“It Was Fifty-One Years Ago Today: The Beatles In My Life” by Mike Foster
Well, I was just seventeen. You know what I mean.
And the way they played was way beyond compare.
Sundays were always the same at the Fosters’ home at 2636 N. Prospect Road, Peoria. Mass in the morning, a big dinner, usually my mom Shirley’s wonderful fried chicken followed by a white cake with strawberry icing from Tilton’s Glen Oak Bakery, then a leisurely afternoon of reading while listening to records by Duke Ellington or Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong so beloved by my dad, erstwhile jazz drummer Claude Foster.
Instead of supper, my kid sister Claudia, then 15, and I ate on the living room floor, usually blackened grilled Velveeta sandwiches, while my parents and grandma noshed off television trays sipping beers or, for Grannie, Mogen David wine, watching The Colgate Comedy Hour or The Ed Sullivan Show.
On Feb. 9, 1964, Ed got the nod.
The oft-told story is that 73 million people watched the show and the next day, 72 million of them went out and started bands.
Not me. I was already in a band, The Tempests, Spalding Institute mates including lead guitarist Mike Boyer, pianist Jim Croegaert, rhythm guitarist Paul Burson (RIP Dec. 22, 2013), bassist Tim Slevin (RIP May 22, 2013), and Canadian expatriate drummer John Moffatt from Woodruff High School by way of Edmonton, Alberta.
I was the manager, by virtue of an encyclopedic memory of song lyrics, staying sober enough (usually) to remember to collect the band’s $30 or $35 gig fee from Bradley frat parties and grade or high school dances, and getting a real steal on matching blue batik blazers, five for $50, from the basement of Carson Pirie Scott on south Adams street.
And months before the Capitol records releases here, I already had a Beatles long-player, a Vee-Jay label disc with no liner notes, just slicks of other Vee-Jay acts like Frank Ifield and The Four Seasons on the back. Had I not given that record away to a friend who promptly lost it, I could’ve paid for my younger daughter’s education at Washington University in St. Louis and University of Illinois graduate school and had enough left over to bring our 1936 farmhouse up to 2014 modernity.
I’d played that record one night for The Tempests before I went off to a gig with them in late 1963. “Big deal,” was the sneering consensus. “A Limey band that plays good covers of Del Shannon, Motown hits, The Cookies, The Shirelles. So do we.”
So I was eager but unready, as many virgins are, when at 7:12, Ed stepped out and introduced the band.
They tore into “All My Loving,” which I’d never heard, and I was knocked loopy: McCartney’s fluent fluid bass and lilting limber vocal, Harrison’s terse tight solo, Lennon’s suave surfbeat, Ringo’s rock-steady rhythm, those harmonies. My Velveeta went cold and flaccid.
Next came “Till There Was You,” with the names of the group members superimposed on close-up shots, including the infamous “Sorry, girls, he’s married” caption on John Lennon; and “She Loves You,” their single on Swan Records, famous as Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon’s label. The act that followed them in the broadcast, a hopelessly hapless German magician, was pre-recorded, so he wouldn’t have to go on live during the pandemonium after the Beatles performed. Later in the program, they returned to play both songs on their first Capitol 45, “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
My dad and sister were unimpressed; she didn’t come around until 1966. He never did. The only pop group he ever tolerated was The Rolling Stones, because they played the blues and he fancied Charlie Watts’ drumming on “Route 66.”
We watched the show broadcast from Miami on Feb. 16, co-starring Mitzi Gaynor’s darling dancing boys and sweat-spangled bosom. Because of the crush of fans, a body-guarding wedge of policemen helped them get to the stage. They began playing “She Loves You” only seconds after reaching their instruments. Next came “This Boy”, and “All My Loving.” They closed the show with “I Saw Her Standing There,” “From Me To You” (that Del Shannon cover), and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Sullivan featured them a third Sunday on Feb. 23 (these songs had been taped earlier in the day on Feb. 9 before their first live appearance). They followed Ed’s intro with “Twist and Shout” and “Please Please Me,” finishing again with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” their chart-topper.
Well, that was it. For the next half-century, I bought each Beatles record, 45 and LP, bootleg or sanctioned, usually on the day it came out. The Tempests began working up every Beatles’ song they could; the addition of Billy Sutton on bass, replacing Slevin, gave the band a McCartneyesque singer and bassist. When I went off to Marquette University in August, 1964, they took to the road.
Boyer got drafted in October, 1965, so “Bird” Burson took over lead guitar. Drummer Ron Bednar from Streator joined. They all sang. Their hair grew shaggier. They changed their name to The Heard; the farmhouse they lived in became Heard Manor in Janesville, a convenient hitch-hiking distance from Milwaukee.
They toured the thriving 18-year-old Wisconsin teen beer bar circuit, then all over the Midwest, several times ranging as far away as Colorado, opening for Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs and The Music Machine. They stayed firmly rooted in the Beatles.
I was with them in Heard Manor on June 3, 1967, the day Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out, listening to it booming through a pair of big Sunn amps. I remember Bird’s face dissolving during Paul McCartney’s guitar solo on “Good Morning, Good Morning.” At the end of “A Day In The Life,” as that ominous E major piano chord hung in the air like Berkeley smoke, no one said anything, except maybe a quiet “Wow.”
The Heard broke up in 1968, about a year before The Beatles did. Sutton and Croegaert started another band; they still continue careers in music. Bednar went to California. Burson returned to Peoria and went to ICC, then Southern Illinois University, beginning a career in teaching afterwards. In 1976, he, Boyer, and I started a band that Slevin named A Fine Kettle Of Fish. Boyer and I and four or five guys who still play. And yes, we do a lot of Beatles.
We were gigging at a Bradley Newman Club party on Dec. 8, 1980, the night John Lennon was slain, doing “Twist And Shout,” “Roll Over, Beethoven,” “Back In The USSR,” and other Fabs’ favorites. Jeff Putnam, our bass player then, phoned me with the horrible news. Perhaps truly that was the day the music died.
The word of George Harrison’s death reached us on Nov. 29, 2001, 21 years later. The clock radio clicked before a cold, dreary, and sunless dawn and at the newscaster’s first words, “…the former Beatle,” we knew what the story was before he finished the sentence.
Harrison’s death was not the shivering shock that Lennon’s had been. His long, grim battle with cancer was well-known. But still, the hope that some healing miracle would vanquish the long, cold, lonely winter of his affliction flourished. He had returned to the recording studio, after all, on Oct. 1 to record “Horse To Water”, co-written with son Dhani; the fact that his publishing company for that song was RIP Ltd. 2001 was just another example of the wry Beatle’s sardonic wit, we hoped.
After all, for years Harrison’s reply to the inevitable question had been, “As long as John Lennon remains dead, the Beatles will not reunite.” The three Beatles who survived Lennon had made their peace while working together on the Anthology project during the late ‘90’s and had put finishing touches on two John Lennon tracks, “Real Love” and “Free As A Bird”. Those titles summed up what they brought to pop music.
Singer-guitarist Josh Bradshaw, 41, said:
“George was my hero when I was a teenager. The Beatles had an immeasurable impact on me personally, and as a musician. In my mind, it seems like my heroes are supposed to be immortal and nothing bad is ever supposed to happen to them. I felt empty and very sad.”
Bradshaw is a second-generation Beatles fan. For those of us who remember watching the Ed Sullivan that cold night of Feb. 9, 1964, the feeling of loss is more complicated. Half of The Beatles were dead and gone. This was the soundtrack of our lives.
We remember carloads of Academy Of Our Lady high school girls singing, “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you.” We remember dark beer-splashed college apartment rooms booming with ‘Twist And Shout” and “Money”. We remember falling in love to these songs, mourning our losses to them. Wife Jo and I remember quoting them during our June 14, 1969, wedding ceremony: “It’s all too much for me to take/ The love that’s shining all around you.”
The luckiest of us saw them play live—in my case, Chicago on Aug. 12, 1966, the first show of their last tour. They raced through their set in about a half hour, with only McCartney’s bass clearly audible over the screaming hullabaloo at the International Ampitheatre. They did “Rock And Roll Music,” “She’s A Woman,” If I Needed Someone,” “Day Tripper,” “Baby’s In Black,” “I Feel Fine,” “Yesterday,” “I Wanna Be Your Man,” “Nowhere Man,” “Paperback Writer,” and “Long Tall Sally.” Only later did we learn that they were playing under death threats predicated by John Lennon’s imprudent remark “We’re bigger than Jesus right now.”
Harrison quit the Beatles on the plane home after that tour, only to be talked back into rejoining for the group’s last three years. Long overshadowed by the magnificent songwriting of Lennon and McCartney, he finally came into his own. “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun” are the two best songs on Abbey Road, the Beatles’ final album.
While McCartney’s lively bass-playing, Starr’s suave drumming, and Lennon’s versatile rhythm guitar are certainly essential, Harrison introduced the sound of the Rickenbacker electric 12-string guitar to pop music, a vibrant jingle-jangle that would become the trademark for bands like The Byrds and R.E.M. His fascination with the Indian sitar, first heard on Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood,” brought world music tone colors into rock and roll.
His singing was essential to the Beatles’ distinctive harmonies. And while many praise his latter-day songs, his early ones were memorable as well: the shy ingenuous charm of “You Like Me Too Much” and “I Need You”, the bristling swagger of “If I Needed Someone” and “Don’t Bother Me,” the wistful spirituality of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Long, Long, Long.” His bitter “I Me Mine” recorded Jan. 3, 1970, was the last song the band would complete.
Like all divorces, the Beatles’ was ugly, a nasty scrum of lawyers and wives, liars and lies. The film Let It Be documents the sad spectacle of a band falling apart on camera. As Paul relentlessly cheerleads, George sulks sullenly, Ringo seems miserably hangdog and hung-over, and Lennon looks numbed by his twin addictions to heroin and Yoko Ono. The Beatles’ hour of darkness had come, standing right in front of us.
After they broke up, we followed their solo careers, which were mixed blessings. Lennon’s primal screaming screeched. His first single, the harrowing “Cold Turkey,” was excruciating. “Working Class Hero” embarrassingly emulated early Bob Dylan. But, blessedly, “Imagine” was the perfect swan song for his haunted soul.
Harrison continued to play well, but his songwriting sagged. Too many cooks sometimes spoiled his broth, even with master chefs like Eric Clapton, Jesse Ed Davis and Billy Preston. “Crackerbox Palace” was a pop pleasantry; he had better teeth by then. Concert For Bangladesh gets points for charity and unity and his version of “Here Comes The Sun” with Badfinger’s boys.
McCartney mixed masterpieces like Run Devil Run, Band On The Run, Chaos And Creation In The Backyard, and “Mull Of Kintyre” with clottish efforts like Ram, Red Rose Speedway, and “Admiral Halsey.”
And Ringo Ringo-ed on.
But the sum was less than the parts. They weren’t the Beatles. McCartney’s sweetness needed tempering by Lennon’s acidity. The founding duo’s dynamic tension was summed up perfectly in “We Can Work It Out,” Paul’s verses and John’s bridge. “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”: two sides of the same 1967 nostalgic coin. “Tell Me What You See” vs. “Run For Your Life.” “And I Love Her” and “If I Fell” and “This Boy.” In my life, I’ve loved them all.
Ringo’s subtle solidity holds up historically. His fills on “A Day In The Life” and the chugging rhythms of “Lady Madonna” and “Baby, You’re A Rich Man” improve with aging.
Yet Harrison may have been the most under-appreciated Beatle.
Illinois Central College art history assistant professor Dr. Megan Foster Campbell, 40, who grew up listening to the Beatles’ music here on Foster Farm, said: “I think his dry sense of humor was often (like his songwriting) overshadowed by John’s more brazen sarcastic wit. One of my favorite Beatle movie moments is in Help!, where the band sings ‘I Need You’ on Salisbury Plain near Stonehenge. It is enchanting, in some way, to watch George sing this song, windblown and shivering.”
The night of the day he died, this writer and his friends in A Fine Kettle Of Fish gathered for our regular Thursday night session. We played really well and we had a lot of fun. If The Beatles are to be remembered for anything, perhaps that should be it: the jovial fellowship, the redeeming joy, the healing magic of music well made, the sunshine that makes it all, finally, all right.
Because in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
Fifty-one years ago today, we first discovered that truth.