50 Years Ago: The Beatles Play Their Most Famous Concert at Shea Stadium
Back in the mid-'80s when the Beatles catalog was first released on compact disc, a middle-aged guy came into my Savannah, Ga. record store to upgrade his collection. He flipped through the discs with that dreamy, nostalgic expression that I get when I talk about Jane's Addiction. "I saw them play down in Jacksonville back in '64," he said. "They had these little Vox amps. Couldn't hear a thing. Best concert I ever saw."
That show is a story all its own. The Mop Tops refused to play that night unless the crowd was desegregated. Once that was settled, they played to 23,000 in Gator Bowl Stadium while hurricane-strength winds forced the roadies to nail Ringo's kit to the drum riser.
But that was just a warm-up gig. One year later, the Beatles were the biggest band in the world -- bigger than any band had ever been. Leave it to legendary promoter Sid Bernstein to come up with the brilliant idea to put them on the biggest stage ever.
Bernstein may have been a New York City native, but he had his finger on the pulse of the U.K. music scene. As early as 1963 he was hustling Beatles manager Brian Epstein to bring the Fabs to the U.S., eventually succeeding in hosting the band's second American gig, February 12, 1964 at Carnegie Hall.
Carnegie Hall was a sellout, which earned Bernstein credibility with the Beatles camp. When he pitched Shea Stadium the following year, they made the show the opening date of their second U.S. tour, but not without Bernstein first running another little hustle. To ease management's concerns that the baseball stadium was too big to fill, the promoter promised to pay the band $10 for every empty seat.
He never had to make good on that promise. The numbers were unheard of: 55,600 attendees; $304,000 in gross ticket sales; four opening acts.
Those four acts included King Curtis, who worked with both Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix; Brenda Holloway, who wrote "You Made Me So Very Happy," which was a monster hit a couple years later for Blood, Sweat, and Tears; Sounds Incorporated, who were a British band that frequently opened for the Fab Four; and Cannibal and the Headhunters, best known for the track "Land of a Thousand Dances."
Among the 55,000 spectators packed into the seats (nobody was allowed onto the playing field) were Linda Eastman and Barbara Bach, future wives of Paul McCartney (married 1969) and Ringo Starr (married 1981). Also in attendance? A 16-year-old Meryl Streep.
The New York Daily News recently spoke to several less celebrated attendees, including Trea Hoving, who at age 9 found herself backstage with the most famous band in the world. “I thought, ‘This is like meeting the Pope,’” she told the newspaper. “This is going to be a holy vision.... But Paul McCartney came over to me to make me less uncomfortable.... He had an envelope with a cartoon on it, which looked like a Blue Meanie.”
That meeting likely happened in the visitors' locker room, which for the evening served as the Beatles' dressing room. They made the trip to to the stadium via helicopter, and when they stepped onto the field come showtime the screaming began. "What I remember most about the concert was that we were so far away from the audience," Ringo later said. "And screaming had become the thing to do....Everybody screamed. If you look at the footage, you can see how we reacted to the place. It was very big and very strange."
Ed Sullivan, who introduced the band to America the previous year on his variety show, introduced the Fabs to the screaming crowd.
Those little Vox amps from the prior tour were now 100 watts, but that was still no match for a venue the size of Shea Stadium. The sound was pumped through the ballpark's public address system, but even that wasn't enough to cut through the screams. And without any monitors on stage, the band literally couldn't hear themselves play.
None of that mattered. Stuart Shea and Robert Rodriguez wrote in their book, Fab Four FAQ:
In musical terms, the show was something of a mirage, with the acts being seen -- just barely -- on a stage set up near second base....The sound was virtually nonexistent, with the stadium's tiny speakers drowned out by the crowd noise. But as an event the concert killed.
In a set that only lasted about 30 minutes, the band tore through 12 cuts. That's about half what the Ramones could do in the same amount of time, but it's still a lot of Beatles packed into a half hour. That night at Shea, Meryl Streep and her 55,000 closest friends heard (assuming they could hear anything above the screaming):
- "Twist and Shout"
- "She's a Woman"
- "I Feel Fine"
- "Dizzy Miss Lizzy"
- "Ticket to Ride"
- "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby"
- "Can't Buy Me Love"
- "Baby's in Black"
- "Act Naturally"
- "A Hard Day's Night"
- "I'm Down"
Sullivan's production company filmed the whole thing for a documentary that aired around the world in 1966 and 1967. Due to recording issues, some of the audio in the film was rerecorded, or in the case of set opener "Twist and Shout" taken from the Hollywood Bowl show that occurred two weeks later. "Act Naturally," Ringo's big moment on mic, was overdubbed with the studio version. Fortunately for us, the Shea version is available, as is the entire original audio track.
Show closer "I'm Down" is really all you need to know about that night at Shea. The sheer joy on the lads' faces, John Lennon pounding the organ with his elbow as if he knows nobody can hear him anyway, soaking in the adulation of a stadium full of screaming fans. They were a long way from sweating it out in a dingy Hamburg club, both literally and figuratively. "At Shea, I saw the top of the mountain," Lennon allegedly told promoter Bernstein later.
One year and two weeks later, the Beatles ended their career as a live band with another stadium show, this time at a half empty Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Fifty years later, Paul McCartney can still fill a stadium at will. This year, Starr was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- the last of the Beatles to be inducted as an individual. George and John? Well, we miss them.
On that day sometime in the mid-'80s in Savannah, my customer bought a copy of every Beatles CD we had in stock, walking out the door with a stack of long boxes just slightly larger than the smile on his face. I guarantee that they sounded a lot better than his night at the Gator Bowl or Meryl's night at Shea Stadium, but they were nowhere near as magical.