1963. The year that pop music changed forever. The instigators who pushed music to its’ limits were The Beatles, undoubtedly the best pop band the world will ever see. Here North East-based national music journalist Ian Ravendale gives us the definitive guide to The Beatles on Wearside.
They left a legacy of 13 original albums and 22 singles released in the lifetime of the band. In the early part of their career The Beatles issued two albums and three or four singles per year-a fantastic work rate that no band that came later could hope to beat.
And all of this slotted into a gruelling live show regime that saw them play around 1,400 gigs between 1960 and their last public concert appearance at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park baseball stadium on August 29 1966
In 1963 The Beatles were on the flourishing UK ballroom circuit and also playing cinemas and provincial theatres where the pop package tour had displaced the variety and Light Entertainment shows that television had seen off. The North East was a regular port of call and the outfit played gigs in Middlesbrough, Stockton and Newcastle along with three separate Sunderland dates. One at the Rink Ballroom in Park Lane and two at the Empire Theatre on High Street.
The fab four’s first Empire gig was on Saturday February 9 1963 on a tour headlined by Helen Shapiro, a 16 year old Londoner who had substantial chart success in the previous couple of years. Promoted by the Arthur Howes Agency the tour had kicked off in Bradford on February 2. Also on the bill were Danny Williams, Kenny Lynch, The Kestrels, The Honeys, The Red Price Band (who, in addition to playing a couple of slots in their own right, backed all of the acts except The Beatles) and compere Dave Allen, still several years away from his TV success.
The tour had been in Carlisle the previous night at the ABC Cinema. After the show Shapiro, Lynch and The Beatles had called in to the Carlisle Golf Club Dance at the Crown and Mitre Hotel in the town centre but were soon asked to leave because of the unruly Liverpool contingent’s leather jackets.
Heading cross country the following day, Sunderland Empire was the sixth gig of the tour. The Beatles played all but one of the Shapiro dates, missing the February 10 show in Peterborough as they needed to be in London early the next day to record the Please Please Me album. Their place on the bill that night was taken by Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers.
Former Sunderland Echo reporter Carol Roberton was an 18 year old junior sent along to review the Empire show. Under the headline, A Mistress of Her Art (referring to Shapiro) the review appeared in the Monday February 11 edition of the Echo, and is one of the first provincial reviews to mention The Beatles outside of Liverpool. Kenny Lynch’s and Danny Williams’ ‘variety’ and the ‘deep powerful voice’ of Helen Shapiro all received Carol’s approval.
She was less keen on Shapiro’s ‘attempt at banjo playing’ or the ‘noisier efforts’ of ‘most of the rest of the supporting programme’ an obvious reference to the ‘scream evoking’ Beatles whose ‘instrumental qualifications did not measure up to the high standard of the Red Price Band’.
Recalls Carol today, “It was the first time I was let loose on an Empire review. One of the older hands said, “Make sure you mention everybody on the bill”. If he hadn’t I probably wouldn’t have mentioned The Beatles at all!
“I knew nothing about them before I went along. I seem to remember thinking the Red Price Band were superior to The Beatles. Whatever happened to the Red Price Band?
“I remember getting the giggles and laughing throughout The Beatles. Imagine sitting there, not being able to hear anything, while these lads gyrated around the stage, doing funny movements. It was like watching a silent film because you couldn’t hear what they were singing or playing. You didn’t even get any idea about what sort of rhythm they were moving to! It did look funny! I was with my boyfriend and he was laughing along with me. A girl behind gave him a dig in the shoulder. I thought; ‘We’re going to get done here!'”
In her 1963 review (credited to “CMA”-the initials of her maiden name Carol Mary Anderson-“Nobody got their names used in the Echo in those days!”) Carol wrote that ‘Please Please Me and Love Me Do were similar sounding numbers’ that ‘pleased most of the audience’. “I don’t know where I got that from because I’m damn sure I couldn’t hear them!”
In addition to Love Me Do and Please Please Me The Beatles repertoire on the Shapiro tour included Chains, A Taste Of Honey, Keep Your Hands Off My Baby and a rock version of Bing Crosby’s Beautiful Dreamer, a song perhaps picked up by Paul McCartney when watching The Jim Mac Band, his dad’s dance orchestra.
The Beatles had started off as bottom of the bill on the Shapiro tour. By the time Carol Roberton saw them at Sunderland Empire Please Please Me was rocketing up the charts and The Beatles had been promoted to closing the first half.
“They were certainly different and certainly appealed to the girls in the audience who were screaming their heads off. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t listening! I thought the audience should be stopped making such a noise so The Beatles could get on with the songs!
“I interviewed Helen Shapiro at a press call the next day and The Beatles were hanging around. They were only a few years older than me and cracking on to each other and being very pleasant. I really liked them. They were really canny lads”, reveals Carol.
The tour had been announced in the music press of November 1962. Love Me Do, The Beatles’ first single was released on October 2 1962 and inched into the Record Retailer chart at no 49 a week later-almost certainly because Beatles manager Brian Epstein (who also ran NEMS, Liverpool’s biggest record shop) had been buying up copies of the single. Love Me Do zigzagged up and down the charts erratically during the final months of 1962, probably due to how many copies Epstein could afford that week and eventually peaked at no 17 on December 27.
For an act to make the charts with their first single was sufficient to convince Arthur Howes, the UK’s principal promoter of the time, to investigate the group when Brian Epstein rang on October 28, offering him his boys. Howes provisionally booked The Beatles for the Shapiro tour on the spot for the princely sum of £80 per week on the condition they did an expenses-only try-out in his home town of Peterborough on December 2 at a gig at the Embassy Cinema headlined by yodeling Australian crooner Frank Ifield. Epstein accepted the offer and to show his appreciation, gave Howes the option on all future Beatles tours in England and Wales.
The raucous Beatles didn’t appeal to Ifield’s more sedate audience but Howes himself liked the band and the Shapiro deal was confirmed. Howes additionally added them to a tour he was promoting with American stars Tommy Roe and Chris Montez set for March 1963.
The 16 dates with Helen Shapiro was The Beatles’ first nationwide tour but far from their last. 1963 saw the band slog their way through five concert tours, including one of Sweden, week long summer seasons in resorts including Llandudno, Stockport and Margate, one night stands like the Rink show, recording sessions for EMI, recording sessions for BBC radio, television appearances, photo sessions and interviews. In 1963 The Beatles were everywhere and generally available to pretty much anyone in the still relatively genteel media.
Check out part two of our definitive Beatles in Sunderland feature here.