|Meeting The Beatles!
(Figuratively Speaking, of Course...)
(posted February 7, 2004)
On Saturday, February 8th, 1964, I was an 11 year-old boy, one who nurtured such a total disdain for the state of popular music as it then stood that my favorite singer was, by far, Al Jolson.
That's right, folks--the fellow who regularly got down on one knee, face blackened in the now dubiously regarded but nonetheless historic minstrel show tradition, and beseechingly sang to his poor "Mammy"! Hey please understand, the guy WAS the biggest star in the world at one time, y'know, even if he DID peak just as the Roaring Twenties morphed unmercifully into the Great Depression.
My dad always talked him up, y'see, and when television broadcast his bio-pic, "The Jolson Story", well, that was a major event in the Hembeck household, lemme tell ya! I sat enchanted in front of the tube as a fellow by the name of Larry Parks, in best proto-Milli Vanilli mode, lip-synced the master's bombastic crooning. Of course, a great deal of my initial fascination with the storied performer was directly due to his pivotal role in the history of American cinema: that being, namely his starring role in the very first full-length--if only partial--talking picture, 1927's "The Jazz Singer".
Back in the early sixties, that still seemed like quite the notable accomplishment. A "Movies 101" gimme. Three and a half decades after the fact, it was still fresh enough in the collective consciousness to clearly be viewed as a landmark by many. Nowadays, however, the whole affair appears to have mostly been forgotten and/or ignored. Reports that the film was basically a fairly lugubrious melodrama with a few lines of dialog and a couple of songs thrown in probably didn't aid in "The Jazz Singer"s long-term cinematic stature. And that embarrassing black-face make-up? I'd venture THAT probably didn't help any either...
But nearly 20 years later, 1946's "The Jolson Story" was met with such surprising success upon its release that it not only revived the celebrated vaudevillian's floundering career, but even spawned a sequel three years later entitled "Jolson Sings Again"! When the man long billed as "The World's Greatest Entertainer" died a year afterwards, he went out on top, and left a large legend for future generations of admirers to conjure with. Admirers apparently like me. After all, how could I NOT be impressed? Besides breaking the sound barrier decades before Chuck Yeager, here was a guy with a life so big it took not one but TWO major motion pictures to tell his story? Louis Pasteur made do with one flick--for Jolson, they needed a pair! Now,I ask you--how could anyone or anything possibly top THAT, hmm?...
Yes, Jolsonmania reigned in my own little corner of the world. My parents, life-long admirers of Lawrence Welk and musicians of his ilk, rarely if ever had their radio tuned to a station spewing out the wild and discordant sounds of rude, raucous rock and roll, and that was just fine with me. I held the entire scene in self-righteous contempt. On the one hand, I surmised, the music seemed to be the product of a group of wild men (Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and their beat-crazy brethren, a gang I found vastly unappealing and even vaguely frightening), or conversely, pompadoured crooners mouthing inane lyrics at a mildly accelerated pace, all suspiciously named "Bobby", their entire persona's specifically aimed towards selling black vinyl to gullible pre-teen girls. Either way, I didn't want anything at all to do with the whole misbegotten genre--and that was years before I even KNEW what the word "genre" meant, much less "misbegotten"!...
Remarkably, up until the following Sunday afternoon, there were only a small handful of popular recordings that had somehow managed to register in my stubborn subconsciousness. My earliest musical memory? Elvis barking out "Hound Dog". That's a tough one to forget, friends. Why, at the oh-so-tender age of six, I can still distinctly recall thinking, geez, I'd sure never heard anything like THIS before! But perhaps being so young accounted for the impression left being substantially more negative than it was positive. Outside of "All Shook Up", I don't recall any of the King's other classics wending their way deep into my cerebellum. Most of the other tunes that did manage to stick were novelty songs of one type or another...
"Big Bad John", sung with a grave solemness by future pork sausage tycoon, Jimmy Dean, made a lasting impression (I gave up ALL thoughts of pursuing a mining life, for instance...). And despite what's been said over the ensuing years in regards to the, ahem, "hidden" drug references in "Puff The Magic Dragon", I still have to fight back a tear every time I hear Peter, Paul and Mary sing of poor little Jackie Paper's sad if inevitable demise. OTHER, um, emotions were stirred up whenever I heard Brian Hyland's mildly salacious "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini", and the Rooftop Singers chart-topping "Walk Right In" was a perennial favorite as much for its innate catchiness as the for the cleverly modified lyrics the pint-sized Lenny Bruce's in my neighborhood invariably came up with, ever hoping to liven up the rather pedestrian words!
Not that I ever actually OWNED any of these records, mind you. I'd only gotten my very first portable record player a mere 53 weeks earlier as a gift for my tenth birthday. Inasmuch as my folks seemed pleased enough previously to rely totally on the radio for their source for all sounds melodic, it automatically doubled then as a valued component of the now-burgeoning Hembeck family music center. And let me explain something--the Hembeck family in general found the price of long-playing record albums--generally roundabout three bucks a pop in those days--to be, yes, prohibitively overpriced! Certainly, the accepted theory went, why waste money buying THOSE records when perfectly fine--albeit budget-price--knockoffs could be had for a paltry dollar a disc? Why plunk down the cash for the REAL Al Jolson disc when for but a third the cost, you could get yourself an LP featuring a perfectly decent sound-alike doing all his most famous numbers--AND blatantly made-up in black-face on the cover, too, to boot? Yup, it's true--I never actually owned a TRUE Jolson recording! But somehow, after watching his life unfold in the guise of Larry Parks on the tube, the ersatz version sufficed. In fact, for that whole first year, our record collection was totally composed of cheaply priced analog's of the era's light sounds, with but one exceptional exception: Hayley Mills' "Let's Get Together"...
What can I say? I'd been hopelessly smitten with the adorable British lass ever since I'd seen her up on the big screen in 1961's "The Parent Trap", which was home to this tune's first appearance. Apparently, the 45 RPM being a few years old by the time I moseyed along and gleefully snapped it up, it was most likely priced to move. That was just swell by me--it was a pleasant reminder of a rare if memorable afternoon spent sitting in a darkened movie theater, watching a tousle-haired goddess--times TWO! And, as it turned out, the song served as a portent of the future as well. Y'see, for those of you unaware of this now-mostly forgotten Disney ditty, sung by the English actress, the catchy chorus cheerfully repeats the phrase, "Let's get together, yeah, yeah, yeah!..." over and over.
I share all this seemingly extraneous detail with you so as to better present a sense of just precisely where I was coming from early in 1964. How, despite the fact that this oddly monikered group of mop-topped musicians had a record perched at the summit of the charts--a little something called "I Want To Hold Your Hand"--I could still be willfully ignorant of most everything concerning this latest overblown craze, save for perhaps a vague if begrudging acknowledgment on my behalf of their very existence. I knew about 'em--I just didn't want to KNOW about 'em, dig? Rock and roll music was for juvenile delinquents, and pop music was for girls, and I felt absolutely no desire to be the slightest bit interested in either. But y'know, even the formidable barrier of close-mindedness that a pre-teen boy is all too capable of erecting can be breached if its pummeled often and long enough...
It all started when my dad brought home the Sunday papers that cold February afternoon. For reasons lost to the mists of time, besides his three standard purchases--the Sunday Daily News, Newsday, and the Long Island Press--he also brought home a copy of the soon to be defunct Journal American (at least, I THINK that's what it was...). Floating up above the paper's logo was a cartoony drawing of four shaggy heads of hair--sans the heads! This provocative illustration, shilling for an article found within heralding the debut of the English lads American debut that very evening on the Ed Sullivan program, somehow snared my attention and soon weaseled its way deep into my imagination. For the first time, I paused for a moment and truly wondered just what all this fuss about these four long-haired musicians from the U.K. was really all about...
Though it may be exceedingly difficult for those of you who weren't there at the time to fathom, something ultimately as trivial as the length of these Beatle-boy's hair was more than enough to intrigue many a usually uninterested observer, myself definitely included. EVERYONE, man and boy alike, maintained a short hairstyle in the early sixties. Even our popular westerns heroes, proliferating as they were all over the tube at the time, had nary a stray lock hanging out of place under their ten-gallon hats, flying totally in the face of historical evidence that indisputably proved otherwise. We were, simply put, an uptight, regimented, buzz-cut culture. And here were four young men armed with the sheer audacity to literally let their hair down--hey, how could I NOT be intrigued?
But still I was ambivalant. I felt I needed more evidence. After all, if it was just an outrageous image they were selling, well, for THAT, I really didn't need to get involved. Instead, I was curious to see how their music shaped up. Now, in retrospect, I suppose I could've merely flicked on the AM radio and found any number of Beatles tunes giddily streaming out of the speaker, but I wasn't nearly hip enough to the process at that point to conceive that plan of action. I never actually listened to THOSE stations, y'see, so it just didn't occur to me at the time. I thought instead of my next door neighbors, the McGuiness family. My little pal John was three years younger than I was, and had even less use for this whole music scene than I did, but I was reasonably sure his two older sisters didn't feel the same way. After checking with him, it turned out that his oldest sister, Jane, did indeed own a Beatles record. So, after some mild cajoling, he convinced her to lend it to me briefly. I'd give it a spin, sorta taking it out for what amounted to a test run...
No, it WASN'T "I Want To Hold Your Hand", but rather the tune that would soon enough take the Liverpudlians to the top of the American Pop Charts for a second--though hardly last--time--"She Loves You". Initially issued on the tiny Swan label, I took the small 45, inserted my handy-dandy adapter into the center hole, dropped the needle onto the opening groove, and sat back, listening with great interest...
I liked what I heard. A lot.
There was a freshness to the sound, a palpable sense of joy that, emanating as it was from a barely serviceable set of speakers, nonetheless projected upon me the most profound musical impression my ears had yet to encounter. But, tough sell that I was, I still wasn't thoroughly convinced. Anybody can get lucky ONCE, I calmly surmised. So, I turned the record over. Now, even given the meager state of my singles collection up to that point, I was well aware that the B-side of most any record was little more a throw-away, and I had yet to come across one that'd had any sort of lasting impact. I wondered, then, what would happen when I flipped THIS disc over...
The tune in question was "I'll Get You". Now, gazing back on things from the vantage point of four accumulated decades, this minor composition hardly stands out in the Lennon-McCartney canon, even when measured against just their earliest recordings. There's a sing-song like quality to the chorus that, let's face it, hardly screams out, "Rock and Roll"! The fact is, I rarely recall it getting much, if any airplay, even in those heady months of wall-to-wall Beatlemania that followed the Sullivan gig. And yet, and yet...
When I listened to it for the first time, following directly in the wake of the justly more famous "She Loves You", I was immediately charmed! Slight though it may've been, it nonetheless exuded a gleeful sincerity that was hard to deny. After but a single spin, I found myself happily muttering the chorus to myself. "I'll get you, I'll get you in the end, yes I will, I'll get you in the end, oh yeah, oh yeah"--oh YEAH, they got me in the end, all right!...
You all have a pretty good idea what happens next, right? After returning to its rightful owner this little piece of black plastic that had effectively changed my young life, like millions of others, I sat down in front of my TV set later that landmark evening and tuned into the Ed Sullivan Show to watch, transfixed, as the Beatles took the country by storm by sheer force of their youthful exuberance and spirited musicianship. And they didn't even play "I'll Get You"!!...
The transformation was immediate and complete--from that point on, Al Jolson truly WAS history, as I, like so many others of my generation, had found our collective voice in this charismatically talented quartet from across the sea...
|Soon after, I went out and sprung for my
first fully priced 45, "I Want
Your Hand" backed with yet ANOTHER
more brilliant B-side, "I Saw
There". Needless to say, I played
over and over and over AND over!! I
recall getting up early one morning--never
a happy chore for moi, I assure you--
so that I could give this precious
of plastic a few extra spins before
off to school that otherwise-dreary
Not long afterwards, I became the proud
of one of those new-fangled tiny transistor
radios, the dial of which was ALWAYS
in to NYC's WABeatleC--and NEVER far
And since the DJs only played Beatles music about, oh, roughly seventy per cent of the time, I soon learned there was a lot more to pop music than "Puff the Magic Dragon", a WHOLE lot more! Early Rock and Roll, it turned out, was actually pretty exciting, once you developed a taste for it! And did I EVER! Even more amazing, it turned out that some of those Bobbys were actually pretty talented (Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin), some were sorta tolerable (Bobby Vinton), and some, well, some were NEVER heard from again after the sun came up on February 10th (Bobby Rydell--seriously, now, has anybody EVER heard one of the many alleged hits he chalked up prior to that fateful night? I never heard any of them played subsequently as oldies, even on stations that regularly pumped Fabian's warblings out into the ether of the airwaves...)! The Beatles, simply put, opened my eyes--AND my ears--to so very much. It's almost inconceivable to me that my wavering decision to reluctantly approach them with an open mind hinged on the chance purchase of a stray Sunday newspaper AND the modest merits of a quaint little B-side entitled "I'll Get You"!?!...
THAT'S how my life-long devotion--some might say "obsession"--to John, Paul, George, and Ringo began. That's how I met the Beatles. The story hardly stopped there, however. To quote the first words uttered on the silver screen long-ago by my erstwhile singing idol, "You ain't heard NOTHIN' yet!" and indeed, folks, we hadn't.
But ANOTHER time for those tales, worry not...