[Photos of The Beatles backstage at JFK by BOB BONIS courtesy of NFAgallery.com]
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sad, sad news. We received word on Sunday that Tom Sheehy, aka The Colonel — longtime Philly music publicist/scenester/historian, storied music biz vet, barroom philosopher, perennial guest list fixture, late-blooming recipient of a Ph.D. in 20th Century American History from Penn, colonel in the ‘MMaRmy, and frequent Phawker contributor — passed away this weekend. This week we will honor his memory by re-posting some of his greatest Phawker hits. Today we’re re-posting The Colonel’s 2011 remembrance of seeing The Beatles at JFK in 1966. MORE
BY COLONEL TOM SHEEHY It was forty-five years ago today, that The Colonel went to see them play. Now they’ve never gone out of style, and on that summer night they truly raised a smile. So let me introduce you to, the act you’ve known for all these years, the one and only Billy Shears Beatles live at JFK stadium in South Philly on August 16th, 1966. Anyone who was alive in the year of our Lord 1963 knows exactly where they were, and what they were doing on November 22nd of that year, because that was the dreadful day that our beloved president was assassinated. You would also remember what you were doing just 11 weeks later on the evening of February 9, 1964 when the Beatles made their American television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. It must be said that this American life was never the same after the brutal murder of JFK. The aftermath of such horror caused a breach of the collective trust the American people and it shattered any faith they once held in their leaders. The American Illusion had revealed itself to be just that, and nobody was more acutely aware of this reality-check-from-the-barrel-of-a-gun than the nation’s youth. The stateside arrival of the British invasion, spearheaded by The Beatles, gave us a new illusion to lose ourselves in.
I grew up in a predominately Irish-Catholic working class neighborhood where everyone’s dad provided the family with the fruits of hard manual labor. However, there was this small pocket of homes populated by what we called “the rich kids.” Their fathers wore ties and worked in an “office” and ferried their families around brand new cars. Class resentments dominated and divided social life when I was growing up. If you were working class, the rich kids wouldn’t even acknowledge your existence, and vice versa. However, I was able to negotiate a path between both classes because I had knowledge. Dennis Casey was one of the rich kids. He went to private school, but like many kids in the rich neighborhood, he sought me out, because of my extensive musical knowledge and my legendary record collection.
One night, Dennis called me up to tell me he’d heard I had the new Rolling Stones single and would I mind stopping by his house so he could hear it. I had the hook up, you see. An English pen pal hooked me up with the Heanor Record Club in England which enabled me to send away for new singles and albums before they came out in the States.
When I showed up at Dennis’ house, he told me his parents weren’t home which meant we could blast their “Hi-Fi” down in the family room to our hearts content. A Hi-Fi console set was something only the rich kids had, and records never sounded better than when they were turned up full blast on one of those very expensive systems. However, something went wrong that night. Dennis’ father came home early from the Country Club, and he started to yell down the stairs. We assumed he was pissed because we were abusing his beloved Hi-Fi, but the reason for his excitement was something else entirely. He called us upstairs to the living room, and said to us, “Do you boys want to see that group The Beatles?”
“Yes sir, we do,” I responded instantaneously.
Then Mr. Casey handed each of us a ticket. “Mr. Casey sir?” I said, “this ticket has a hole in it. Why is that, sir?” Mr. Casey looked at me with a certain sense of antipathy and said, “Tommy, these tickets are comps.” I had no idea what he was talking about. “What are comps sir?” He then told me: “They are complimentary tickets. They are free to us.” Dennis’ dad was a big time Democratic Committee man, so he had access to everything. Not only was I ecstatic about the chance to see The Beatles, but I was completely fascinated by this concept of the “comp.” I felt like I had been let in on one of life’s great secrets. I made a mental note of this, and in years to come, the comp ticket became one of my best friends.
It seemed especially apropos that The Beatles return date to town (their first Philly date was at the now-gone Civic Center in 1964) was at the Philadelphia Municipal Stadium, recently re-named John F. Kennedy Stadium (or JFK for short) in the wake of the assassination. Before it demolition in 1992, JFK stadium was the one venue in the city with bragging rights to hosting both President Kennedy and The Beatles. Kennedy, a Navy man, would come up to Philly from Washington for the annual Army-Navy game. He started a tradition where the Commander-In-Chief would walk across the field at half time and sit on the opposing team’s side of field. The Beatles would also take a momentous walk across the field at JFK the night they performed there. At the time, JFK was the largest outdoor stadium on the East coast with as capacity of 104,000. Allegedly, that was the reason the late Bill Graham chose it for the US leg of Live Aid in 1985. However, when The Beatles were booked there, Promoter George Hamid Jr. who also promoted shows at his Steel Pier in Atlantic City, utilized only about one-fifth of the stadium, which gave him a capacity for 20,000. Tickets were $5.00 for reserved and $3.00 for general admission, and, somewhat surprisingly, didn’t sell as quickly as anticipated. In fact, Hamid was forced to take out a print advertisement in the Philadelphia Inquirer, which stated in very bold print: SEATS AVAILABLE NOW. The ’66 tour’s lukewarm ticket sales weren’t limited to Philly. Most of the 14 dates on the tour had slower than expected ticket sales no doubt due to Jesus vs. The Beatles smackdown that exploded during the first week of August of that year.
On August 4, 1966, a United Press International wire story ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer with the headline: “Beatles Manager Rushes to U.S. To Quell Furor.” Indeed, Brian Epstein did cut short his European vacation to try and tamp down the press frenzy that was severely damaging the Beatles brand. The frenzy was triggered by an off-hand remark from John Lennon to a journalist. What Lennon said was, “The Beatles are more popular than Jesus.” He would later explain that what he meant was that in England, and certain parts of Europe, organized religion was waning. This was also true in America, it was true in Philadelphia, and it was true in my life as well. And this would not be the first time that I had to choose between the Beatles and God.
I was an altar boy in the Roman Catholic Church. Once a month, we had a special service for the women of the parish which was called The Sodality of the Blessed Virgin. I served that event every month along with my classmate Raymond Harrison. Back in ’64, The Sodality of the Blessed Virgin happened to fall on the same night that the Beatles were scheduled to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was 13 years old at the time, and I came from a very religious family. Now I had to make the biggest decision of my young life: God or The Beatles? It wasn’t even close: I chose The Beatles. I called in sick to the rectory, but unbeknownst to me my ‘friend’ Raymond Harrison ratted me out to the priests. The next morning, I was summoned to the office of the Pastor. He sat me down in front of his desk, and from his huge chair behind his desk, he bent over and said to me: “Son, are these degenerates your God?” Consequently, I was suspended from the altar boys and castigated by the nuns and other priests at my parish. So when I first heard that John Lennon said the Beatles are bigger than Jesus, I failed to see what all the hubbub was all about. To anyone under 30, this was incontrovertibly true.
Still, the controversy raged, especially in the Bible Belt where they staged massive bonfires fueled by Beatles records and memorabilia. Promoter George Hamid Jr. knew he had a potential catastrophe on his hand. When the Beatles played in Washington D.C., The Ku Klux Klan picketed the venue in their white robes and hoods. Here in Pennsylvania, four state senators introduced a measure in Harrisburg urging a boycott of the Philadelphia concert. The Philadelphia press only fanned the flames. On the Sunday August 14, two days before the show, The Inquirer ran a story titled “Embattled Beatles in Return.” Inquirer staff writer Samuel L. Singer reminded his readers about the noise levels generated by the screaming fans when The Beatles first performed in Philadelphia in 1964. However, Singer suggested that on this visit, “that most of the noise this time is by protesters of all ages who would like The Beatles not to be heard at all, even on the radio.” Other stories tried to placate the populace and assure them that Philadelphia was prepared for any and all eventualities. One story was headlined: IT LOOKS LIKE A BATTLEFIELD: STADIUM BRACES FOR BEATLES.
As we arrived at JFK on the night of the show, Mr. Casey told us to ask for a particular gentleman, who ended up being the head of security at the stadium. This man not only escorted us to our seats, which were awesome, but he gave each of us a Beatles program, which of course was “comped.” The concert was billed as an, “An All Star Show” which it truly was. Bobby Hebb open the show. He was an R&B singer from Nashville, who had a huge hit single on the pop charts that summer called, “Sunny.” The sound was wonderful, and Bobby Hebb was a perfect choice to open the show.
Next up was The Cyrkle. They were an American band from nearby Easton, PA, who were managed by Brian Epstein. It was John Lennon who came up with their name. They also had a big hit single with “Red Rubber Ball,” written by Paul Simon of Simon & Garfunkel fame. The Ronettes took the stage next, and until the emergence of The Supremes, they were the biggest and best all-female pop group. They sang all of their Phil Specter-produced hits including “Walking in the Rain.” But their set was designed to build up to their performance of what was arguably the greatest single of the 1960s, “Be My Baby.” As they were performing that great song, all of a sudden, a spot light began to shine on the far right side of the stadium sections. What became apparent very quickly, was the sight of The Beatles walking across the field, just as John F. Kennedy once did, and with the Ronettes singing behind them, the four lads made their way back stage. The Beatles entrance from the nearby stands, prompted screams which practically drowned out the end of a stellar performance by The Ronettes, but hey, it was The Beatles’ show.
The question I had going into JFK that night was, what would The Beatles perform from Revolver, which was only released eleven days before the concert on August 5th. They ended up performing 11 songs in 29 minutes, which was a long show by 1966 standards. The show was absolutely terrific. Yes, there was ear-splitting high-pitched screaming of all the teenage girls in attendance, but even with all the distraction, a seasoned 15-year-old concert observer such as myself could hear that there was, without question, one damn good combo playing on that stage. They opened with two songs from the Beatles 65 album. First, a thrilling version of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” with Lennon’s raw vocal in fine form. That was immediately followed up by McCartney taking lead vocal on “She’s A Woman.” Next was one of the two gems of the evening, “If I Needed Someone” from Yesterday and Today, with George Harrison in splendid voice, backed up by those lush Lennon and McCartney harmonies. That exquisite vocal work was further enriched by the choice of “Baby’s in Black” from Beatles ’65. “Day Tripper” and “I Feel Fine” followed and on those particular songs, one could sense how Ringo Star’s drumming style really drove the band. The next selection was “Yesterday.” I have to admit that I was somewhat disappointed in the arrangement of that song, for it was performed with the full backing of the band which made McCartney’s masterpiece sound crowded and a little heavy-handed. “I Wanna Be Your Man” was up next, and while it was interesting that this was the one track chosen from their 1964 repertoire, I still like The Rolling Stones version much better.
The second gem of the night was “Nowhere Man,” one of my all-time favorite Beatles singles of all time. Not only were the warm and layered harmonies spot on, but he highlight of the song (and for me, the entire show) was George Harrison’s guitar solo. “Paperback Writer” was the next to last song and truly great and then The Beatles closed the show with “I’m Down” which was the B-side to the “Help” single. McCartney was in great screaming mode, and Lennon was hilarious as he sat in front of an electric piano, playing with both his hands and his elbows which he ran up and down the keyboard. Ol’ Johnny was having a blast and it was delight to see him smiling non-stop considering the stress he was under in the wake of the mountainous ‘bigger than Jesus’ molehill.
Rose DeWolf covered the show for the Inquirer. The headline for her review was: “20,000 Greet Beatles and it’s a Scream.” You would never have known she was there, because she said not a word about the musical performance in her column; what she wrote was pretty much a crowd story. She backhandedly gave the show a nod, because she noted that one could actually hear the Beatles performing. DeWolf attributed this to the very loud sound system, and the fact that there were boys in the audience. She calculated that one-fifth of the audience were boys which was unheard of in previous Beatles tours, hence, less screaming and fewer squeals. I can testify to that. Me and my mate Dennis and the other lads I saw did not make a sound; we were the pensive lot you could say; we were there to hear the music.
As history now informs us, The Beatles knew all along that these two weeks of shows in the States were going to be their last as a live act. The security issues created by their last visit to Japan and the Philippines, and the death threats they received in America — not to mention the night after night of being completely drowned out by the din of screeching teenage girls — conspired to bring that aspect of their musical lives to a close. Little did us Philadelphians know that what we witnessed that evening in South Philly was one of the final live shows the greatest pop group of all time would ever play.
The only known footage of The Beatles live @ JFK Stadium is this 20 minute snippet.
PREVIOUSLY: The Colonel Remembers — Me & Keef