Beatlemania Below the Mason-Dixon

1963 was a difficult year for Americans. In the midst of an already tumultuous decade, the country was mourning the loss of the president and desperately needed something to raise its spirits. In February of 1964, four mop-headed lads from Liverpool hopped the pond and, with their uplifting tunes and charismatic personalities, did just that.

That month, as nearly half of all American households watched, The Beatles made television history with their three consecutive Sunday appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Shortly thereafter, they embarked on their first of several U.S. tours. The mere presence of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr incited anarchy wherever they went, as overexcited fans screamed, fainted and chased the musicians' every move.

Beatlemania down South was no different. Protective barricades were broken, sound systems were revolutionized and a controversy was born that may have ultimately led to the demise of the band itself.

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One of the many melees that took place on The Beatles' tour stop in NOLA was an airport mix-up. Early on the morning of Sept. 16, 1964, these girls gathered at Lakefront Airport to greet the foursome; however, the band's plane was diverted to Moisant Field. Even so, a flock of girls managed to track down their limousines and surround them on their ride to the Congress Inn. The next day Mayor Victor Schiro presented the group with the key to the city, to which Lennon responded, “I want to put my arm around you. You look like a nice fellow, Lord Mayor.” That night they performed to a wild crowd of fans at the City Park Stadium.

Photo courtesy The Times Picayune/Landov

New Orleans: City Park Stadium

September 16, 1964

The Beatles’ Crescent City experience, made into total chaos by their crazed teenage fans, proved troublesome before they even landed on Louisiana soil. Snafus included a blown helicopter tire, limousines sent to the wrong place, a last-minute airport switch and a police car crash.

The sold-out concert the following evening was just as frenzied. Mobile native and Daphne resident Michael Sullivan remembers the “mass hysteria” of that night. “Being a college freshman at Loyola, I decided I could use the money, ” Sullivan says, “So I went to the stadium only with the intention of selling the tickets.” After making the deal, as he and a buddy were leaving the stadium, they watched a huge crowd press against a chain-link fence until it busted. At that point, it was “almost like a stampede, ” Sullivan recalls. He and his friend had little choice but to follow the crowd into the concert. “What we witnessed was girls passing out left and right. It was kind of scary, ” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like it before or since that night.” Hundreds of girls were climbing over the fences, being chased by cops as they made a run for the stage. Sullivan compares it to “trying to catch a greased pig at a county fair.”  As for The Beatles themselves, he says it was difficult to hear them at all over the screaming girls. “Sometimes they had to stop singing so the police could restore order, ” Sullivan says. “It was absolute pandemonium.”

Not surprisingly, The Beatles later declared their short time in New Orleans the “roughest” stop of their 1964 U.S. tour. Paul McCartney remarked that the show “was the closest we’ve come on the tour to getting worried. When I saw them coming for the stage, I wondered, would they stay at the barricades or rush the stage and we’d be massacred?”

Atlanta: The Atlanta Stadium

August 18, 1965

Michael Sullivan’s remembrance that he could hear The Beatles, “but only barely, ” was a common complaint.  Antiquated audio systems and screaming crowds made it difficult to hear the band – and for musicians to hear themselves. This all changed during their 1965 show in Atlanta.  The sound system was “excellent, ” their manager, Brian Epstein, later wrote. “Without question, [it] proved the most effective of all during our U.S. tour in 1965.” 

Sound designers set up monitors (speakers pointed towards the band), and the results were revolutionary. Even though noise from fans was estimated near 100 decibels (like having a chainsaw directly beside your head), the Fab Four could hear themselves clearly in concert for the first time. After the second song of the set, Paul McCartney remarked, “It’s loud isn’t it? Great!”

The Beatles spent less than 10 hours in Hotlanta but managed to fit in a press conference. A reporter inquired as to why they weren’t hitting more Southern cities. “We don’t know, ” John Lennon responded. “It’s not up to us where we go. We just climb in the vans.” Ironically, in a year’s time, his indifferent attitude toward the South was going to change in a huge way.

Teenagers gather at one of many Beatles bonfires around the South, where records, books and wigs were burned in protest of a “blasphemous” John Lennon comment. Similar demonstrations took place in the Port City.

Copyright Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images

“More Popular Than Jesus”

On March 4, 1966, in an interview with a London journalist, Lennon made the comment: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink … we’re more popular than Jesus now.” Though it went under the radar in Britain, the quote ignited furious debate five months later in the States — especially from Southern Christians; they felt Lennon’s comment was outright blasphemy and decided to take action against the group.

The first radio station to place an “eternal” ban on all things Beatles was in Birmingham. Tons of disc jockeys in the South followed suit, including many in Mobile.  Local radio station WTUF declared Lennon’s comments to be “not only deplorable but an outright sacrilegious affront to Almighty God.” Mobilians also participated in “Beatles bonfires, ” or organized burning of memorabilia. 

Fans fought back, and Lennon argued that his statement had been taken out of context. However, even Beatlemania fanaticism couldn’t offset that of the Ku Klux Klan, which vowed “vengeance” and made death threats against the band members, nailing one of their albums to a wooden cross. The Beatles’ biggest security threat had gone from being swarmed by teenage girls to being murdered by a violent radical group.

Memphis: Mid-South Coliseum

August 19, 1966

Less than a month into the “more popular than Jesus” dispute, the Fab Four found themselves performing in one of the hotbeds of controversy: Memphis, Tenn. Officials in the “City of Churches” made it clear that they did not want the band to play there; an undisputed resolution was passed that expressed their “official disapproval” and “advised The Beatles that they are not welcome in the City of Memphis.” Despite this, the group played two shows on Aug. 19, one at 4 p.m. and one at 8:30 p.m.

People were on edge before the concerts even began. The band had received death threats, and protesters, including six Klan members in full robes, were burning albums outside of the venue. Tony Barrow, the press officer for the band, later reflected on the stress of that afternoon: “Underneath … there was this nasty atmosphere, ” he remembered. “It was a very tense and pressured kind of day.”

During the second show, above, someone threw a cherry bomb firecracker on stage, creating a sound eerily close to gunfire. “Every one of us … look at each other, ” Lennon said, “because each of us thought the other had been shot. It was that bad.” 

Barrow echoed, saying, “All looked immediately at John Lennon. We would not at that moment have been surprised to see that guy go down.” 

Ten days after their shows in the Birthplace of Rock ’n’ Roll, The Beatles performed their last official concert in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.  Many argue that the Memphis show was the catalyst that ended their touring career; security issues made it too difficult to keep the group away from harm, and the firecracker scare made these threats feel all too real. 

From crazed fanaticism in New Orleans to a cultural holy war in Memphis, the Southern U.S. certainly had conflicted feelings about The Beatles in the mid-1960s. However, one needn’t look very far (in fact, check out inset, right) to see that the legacy they left was a positive one. Even generations later, the Fab Four’s music can still be heard blasting from a car at Old Shell and McGregor or serenading a young bride as she dances at the Bragg-Mitchell. It’s quite clear how The Beatles changed our world. What most people don’t realize is just how much we, for better or worse, changed theirs. 

Copyright Bettmann / Corbis / AP Images

Beatlemania from Local
Generation X-ers

My husband and I moved to Tulsa, Okla., a few years ago. In May, Paul McCartney came to the BOK Center to perform. My husband was not as thrilled as I was about going to the concert, so we bought the cheapest seats. We dressed very nicely and arrived at the venue a little early. I stopped in the bathroom before making the trek up to our nosebleed seats. When I came out, a man with a lanyard, walkie-talkie and Paul McCartney T-shirt came up and asked, “Is this your first McCartney concert? You two are dressed so nice and look so eager. Are you excited?”

We were skeptical of the situation but politely told him that yes, it was our first time to see him, and we were very excited. Then, he asked, “How do you feel about standing? I’m going to give you floor seats.” These seats were $2, 000 each! I started crying. He added, “Well now I have to give you front row!” The show was the most amazing experience of our lives. I looked like a silly teenage girl from the ’60s carrying on during the concert. At one point, my husband looked at me and said, “Megan, get control of yourself! He’s laughing at you!” It was a night we will surely never forget. — Megan K. Smith

I am too young to have lived in The Beatles’ heyday, but I have been an avid fan since I owned my first iPod and went to multiple Fab Four tribute band concerts at the Saenger. On Independence Day 2012, I saw one of my musical idols, Ringo Starr, live at the Amphitheater at the Wharf in Orange Beach. It was a surreal moment. Starr performed all of his hits from back in the day, and they sounded just as fantastic. Even though he is British, I would not have spent my favorite American holiday any other way. — Maggie Ferguson

It was April of 2008 and my second day in the south of France. I had just moved there while working for the artist known as Nall. He invited me to ride with him to Monaco for the day – so I did. While Nall was in a business meeting, I was on my own to explore. When we met for lunch, I found him on the street talking to another man – a man I recognized. Nall said, “Julia, this is Richard, but you probably know him as … ”

I said, “I know, ” with the most ridiculous smile on my face. Though starstruck, I managed to play it cool. We had lunch, just the three of us, at a little sidewalk bistro on the harbor, overlooking fancy yachts. He was relaxed and down to earth – a man at peace – and a real pleasure to talk to.

After lunch, we walked along the boardwalk. While Nall was on the phone, the Beatle and I strolled along together talking. He pointed to a grandiose, mustard-colored complex up on the cliffside and said, “That’s where I live.”  We browsed a few art galleries and eventually all packed into Nall’s Mini Cooper. As we sped around the winding cliffside roads, Starr preached the power of living in the moment. He mentioned that he had been reading “A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle. Nall replied that my dad, Jack Greer Jr., had given him that book. Then, the Beatle turned to me and said, “Well, your dad must be a pretty swell guy.” Anyone who knows my dad knows that “swell” is a huge understatement, but it was pretty cool to hear a Beatle say it out loud. Funnily enough, my parents had spotted Ringo in the same city at the Paris Hotel about 20 years prior. — Julia Greer Fobes

Relive the Magic

January 11 – Black Jacket Symphony: The Beatles “Abbey Road”

Mobile Civic Center • 401 Civic Center Drive. 800-745-3000. 

8 p.m. This Birmingham-based group recreates the classic album with perfect precision. Tickets: $28 – $35.

February 7 – MSO Rocks! Classical Mystery Tour: A Tribute to The Beatles

Saenger Theatre • 6 S. Joachim St. 432-2010.

8 p.m. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Fab Four's arrival in the U.S., Mobile Symphony Orchestra presents 30 songbook favorites. Tickets: $35 – $100.

Text by Haley Potts

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