Johnson County —
It was shot in black and white because the bigwigs at United Artists didn’t think it worth wasting money to film, the Beatles’ first film, 1964’s “A Hard Day’s Night,” in color. It received the green light in 1963, well before anyone in America knew or cared who they were. It should have been a mess, akin to the teen junk of the Elvis and ’50s rock-‘n’-roll films that preceded it.
The record company and film studio execs hardly cared about the quality at the time, the idea being make it cheap, make it quick and cash in before Beatlemania faded and kids moved on to something else.
The Beatles proved different in that and so many other ways.
They insisted on quality. The film — rich in Goon Show, French New Wave and cinema verite influence — became a critical and financial hit. The Village Voice dubbed it the “Citizen Kane” of jukebox musicals while critic Roger Ebert labeled it “one of the great life-affirming landmarks of the movies.”
Which, by substituting music for movies aptly sums up the Beatles’ appeal for many.
Both of their time, yet still vibrant, in the words of author Mark Lewisohn, “this music still lifts the spirit and is passed joyfully from generation to generation.”
The reasons behind the Beatles’ “profound and sustained connection” to the public remains debatable and myriad. Perhaps Lewisohn, in his excellent new biography of the band, “Tune In,” is on to something.
“They resisted branding, commercial sponsorship, corporate affiliation and hype,” Lewisohn writes. “The Beatles were free of artifice and weren’t the product of market research or focus groups or TV talent shows. They were original and developed organically when everyone else was looking the other way.”
Or maybe it’s simply the combined quality and staying power of all those great songs.
Time flies, unfortunately. November marked a tragic 50th anniversary. Feb. 7 heralds another history altering, albeit much happier, half century occasion. The Fab Four, virtually unknown stateside three months earlier when John Kennedy visited Dallas, landed at the New York airport just recently renamed after the slain president that day and appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” two days later.
A then-record 73 million tuned in that night and America, the world and music have never been the same.
“Oh yeah, I think everybody watched that show that night,” Johnson County Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Ronny McBroom said.
Like the rest of America, Cleburne was hardly immune to the grip of Beatlemania. By and large that is.
“I didn’t think they sang good on Ed Sullivan, and they had weird haircuts,” Cleburne resident Gary Shaw said.
Shaw, a 1957 Cleburne High School graduate, admits he’s a product more of the previous generation. He and fellow classmates formed a doo-wop combo in the ’50s often backing Godley rockabilly legend Johnny Carrell.
“Of course, later I realized some of their songs are classics now,” Shaw said. “I never did like their sound though. But they did alright, so shows what I know.”
Shaw seems to be in the minority on this one.
“The music changed entirely then,” District Judge C.C. “Kit” Cooke said. “And you think about it, they weren’t really around as a band for a long time. Maybe they were such a big sensation in America because they came along right after JFK and all the social and economic conditions that were really the start of the ’60s’ revolution. Musically at that point, Elvis was just out of the service. Buddy Holly was dead.”
Cooke, a CHS senior in 1964, joined friends to form a band that year, which they oddly enough named the Beatles.
“I’m sure we violated all kinds of copyright law,” Cooke said with a laugh. “But we were just kids having fun. Bryan Duff, our choir director, had been to Europe and heard about the Beatles before they were known over here. He thought it might be fun to put together a group singing modern songs, that the kids would like that more.”
The CHS Beatles included Darryl Walker on piano. His father worked as a typesetter and printer for the Times-Review for more than 40 years.
Kenny Morris, a professionally trained singer, and Dick Wilson, later a church music director, provided lead vocals.
Mike Letson and Cooke — both, in Cooke’s words, fair at best singers — supplied doo-wop style background. The short-lived band mainly sang at CHS with one notable exception.
“That year we went to Burleson High School and sang Beatles’ songs,” Cooke said. “I’m sure I was the worst of the bunch, but they gave us a standing ovation.”
That, Cooke jokes, is likely the only time Burleson folk applauded anyone from Cleburne for anything.
One friend, signing Cooke’s 1965 CHS annual, wrote, “They loved us Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.”
Morris wrote, “When we go on tour this summer all over the world singing our Beatle songs, you can be the first person to get my autograph.”
Sadly, no pictures of young Judge Cooke sporting a Beatles wig survive. At least none he’ll admit to.
“No one I know missed “The Ed Sullivan Show” that night,” Layland Museum Educator Bettye Cook said. “All of us sitting around looking at that little screen. For once my dad was overruled on TV that night. It’s funny. Back then we had maybe four channels. Now you have 100 and can’t find anything to watch.
“My parents thought it was just crazy teenage stuff. They listened to the “Grand Ole Opry.” I remember my dad saying, ‘Boys shouldn’t be wearing long hair.’ Those were good times though.”
Cook, a high school junior in 1964, said she thought the Beatles were fabulous from day one.
“Just impressed with their musical instrumentation and melodies, which have lasted,” Cook said. “Looking back now they were so clean cut and the innocence of all the words. I remember a bus trip with drill team and we were all singing Beatle songs together. It was a different time.”
Cook said she’s visited Strawberry Fields, a memorial to John Lennon in New York’s Central Park, several times.
“There’s never any season of they year when you don’t see flowers and people out there,” Cook said.
Cleburne resident Peter Svendsen, who lived in Utah in 1964, calls the band music’s big bang.
“Had a Beatles haircut,” Svendsen said. “Course that was back when I had more hair. Had the Beach Boys surfer cut right before that. Wanted to see them, of course, but don’t think they ever played Utah. They didn’t actually tour for that long.”
Svendsen’s son, Christian Svendsen, practiced teething on Peter’s original copy of “Meet The Beatles” when he was about 2, Svendsen joked. Christian Svendsen, a huge fan of the band, still has that album, teeth marks and all, his dad said.
Although Pete Svendsen never saw the Beatles live, he did travel to Las Vegas to see the musical “Love” and, along with Christian and his grandson Gunnar, went on the Beatles tour in London. The three crossed Abbey Road mimicking the Beatles’ cover shot from their album of the same name.
Cleburne friends LaRita Jackson, Landa Sloan Orrick and Kay Barker Enoch, all then in eighth or ninth grade, were lucky enough to attend the Beatles’ Sept. 18, 1964, concert in Dallas. The grandfather of a fourth girl prohibited her from going after hearing on the news that Beatles fans broke through plate glass windows at the band’s hotel.
“I’m sure there were boys there but I don’t remember many,” Jackson said of the band’s performance at Memorial Auditorium in Dallas. “But just girls everywhere, a blur of girls. We had good seats but couldn’t see that well because all the girls stood on the chairs and we were not that tall to begin with.
“The audience screaming, absolutely the loudest noise I’ve ever heard. I’m sure we did some of that too, but we really wanted to hear the music. We left there deafened by the noise, couldn’t hear each other in the car going back to Cleburne.”
Orrick joked that hers and Enoch’s mothers probably had no idea of the “enormity” of what they were taking the girls into.
“Thousands of crying, sobbing girls,” Orrick said. “The noise, you literally could not hear the Beatles, just enveloped in this huge mass of the loudest decibel level of sound I ever heard, just overpowering.
“We heard maybe the first few bars of music then the screaming just got louder. I had seen the Beach Boys in Dallas before that, but that was nothing compared to the Beatles. It was kind of bizarre and amazing. The Beatles hated the noise too, I heard later. They wanted people to listen to their music, which is why I think they didn’t tour very long.”
Enoch said her mother and Orrick’s mother were thrilled to provide them the chance to see the Beatles at least to some degree.
“Thinking about it now I just imagine our two mothers in just this sea of crazy, screaming people,” Enoch said. “I can’t imagine they were too ecstatic to be there. But my mom thought it was a great experience for us girls. My dad, when it came to the Beatles, he was tolerant.”
Enoch said she still remembers riding by the Beatles’ hotel that day before the show as seeing police standing on high walls while other officers locked their arms together to keep Beatles fans from invading the building.
Orrick swears that she participated in little or no screaming that day.
“We wouldn’t be caught jumping up and down screaming like that,” Orrick said. “We were well brought up.”
Enoch joked that the audience may have put on as good a show as the Beatles that day.
“I was just amazed by all the screaming people,” Enoch said. “This one girl sitting next to me, all she could do was cry through the whole show. It was just girls running around screaming, police blocking them from trying to get on stage.”
Orrick said she remembers the show much the same.
“I remember that [crying girl],” Orrick said. “We were all looking at her all through the concert. She was weird.
“But the noise. Driving home, even when we got to Cleburne, we still couldn’t hear each other. It was like we were talking down in a well and someone was talking in a tiny voice.”
Crazy, screaming girls aside, Orrick said that seeing the Beatles live remains an experience she treasures to this day.
“I was dead set on seeing them after watching them on Ed Sullivan that night,” Orrick said. “Well my dad thought it was all ridiculous, just long hair and silly, which I thought was strange because I liked his music. “In the Mood” is a great song. I was never big on the ’50s Elvis and rockabilly stuff, but loved and listened to the my parent’s big band music.
“But the Beatles, I think, ushered in a lot of the sea change not just of music, but fashion and attitudes too. When they first showed up all the girls still had bouffant hairdos, a year later that was out and it was how straight you could get your hair.”
Orrick characterized the Dallas concerts as one of her most memorable events before, since or ever.
“It was just an amazing thing for three young girls from Johnson County,” Jackson said. “We’d never seen anything like it, before or since.”
Cleburne resident Angela Gillock, who at that time spent half her summers here and half visiting relatives in Longview, attended the second of the two shows the Beatles played Aug. 19, 1965, in Houston. Tickets cost $5.50.
“Had to send away to a Houston radio station for [tickets],” Gillock said. “Then had to stand in line in 102 degree temperatures and 98 percent humidity for nine hours dressed properly in dress and hose. It was hot!”
Gillock said she ran into her friend, fellow Cleburne resident Elaine Gant, while waiting in line.
“She and her parents walked looking down the line to find us,” Gillock said. “Of course, this was way before cellphones.”
Lennon, sort of, referenced Gillock and her friends from the stage between songs, she said.
“Another girl was supposed to go with us but, at the last minute, couldn’t” Gillock said. “She had been accepted to Longview High School’s drill team and practice started a few days before the show. So we sent a telegram to the Beatles’ hotel a few days before the show saying please mention her from the stage because she wanted to come but couldn’t because she had to stay for drill team.
“And, in between two of the songs, John said, ‘And girls, please tell Kathy we’re sorry she couldn’t come.’
“We were just thrilled, hopping up and down because they’d actually read our telegram and mentioned her name.”
Gillock said George Harrison is her favorite Beatle.
“That was the thing with the girls back then,” Gillock said. “We all had to pick a favorite Beatle.”
In addition to a life-sized poster of George on her wall, Gillock said she was frugal with her allowance, allowing her to buy every new Beatles album and single upon release in addition to hundreds of Beatles bubble gum cards and other memorabilia, most of which is sadly long gone now.
“I got married after high school and my husband was in the service and we were stationed in Alaska so I had to leave most of my stuff behind at home,” Gillock said. “I have two brothers and, well, this is what they said, that they took the albums to parties and my copy of “Meet The Beatles” is the only one that ever made it back. I think they probably gave a lot of that stuff away to girls to impress them.”
Gillock also saw Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones and Herman’s Hermits in the ’60s and Paul McCartney in 1993 in New Orleans. The Houston Beatles show, however, remains her favorite.
Toward the end of sharing her Beatles memories, Gillock paused.
“My father died that summer in July before I saw the Beatles in August,” Gillock said. “And I left in July to go to Longview and was gone about a month and a half.
“When I came home to Cleburne my girlfriends, about 10 or 15 of them, wanted to get together. Now, they sent cards about my dad, but what they did they gave me the newest Beatles album, “Help!” which had just been released. That’s what they did instead of flowers, did something they knew would be very meaningful to me.
“I think that made the Beatles even more endearing to me. [My girlfriends] knew exactly what to do, what to get me and that always made me think of daddy.”