Please Please Me had made no 1 in the NME chart of February 22, 1963. The follow-up, From Me To You hit no 1 a week after its’ April 12 release and pandemonium followed the band wherever they went. There was now no doubt The Beatles were the biggest pop act the UK had ever seen.
On Tuesday May 14, The Beatles made their second appearance in Sunderland, this time at the Rink Ballroom. At the gig were Wearsider Ian Findlay and his wife-to-be Anne Cole, both teenagers at the time. Remembers Ian; “I arranged to see Anne inside. Lads didn’t pay for girls to get them in in those days! Tuesday was the regular pop night that the Rink had just started with mostly the beat boom bands like The Searchers, The Hollies, Merseybeats and Johnny Kidd and The Pirates.”
And while the Rink did sometimes use local groups as supports, The Beatles were the only group on that night with the resident dance band also having the night off as Anne recalls; “There was nobody else on the bill. The Rink was a dance hall, with a little stage at the end where Bill Sowerby and his band would play old fashioned songs like My Mother’s Arms and others that we didn’t know. The older people would get up and dance and we’d sit around and watch until they started playing records. It was starting to change with the older people moving out and us teenagers coming in with our music.
“It was packed for The Beatles! Full of teenagers! Everyone was screaming at them. It was a natural reaction! Silly really. Just to see them in the flesh. I didn’t scream when I went to see Cliff Richard. The Beatles were completely different to everybody else. Cliff was easy going. You sat there and enjoyed it and clapped at the end. There was no screaming.”
Ian Findlay takes up the story; “It was difficult to tell how good The Beatles were because of the screaming. You could hear them but hearing them wasn’t the thing. It was seeing them!”
Anne agrees that a Beatles show was more an event than a gig; “Everyone was screaming all the time. You just lapped it up. John Lennon was my favourite I just stood there and looked at him all night! The Hollies came around the same time and the screams weren’t as loud. You could actually hear them!”
Anne Cole did have a closer encounter with The Beatles than most of the other fans who squeezed themselves into the Rink that May Tuesday night.
“My friend and I had left work that night at 5.30 and were walking up Holmeside to join the queue. We crossed over the road and this little red Renault Dauphene stopped to let us across. When we looked in the car it was The Beatles sitting in it! I’ve got a feeling Paul was driving and one of them had a guitar in front of him. We just screamed and flapped our arms! The Beatles laughed at us, waved and then drove away.”
Posting on the Beatles Bible website David Potts, another Rink gig attendee, sets the scene in Park Lane that Beatle Tuesday in May 1963; “The queue was about 12 deep and wound round a nearby car park and then about 200 yards into the town centre”.
The security the Rink had in place inside was pretty basic as David describes; “The group was fantastic and everyone was delirious. It got so boisterous that in order to give the band some space and safety on the stage numerous benches were brought from somewhere and stacked one on the other about three high around the stage. Normally at the Rink there was a tunnel or walkway which ran behind the stage. This was blocked off during the gig for The Beatles to use as a dressing room and place of refuge.
David made sure he got a prime spot in front of the stage; “I was standing around eight feet away from them I particularly remember John Lennon belting out Twist and Shout with the sweat pouring down his face. Eventually the benches came tumbling down and the band had to escape into their “refuge”. I saw Paul McCartney whack a particularly interested female fan on the head with his guitar so he could make his escape”.
As 1963 progressed The Beatles seemed unstoppable. They appeared at the Royal Variety Performance on Monday 4 November where John Lennon made his famous “rattle your jewelry” quip, apparently threatening to say “fucking jewelry” instead, a move almost certainly aimed at winding up manager Epstein.
The band’s second album With The Beatles was released on November 22 to advance sales of 270,000. The Twist and Shout EP had sold 250,000 copies and in August became the first EP to qualify for a silver disc. She Loves You, The Beatles’ fourth single, sold over a million copies and stayed at no. 1 from August 28 until December 5 when it was eventually dislodged by single five, I Want To Hold Your Hand, which stayed at no. 1 for six weeks.
The Beatles were back for their third and final Sunderland date on Saturday November30 1963 as part of their biggest every UK tour. Starting in Cheltenham on November 1 the 33 dater climaxed at Southampton Gaumont on Friday December 13. As before there were two shows per night. In the audience for the early performance at Sunderland Empire was 19 year old Wearsider Eileen Potts.
“I first heard The Beatles during the record break at the Rink. Bill Sowerby’s resident band were on and during the interval the compere said he had something special to play us. It was a Beatles record-Please Please Me I think.
We all stopped in our tracks! That was probably the first time I heard them”
Alex Connifey was ten years old in November 1963. Recounts Alex; “I asked my parents if we could get tickets. They inquired and found it was sold out. My grandfather Jack Wharton was a bookie and had five shops in Sunderland. He was a man with a bit of influence and knew a lot of people and managed to get two tickets. Both my nine year old sister Margaret and I wanted to go so we went unaccompanied, which you could do safely in those days. Our parents took us right to the door and my mother asked one of the usherettes to look after us and take us to our seats”.
UK pop music was pretty dull before The Beatles, as Eileen Potts remembers; “It was all quite middle-of-the road. Dickie Valentine, Ronnie Hilton…mainly soloists Then, all of a sudden…it just hit me between the eyes. The Beatles had a different sound to what we’d been used to. The Beatles were always my favourite. I was never that fussy about Elvis!”
Looking at the supporting line-up for The Beatles’ November 30 Sunderland show, nobody was taking any chances on the (very remote) possibility of The Beatles being upstaged on their own tour, as they themselves had done to Helen Shapiro just eight months previously. Rather than having a bill drawn from new young beat boom acts like The Hollies, Searchers or Billy J Kramer the supports comprised The Brook Brothers, Vernons Girls, Kestrels and Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers.
All decidedly the previous year’s thing when it came to what was happening in pop music at the end of 1963. Eileen confirms that the rest of the bill were on the unmemorable side: “I was so taken up with seeing The Beatles I can’t remember who else was on!”
Alex also has no memory of the Brook Brothers and the rest; “It was just The Beatles we were interested in. You had to feel sorry for the other acts. We wanted them off! There was high pitched screaming for The Beatles during their performances. Girls going wild!”
“The atmosphere in the Empire was fantastic”, continues Eileen ” I probably screamed. It wasn’t something I’d ever done before. What you could hear of them they sounded like their records. I sang in a choir and love harmony. It was their harmonies I liked. The songs were quite simple but catchy with good harmonies.
“I bought a copy of the programme, which I’ve still got. I’m a terrible hoarder and can’t believe I didn’t keep my ticket. I’m annoyed with myself about that! The Beatles used to wear black polo neck jumpers. So my friend Judith and I both bought black polo neck jumpers and wore them with a pendant of The Beatles.”
John, Paul, George and Ringo didn’t favour the polo-neck look themselves that night, as Alex Connifey remembers. “They were wearing the gray suits, with the black trim around the edges”.
Continues Eileen, “I met Judith at 5 o’clock so the show must have been at 6. We went to the Rink afterwards. We used to go there three times a week. I can’t remember whether we got changed or went in our polo neck sweaters!
“We were still excited and talked about The Beatles in Sunderland all night. I worked for Sunderland Corporation in the Housing Department and at work on the Monday I was telling everybody I’d seen The Beatles!”
In the package tour days, two shows a night and half a dozens acts meant that even the headliners would probably only do between 30 and 40 minutes. Close on fifty years later Alex Connifey still has vivid memories of most of the songs
The Beatles played: “She Loves You, From Me To You, Please Please Me, Love Me Do, Money. It was the first time I’d heard Money and couldn’t get it out of my head after that. Twist And Shout was the encore with John belting it out. Everyone was clapping and stomping and shouting for more!”
Continues Alex; “There wasn’t any obvious security where we were in the Circle. It might have been different in the stalls because that’s where most of the teenage girl fans were. The upper circle and gallery (“The gods”) were all full as well.
“There was a lot of screaming. I remember talking to a friend of my sisters who’d been in the stalls with her mother and they couldn’t hear a thing. We were in the Circle and you could definitely hear them. It must have been the acoustics. Everyone upstairs was clapping along and singing”.
The Sunderland Echo of Saturday November 30 had a four page supplement dedicated to “the fabulous Beatles” but is suprisingly low-key about the whole thing, just mentioning it in a four line notice on the bottom of the front page. And, rather than have ‘Fab Four on Wearside’ as the lead story and photo, the main photograph is of a little girl leaving some flowers for Sir Winston Churchill on the event of his 89th birthday.
A short picture-less article on the bottom of the front page, just above the supplement notice, posed the question; “A Trouble-Free Night For The Beatles?” Empire Manager Mr B. Cotton is quoted as saying that police “could be available”, adding redundantly; “We’ve had full houses before. We’re used to a lot of people”. The article goes on to say that an iron gate had been installed to allow admission one at a time and that tickets would be carefully examined “so there would be no confusion about anybody going to wrong parts of the theatre”.
Beatles in Sunderland
Mr Cotton added that; “The only crowds expected to gather outside the theatre would be those who wanted to see The Beatles coming and going”.
Unsuprisingly, these crowds had started gathering before noon but were told the band wouldn’t arrive until late afternoon. More intriguing is a footnote where the Echo related that a rumour was circulating that The Beatles had been involved in a road accident and wouldn’t be appearing. The bands’ ‘advance party’-presumably road managers Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans-had arrived at The Empire to prepare for the evening’s performances, which disproved the story. “The show is definitely on-we don’t know how this rumour got started” said an ‘Empire spokesman’ obviously more than a little keen to put the record straight and avoid a riot.
All 4,200 tickets for the Empire performances were sold out and unlike for the February show where hysteria was confined to inside the theatre, Beatlemania was also in full swing outside. Fans that didn’t have tickets surrounded the theatre and had to content themselves with singing She Loves You at the dressing room windows or screaming, as Alex remembers; “We were at the 6.00 show. When we arrived there was a lot of people outside the Empire but it wasn’t too bad There were crash barriers around the streets. My mother will have had to show the tickets to get past the crash barriers and into the road just outside of the entrance to the theatre.
“There was police around to control the crowds. By the end of the show it was like a football crowd. Traffic was held up all down High Street, Low Row and Paley Street at the side. Just crowds and crowds of people. For me at ten years old it seemed like thousands and thousands of people. The noise was incredible! And that was just for the first show!
“When we came out I couldn’t believe the scene outside The usherette who’d been looking after Margaret and me said she’d take us down to meet our mother. We down to the door by the main entrance and there was no sign of mum. After about ten minutes the usher told us not to worry, it’s the crowds so stay here!
“We weren’t worried! We wanted to stay as long as possible! Eventually mum fought her way through and the usherette took us through the theatre and out of the old Stage Door. It was a little less congested round there”
Alex now works at the Empire as a Stage Door Keeper and often walks along the row he and Margaret were in for The Beatles concert. (“Circle row D. I’m pretty sure it was seats 11 and 12!”) and also where they came very close to bumping into the band in person;”I’ve tried to envisage where the dressing rooms were in 1963. There’s a workshop by the Old Stage Door now that must have been the Green Room. We’d have passed by there and The Beatles would have been on the other side of the door!”
Certainly it would have been impossible for the band to leave the Empire during the short gap between the first and second houses. The Fabs’ quick getaway after the second house was reported in what is generally recognised as the definitive account of their early career, the 1964 book Love Me Do-The Beatles Progress by American journalist Michael Braun. He joined the band on tour in 1963 starting with the Sunderland Empire show and witnessed Beatlemania first hand and what the band had to do to survive it.
“The Beatles managed their escape from the Sunderland theatre by rushing through the darkened auditorium to the fire station next door and sliding down a fire-pole. Then, while engine number one clanged out as a decoy they rode off in a police car.”
Despite increased demands on their time touring the rest of the world The Beatles managed to fit in short UK jaunts in 1964 and 1965. Unfortunately Sunderland wasn’t included in either tour.
Those that were lucky enough to see The Beatles live on Wearside in 1963 have never forgotten what it was like and how they felt:
“The Beatles had just gripped everybody. It was a phenomenon. Just unbelievable.” (Ian Findlay)
“I thought; ‘Oh my God! What am I going to say about this lot!’ I had to go back to the office and write something. I did become a Beatles fan later and would probably have liked it at the time if I could have heard it!”. (Carol Roberton)
“I can still hear and see them in my mind’s eye as if it were yesterday.” (David Potts)
“A whole new era. Hysteria!” (Anne Cole)
“We couldn’t believe we’d seen them. Very exciting!” (Eileen Potts)
“I was privileged to be there at the start of Beatlemania at a very tender age.
And privileged to have memories of the event.” (Alex Connifey)
Read Part I here
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