Tag Archives: george harrison

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)


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.

Del and Gene

Me and Del were singin’ Little Runaway, I was flyin’  – Tom Petty, Running Down a Dream

Del Shannon, whose bio was remarkably similar to ...

Last week, I wrote about rock and roll pioneer Gene Vincent, who after changing his name, became world-famous on the strength of his first single, Be-Bop-A-Lula. He later saw his career flourish in England while it stagnated stateside, befriended and influenced the Beatles among others, and died prematurely in Santa Clarita.

Today marks the 21st anniversary of the passage of another local rock and roll legend. This singer also changed his name shortly before scoring a worldwide number one hit. He was later largely forgotten in America, but had legions of fans in England, and at the time of his death he was rumored to have been planning on joining former Beatle George Harrison in the Traveling Wilburys. He also died prematurely in Santa Clarita.

This legend’s name was Del Shannon, who was born Charles Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan. During the early 60s, Charles was busy selling carpets after a stint in the army when he decided to change his name (getting his new moniker from the names of a friend and a Cadillac) and write a song called Runaway. The song, with Shannon’s signature falsetto backed by organist Max Crook’s Musitron, was released 40 years ago this month on February 14, 1961.  It reached number one on both sides of the Atlantic a few months later.

Shannon, like Vincent, had a few follow-up hits after his smash debut, but nothing to approach Runaway in popularity, and his career in America soon stalled. He still maintained a sizable following in England where Del became the first American to record a cover of a Beatles song, charting From Me To You months before the Beatles released their own version of the single.

... Gene Vincent.

At the end of his life, Shannon was working with Tom Petty, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne, who were all members of the group The Traveling Wilburys. He was rumored to be replacement in the band for Roy Orbison, who had recently passed away.

But it was not to be. Shannon, who suffered from depression and alcoholism, killed himself with a .22 caliber rifle at his home just off of Sand Canyon on February 8, 1990. His wife later unsuccessfully sued Eli Lilly & Company after his suicide, blaming Prozac for his death.

The four remaining members of the Traveling Wilburys recorded their own version of Runaway as a tribute after Shannon’s death.

Del Shannon and Gene Vincent have one additional thing in common – they were both posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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.

Damn the Torpedoes! Tom Petty is 60!

Tom Petty, who turns 60 today, from 1976.

Some memories seem encased in temporal bubbles that keep them outside the normal flow of time. For me, this usually seems to be events that happened during high school. One of them was the appearance of Tom Petty on the music scene. It seems like yesterday, but when you do the math, you discover that it was over 30 years ago.

How can that be?!

Wasn’t he just “damning the torpedoes?” And howling to “Full Moon Fever?” And traveling with the Wilburys?

Nope. All those things were decades ago. As was Petty’s birth. Six decades ago, in fact, on October 20, 1950.

If you have ever wondered which current rock and roll superstars decided to go into music careers after seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, one of the answers is Tom Petty. This happened four years after Tom, as a 10-year-old, met Elvis Presley on the set of Follow That Dream near his home in Gainesville, Florida. These two events made a lasting impression on young Petty, who went on to form bands with a few fellow Gainesville residents, including Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, that would later morph into the “Heartbreakers” when Tom went solo in the late 70s. Their first album was called simply Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1976, which produced the hit singles, “Breakdown” and “American Girl.” The group has been going strong ever since.

Along the way, Petty, with the Hearbreakers and occasionally as a soloist, has sold over 60 million records and woven his sound into the fabric of American pop radio. In 1988, Petty was able to repay former-Beatle George Harrison for helping forge his future all those years ago, by joining Harrison’s supergroup, The Traveling Wilburys.

Petty, along with the Heartbreakers, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 and is currently on tour promoting Mojo, the group’s twelfth studio album, which debuted in June at #2 with 125,000 sales its first week.

Not bad for an old guy.

It’s Johnny’s Birthday

My earliest memory involves the Beatles.

I remember a babysitter (it may have been my cousin) singing I Want To Hold Your Hand to me when I was no more than three.

Since that early age, the Beatles were responsible for many significant milestones that occurred throughout my life. The first album I ever owned was Revolver  when I was nine. I vividly remember Lennon’s assassination just four months after I moved to California, as well as the pilgrimages I made to Manhattan to see Lennon’s memorial, “Strawberry Fields,” on my 30th and 40th birthdays.

John Lennon's "Strawberry Fields" memorial, in Manhattan's Central Park.

We have been reminded everywhere (and rightly so) that tomorrow should have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday. What may be lost in the sad remembrances over the weekend are the other Lennon anniversaries that will also be occurring.

At the time of his 30th birthday in 1970, John was finishing up his first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, when his old Beatles bandmates, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, showed up to present him with a gift in the form of a song they had recorded. The song was called It’s Johnny’s Birthday, which later appeared on George’s All Things Must Pass album.

On this date in 1975, on what was John’s 35th birthday, John and Yoko’s son Sean was born. Ten years to the day later, Strawberry Fields was dedicated, which is located in Central Park, just across the street from the Dakota, where he lived and died.

In 1990, I got up early on his 50th birthday to be one of the estimated 50 million people around the world to hear Imagine broadcast simultaneously from 1,000 radio stations. (Speaking of Imagine, Lennon’s most famous solo recording turns 39 over the weekend.)

When John Lennon was born on October 9, 1940, few took notice. But tomorrow, thanks to the lasting legacy of his music, charisma, and personal philosophy, millions (perhaps billions) will be celebrating the day.

John, Paul, George … and Andy?

In mid-August 1962, the three senior Beatles – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison – fired drummer Pete Best and replaced him with a chap they knew from their Hamburg days named Ringo Starr (Richard Starkey).

On September 4, 1962 – forty-eight years ago tomorrow – that new lineup went to EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in London and recorded together for the first time.

The Beatles were initially signed to a record contract by legendary producer George Martin on the strength of their personalities rather than on the quality of their original songs. He intended for the group to record a song called How Do You Do It?  by songwriters Adam Faith and Mitch Murray as the band’s first single. The Beatles had other ideas, and chose to record an original McCartney composition, which Paul wrote as a sixteen-year-old while playing hooky from school.

Their song was called Love Me Do, which was an Everly Brothers-influenced, three-chord Bluesy number that featured Paul on lead vocals, and John mouthing a harmonica that he had swiped from a music shop in the Netherlands. (The band did record a version of How Do You Do It?  that day which can be found on their Anthology I album. Gerry & the Pacemakers took the record to number one the following year.)

Martin didn’t much like what he heard that day out of the new drummer and called the group back into the studio a week later. This time, Ringo was relegated to playing the tambourine while session drummer Andy White laid down the beat. Both versions of the song were eventually released, with the White version rising to number 17 on the UK singles charts. (Ringo’s version can be heard on the Past Masters, Volume One album.)

There was actually a third version of the song recorded three months earlier as part of the Beatles’ audition at EMI, which featured Pete Best on drums. For years this version was thought lost, but reappeared, and can be heard on Anthology I.

Best was devastated by the firing, which depressed him to the point of a suicide attempt. He later became a civil servant in Liverpool and eventually formed a series of bands that capitalized on his association with the Fab Four. He was finally able to earn some royalties from his days with the Beatles (somewhere in the range of £1-4 million) from the sales of Anthology 1.  

Andy White was paid £57 for his session with the Beatles. He later played for several acts, including Chuck Berry, Bill Haley & the Comets, Herman’s Hermits, Rod Stewart, and Marlene Dietrich. He moved to New Jersey in the 1980s, where he still teaches Scottish pipe band drumming at the age of 80. His car sports a bumper sticker that reads, “5th Beatle,” which was given to him by one of his students, in reference to his one-and-only recording session with the band.   

Ringo recovered from the slight (but resented George Martin for years because of it) and ended up manning the skins for the Beatles until their breakup in 1970.