My Butcher Album Cover

Beatle fans in 1966, maybe especially the ones who lived in small upstate NY towns, had a very remote connection with the band, no matter how fanatical their devotion. Especially perhaps upstate 16-year-old fans whose family didn’t own a television. That would be me.

I had all the albums and the singles, generally two of each, so I could go to sleep at night with one side playing and the flip side ready to drop off the changer and play. News of The Beatles was seldom in the newspapers, occasionally there’d be something in Life, Look or The Saturday Evening Post, the large format picture-type magazines, and sometimes in Time or Newsweek.

Without a TV, it was easy to miss The Beatles occasional appearances on American television. I recall once standing in the lobby of a local restaurant waiting to see the band on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1965 when a lightning strike knocked the transmission off the air. Otherwise, if I knew they were going to be on television, I’d have to go to watch them on my grandparent’s TV.  I’d be concentrating every atom of my being on their bewilderingly brief appearance and fending off my grandparent’s observations. “They look like girls. Look at that hair.” “They must be wigs. Men can’t grow their hair like that.” “How can you tell the songs a part. They all sound alike.” “Which one is Ringo?”

Adults all knew about Ringo. They didn’t know John, Paul, George.

So for me, The Beatles existed almost entirely in still photographs and magazine articles. (The best article I’ve ever read about The Beatles, accompanied by the best photograph I’ve ever seen, appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and will be the topic of my next blog!) A wonderful enthusiast, fan and editor was Gloria Stavers of 16 Magazine. Invariably there were Beatle photos (“pix” they were called) and interviews (made up I’m sure) and gossip about the Fab Four. “Paul married?” “John divorced?” “George leaving?” “Ringo quitting to run a beauty salon?” More mature but still a fan magazine with more in-depth coverage, was Datebook. Datebook became notorious for innocently reprinting the interview John Lennon had given months earlier in England to Maureen Cleave, a confidante of the group. It caused no stir in England but his remark that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus caused a serious controversy in America. The Beatles had been wanting to break with their “four mop tops” image and this, at least, adroitly accomplished that.

Which brings me to my story. Also on deck was the new Capitol Records Beatle album. Yesterday and Today. As usual, for the American buyers, Capitol had patched together an album consisting of tracks from the British LPs Rubber Soul and Revolver, singles, flip sides of singles and British EPs (extended play records, a format little known in the U.S.) and a couple of tracks intended for future release in the UK. Suddenly, a rumored Dadaist-like Beatle album cover that the group had pushed for—with the obvious intention of breaking the mop top image—had become superfluous and counterproductive. John’s “Jesus” remark had done that in spades and now there was need for some American damage control. No further provocation necessary.

The “fanzines” carried this news. A few copies of the album with the offending cover had actually been released and then pulled from the shelves. Other already printed copies were unpacked from the shipping boxes and had the initial cover removed and replaced. The replacement cover, incidentally, featured four deadbeat, bedraggled, slovenly Beatles standing around a sort of footlocker/packing case staring deadpan and bleary-eyed at the camera. Paul sits in the trunk, John sits cross-legged on top of it, George and Ringo stare blankly. In and of itself rather an extraordinary album cover for the pop music phenomenon of the 20th Century. However, in the hurry to get Beatle product to insatiable fans, Capitol in a few cases simply pasted the new cover over what became known as “The Butcher Album” cover photograph.

The photographer, whom John described while stinting as a deejay on WPLJ in NYC as “a bit of a surrealist,” was Robert Whitaker. Robert Freeman had been the photographer whose soft focus images of The Beatles had graced most of their album covers (With The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles For Sale, and Rubber Soul) and it was Freeman’s evocative photographs that fixed the early image of the group. It was this “image” that John especially was out to break. He resented the rebellious image cultivated by the Rolling Stones and felt that it was gained at the expense of The Beatles. (Insiders were later to say that the Rolling Stones were gentlemen passing themselves off as thugs while The Beatles were thugs passing themselves off as gentlemen.)

Furthermore, The Beatles, and Paul especially, were upset with the liberties Capitol took with Beatle product in the US releases. The group sequenced the running order of the tracks on the UK releases with great care. Capitol, as already noted, scavenged through the available material and repackaged the album tracks as they saw fit. Irksome as this was to the group, the final straw for Paul was on the Capitol release of Rubber Soul. Here, the quick warm-up strums that preceded the opening chords of Paul’s I’m Looking Through You were inadvertently included on the track as it was presented on the US album. Paul was aghast and annoyed at Capitol’s carelessness. (Personally, and Paul notwithstanding, I greatly prefer the offending track on the American LP. I n a way, it’s the first bootlegged Beatle song!)

The Beatles decided to register their complaint that Capitol had “butchered” their Rubber Soul album. They decided that the cover photo they supplied for the next Capitol compilation album would depict the group in white butcher smocks with doll parts and cuts of meat draped around them while the band smiled maniacally at the camera. Paul merely looks innocently bemused. That was the intention of the photo but circumstances, including John’s “Jesus” remark, seemed to indicate that this time, The Beatles had quote—gone too far.

Assiduous fans of The Beatles, even those of us in remote upstate NY were aware of the controversy and followed it carefully. It came out that a few of the albums had been shipped with a replacement cover simply pasted over the offending cover. It was revealed that it was possible to identify these rare specimens because Ringo’s black turtleneck on the “Butcher” cover was could be dimly seen coming through on the upper right hand corner of the replacement cover.

Ah hah!

Mr. Gabriel was the wonderful man who ran Olean’s local record store, Melody Corner, at 235 N. Union Street. Mr. Gabriel had a listening booth lined with salmon colored acoustic tiles and he would allow us high school kids to listen to records to our hearts content. He appreciated his steady clients and I was one of them. After all I bought two copies of all The Beatle (and Bob Dylan) albums as part of my sleeping arrangements. I informed Mr. Gabriel about this rare chance that a “Butcher” cover might slip through. He said, “I’ll tell you what. My new shipment of albums comes in on Thursdays and the new Beatle album is scheduled to come in this week. You go down to the Blue Bird bus depot and pick up the package and you can be the first one to go through it and see if we get one.”

I was at the bus depot. I picked up the shipment, brought it back to Melody Corner. Mr. Gabriel opened it and I began my inspection.

It wasn’t looking good and I was getting down to the last few Yesterday…and Today albums when I saw it. A small V-shaped black smudge showing through the upper right hand corner of the replacement cover. I paid my $3.97 and prepared to set off with my prize. Mr. Gabriel said, “You plan to steam it off and see what’s underneath?” I said “Yes.” He said, “Remember to take the record out of the sleeve before you steam it. Otherwise you’ll warp it.” That was excellent advice and I took it. The cover, held a foot or two away from the steaming spout of a tea-pot, slipped easily off and there it was. The fabulous “Butcher album cover.” The cover was beautiful. The paper it was printed on had a grainy, fabric-like texture. The only other album I ever owned like it was Bob Dylan’s The Times Are Changing Album.

Like the majority of albums at that time (1966) my copy was in mono. The rarity of stereo copies makes them worth considerably more to collectors (a Wall Street Journal article indicated that there are only seven stereo covers known to exist.) The steamed off “steam trunk cover” is also safely preserved.

All of this just goes to show that being a knocked out Beatles fan is not all fun and games.


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.


How Patsy Cline Came to be in Sidereal Days

Ten years ago, the family pulled into a rather famous drive-in on Route 16, halfway between our hometown of Olean,NY and Buffalo. Our children were pretty young at the time. They were disconcerted by a particular feature of the more or less “western” themed restaurant. The table legs were settled into cowboy boots. It kinda spooked the kids and I myself felt a little uneasy.

The place is gone now, the owner has passed away–gone to that blue plate special in the sky–so it’s all right to say that the food wasn’t quite the home cookin’ the road sign claimed. But a framed letter on the wall that was the decoration for our booth caught my attention.

It was a letter, circa 1962, a handwritten letter of thanks, sort of loopy and swirly, from Miss Patsy Cline to Mr. Jimmy Dale. Jimmy Dale was a disc jockey and country singer at radio station W-A-L-L in Middletown,NY. Patsy was thanking him very kindly for having her on his show as his “special guest.”

This letter resonated for three reasons. Jimmy Dale was originally from Olean. Had a C&W hit in the ‘40’s–I believe called “Cannonball.” That was #1.

We’d lived for a couple of years near Middletown. That was #2.

And #3, I was a huge fan of Miss Patsy Cline.

Only much later did I recollect the letter and have it serve a valuable, pivotal role in a novel I was working on.

The small town rock & roll band that is the subject of my novel Sidereal Days had to have some plausible occasion to emerge from the shadows of obscurity to begin their climb into the light. My band The Sparrows had great local success in Olean,NY. They parlayed that into playing small gigs in surrounding towns in an ever widening circumference. A local fan arranges a gig with his father, a club owner  in Middletown,NY, 250 miles east of Olean. The Sparrows see this as a chance to play near the golden destination at the end of every New York State highway,New York City.

The band makes the most of every appearance they put in anywhere. They send a “press release” to local newspapers. They also try to get a radio interview wherever and whenever they can. They’re savvy enough to recognize that newspapers have lots of pages to fill and radio stations have many hours of time on the air. So the benefits are mutual for the band and the media.

As guests on Middletown’s W-A-L-L (see Jimmie Dale above) they hear for the first time (my guys are rock & rollers) “Crazy,” the mystic, bluesy country lament that ruled juke box play for two generations. As they gasp their admiration of the song to their host “JD the DJ,” unbeknownst to anyone but me, the Sparrows have stepped onto the milieu of the letter framed on the wall of our diner booth. Patsy Cline will be a guest host on W-A-L-L that night…it’s the night on the radio referenced in Patsy’s letter to Jimmy Dale.

The Sparrows meet Patsy Cline, share the midnight spont on the radio with her, and spend a Beaujolais evening afterward in her hotel room. Impressed with the boys and with a song they’ve written, she invites them to open for her a few months down the road, in Kansas City,Kansas at the War Memorial Auditorium. The significance of that show will be sadly familiar to any devoted fan of Patsy Cline.

But the Sparrows have managed the tricky, crucial climb from obscure local heroes to a band on the rise, catching the first glimmering rays of national success.

The Beatle’s Drop-T Logo

The earliest photos of the final Beatle line up (in case anyone on earth has forgotten it’s John, Paul, George and Ringo) show Ringo’s bass drum head sporting an extremely run-of-the-mill Beatle logo. Its obviously hand drawn twirly scrawl plays on the insect quality of the word “Beatle” by having insect antennae adorn  the letter B. Embarrassingly unimaginative, utterly predictable. Unimaginative and predictable because this isn’t Joe Doe and the Hot Dogs. This is, after all, THE BEATLES.

Soon thereafter, we see Ringo’s bass drum head with a bold new face. And the overall image of the group, the image that will sweep the entire civilized world off its feet, is suddenly fastened in place. This new THE BEATLES graphic is now one of the earth’s best known logos. Think Coca Cola. Think Exxon. Think Apple.

The new logo had a very formal, establishment look. The lettering could have appeared engraved in stone over the front door of a bank or the entrance of an investment firm. Yet somehow this perfectly fit the image of The Beatles throughout their career, from the astonishing squeaky clean, manicured group that overwhelmed Americain February 1964 to the scruffy, bedraggled and dour foursome that glowered their way through the Let It Be film in 1969. And now, in 2012, this THE BEATLES logo is still as striking and evocative as it was when it debuted in 1963.

So, who is the genius behind this classic image?  He’s rich, right? Like the guy who designed the Exxon logo?

The gent in question was Ivor Arbiter, the owner of DrumCity, a drum and music store located on Shaftesbury Ave. inLondon. Having bought a Ludwig drum kit from Drum City, Beatle manager Brian Epstein noticed that the name Ludwig was displayed prominently on the drum head. Brian thought, as the owners of the drum kit, the group’s name, The Beatles should be displayed, perhaps even more prominently. Ivor Arbiter, a good salesman, agreed. He drew a circle representing a drum head, and quickly sketched out “The Beatles” with a tiny “The” above and below it, Beatles with a large B that reached up to the level of “The” and the center letter of the word Beatles dropping below the rest of the word.

A part time sign painter named Eddie Stokes who worked at Drum City during his lunch break took Ivor Arbiter’s sketch and produced it on Ringo Starr’s new drum head. Over the course of The Beatles’ career,DrumCity, and presumably Eddie Stokes, prepared seven different but similar “The Beatles” logos for Ringo. Some were larger, some heavier etc. but the iconic image was set.

Ivor Arbiter for his trouble sold a Ludwig drum set (and probably to be fair, quite a few more) and Eddie Stokes made that extra cash during his lunch break. Neither of them saw an extra penny for the logo they had launched upon the world.

If you haven’t already, purchase Beatles Gear by Andy Babiuk, a source for this blog and one of the best Beatle books ever published.


They Get Better All The Time: The Beatles

I recently attended a showing of The Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night. The audience was cautioned that the opening of the film might be a bit startling.

That “startling” opening was, of course, the flaring crash of sound that opens the title song of the movie and the movie itself.

This chiming clang of music is described as “the most famous chord in all of rock & roll.” But new research indicates, after all, that it’s not.

And why not? Well…because it’s not a chord.

Rock & Roll raconteur Randy Bachman recently spent time in London’s EMI’s Abbey Road Studio Two, where most of The Beatles recordings were made, with Giles Martin. Giles is the son of George Martin, who produced most of the group’s records. Giles is now the defacto custodian of the Beatles’ masters – the tapes and the individual tracks from which the final records were produced. These were the recorded sounds that were mixed and released to a waiting world.

Giles explained what he had apparently gleaned from the master tapes. That the opening “chord” was in fact played by the entire Beatle “front line,” that is, the guitarists, John, Paul and George. It was not a single chord, which explains why for nearly fifty years Beatle musicologists and other musicians have puzzled and argued over it.

Filming of the Beatle movie was well along and as yet untitled when Ringo commented, as a day’s work turned into evening, that it had been “a hard day’s… night.” The line had appeared in John Lennon’s recently published book In His Own Write, but until Ringo muttered the line on the movie set, its appropriateness for the title of the film was overlooked. With a title finally chosen came the need, and quickly, for a made-to-order song. Something the song writing team of Paul McCartney and John Lennon had never done before.

In these heady days, as the bachelor Beatles were enjoying the extravagances of their extraordinary fame, new husband and father John Lennon was slightly more homebound. It is noticeable that the majority of the thirteen tracks on the British version of the Hard Day’s Night album are John “weighted’ compositions. Paul was probably out and about in London while John soldiered on at home.

So John was likely at home on Saturday, April 11, 1964, coming up with a basic outline of a song, written to order, entitled A Hard Day’s Night. Over the course of the next three days, John and Paul polished up and finished off John’s rough draft of the song.

On Wednesday, April 16, at seven o’clock in the evening, after a day spent filming the scene in which the Beatles are chased by London constables up and down a dreary London cul-de-sac, the seemingly tireless Beatles showed up at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios. John and Paul stood with their acoustic guitars and played a basic, barebones song to producer George Martin, sitting between them on a high stool, listening intently.

The usually tight-knit crew, Norman Smith, Geoff Emerick, George Martin, who presided over Beatle recording sessions were joined by an apparently unwelcome but necessary guest. This was amateur musician and professional director of the Beatles’ movie, American Dick Lester. Lester was there to make sure the title song was appropriately “cinematic.” It was probably Dick Lester who was responsible for the most famous “chord” in rock & roll. He wanted the title song to open the movie and he wanted to open the movie with a bang.

John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison stood around their carefully miked amps (two Vox AC-50 and Paul’s AC-100 bass) and experiment with notes and chords looking for what George Martin and Richard Lester wanted – a strident beginning to the song – a strident beginning that would also open the film. George was playing his brand new twelve string 360 Rickenbacker guitar, a gift from the Rickenbacker Company, presented to George in New York in February on the group’s first visit to the U.S. The twelve string had the top two strings simply doubled up, while the lower four strings were matched with higher octave strings. The unique sound of this guitar was the Beatles’ secret weapon, at least until the movie came out. John was playing his Rickenbacker 325, a standard six string electric guitar known as a “short arm” Rickenbacker because the guitar neck was shortened so the frets on the neck were closer together. Paul was holding his light, inexpensive (fifty-two guineas he claimed) Hofner “violin” bass guitar, designed for a left-handed player…a four string guitar, with much heavier strings set in the lowest range of the guitar. The three of them were poised to play the strident opening their record producer and their movie director were looking for.

Ringo, sitting behind a new Ludwig drum kit with a new and slightly altered THE BEATLES logo on his twenty inch bass drum head, provided his steady, percussive backbeat.

The Beatles recorded nine takes of their brand new song. Over the course of three hours John and Paul altered the lyrics slightly, smoothed out and tightened up their delivery, while the Georges, Harrison and Martin, worked out a lead guitar break. At some point in those three hours, they all experimented with and settled on the “cinematic, strident” opening that George Martin and Richard Lester were looking for.

Of the nine takes that evening, take nine is the one you hear in the movie and on the record.

On what might be take number one or two, John Lennon muttered one of his usual goofy, oafish “one, two, three, four” count ins, followed immediately by a dissonant clang of guitars, then silence. John mutters “That’s not the one. I’m still doing This Boy.” John repeats the count in, there’s a stuttered clang and again John stops and mutters “I missed the beat…” A third try, the same joking growl of a count in and the famous, unmistakable Hard Day’s Night guitar opening chimes out in all its glory. They had got it.

What “it” was, according to Giles Martin and passed along by Randy Bachman after studying the source tapes preserved on a computer at Abbey Road Studios, “it” was George on his 12 string playing a modified F chord, with a G note on top, a G on the bottom and a C note next to the G. John playing (eventually) a modified D chord with a suspended fourth with a G note. And Paul plucks his third string, a bass D.

Later on, the song was touched up with John adding an acoustic guitar backing on George’s J-160E Gibson and a bongo track, courtesy of Ringo Starr.

And the world was a better place.

Thanks to Geoff Emerick’s Here, There and Everywhere, Andy Bobiak’s The Beatles Gear, Mark Lewisohn’s, The Beatles Recording Sessions and Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap radio program on CBC.

Ben “Smoky” Hewitt: Buffalo’s Lost Legend

Note:  Most of the material contained in the following Blog was derived from the book All Roots Lead to Rock edited by Colin Escott specifically Chapter 12 by Colin Escott and Hank Davis, entitled “I Heard You Died in ’64”


Rock & roll and Buffalo are not strangers. The Goo Goo Dolls, Annie DiFranco, Rick James, have shown brightly in the rock & roll firmament. Buffalo radio stations and DJ’s have been fervent purveyors of the culture and sounds of rock & roll.

But lurking in the footnotes of Buffalo’s rock & roll history is one of the great might-have-beens, one of the most intriguing and most engaging of rock’s lost souls.  The one who never got what every hustling performer wanted, the thing even the one-hit-wonders got – the thing our rocker did not.  No Cadillac for Ben Hewitt.  However Ben Hewitt does get some serious attention in my e-book Sidereal Days The History of Rock and Roll A Romance. He looms as a Buffalo and Western NY performing legend to the fictional producer at Gobi Desert Records.

He was born September 11, 1935 in a log cabin on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation. Things went smoothly for him until about 1948 when a $12.50 Stella guitar appeared in his life. A few years later, in a Buffalo venue called the Zanzibar Club, Ben Hewitt came down with a fever he never got over.  Little Richard and his band played the Zanzibar for a week.  Ben caught every show as well as the aforementioned fever.

The next thing. Ben had his own show and took it on the road.  He’d put a little band together.  They were playing a bar called DeFazio’s in Niagara Falls.  Ben, as he described it, was “shakin’, carryin’ on, doing flip-flops.” Though he was doing his idol Little Richard, he was coming across as Elvis. Up comes a gent who looks remarkably like the notorious Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager. This gent writes songs and wants someone to help him. He wants to make a demo record so he can shop his songs around. Ben agrees to make the demo with a couple of stipulations.  This, that and the other thing and “You supply the booze.” Perhaps not the most astute career move.

According to Ben, this Colonel Parker look-alike writes a bunch of different songs but all of them sound the same.  At the end of the demo tape, Ben adds his own self-penned song, You Break Me Up.

Wonder of wonders and within about a week, Ben’s songwriting friend has Ben Hewitt and Ben’s remarkable guitarist Ray Ethier in the recording studios of Mercury Records in New  York City.  Unfortunately, Ben has already signed a contract that ties him up in legal knots.  And Mercury Records isn’t interested in any of the quote unquote “songwriters” material. They like Ben Hewitt’s song. They like You Break Me Up.

Then Ray Ethier called it quits. The chance of a profitable career in New York City as a session guitarist didn’t mean a thing to Ray. His reason was as simple as the excuse he gave to Ben Hewitt. “I don’t know anybody here.” That was that. Ray headed back to the Buffalo area. He had to choose between his guitar and his girl. He wanted to get married and he couldn’t marry that guitar.

So Ben Hewitt was off and on his own. Nicknames proliferated but the name “Smoky” caught on and Ben kept it. Unfortunately Ben’s music never really caught on. He had a checkered and luckless recording career. He signed with one record company and a lawsuit laid them low. A postal strike in Canada killed off an ambitious promotional campaign. A case of mistaken identity irreparably soured his relations with Mercury Records. The ultimate career killer was the fact that Ben was legally handcuffed to the Colonel Tom Parker look-a-like. Opportunities to sign with Musicor, Capitol Records, United Artists, fell through because of it.

Ben’s relationship with DeFazio’s kept him going as a performer and a musician. “Smoky,” in his one smart contractual decision, deliberately excluded DeFazio’s from any deals he made. It was the only gig he kept to himself. For thirteen years he played there and no matter where else he ever played, as far afield as Okinawa, someone in the crowd recognized him as “Smoky” from DeFazio’s. Some of them were surprised to find him still with us.

But alive he was. And there’s a grainy video proving that he had what it took to wrangle a crowd. He was still rock & rolling in his late fifties, doing the great old hustle-bustle for the hundred millionth time. Hewitt still had it, he was still kicking up the dust.

Ben “Smoky” Hewitt took the big bow December 8, 1996. He was sixty one.

Ben Hewitt’s recordings are characterized by his methodical, prominent, rhythm guitar playing. Some of the most interesting samples of his work:

Whirlwind Blues is, all considered, not bad, with a nice little lead crescendo, by, I assume, Ray Ethier.

You Break Me Up vocally channels Ricky Nelson through Elvis Presley with some tasty lead guitar work, presumably by Ray Ethier, and the very pleasant, steady chug of Hewitt’s rhythm guitar.

I Ain’t Given Up Nothin’ is well recorded, a good song, with strong echoes of Elvis’s recording,Kiss Me Twice.

I Need Your Kind of Love is the best Ben Hewitt recording I’m aware of. A spare recording, no percussion, almost a folk song approach, with an Elvis inspired vocal performance, a decent set of lyrics and a compelling rhythm guitar accompaniment.

Check on-line retailers for his CD “You Got Me Shook” containing all of Ben Hewitt’s Mercury recordings or go to the website of Bear Family Records

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.

The Beatles. Gear!

It should be hard to come up with “the one indispensible book” about the Beatles—I have shelves of them—but it’s not.  Most of the biographies are valuable.  Hunter Davies original authorized biography and the up-dated versions are great (esp. the less sanitized additions to the new editions) and Phillip Norman’s bio Shout, is good. Some of the more scholarly books make annoying little errors (John, not Paul, is the falsetto on From Me to You—how do you listen and not hear that?) and the newer gamey accounts don’t bring anything to the Beatle legend that you actually want to know.  Paul could be cheap, George was mean.  Say it ain’t so!  But they do keep coming up with never-before-seen photos and that’s hard to believe when you have Beatle calendars from about 1927.

The current Beatle guru, Bob Spitz, contributed his list of Paul’s best songs to a Time magazine McCartney special.  Spitz says Drive My Car was too raucous to be included on the Rubber Soul album.  But wait … isn’t that song the opening track on the Rubber Soul album?  And Spitz fails to include one of Paul’s and the Beatle’s absolute masterpieces, both lyrically and musically, the one song that had Paul and John out of their chairs and performing joyously together at the nadir of their careers and affections, Two of Us.  And listen to Ringo’s drumming.  And George’s muted but growling guitar riffs on that song.  And somebody should tell biographers and critics (and Paul himself) that Fool on the Hill is the most treacly, overblown, pompous, boring, squirm-in-your-seat, embarrassing song the Beatles ever recorded (how did acerbic John not stamp that one out?)

But enough.  Buy this one book if you don’t own a single Beatles book and buy this one book if you have them all.

Beatles Gear by Andy Babiuk, the revised edition.  Here’s the level of scholarship. John’s first Rickenbacker guitar is photographed as it looks today.  Also, the 1958 invoice from Rickenbacker to German distributor Framous with John’s future purchase (serial # V81) itemized on the invoice.  In addition, a photo of Rickenbacker salesman Jean “Toots” Thielemans at an instrument trade show.  “Toots” played a Rickenbacker guitar in an appearance with George Shearing that inspired John to buy a Rickenbacker guitar in the first place.  Lined up behind “Toots” at the trade show is the actual guitar John eventually bought.

There are a couple other “must have or at least should have” Beatle books:  The Beatles Anthology and Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicle but Andy Babiuk’s Beatles Gear is the one literally breathtaking volume.

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.

The Facts Behind the Fiction: “The Sparrows” and Patsy Cline

The fictional band, the Sparrows, in my novel Sidereal Days, get their first big break when they meet Patsy Cline by chance at a radio station in Middletown, NY in December 1962.  There is a tiny hodgepodge of fact in this particular bit of fiction. Years ago, in a now closed restaurant called Earl’s along Route 16 near Yorkshire Corners, there was a framed letter from Miss Patsy Cline. She had written to a DJ and country & western player named Jimmy Dale. Patsy was writing to Dale to thank him for having her on his show at radio station WALL in Middletown, NY.  The letter caught my attention because 1) I love Patsy Cline, 2) Jimmy Dale and I are both from Olean, NY, and 3) I’d lived for a few years next door to Middletown. That was the trifecta of associations that I took advantage of to have the Sparrows meet Patsy Cline. I needed some plausible lucky break to bounce the Sparrows out of their routine of standing local engagements and small-time circle of venues.  In the book therefore, by chance, the Sparrows are promoting a gig in Middletown at that radio station and meet Patsy Cline.

The boys make a nice impression on her and their presence in the studio at her late night radio interview makes the whole affair much easier and much more pleasant for Patsy. The Sparrows interest her in recording a song they’re working on called All The Way To Back Here. This in turn inspires Patsy Cline to ask the Sparrows to possibly open for her sometime in the future.

That opportunity comes when the boys join Patsy Cline on stage at a benefit concert in Kansas City, KS. This concert actually occurred and is pretty accurately described in the book with the obvious exception of the Sparrow’s appearance. It was Patsy Cline’s last public appearance. Patsy and her small party attempted to fly in a small plane in squally weather back home to Nashville and crashed into a Tennessee hilltop. The depiction of Patsy Cline in the book is entirely intuitive yet I can’t help feeling that it’s also pretty accurate and heartfelt.

The scenes in the novel that make up this section – the radio station reception area and Milly, the late night broadcast, the Howard Johnson’s motel room and the portrayal of Patsy Cline – are some of my favorite chapters of the book.

And of course Patsy’s songs, Crazy, Walking After Midnight, I Fall To Pieces and her other classics, masterfully produced by Owen Bradley, are perfume and saw dust, diamonds and stones.  A uniquely American musical concoction.

Crazy was for years, and may still be, the most popular juke box song in America. And it was written for Patsy by a brisk, crisp, gray flannelled, nattily suited up business man named Willie Nelson.