The Beatles were no overnight success

Feb. 9 is the 50th anniversary of The Fab Four famously performing on the Ed Sullivan show—the start of the British music invasion.

Robert Smithson

Robert Smithson

February 9 will come and go and with it will pass 50 years since four lads from Liverpool stormed North America’s shores.  Though the impact of their visit with Ed Sullivan must have seemed like it came out of nowhere, the work that went into creating the Beatles was years in the making.

The earliest roots of their ascent can be traced to late 1954 and early 1955 when the first strains of rock ‘n roll (largely a “made in America” product) echoed in Britain.  Songs exploding into the consciousness of British youth included Bill Haley’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula”, Carl Perkins’ version of “Blue Suede Shoes”, Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music”, and especially Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” and Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally”.

These first examples of rock ‘n roll were a revelation for John, Paul, George, and Richy (not yet Ringo).  They didn’t yet know each other but, like hundreds of kids all over Britain, they began tuning in to Radio Luxembourg and clanging away on cheap instruments, working out their favourite tunes.

And that’s the way they got their start and learned their craft, by mimicking the styles of their idols.  The Beatles’ early records were stocked with covers of 1950s tunes.  Fans of rock ‘n roll standards can hear many of them on the Beatles’ “Live at the BBC” discs.

The influence of artists like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly is instantly recognizable in some of Lennon and McCartney’s earliest songwriting.  Their song, “I’ll Be On My Way”, written in 1963 and given to Billy J. Kramer, might as well have been written by Holly.

The fab four weren’t the only 60s band who “paid tribute” by borrowing from rock’s trail blazers.  A couple of Beach Boys songs come to mind – the guitar intro to “Fun Fun Fun” is about as Berry-esque as it could possibly be and “Surfin’ USA” sounds, to my amateur ear, like an almost direct lifting of Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”.

Regardless of how abruptly they burst onto the North American music scene in 1964, the Beatles definitely weren’t hatched fully formed.  It was a stutter-start for the soon-to-be-fabs, and their beginnings didn’t inspire anyone (except possibly themselves) to imagine they had greatness in their futures.  A detailed account of that time frame may be found in Mark Lewisohn’s recent book, “Tune In”.

It wasn’t until late 1956 that anything resembling a “band” emerged out of their musical awakening.  John cobbled together a number of his mates – some with instruments and some without – and the skiffling Quarry Men were born with him on lead vocals.

It was 1957 when the fateful introduction of Paul to John occurred and, soon after, Paul had joined the band playing rhythm/lead guitar (not yet on bass).  But these Quarry Men were a very haphazard affair – engagements to play were sporadic and quite small scale (though 1957 did mark their first appearance at a freshly opened jazz venue called the Cavern Club).

Paul introduced his young friend, George, to the group and by 1958 the Quarry Men were a five man band leaning ever more away from skiffle and towards rock ‘n roll.  That year didn’t hold many firsts – nor gigs – for the group, though it did include their first recording session (featuring Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” and a Paul-George original, “In Spite of All The Danger”).

A sub-set of the band, called Johnny and the Moodogs, comprising only John and Paul and George, auditioned for a TV Star Search show in Manchester.  Meanwhile, Richy, was honing his skills with a number of Liverpool bands, most notably Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.

1959 dawned with no greater promise for the Quarry Men (or Johnny and the Moondogs or, as they referred to themselves briefly, Japage3).  Mostly it involved working sporadically at “real” jobs in order to accumulate enough money to purchase newer, better instruments.  They did acquire a regular gig as the house band at an improvised Liverpool coffee house, the Casbah, and in this time frame they were referred to as the Quarrymen.

At the outset of 1960, John and Paul and George were playing regular gigs as The Quarrymen.  But they were strictly a guitar combo – no drummer and not even a bass guitar.  It was their meeting with Allan Williams, operator of a local club called the Jacaranda and sometimes promoter of local bands, which vaulted them forward, producing a regular drummer, matching outfits, the name “Beatles”, their first touring gigs, and eventually the opportunity to play in Hamburg, Germany.

In August, 1960 the Beatles went abroad and played, intermittently, until December of 1962 in clubs located in Hamburg.  It was there that they truly came of age and developed an edge as musicians.  And they also bumped into a moody-looking drummer from the Dingle area of Liverpool.

Late 1961 at the Cavern Club provided the Beatles with exposure to Brian Epstein, who quickly became their manager.  Into early 1962 the Beatles had their first recording session for a record company, Decca (which abruptly rejected them), their first performance on BBC radio and their first contact with a producer named George Martin.

Mid-1962 brought a contract with EMI, a recording session with George Martin, and the final lineup change in the addition of Ringo Starr on drums (sorry, Pete Best).  Late 1962 marked their first release and chart appearance, in the U.K., with their original song, “Love Me Do”.

Until Feb. 9, 1964, however, the Beatles (and many other British bands) were pretty much unknown in North America.  That’s due to the fact that the flow of popular music was almost entirely one-directional, from North America to Europe and hardly at all in the other direction.  But while their success here may have seemed sudden, it was almost 10 years in the making.

Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, operating Smithson Employment Law. For more information about his practice, or to subscribe to You Work Here, visitHYPERLINK “”


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