A Really Big Show

The “behind the scenes” look at the Ed Sullivan Show in Sidereal Days is based on photographs and descriptions supplied by such informed “we were there,” rock & rollers as Ringo Starr and Jerry Allison, the great Cricket (Buddy Holly and the…) drummer. The various biographies of Buddy Holly provided written and photographic documentation of his two appearances on the show, and The Beatles Anthology is rich with similar data and accounts of their first appearance on the show. (The 73 million viewers in 1964 would be the equivalent of 146 million viewers in 2012. Even the viewership of the Superbowl doesn’t come close to that.)

Ed Sullivan himself is a vivid and familiar figure but a great plus for me in researching the Ed Sullivan material for the book was to see in person appearances by Ed Sullivan and his number 2 man, son-in-law Bob Precht, in the movie Bye, Bye Birdie.  I had to scrub the initial description of Precht I’d written because I’d made it up.  Figured no one would know or care what he actually looked like.  Bob Precht’s brief, fortuitous appearance was the only good thing about that otherwise execrable movie.

The dilapidated state of the production equipment used on the show and described in the book is accurate. Most of it, painted in clumsy khaki, was military surplus. The high drum riser that makes it impossible, during the rehearsals, for Billy Tuck to hear his band-mates actually happened to Jerry Allison when Buddy Holly and the Crickets appeared on the show. The Crickets appeared and performed with that handicap. The Sparrows explain things to the set designer (who was the actual set designer) Bill Bohnert.  Bohnert muses aloud about an earlier drummer whose complaints about the same issue were disregarded.  He’s thinking of Jerry Allison.

All the incidents and preparations described in Sidereal Days were fact-based and realistic.  The man who chauffeured the Sparrows around, “Louis Savarese” was a real person and an actual chauffeur.  His appearance in Sidereal Days and his claim to fame is the fact that in February 1964, it was Louis Savarese who chauffeured The Beatles aroundNew York.

Speaking of The Beatles… While their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show is pretty familiar to most of us and has been seen by most of us somewhat recently, it’s a real education to see a rerun of the ENTIRE Ed Sullivan Show. We hear what a jolt the appearance of The Beatles was to the culture of the day. But to see their performance in the context of the rest of the show—including the TV ads and the other acts—is to witness one era being snapped shut like a cheap suitcase and carried out the door.  An amazing and instantaneous transformation.


Facts and Figures

My rock & roll novel Sidereal Days carries the subtitle The History of Rock and Roll. This slightly exaggerates the “history” content of the book but the text is alert to real rock and roll characters, issues, places and background.  For example, the birth of the vinyl 45 record as detailed in the book by the record producer Joe Brodie is factually true.  Shellac records were made from the excretions of the lac insect.  When the Japanese conquered the sea lanes and islands of the South Pacific in WW2, the supply of shellac was cut off.  The military used records to send general information to its various commands and a crash program was instituted to find a substitute for shellac.  Vinyl plastic was the result.  It was slightly more expensive than shellac but it was much lighter, much sturdier and provided higher fidelity.  The fortuitous happy result for rock and roll was the 45 single.  As detailed in the book, kids could carry their indestructible 45 to a party, play their favorite song to all their friends, all their friends could hear the song, like it, buy it, and play it for THEIR friends.  The making of many a hit.  And it transformed the music business because that niche market could create a hit and a performer could appeal to that one segment of the population.  And that particular “population” wanted to hear rock and roll music.  Voila!

Also, anytime a specific number is mentioned, a license number, a room number etc. it relates to some specific r&r episode. For example, a hotel room might in fact be the same room that Jerry Lee Lewis stayed in when it was discovered that his wife was a 13 year old relative, or the license number of a vehicle might be the license number of the van the Beatles first travelled toHamburgin. The chauffeur who drives the Sparrows around NYC was in fact the man who drove the Beatles around in February 1964.  The names given to the production staff of the Ed Sullivan Show are, in fact, the same people who produced the Beatles epic first live appearance on American television.

There are lots more. All in good time.

1001 Nights to Over Night Success

The Beatles career exactly matched my teenage years. I was thirteen when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in Feb, 1964 and I was 19 when the Beatles performed in person for the last time on the roof of their Apple headquarters on Savile Row in London in Jan. 1969. The Beatles hit absolute dead center with baby boomers of my exact age, the high school class of 1968.

It was interesting therefore in Sidereal Days to write about the arrival of the Beatles on America’s shores from a completely different perspective. An established American rock & roll group would obviously evaluate the Beatles on a very practical basis as professional rivals, musicians and performers. They would also be assessing the Beatles on a more knowledgeable level than a knocked out teenage male fan or a screaming teenage girl.

While teenagers swooned to the Beatles, the fictional Sparrows are dissecting the music. They recognize that the chord structures are more varied, that the Beatles are singing rather complex harmonies, and that Beatles play a more rugged brand of music than anyone else with records in the stores.

The Beatles had an enormous advantage over their predecessors in rock & roll. Elvis could probably step out on a stage and convincingly belt out 15 or 20 rock & roll songs. Ditto for Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Dion and the Belmonts, Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers and the other early stars of the genre. These early practitioners of rock & roll simply had no backlog of appropriate material to work from. They could draw on country music, perhaps jazz, gospel, the blues, Americana and dance music but there was as yet no reservoir of rock & roll tunes.

Then come the Beatles. At their proving grounds, the Indra, the Kaiserkeller, the Top Ten, and the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, they had to spend four, five and six hours a night on stage entertaining not merely demanding audiences but dangerous ones. By 1962, five or six years into the rock & roll era, they had a fairly significant catalog of material to draw from—and draw they did. The Beatles likely could play 150 different numbers if pressed. They rocked up some old standards like Falling in Love Again and Red Sails in the Sunset, they studied the B sides of records which no one else paid attention to, they covered overlooked numbers like Buddy Holly’s Words of Love, pulled off convincing renditions of nonsense songs like Besame Mucho, and in the desperate search for new material delved into songs like Hippy Hippy Shake and into obscure artists like Arthur Alexander. They modified the lyrics and sang girl group songs like Mr. Postman and Chains.

This familiarity with a massive number and a huge variety of material supplied the Beatles with enough songs to keep their audiences happy through long hard nights in gangster bars. It also supplied John and Paul, the fledging songwriters, with a massive bag of musical tricks to draw from as they began to write and perform their own songs. They nicked little known guitar riffs and progressions from forgotten or overlooked artists. They melded big band conventions into their rock & roll. They soaked up influences from everything and everybody they heard and melded them into their own songs. And they topped all of this off with a hard edged sound that came from a thousand and one nights of playing together in front of audiences that insisted on excitement and expertise.

By the time the Beatles lit into an American TV audience of 73 million people, the cheeky, cheery, squeaky clean over-night success mop tops were probably the most hardened and experienced—in every sense of the word—rock & roll veterans in all the world. It’s no wonder the fictional Sparrows and all the other actual bands, came to gawk and remained to gaze on in spellbound wonder.

By the way in Chapter 78 of Sidereal Days I am the young kid that went into Medley Corner and wanted to buy “the Beatle record”, got confused when I was told there were three Beatle records and left because I only had seventy-five cents.