Unless you’ve been off terraforming a planet in a distant galaxy, and thus out of the communications reach of earth, you’ve probably heard a little something about the Beatles recently. The celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the band’s arrival in the United States have been hard to miss, to say the least. Personally, I can’t get enough.
I’m old enough to remember that night, February 9, 1964, when the Beatles first played on the Ed Sullivan show. I can vividly recall gathering in the living room with my family to watch the show that night. Something like 80 million people were tuned in, and they included pretty much everyone I knew. To say that the Beatles debut was audacious doesn’t begin to cover it. As important as the music that blew us all away was (yes, even the parents fell in love with them that night, although they were loathe to admit it), what followed transcended music. It is often said that the Beatles changed music forever, and they surely did. But again, it’s more than that. They changed everything.
I am but one of the countless people who was inspired to create a band in the wake of the Beatles performance. Many of those people went on to become huge stars themselves, although none ever approached the worldwide fame of the Beatles. No one ever will. It’s as if the Beatles built that into the changes that they created.
My first band was called the Superstitions. We had a business card that featured a primitive graphic of a red guitar, along with the tag line “Music For All Occasions.” I didn’t play an instrument at the time, except for the trumpet, which my teacher had requested that I stop playing after four years of lessons, but I wasn’t going to let that stand in my way. I became the lead singer. I had maracas, a tambourine, and a harmonica holder around my neck. I didn’t know how to play the harmonica however.
Steve played keyboards. He had one of the first Wurlitzer electric pianos, and he was something of a prodigy even then. Larry was on guitar. He didn’t know all the chords yet, so we told him that when it was time to play one that he didn’t know, he should just pretend to be playing it. I don’t recall a bass player, and there was a revolving cast of drummers, much like Spinal Tap.
The first song we learned to play was “Please Please Me.” We shined at the junior high school talent show, but lost out to a girl playing “Lady of Spain” on the accordion. By the following year I had become the bass player, there was a new lead singer on board, and our name had been changed to the Mods. It didn’t matter. We lost to the same accordion player, playing the same song.
In 1968, Wilson Pickett found himself at the legendary FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Also in attendance was one Duane Allman, who had tried and failed with several bands by that time (and had not yet formed the Allman Brothers Band) but he had managed to capture the attention of FAME owner Rick Hall.
Pickett had arrived at the studios in November hoping to make a record, but there was one big problem. He had no songs, or ideas for songs. One day the studio musicians and staff headed into town for some lunch. Pickett was concerned that the appearance of a well-dressed black soul singer and a long-haired hippie guitarist together in the small southern town would cause some unwanted waves. He and Allman stayed behind.
At the time, the Beatles recording of “Hey Jude” was racing up the charts, and it was Allman who suggested that Pickett record a cover version. Pickett thought he was nuts. Allman was a not only a great guitar player though, he was also a pretty persuasive guy. Eventually the pair began rehearsing the song along with bass player David Hood and drummer Roger Hawkins.
They recorded “Hey Jude” in one take. Clearly, Allman’s belief in the material had been well-founded. The single on Atlantic Records reached #23 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #13 on the R&B chart. Pickett was so pleased with the effort that they went on to record an entire album of cover tunes and “Hey Jude” became the title track. The album, which also featured a cover of Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild,” was released by Atlantic Records in 1969 and hit the Top 100 on the album chart.
Back in those Alabama days, Pickett used to call Allman “Skyman.” Some say it was because of Allman’s soaring guitar work, other say it had more to do with his extra-curricular activities. Allman’s friends already called him “Dog” because of his shaggy appearance. Eventually the nicknames melded into the one that Allman is remembered by these days, “Skydog.”
Pickett and Allman took separate paths in the years to come, but they both went on to enormous success. And although both Pickett and Allman are gone now, we are fortunate to have the recorded evidence of that one brief moment in Muscle Shoals.
There were other bands over the years for me. Eventually I got tired of the band life and became a solo singer/songwriter. Later still, I became a music writer. I owe all of this, every little bit of it and much more, to the Beatles. So bring on the celebrations. I can’t think of anything more worth celebrating.