Early American teen idols and the Beatles
This is the final chapter from “Baby, That Is Rock And Roll – American Pop, 1954-1963” (Finbarr International, 2001), which can be ordered through the Books page. I’ve reprinted the chapter as it is. I don’t know anyone else who does it, but I like the idea of numbering the direct quotes and then writing about the speakers at the back of the book, but I realise that the chapter might be a little confusing out of context. In other words, buy the book! (Spencer Leigh)
Rock’n’roll is American music and in the early 60s, the UK acts could only make an impression in the home market. Cover versions of US hits often did better than the American originals because the Billy Furys and Marty Wildes were available for TV performances and very little footage of the Americans was screened here. Indeed, as the TV companies never showed Ricky Nelson’s family series, and as he never appeared in a rock’n’roll film and didn’t visit the UK, I never saw Ricky Nelson sing any of his hits until the 1970s.
The UK acts made very little impression in America. Even when singing original songs, Cliff Richard only made the US Top 40 once, while the Shadows lost out to the Danish Jorgen Ingmann on “Apache”. The Tornadoes had a freak US No.l with “Telstar”, although, admittedly, it was a fine record. Ridiculously, the Tornadoes didn’t tour the US because they were backing Billy Fury and his manager, Larry Parnes, refused to allow the Tornadoes to go to America without him. It could have been more embarrassing for Billy if they had gone together. There was no logic to the occasional British record that made the US charts – Frankie Vaughan’s “Judy” or Cyril Stapleton’s “Nick Nack Paddy Wack”.
Geographically, the US dwarfs the UK and it contains four times as many people, four times as many record-buyers. However, with a population of 50 million English-speaking people, it was only a matter of time before a major international act would emerge from the UK. The way it happened could never have been predicted. Marvin Rainwater (738): “I was headlining a show in Liverpool and I found out later that the Beatles were on the same bill. It sure shocked me. I was stupid for not bringing them into my dressing-room and talking to them.”
On the strength of “Hey! Baby”, Bruce Channel (739) did club dates in the UK with his harmonica player, Delbert McClinton. They played the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton on 21 June 1962 with the Beatles in support. “I remember getting off the plane and my luggage was lost so I wore what I had on the plane that night in Maidstone. The tour is a blur after that, but I remember playing a big hall in Liverpool that reminded me of a castle. There were lots of kids there, a whole sea of people, and I said to Delbert, ‘They can’t all have come to see us’, and we soon found out that the Beatles were very popular there. Delbert was in the dressing-room with John Lennon who was very interested in his harp. Delbert played something for him and evidently John kept the idea and used it for the sound on ‘Love Me Do’. We had heard the harmonica on blues records by Jimmy Reed and people like that, and that influenced ‘Hey! Baby’. It’s a great thrill to know that our record influenced the Beatles, that our music was appreciated by someone of that stature.”
“Love Me Do” made the UK Top 20 at the end of 1962, and the following year belonged to the Beatles as they topped the charts with “Please Please Me”, “From Me To You”, “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. The Beatles didn’t make an impact in America until 1964 and so the visiting American stars coming to the UK in 1963 were witnessing a phenomenon that they knew nothing about.
Bobby Vee (740): “I was on tour with my producer Snuff Garrett in the North-West when someone played me ‘Love Me Do’. We loved it and thought it sounded like a Crickets’ record. Snuffy got very excited and wanted to buy the rights for America, but EMI wanted $25,000 for the rights which at the time was too much money. It seemed outrageous – RCA only paid $35,000 for Elvis and this was a new group. We could tell that they were going to be popular and I started to learn their tunes. I also wrote six or seven tunes such as ‘She’s Sorry’ in that fashion. It was done with the kindest of intentions, a proclamation that there was this new sound in England. It never entered my mind that I was ripping them off, although it may look like that now.”
Troy Shondell (741): “I had my own group and I wanted them to be named on the label. When I asked Liberty, they said, ‘No, groups don’t sell, we want you to remain a single artist. Don’t you worry about anything, son, we’ll take care of you.’ Famous last words.”
Brian Hyland (742): “I played in Liverpool when the Beatles had ‘Please Please Me’ out and I thought it sounded great. It was clear from listening to it that they sang and played their own instruments and were involved with the whole process of making the record. This contrasted with a lot of American performers who made records with session guys they didn’t know. I did an American tour with Bobby Vee in 1963 and I remember us sitting in the dressing-room on the opening night singing ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Please Please Me’ together. The others on the tour were amazed. They’d never heard the songs before and they thought they were great.”
The Beatles’ first national tour was with Helen Shapiro and Danny Williams in February 1963. The following month they did two weeks with Tommy Roe and Chris Montez. Chris Montez (743): “I was touring England with Tommy Roe and an unknown group called the Beatles. They were booked to get the show going and they had such energy and power. They played me their album, ‘Please Please Me’, before it was released and I was knocked out. I couldn’t stop singing ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. It was such a great song. I was top of the charts and topping the bill, but when we got to Liverpool, I said, ‘This is your town, you close the show, I’m not the headliner here.’ They were amazed that I should say that.”
Tommy Roe (744): “I am very proud to be a part of the history of the Beatles and my memories of our tour are all great. They were getting hot in England and it was tough following them. In fact, we turned the whole thing around and they ended up closing the show. I was so impressed that I started doing their songs and tried to get them a record deal in the States. My record company turned them down and I think now that they should have seen them. Their records weren’t too impressive in the beginning – they were doing 50s music – and you really had to see the image alongside the music. Once the Beatles started getting publicity in America, it was bound to happen. I was so influenced by what I heard in this country that I wrote ‘Everybody’ on the way home. I tried to get that same sound. We recorded in Muscle Shoals and it was a big record.”
Chris Montez (745) changed the Ritchie Valens song, ‘In A Turkish Town’ to ‘In An English Town’. “Yes, I had such a wonderful time when I came over here that I thought I would sing about an English town and an English girl. I had a coat with a round collar and a belt that was made in England but bought in America. People wanted to buy the jacket from me, which used to amaze me. The Beatles took me to their tailor and he made a couple of suits for me. On the last day of the tour, they said, ‘We hope you don’t mind, but we’re having jackets made like yours.’ No problem, I was impressed.”
Pat Boone (746): “I was gathering songs from all around the world that I might record and I brought an English song home – (Sings) ‘If there’s anything that you want, If there’s anything I can do.’ I tried my best to get Randy Wood to let me record the song, but he said, ‘No, that’ll never be a hit’.”
Del Shannon (747) did record “From Me To You”, thus becoming the first person to take a Lennon and McCartney song into the US Top 100. Del was with the Beatles as part of “Swinging Sound 63” at the Royal Albert Hall in April. “‘From Me To You’ was a big hit here and I told John Lennon that I was going to do it. He said, ‘That’ll be all right’, but then, just as he was going on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, he turned to me and said, ‘Don’t do that.’ Brian Epstein had told him that he didn’t want any Americans covering their songs. The Beatles were going to invade America by themselves.” (I thought that Del’s 1965 hit, ‘Keep Searchin’’ owed something to the Mersey sound, but he disagreed: “That song is the same as ‘Runaway’ and that was before Merseybeat. I strum hard, double.”)
Three days later the Beatles were at the NME Pollwinners Concert at the Empire Pool, Wembley. John Stewart (748): “I was playing the London Palladium and the opening of the London Hilton with the Kingston Trio. We were big fans of the Springfields and we went to see them get an award at some big concert. The Most Promising New Band was the Beatles and they did ‘Twist And Shout’ and some of their own songs. Nick Reynolds and I both said, ‘That’s it. When this hits America, it’s over for us.’ Within a few months, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ had come out, they had done the Ed Sullivan show and we never had another Top 40 record.”
In May, the Beatles were touring with Roy Orbison. Duane Eddy (749): “I was supposed to tour with the Beatles in 1963 but my manager messed that up somehow and Roy Orbison went instead. That was one of the greatest things that ever happened to Roy. It rejuvenated his whole career and he had several more hit records. He always said that he was very thankful to me for not going on that tour.”
Roy Orbison (750) had no sooner arrived than he was confronted by Brian Epstein and John Lennon. “Brian said, ‘Who should close the show?’, and John said, ‘You’re getting all the money, so why don’t we close it?’ I don’t know whether that was true or not, whether I was getting that much more than they were. I certainly wasn’t getting that much – and the tour had sold out in one afternoon.”