Tag Archives: beatles

The Day Movies Learned to Speak

A quick glance at the calendar will reveal that I’m a bit late in pulling the “Welcome to August” trigger, but better late than September.

So let me be the last to welcome you to the eighth month of the year. (And as the eighth month, shouldn’t it be called Octo-ber? The answer is yes. It would have been had a couple of megalomaniac Roman emperors named Julius and Augustus not inserted months named after themselves into the middle of the summer, thereby messing up the calendar forever.)

There are dozens of Deadwrite’s Dailies anniversaries worthy of a blog post during the first half of this month, including: August 1 – Concert for Bangladesh (1971); MTV’s debuts (1981); August 2 – Wild Bill Hickok gunned down (1876); August 3 – Wings formed (1971); August 4 – President Obama’s 50th birthday; August 9 – Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics (1936) …

Lucille Ball would have turned 100 on the 6th of August, something a good chunk of the world (and Google) seemed to remember. But also on that date back in 1926, a little remembered film debuted that changed the world. Today’s post is about that.

On August 6, 1926, Warner Bros. taught movies to “speak.”

On that day, WB first brought sound to movie audiences with the premiere of Don Juan. Before that night, filmmakers had essentially ignored the sense of hearing, relying on live accompaniment for their presentations.

Don Juan, starring John Barrymore, premiered at the Warners’ Theatre in Manhattan to a packed house that paid the record-setting price of $11 per ticket for the night’s entertainment.

Don Juan’s sound came from a 16” phonograph that was synchronized to the film in a complicated process called “Vitaphone.”

Vitaphone was the brainchild of Sam Warner, the second youngest of the four Warner brothers. Sam felt that the studio he and his brothers created would never rise to the highest rung of the Hollywood ladder unless they took a bold step. That bold step was sound.

Sam loved tinkering with technology and had previously worked alongside Western Electric technicians setting up WB’s radio station KFWB on their Sunset Boulevard studio lot. It was here that he learned of a process Western Electric had developed to synch sound to movies. Sam talked his brothers into purchasing the system which was named Vitaphone to capitalize on WB’s recent purchase of Vitagraph Studios.

Don Juan was still essentially a silent film with all the dialogue written on cards. What is most notable about the movie is that it added the sound of an orchestra (along with some special effects), which removed the need for live musicians.

In spite of its huge opening night receipts, Don Juan couldn’t recoup its budget and WB was left seriously in debt. But Sam Warner pressed on in the development of sound, much to the chagrin of his brother Harry – the keeper of the company’s accounts.

Don Juan would prove to be the warning shot fired across the bow of silent films. The genre would be effectively killed fourteen months later by WB’s release of the first “talkie,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer.

Sadly, Sam Warner wouldn’t live to see its release. The stress of overseeing its production ruined his health, and he died 24 hours before The Jazz Singer’s premiere from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Vitaphone itself would pass away by 1930 (the process anyway, the name would survive until 1959) when improved sound-on-film technology replaced it.

The huge profits that WB reaped from their pioneering efforts into sound gave them the funds to purchase the First National Studios in Burbank in the late 1920’s, which remains their headquarters to this day.

(And if you want to see the place, stop by the studio this summer and I may be the one giving you a tour! www.wbstudiotour.com)


"Be-Bop-A-Newhall," Part 2

Rock and roll pioneer and “permanent” Newhall resident Gene Vincent was instrumental in bringing the nucleus of the Beatles together.

As the story goes, in July 1957, 15-year-old McCartney was talked into visiting a church festival to audition for the band The Quarrymen, which was led by 16-year-old John Lennon. McCartney reportedly played a 10-minute medley of songs by Gene, Eddie Cochran, and Little Richard. Lennon was so impressed with the younger McCartney that he asked him to join the band. Later, just before “Beatlemania” was to wash over the world, the Beatles met and befriended their idol in Hamburg where Gene helped them craft their sound.

Gene still had lots of fans stateside as well, including Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of the Doors.

Gene was on tour in England in April 1960 when a taxi he was riding in hit a cement post. The crash seriously injured Gene and killed his cab-mate Eddie Cochran, who had made a name for himself with Summertime Blues.

Gene spent most of the next decade flitting between London and Hollywood, while recording and touring sporadically. Years of heavy drinking, bad relationships, and poor management compromised his finances and wrecked his health. He was with his parents in Saugus in 1971 when he was rushed to what was later called the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Valencia, where a bleeding ulcer took him away from a world that had largely forgotten him.

But Gene could never be completely forgotten. Be-Bop-A-Lula, which was released 55 years ago this week, still garners airplay – either in its original version, or as covered by such performers as Gary Glitter, Carl Perkins, the Everly Brothers, Stray Cats, Queen, and not surprisingly, both Lennon and McCartney.

Gene has won some posthumous acclaim as well. Rolling Stone magazine once called Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps “the first rock ‘n’ roll band in the world,” and Be-Bop-A-Lula was listed as one of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland where Gene was inducted in 1998. More recently, Guitar Edge magazine voted Gene onto its list of the “100 Greatest Guitar Players of All Time,” (although, in all fairness it should have been Cliff Gallup being honored, as he was the true master guitarist of the Blue Caps).

Gene was laid to rest at Newhall’s Eternal Valley Cemetery. French-born fan and Newhall resident Chris Bouyer hopes to see the city where Gene is buried to pay tribute to their permanent resident with an annual music festival.

“I would love to see the city of Newhall host a yearly rockabilly festival in February around Gene’s birthday,” says Bouyer. “There is a huge rockabilly underground, and I know that a festival like that could draw thousands of fans from all around the world. I imagine the festival as something that would start small and then grow big,” says Bouyer. “All it will take will be work, dedication, and passion. But that’s the story of everything worthwhile. That’s the story of rock and roll. And that’s the story of Gene.”

“Be-Bop-a-Lula … She-e-e’s my baby doll, my baby doll, my baby doll.”


"Be-Bop-A-Newhall," Part 1

(Since today is the 55th anniversary of the release of the epic rock and roll classic Be-Bop-a-Lula by local legend Gene Vincent, I’ve decided to reprint a two-parter on this underappreciated rockabilly pioneer.)

If you’re a fan of 1950s rock and roll, or if you just happen to be over 40, try taking this test.

Sing the following opening lyric without singing any of the rest of the song. Ready? Here goes.


Be honest. You couldn’t stop yourself, could you? Try as you might, some dormant synapse in your brain fired off the second line “… She’s My Baby …” straight to your vocal chords.

Don’t feel bad. Since June 16, 1956 – 55-years ago this week – when Be-Bop-A-Lula first hit the airwaves, so many millions of people have sung along to the tune that it has entered the world’s musical collective unconscious.

While the song may be familiar to most, the story of rock and roll legend and permanent Santa Clarita Valley resident Gene Vincent, the tune’s singer and co-author, who would have turned 76 in February, has largely been forgotten.

If asked to select likenesses for a Mount Rushmore of 1950s rock and roll legends, most Americans would showcase the images of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly. But another face would likely be added by Europeans where Gene Vincent’s popularity was on par with Presley’s near-godlike following.

Gene Vincent, whose real name was Vincent Eugene Craddock, was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1935 and began playing guitar at the age of 12. He left school early to join the Navy where he was stationed in Korea. On returning to Norfolk in 1955 he was involved in a very serious motorcycle accident that shattered his left leg, leaving him with a permanent limp and chronic pain for the rest of his life. Legend has it that he wrote Be-Bop-A-Lula in the hospital while recovering from the injury.

During the frantic months after the songs’ release, Gene and his band the Blue Caps – which featured legendary guitarist Cliff Gallup – recorded an album, played numerous concerts, and appeared in the first rock and roll feature film The Girl Can’t Help It, starring Jayne Mansfield. The pace quickly took its toll on Gene and the band and before long several members of the Blue Caps exited for good.

Gene had a few follow-up hits in America after that, but nothing to approach Be-Bop-A-Lula in popularity. With his career stalling in the States, he toured Japan and Australia with Eddie Cochran and Little Richard. Afterwards he went to Europe where he was greeted as a hero by his legions of fans.

Among those fans were some lads from Liverpool.

Paul McCartney wrote in “The Beatles Anthology” that Be-Bop-A-Lula was the first record he ever bought, and in fact, the song was reportedly instrumental in bringing the nucleus of the Beatles together in the first place.

(More on this tomorrow.)

Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side”

I couldn’t tell you the last time I owned an album that was listed on the Billboard Top 200 chart, but between the ages of 10 and 25, I could always count on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon – one of the first records I ever bought – to be there.

Dark Side of the Moon has been so successful and added onto so many millions of playlists over the years that it’s hard to imagine that at one time it didn’t exist.

The record was actually Pink Floyd’s eighth album, but most people had never heard a note from the English band until March 10, 1973, when Dark Side was first released.

The record was crafted as a concept album dealing with insanity, based in part on the mental breakdown of the band’s founder and former member Syd Barrett (“Moon” references lunacy). The record’s ten songs are joined together into one seamless piece of music, connected at times with a heartbeat signifying the possibility of madness in each stage of life.

The album was recorded in two stretches during the summer of 1972 and the early part of 1973 at legendary Abbey Road Studios, where the Beatles made their records. The group took breaks in-between for tours, vacations, and time-outs to watch soccer games and Monty Python on the telly (they would later use some of the profits from the record to help finance Monty Python and the Holy Grail.)

Alan Parsons, who had previously worked on the Beatles’ Abbey Road and Let It Be albums, served as engineer on Dark Side. He would later enjoy substantial success with The Alan Parsons Project.

Roger Waters interviewed several tour members and friends about madness, and snippets of these cuts can be heard throughout the album. Peter Watts, the group’s road manager (and father of actress Naomi Watts), was responsible for the maniacal laughter in Brain Damage and Speak To Me. His wife added the “cruisin’ for a bruisin’” line between Money and Us and Them.

Female session vocalist Clare Torry can be heard in The Great Gig in the Sky for which she was paid a modest sum. In 2004 she successfully sued the band for royalties and is now credited as co-author of the song.

Although it held the top spot for only one week, Dark Side of the Moon would remain on the charts for a total of 741 weeks (!) and sell over 15 million copies stateside (over 45 million worldwide).

The songs on the record have been covered by several later performers, including a band called Poor Man’s Whiskey, who re-fashioned it as a bluegrass album called Dark Side of the Moonshine.

In honor of the anniversary of the release of this classic album, I plan to give it a listen from start to finish today.

“Honey, where’s our copy of the Wizard of Oz?”


What Do They Want Us For?

Did you know that the first stop for the Beatles in America was not the "Ed Sullivan Show" but actually this yellow house?

We’ve all seen the black-and-white footage of the Beatles arriving at the airport in New York to the accompanying screams of thousands of fans during this week 47 years ago. And if you didn’t happen to be one of the 73 million Americans who watched their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, you have undoubtedly caught the clip on YouTube. (BTW, was John’s mic working that night?)

But while the trip to New York was the group’s first official foray to America, a little known fact is that this was not the first time a Beatle had been to the States.

The scene was quite different a few months earlier when George Harrison became the first Beatle to ever step foot in America. There were no screaming fans, no police escorts, and no press conferences. And while the Beatles were feted at luxury hotels during their first stay in America, George spent most of his time in a small house in Southern Illinois.

In his book Before He Was Fab, George Harrison’s First American Visit, author Jim Kirkpatrick tells the story of the two-week vacation the young Beatles guitarist took with his brother Peter to the small town of Benton, Illinois, during mid-September to early-October, 1963.

At the time of the trip, She Loves You was firmly perched at number one in England. The Beatles were working on their second album, With The Beatles, at the time, and George had just completed recording the song Don’t Bother Me a few days earlier. The group decided to take a much-needed vacation, and Ringo and Paul took off to Greece, while John and his wife Cynthia accompanied the group’s manager, Brian Epstein, to Paris.

George used the break to come to southern Illinois to visit his sister Louise who had earlier moved to the coal mining town of Benton with her husband, who was a mining engineer.

George was said to have loved his time in the Midwest, and befriended some of the locals who accompanied him to record stores, where he was said to have purchased a copy of the single Got My Mind Set On You by James Ray. Harrison would later record a cover of the song in 1987, which went to number one.

George found time to sit in with a local band called the Blue Vests at a VFW Hall, where he wowed the crowd with his version of Roll Over Beethoven and a few other early Beatles standards. He even appeared on radio station WFRX, which had earlier become the first station in America to play a Beatles song when they aired a copy of From Me To You which had been given to them by Louise.

George ended his visit to America with a brief stop in St. Louis and a couple of days in New York, where a story persists that he actually saw JFK’s limousine go by.

The home where George stayed at 113 McCann Street was saved from demolition in 1995, and is today the Hard Day’s Nite Bed and Breakfast.

When the Beatles were flying to New York to appear on Ed Sullivan a few months later, George told the journalists on-board about his trip, and commented about America by saying, “They’ve got everything over there. What do they want us for?”

Benton has had other encounters with celebrities. Former NBA star Doug Collins is from the area, as is former game show host Gene Rayburn, and renowned actor John Malkovich.

The President & the King

Meeting a king is no big deal for a president, but when the “King of Rock and Roll” shows up at the White House asking to come inside … that is a big deal!

This actually happened forty years ago today, when Elvis Presley, traveling under the name “Col. Jon Burrows,” walked up to the White House, presented the guards with a five-page handwritten letter, and asked to meet with President Nixon.

The story begins three weeks earlier when Presley was in Palm Springs hanging out with Vice President Spiro Agnew (huh?!) and decided he wanted to enlist in the “War On Drugs.” He soon found himself flying to Washington in the company of California Senator George Murphy (huh?!) writing the letter he would later present to the White House on American Airlines stationery.

In it, Presley stated that he was fully aware of the “communist brainwashing techniques” that were eroding America and offered to report back on a host of America’s enemies, stating “the drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers etc., do not consider me as their enemy, or as they call it The Establishment. I call it America and I love it.” He hoped to be made a “Federal Agent At Large” by Nixon, a position that didn’t officially exist.

The letter was passed to David Chapin, one of the president’s aides, who wrote a memo to Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman recommending that Nixon meet with Presley later that same day. The White House then called the Washington Hotel, where Elvis was staying with two of his bodyguards, to offer the invitation. At the time of the call, Presley was at the FBI Headquarters hoping to meet with J. Edgar Hoover (huh?!) but left for the White House when the invitation to the Oval Office arrived.

Presley was escorted in to meet the president, but was barred by the Secret Service from presenting him with the chrome-plated World War II .45-caliber pistol that he brought along as a gift. He then spread out his own collection of police badges on the president’s desk and asked for an FBI badge of his own, which the president okayed. The two men spoke of ways Presley could help the president’s efforts in thwarting the radicals, and Elvis even took a few shots at the Beatles, who he felt were spreading an “anti-American” message. A few pictures were taken of the meeting, which have since become some of the most requested photographs in the entire National Archives collection. After an awkward hug between the two men (and again, huh?!), the Presley party was given a tour of the White House and served lunch. At the conclusion of their visit, “The King” got his presidential Christmas present in the form of his new badge.

Nixon sent a letter to Presley on December 31, thanking him for the visit, and for the gift, which is now on display at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda.

Elvis, of course, died of a drug overdose in 1977 at the age of 42.

Nixon and Presley. Just about the only Christmas-time pairing in history weirder than that Bing Crosby/David Bowie duet.

No Nostradamus

Nostradamus ...

The noted seer Michel de Nostredame, who is better known to the world by his Latinized name Nostradamus, was born on this date in 1503 in the south of France. Nostradamus made over 6000 vague prophecies during his life, which depending on your worldview have either forecast five centuries of calamities, or have only occasionally gotten things right due to the law of averages.

Irish-born mathematician and physicist Lord Kelvin, born William Thompson, died during this week in 1907. He is remembered today in scientific circles mainly for his work on thermodynamics and for the Kelvin Scale, which measures temperatures based on Absolute Zero.

While Lord Kelvin possessed one of the keenest scientific minds of any age, he was not much of a prognosticator. When called on to comment on the future of science and technology, he often made big, bold specific statements (in contrast to Nostradamus’ vaguely-worded prophesies that can be stretched to apply to seemingly anything) that in hindsight proved laughable. Three of Kelvin’s greatest forecasting blunders have anniversaries this week: radio broadcasting, quantum physics, and heavier-than-air flight.

Kelvin was once quoted as saying that, “Radio has no future.” During this week in 1901, Guglielmo Marconi proved him wrong in a big way, when he sent the first wireless radio broadcast across the Atlantic Ocean.

Kelvin stated in 1900 that, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” (To be fair, this statement may have been made by someone else, and only later attributed to Kelvin.) A few months later (exactly 110 years ago today!), German Max Planck published his landmark paper outlining his theory of quantum physics, in which energy was no longer thought to move in a constant flow, but instead transferred in packets, or “quanta.” It may not have sounded like much of a change to laymen, but it soon brought about the end of “classical physics” which Kelvin thought just needed more precise measurement. After its evolution into quantum mechanics, Planck’s new theory gave the world things like laser beams and atomic weapons.

... and Lord Kelvin. They even look alike.

Kelvin never believed that humans would fly and erred again only one year before the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903 (incidentally, almost exactly 400 years after the birth of Nostradamus), when he made the prediction that, “No balloon and no aeroplane will ever be practically successful.”

Lord Kelvin’s statements prove, much like the record executive who declined signing the Beatles because “guitar bands are on their way out,” that we should all be leery of believing everything told to us by “experts.” It should also remind us that when we are called on to make predictions, to follow the example of Nostradamus, and not be too specific.

Our Moment

Every generation seems to have one: that traumatic frozen moment of shock and disbelief that is branded into their age group’s collective unconscious. For my father’s generation, the moment came on December 7, 1941. For millions my age, John Lennon’s murder in Manhattan on December 8, 1980 became ours.

The attacks on Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center were truly “generational moments” that brought about policy change at the national level and sent previous eras scrambling for sanctuary in the history books. The death of John Lennon was different. Despite worldwide calls for peace, there was no overnight institutional change that stopped murders from happening in New York. His death was more personal, affecting millions who had grown up with the Beatles, and those who looked on him as a brother from a different mother.

I remember the moment well. I had only recently arrived in California from Indiana, having migrated west to study at a college that specialized in its own brand of old-time religion. I wasn’t much of a believer, and had used my mother’s religion to get out of the Midwest. Soon, the inherent need inside all of us to have friends and to fit in to one’s surroundings was causing me to – outwardly at least – parrot the party line.

The news about John’s murder was delivered to me by a Scandinavian student. I didn’t believe him at first, but others who had heard the reports confirmed the story. My response was to knock out every tooth in the Swede’s head. This wasn’t a reaction bred by the violence that had just happened on the opposite side of the country. It was because the student, who knew of my interest in the satanic symphony of rock and roll in general – and the Beatles in particular – had rushed to give me the news with such self-righteous glee. In his skewed worldview, the Devil had simply called one of his own home.

I made up the part about knocking out the kid’s teeth. I only did that mentally. My restraint had nothing to do with “turning the other cheek” or “giving peace a chance.” It was shock and the fear of expulsion that kept my reaction in check.    

While I would like to say that his view was that of an extremist and not the prevailing sentiment of the college, this was not the case. Those of us who were fans had to grieve alone, far from the all-seeing eye of the faculty.

It was only later that I realized that his appalling need to joyfully rush to report that a man had been murdered in front of his wife led me to take my first step away from organized religion. I’ve been walking ever since.

A lot can change in a single moment.

Britain’s “Soul”

This time of year is always a somber one for Beatles fans. With the anniversary of George Harrison’s passing on Monday, followed by next week’s 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s murder, millions of people around the world are especially aware of their own mortality during these two weeks.

Today marks another milestone in Beatles history that’s also bound to make fans feel their age. It was on this date in 1965 – 45 years ago today – that the Beatles released their epic Rubber Soul album in England.

Rubber Soul, which got its title from an expression Paul McCartney used to describe English soul music, was the band’s sixth English album. The record reflects the group’s growing sophistication, marking a clear departure from their earlier Merseyside sound. It was recorded all at once during the months of October and November 1965, rather than in fits and starts between other commitments, like their previous records. This schedule gave them the freedom to experiment with new subjects and sounds, heard most notably in George Harrison’s use of the sitar in Norwegian Wood, and producer George Martin’s harpsichord-sounding piano in In My Life. This record set the stage for how the Beatles would function for the remainder of the 1960s, with the group becoming more of a studio band, and soon discontinuing touring altogether.

When you look at the lineup of the fourteen songs on the record, it’s hard to believe this isn’t a greatest hits album:

Side 1

Drive My Car, Norwegian Wood, You Won’t See Me, Nowhere Man, Think For Yourself, The Word, Michelle

Side 2

What Goes On, Girl, I’m Looking Through You, In My Life, Wait, If I Needed Someone, Run For Your Life

Couple this with the fact that Day Tripper and We Can Work It Out were released at the same time as a double-sided single, and left off the record, and you realize that December 1965 was a great month for popular music indeed.

The album was a huge success, hitting the top of the charts on Christmas Day in England, knocking the groups’ previous record, Help!, out of the top spot. The American version of the album came out three days after the British record with a different lineup of songs, and sold over a million copies in the states in only nine days.

Nowhere on the cover of the album was the group mentioned by name. Yes, they were that big.

The Beatles and JFK

There was quite a contrast between the overall mood of the citizens of the US and the UK during the latter part of November 1963. While America was dealing with the grim task of burying a popular young president, over in England, the Brits were rocking out to I Want to Hold Your Hand.

As I wrote yesterday, both C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley had the sad luck of dying on the day that JFK was assassinated, thereby having the news of their deaths missed by the general public. In England, another cultural coincidence took place on that day that had different results. November 22, 1963 was also the day that the Beatles released With The Beatles, their second studio album.

Perhaps because the release of the album took place in the UK and not in America (the US version, Meet The Beatles! wasn’t released until January 20, 1964), the album’s sales didn’t seem to suffer a bit from the grim date of its release. Over a half-million copies of the record were pre-ordered in England and sales  topped a million on the island during its first year of release.

With The Beatles was released only eight months after the group’s phenomenal debut album Please Please Me. Seven of the fourteen tracks on the record were Lennon/McCartney compositions, with covers and George Harrison’s songwriting debut, Don’t Bother Me filling out the rest of the record. Despite the fact that the album is arguably one of the group’s weakest releases, it still manages to contain some gems, most notably All My Loving, It Won’t Be Long, and the band’s version of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven, with George handling the lead vocal duties.

I Want to Hold Your Hand didn’t appear on the With The Beatles album. It was released as a separate single on November 29, and the response was phenomenal. It would knock another Beatles’ single, She Loves You, off the top spot two weeks later, becoming the first time the same act had consecutive number one singles in British history.

With The Beatles edged the Please Please Me album from the number one spot in Britain, where it had been securely perched for 30 weeks. With The Beatles remained at number one for an additional twenty-one weeks, meaning that the Beatles just missed holding the top spot on the charts for an entire year. With The Beatles was eventually succeeded at number one by The Rolling Stones’ self-titled British debut record.

While all of this was taking place America mourned. The malaise didn’t seem to lift until Beatlemania hit the American shores the following year. It can be argued that the unofficial Kennedy mourning period ended the night the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964.