page article by clicking here.
By Kevin Robbie, Thursday Review contributor
Liverpool, England was the epicenter of a vibrant music scene in 1961. At many venues around the city, groups and solo acts played to lunchtime crowds as well as late-night audiences. The performances were noted for the eager musicianship and the wide variety of musical sources, though nearly all of them were all-out rock-and-roll oriented.
Rock had become the music de jure in Liverpool after the passing of the skiffle craze. Skiffle was popular for a few years because in order to play it, a group did not need formal instruments. Because England was still under wartime rationing, money was in short supply as well. Skiffle music could be produced with washboards, buckets and homemade guitars which cost little or nothing to make, utilizing materials laying around one’s house. Liverpool was one of England’s major port cities and the crews of foreign ships which took cargo in and out of the port brought with them various cultural influences. American ships brought in music, largely in the form of LP record albums which the merchant seamen often sold at record shops throughout the city. The records brought the music of Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran as well as blues and jazz. As rock replaced skiffle, budding groups began incorporating all these influences into their repertoires. Some, of course, did this more successfully than others.
There were approximately 300 rock bands in Liverpool in the autumn of 1961. One of the most popular groups was called The Beatles. The group had gone through different names and identities (The Quarrymen, The Beat Brothers) while trying to establish itself as a major force on the local music scene. The Beatles played all over Liverpool and once performed in front of an audience of under ten people. They were becoming well-known in the city for their frenetic style as well as their volume and sheer energy. People were recognizing that the group possessed an undefined “it” factor that was setting them apart from other groups. Although they were the most popular band in Liverpool by late 1961, they were still unknown outside of their home city. Their ambition, talent—and lunchtime encounter—would soon propel them into the stratosphere.
During their early years, the Beatles performed and developed as musicians without the aid of proper management. At various times they had been managed, loosely, by Mona Best, the mother of their original drummer, Pete Best. Allan Williams, the owner of two Liverpool dance clubs, also booked performance dates for the Beatles. Williams’ business interests kept him from full-time management but he also considered the group unreliable because of their chronic tardiness to gigs. Their career depended on a dedicated, full-time manager.
One venue at which the Beatles frequently played was the Cavern Club, located at 10 Mathew Street. The Cavern opened as a jazz club in 1957 but was purchased by Ray McFall in 1959. Under McFall’s ownership, Bob Wooler was hired as the compere and the cavern became a rock-and-roll venue. Wooler began booking more prominent acts and he raised the Cavern’s profile. The club also became known for its raucous lunchtime sessions. Wooler welcomed the crowd by announcing “Welcome Cavern dwellers. Welcome to the best of cellars!” The space occupied by the Cavern had been an old cellar.
One of the groups booked at the Cavern was the Beatles. John Lennon and Paul McCartney had played at the Cavern in 1958 as the Quarrymen, when the venue was still a jazz club with a limited rock program. The Beatles first appearance at the Cavern was February 9, 1961. They had returned from three months in Hamburg, Germany, honing their craft and developing their stage presence. They were building a reputation as great live performers and regularly packed the Cavern’s lunchtime sessions. Standing room only became the norm.
On November 9, 1961, Wooler announced the presence of a visitor to the Cavern. Many in the young crowd recognized Brian Epstein, the operator of NEMS (North End Music Stores), a family-owned business in Liverpool, on Great Charlotte Street. The young people who frequented the Cavern also liked to hang out in the NEMS store, listening to the latest records, many of which were by American artists. Epstein took pride in being able to acquire records considered difficult to find, or obscure, so his store was popular with music fans.
Brian Epstein was 27 years old when he met the Beatles. He had worked successfully for several years in the family business but had become bored and restless. Epstein was looking for something different in his life and he had just crossed paths with the Beatles. According to Beatles lore, Epstein first heard of the Beatles when a teen-ager named Raymond Jones walked into NEMS and requested a record—“My Bonnie,” by Tony Sheridan, featuring a backup band called the Beatles. Sheridan was a musician and guitarist from Norwich, England, who had gained popularity in Hamburg, Germany. Sheridan had been offered a contract by German bandleader Bert Kaempfert. “My Bonnie” was recorded in June, 1961, and on the record’s label the Beatles were identified as the “Beat Brothers.” However, the Jones story may not be entirely true. The Beatles were already creating a buzz among Liverpool youth by the fall of 1961, so it’s reasonable to assume Epstein had heard other conversations about them in his store.
Like other aspiring groups, the Beatles were seeking fame and fortune. In the early 1960’s, that meant securing a record contract. However, the British music scene was dominated by acts signed out of London. Although the Beatles were well known among Liverpool youth, they were unknown in the rest of Britain. They believed their career would stagnate, and they would never break out of Liverpool, unless they secured proper management.
Brian Epstein had seen NEMS business grow to the point that his father, Harry, was considering expanding it and opening additional stores. NEMS’ record departments were booming, largely due to Brian’s hard work and business acumen. The Epsteins were sitting on a potential retail empire. Brian worked diligently at NEMS largely out of family loyalty and expectations and could be called a successful, up-and-coming businessman. Nevertheless, Brian felt that his life was stagnating. He had grown up beset with insecurity and struggled with his identity. As an adolescent, Brian had begun struggling with the fact that he was attracted to boys. By the time he was twenty, Brian had admitted to himself that he was homosexual. By throwing himself into the family business, he tried to please his parents and find a way to be “normal.” Success at NEMS failed to alleviate Brian’s inner conflicts or unhappiness. He was looking for something else to do with his life. Once Brian met the Beatles and saw them perform, he decided to take a gigantic leap of faith.
Brian was attracted to the impulsive, restless nature of the performances he witnessed at the Cavern, as well as the reckless spontaneity he witnessed in the onstage presence of the Beatles. It was an image wholly opposite his own buttoned-down life and Brian was mesmerized. By early December, 1961, Brian decided to offer himself to the group as their manager.
The first formal meeting occurred on December 3 in Brian’s office. Bob Wooler had accompanied the Beatles as a friend and unofficial advisor. The Beatles were nervous but anxious to hear what Brian had to say. At first, they engaged in small talk, with Brian telling the group how much he enjoyed their performances and complimenting them on the local interest in “My Bonnie.” Eventually, Brian got to the point and offered to manage the group. He gave the appearance of being noncommittal and encouraged the Beatles to think about his offer, which contained nothing specific as of yet. The Beatles were highly flattered that someone successful and well-connected like Brian Epstein took an interest in them. They realized this might be the break they needed.
When Brian informed his parents of his decision to dive into management of a pop group, they were not only skeptical, but also upset, especially his father. Harry Epstein regarded it as a harebrained scheme that would ultimately come to naught. Brian’s mother was more optimistic, but she also realized that the young Brian probably could not be talked out of it. Brian told his father that he would continue to work at the store while acting as the Beatles manager on a part-time basis. It was largely through Brian’s efforts that NEMS had grown to become one of the biggest musical retail outlets in England.
Further meetings between Brian and the group occurred on December 6 and 10. The Beatles decided as a group to accept Brian’s offer of management. They had already begun to trust him and they were confident that Brian could open the necessary doors to ignite their career. But there was a slight hitch in the plan; three of the group’s members—Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best—were underage, so any management contract they entered into needed the consent of parents. Pete’s mother, Mona Best and George’s parents, Harry and Louise Harrison, were enthusiastic from the beginning and gave their consent quickly. Paul’s father, Jim McCartney, was skeptical, but eventually gave in to Paul’s pleadings. Having always harbored misgivings about her nephew’s chosen career as a musician, John’s aunt, Mimi Smith, was also deeply skeptical. As his guardian, her biggest fear was that Brian Epstein would eventually lose interest in the Beatles, and John would be cut adrift. However, John had turned 21 in October, so he could legally sign a contract on his own—without permission of his aunt.
The Beatles signed a management contract with Brian Epstein on January 24, 1962. According to the document’s terms, Brian would receive 10-15% of the group’s income, depending on how much they earned. Brian would undertake to manage their business and financial affairs, as well as their tour schedule. His primary goal was to land the group a proper recording contract, but as a secondary task he had to free them from a few constraints left in place by a contract they had signed with Bert Kaempfert back in Hamburg during the brief period when the Beatles with associated with Tony Sheridan. Once those legal issues were resolved, Epstein began promoting the group aggressively, and he soon secured an audition for the group with Decca Records at their West Hampstead Studios on January 1, 1962.
Members of the group were thrilled, but they were also nervous and filled with self-doubt; would their presence, infectious energy, and natural charisma onstage transfer to acetate? Nevertheless, the group performed fifteen songs during a one-hour “artist test.” The numbers were a representative cross-section of the upbeat songs the group played during live performances.
But, upon conclusion of the audition session, Decca’s immediate response was “we’ll get back to you….” Decca offered what would become one of the most famous rejections of all time by intoning that “guitar bands are on the way out.” The incident seemed to pose the question: Where would the Beatles go from here?
Still, Epstein remained tireless, and in February—only a few months after the Decca rejection—Epstein brokered a meeting with producer George Martin, and the boys were soon signed to EMI’s Parlophone Records. Martin sensed something special in the band, and in June 1962 put them into a recording studio—where the first order of business became replacing drummer Pete Best with the more accomplished Ringo Starr, at that time a member of Rory Storm & the Hurricanes. If Pete Best was the weak link musically, Ringo was that missing bit of chemistry that rounded out the group’s energetic sound and stage personality. New drummer in place, the Beatles recorded “Love Me Do” on September 4, 1962. Two months later, at EMI’s Abbey Road recording studio in London, the Beatles recorded “Please Please Me,” a song Martin predicted with uncanny accuracy would rocket to number one.
“Please Please Me” became the title of their first album—a collection of songs released in spring 1963. Among those tunes was the catchy “She Loves You,” a song which would move quickly to number one in the U.S. and the U.K., and would set an all-time sales record by selling an astonishing 765,000 copies in only four weeks. Weeks later, it would become the Beatles first million seller, the first of more than a dozen chart-toppers in those early years, and the start of a run of number one hits that would break every record in musical history.
Epstein’s lunchtime encounter with the Beatles—in that former wine cellar—changed the trajectory not only for a young, ambitious band manager and an up-and-coming rock and roll group, but redefined the concept of the “guitar band” so easily dismissed by the music executives at Decca.
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By Kevin Robbie Thursday Review contributor
(Originally published Saturday, February 8, 2014):
Sunday, February 9th, 2014, will mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first appearance on the iconic Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. The event will be commemorated by CBS on Sunday (February 9, 2014) with “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to The Beatles.” The program will air in the same time slot, 8:00 p.m., as the band’s first appearance on Ed Sullivan’s show. The salute will feature performances by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
As a child, I can remember sitting in front of our black-and-white television on Sunday evenings watching programs such as Lassie, Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Bonanza. Perhaps the most popular Sunday evening program was the Ed Sullivan Show, the most highly-rated variety show in the history of television. “Ed Sullivan,” as the show was typically referred to, first aired in June, 1948 and ran on CBS until 1971. The show aired on CBS for its entire run in the era before cable television, and in an age when only three networks existed.
American culture in the early 1960’s was already coalescing around the family TV set. There were no electronic devices such as i-Pads, cell phones or video games to provide distractions. TV dinners were becoming more prevalent and families would often eat their evening meals sitting in front of the television set, only getting up to adjust the antenna, or “rabbit ears,” to improve reception. The kids might argue about whose turn it was to get up and change the channel because TV remotes weren’t in common use then, either.
Our culture was also more insular in the early 1960’s. The internet didn’t exist, international television wasn’t common and even trans-oceanic airplane travel was not as routine as it is today. There were fewer means for connecting people on a global basis. Other parts of the world were regarded as faraway, exotic or mysterious. In a sense, technology constrained our cultural horizons.
By early 1964, John Kennedy had been assassinated and Elvis had finished filming his fourteenth movie, “Kissin’ Cousins,” set for release in March. The death of President Kennedy and the transformation of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll into a singer of cheesy movie soundtracks disillusioned many American youth who began searching for new outlets for their energy and idealism.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in the United Kingdom, British youth had found a new outlet for their expression in the form of four musicians from Liverpool. Calling themselves “The Beatles,” the band had recently exploded onto the musical and cultural scene in Britain, a society still emerging from the shadows of World War II. Rationing had been abolished only as recently as 1954 and there was a pervasive sense of national economic decline. Britain was trying to find its way in a post-colonial, Cold War world.
The Beatles’ rise from obscurity gave Britain a new relevance and ignited the latent energy of British youth.
1963 saw the rise of “Beatlemania” in the United Kingdom, sparked by an appearance on the BBC program “Sunday Night at the London Palladium.” The groups’ first record, “Love Me Do’” barely dented the Top 20 in late 1962. However, over the next few months, the Beatles became sensations with “Please, Please Me,” “From Me to You,” “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The last three songs were consecutive number one hits. The Beatles represented a fresh, positive sound and they wrote most of their own material, which was unprecedented in pop music. Their music was inspired by numerous influences from rockabilly to doo-wop to Elvis and Little Richard. They were inventive and eager in the recording studio and very charismatic as live performers. As for interviews, the group was quick-witted, funny and refreshingly down-to-earth, making them an instant hit with reporters.
During a dinner meeting in New York, in November, 1963, Ed Sullivan first met Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. The meeting was arranged at the urging of Peter Prichard, an English theatrical agent who was also employed by Sullivan as a talent evaluator. The impresario and the manager agreed that the Beatles would appear on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th and again on February 16th, in a segment to be taped in Miami.
The appearance on February 9th was highly anticipated in light of the media blitz that surrounded it. The Beatles and Epstein arrived on Pan Am flight 101, which left London’s Heathrow Airport in a scene of pandemonium, complete with screaming girls straining against police barricades. At JFK Airport, the anxious crowd was estimated at approximately 5,000, not including 200 or so members of the media. Incidentally, the actual airplane which carried the Beatles, “Clipper Defiance’” was scrapped by the airline in 1977 in Long Beach, California.
After an airport press conference the Beatles were taken to the12th floor of the Plaza Hotel. They were greeted by another mob scene and indulged more journalists at another press conference in the hotel’s Baroque Room. Members of the group were thrilled to learn that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was now #1 in America.
At 1:30 p.m. the Beatles were whisked by limousine to CBS Studio 50 on Broadway to rehearse for the appearance that evening. Mounted police were in place along the route to keep frenzied fans away from the limos. George Harrison was not present for this rehearsal due to a fever and strep throat. His sister Louise, living in Illinois at the time, had been flown to New York to tend to her ailing brother. Beatles road manager Neil Aspinall stood in for George at the studio when the camera operators needed to test for angles and lighting. However, George was onstage with his band mates when the time came for the actual broadcast that evening.
When the episode aired at 8:00 Sunday evening, 60% of the television sets in the United States were tuned in to the Ed Sullivan Show, a figure representing an estimated 73 million people. As the show’s headliners, The Beatles took the stage in front of a studio audience of 700. Sullivan introduced the group as “these youngsters from Liverpool…” They opened their first set with “All My Loving” and closed it with “She Loves You.” In a briefer second set, the Beatles performed “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
The youngsters from Liverpool had arrived in America and conquered it. Their success paved the way for the “British Invasion,” the wave of British bands whose popularity was ignited by the Beatles. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was a seminal moment in the Beatles’ legacy as the world’s greatest rock-and-roll band, and forever linked the narrative of Ed Sullivan to the history of The Beatles.
It is a legacy that will endure as long as people listen to music.
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By Kevin Robbie
Thursday Review Contributing Writer
(Originally posted April 11, 2013) In 1960, the Beatles traveled to Hamburg, Germany for a two-month engagement at the Indra Club. The group’s members were very excited as this work represented their first somewhat legitimate employment a band. Their part-time manager at the time, Allen Williams, had signed a contract with Bruno Koschmider, a German businessman who owned the Indra and other clubs. British bands were the rage in Hamburg and Koschmider had been anxious to secure another group from Britain.
However, Koschmider was also a gangster whose rackets included prostitution and drugs. His clubs were the among the seediest in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district. The Reeperbahn was intersected by two main streets—the Grosse Freiheit (Great Freedom) and the Herbertstrasse. The area was packed with dive bars, clip joints, all-night partiers and loud music. There were also enough garish brothels and prowling girls to convince any young man he was in a sexual candy store. The Beatles, who had never been outside of Britain, were not immune to the temptations.
One of the most popular British performers in Hamburg was Tony Sheridan, who died in February at the age of 74. Born in Norwich in May, 1940, Sheridan was an accomplished musician, but the raucous German crowds—usually fueled with copious amounts of alcohol—were more impressed with Sheridan’s energy and stamina. He was also known for playing his music at an ear-busting volume. Nothing was considered over-the-top on the Reeperbahn. Sheridan’s loud, wild performances matched the raw intensity, bright neon and blaring sounds of the Reeperbahn. Over time, Sheridan developed a devoted cult following in Hamburg.
The Beatles were certainly aware of Sheridan’s prowess on the guitar and his popularity in Hamburg (his favorite guitar at the time was a Martin Dreadnought). After their own shows the Beatles would walk over to the Top Ten Club to take in Sheridan’s act. The Top Ten was owned by Peter Eckhorn, a rival of Bruno Koschmider. The Beatles approached Koschmider about paying them more money and providing them with better living accommodations. Since their arrival in Hamburg they had been living in two small, dank cubicles behind the screen of the Bambi Kino, a seedy theater owned by Koschmider. He rejected their requests out of hand.
However, the Beatles weren’t just sitting in the audience at Sheridan’s shows. Eventually, he invited them to participate as his backing band, an offer they eagerly accepted. Their contract with Koschmider forbade employment in any venues not owned by him. They were naïve enough to believe they could get away with it. Thus he turned down their pleas for increased pay and better rooms. On the other hand, the Beatles weren’t paid when they performed with Sheridan. They did it for the love of it.
Koshmider made the next move. Infuriated at the Beatles refusal to back down on their legitimate requests for better working conditions, he began using his connections to the police. Hamburg had a curfew requiring minors to be off the streets by 10:00 p.m. George Harrison was only seventeen and a minor under the law. The Beatles’ work schedule required him to be out long after the curfew deadline. He also had no work permit. The cops ordered George to be out of the country in 24 hours. Having no other choice, George complied. Within a few weeks, the rest of the group were back in Liverpool, exhausted and disillusioned.
After several weeks of moping, they gathered themselves together and began playing gigs in and around Liverpool again, performing in venues such as the Casbah, the Cavern and Litherland Town Hall. Audiences familiar with the Beatles realized they weren’t the same group as the one that left for Hamburg four months earlier. The music was tighter and they were much more confident onstage.
In March, 1961, the Beatles returned to Hamburg and contracted to play at Eckhorn’s Top Ten club for two months. But they had moved up in the world and were listed on playbills as co-stars with Tony Sheridan. The group also had a change in personnel as Stuart Sutcliffe, their erstwhile bassist, left the group in order to pursue his art studies in Hamburg and marry his girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr. Paul McCartney then became the group’s bass player.
The Beatles pairing with Tony Sheridan proved to be a bonanza for Eckhorn. The Top Ten was packed with people and their shows were described as energy-charged extravaganzas. Sheridan enjoyed working with the Beatles as their vocal harmonies—and intensity—impressed him and complemented his act. He also respected their improving musicianship. But he was still far ahead of the Beatles in that regard and adding his guitar to their sets pushed their music into overdrive.
Before the Beatles left Germany to return to Liverpool, they were seen at the Top Ten by Bert Kaempfert, a German bandleader who was moving into talent representation. Kaempfert was intrigued by the Beatles but he was more impressed with Tony Sheridan. He signed Sheridan to a recording contract with the Beatles as his backing band. They were, of course, overjoyed by the news. A number of songs were recorded and “My Bonnie” was selected for release. On the label, the Beatles were listed as The Beat Brothers, the collective name used for all of Tony Sheridan’s backing bands in the early 1960s. They were paid 300 deutschmark, about $75.00 at the time. Eventually, the record sold 100,000 copies in Germany.
According to Beatle legend, Brian Epstein first heard of the group when a boy named Raymond Jones walked into Epstein’s NEMS record store in Liverpool and asked for a copy of “My Bonnie” featuring a local group called the Beatles. However, the story is almost certainly not true. The Beatles themselves frequented NEMS to listen to records. The stores’ salesgirls also knew the group. NEMS also had posters on the walls announcing Beatles’ appearances. And Mersey Beat, a local paper covering the Liverpool music scene, put news of the Beatles record contract on its front page. Mersey Beat was selling very well at NEMS and the paper’s founder Bill Harry, had been asked a question by Epstein–“What about this group the Beatles?” After making further inquiries regarding the group, Epstein decided to see them performing. He did so at the Cavern Club on November 9, 1961, and, of course, the rest is history.
It’s now been over fifty years since the Beatles raucous days in Hamburg and their collaboration with Tony Sheridan. By serving as an unofficial mentor for the group, Sheridan influenced the Beatles early sound and helped them hone their musicianship and stage presence. Against the backdrop of the “Great Freedom” and the Reeperbahn, the Beatles began to gel as a band.