Dave Grohl was on his way to rehearsals for a TV special marking the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ U.S. live television debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” when the panic set in.
“Suddenly it hit me: Maybe I ought to listen to the record again before we rehearse it,” the founding member of Nirvana and Foo Fighters said of his impending run-through of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with guitarists Joe Walsh and Gary Clark Jr. for “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles.”
The two-hour special will air Feb. 9, exactly half a century after the Fab Four’s debut appearance on Sullivan’s show kicked Beatlemania into high gear on American shores.
As Grohl related the comedy of errors that quickly ensued, he grew increasingly animated: “So I’m driving down here and trying to pull it up on my iPhone. Then it says I have to update myiTunes account, while I’m trying to plug it in.
“Finally I thought, [forget] it!” he said later, during a short break between the Beatles show rehearsal and his session with Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age working up their performance for the Grammy Awards telecast. “When I got there and sat down at the drums and started playing, all the fills were there — they just came out [because] I’ve been listening to this stuff my whole life.”
Grohl’s moment of clarity about the DNA-deep resonance of the Beatles’ music in his life was echoed repeatedly by the musicians who perform in the Beatles special, which piggybacks on this year’s Grammy Awards show with performances by Stevie Wonder, Katy Perry, Imagine Dragons, Gary Clark Jr., John Legend, Pharrell Williams, emcee LL Cool J and, of course, the surviving members of the Fab Four: Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
“We had no idea Ed Sullivan was the biggest show in America,” Starr, 73, said in a Staples green room, flanked by fellow Brit rocker Peter Frampton, American guitarist Steve Lukather of Toto and other members of the band musician, producer and Blue Note Records label chief Don Was put together to accompany Starr’s and others’ performances. “We just knew we were coming to do some TV show. All we cared about was that we were coming to America. New York! Nothing else mattered.”
Wonder not only vividly remembers the profound impact the Beatles’ performance on the Sullivan show had on him as a 13-year-old musician but also recalled his early exposure to them while he was on tour in England, a child R&B prodigy at Motown Records who was billed at the time as Little Stevie Wonder while riding the crest of his first No. 1 hit, “Fingertips-Pt. 2.”
“I’d heard them in England from being over there and I was telling people about the Beatles, how they had a great sound, with these great chord structures,” said Wonder, seated in a golf cart outside the Los Angeles Convention Center, where the special was taped, after his run-through of “We Can Work It Out,” the 1965 Beatles hit that he brought back into the Top 20 six years later with his funky arrangement.
“Obviously when I heard John Lennon singing ‘Please Mr. Postman’ [the 1961 hit by another Motown act, the Marvelettes],’ it was a good experience to hear another take on American R&B,” Wonder said softly. “They loved Little Richard and Buddy Holly, and when they did their version of [Smokey Robinson’s] ‘You Really Got a Hold On Me,’ it was great.”
In addition, the show’s tribute to the ongoing impact of the Beatles’ music spurred the reunion of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart as the Eurythmics, performing together for the first time in nearly a decade. Alicia Keys, Walsh, Jeff Lynne, John Mayer, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Ed Sheeran, performers from the Cirque du Soleil Las Vegas Beatles show “Love” and George Harrison’s son, Dhani Harrison, are among those featured in the Beatles special who didn’t appear on the Grammy telecast.
Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Jeff Bridges, Kate Beckinsale and actress-singer Anna Kendrick pump up the celebrity content of what will be a two-hour special with their introductions to various performances, and longtime Beatles associate and Monty Python founding member Eric Idle delivered a lighthearted introduction tapping into his Rutles parody of Beatlemania. Idle also narrates separate video biographies of each Beatle that will be included in the show.
The efficacy of grabbing several au courant hit makers to serve up their interpretations of Beatles songs isn’t likely to ingratiate this show to aficionados. Nor is it likely to quiet choruses of “It’s all too much!” from those who grouse that the lionization of the band and its music has gone on long enough, a sentiment that surfaced in a number of critiques of McCartney’s and Starr’s performances for the Grammy Awards show.
But to those for whom there can never be an overdose of Beatles music in the world, it’s worth noting that the show inspired the first performance of the biggest hit of the Beatles’ hit-laden career, “Hey Jude,” by McCartney and Starr together since they recorded the song in 1968, well after the group had given up live concerts.
“That was incredible,” said Was, known in music circles for his laid-back “That’s cool” attitude, which quickly vanished upon witnessing a new piece of Beatles history. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
Although the Beatles show was created and rehearsed simultaneously with this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony, there were few if any signs that the whirlwind nature of the production process was causing participants to lose sight of the gravity of the event they were celebrating.
Perry was nearly unrecognizable as she took a few passes at the song of her choice, “Yesterday,” McCartney’s haunting ballad coming as something of a surprise choice for the pop star best known for saucy and upbeat pop confections.
Her raven hair pulled tight into a ponytail, dark Ray-Ban sunglasses shading her eyes and wearing a plain gray sweat shirt, black leggings and running shoes, Perry ditched the vocal hiccups and other histrionics that decorate many of her hits and concentrated on highlighting the inherent beauty of the song’s melody and the ache in the lyrics of a romance that’s abruptly come to an end.
“It’s classic,” she said striding out of the hall after her run-through, heading toward her dressing room. She conveyed her intent to deliver the song sincerely, then invoked Beatle-esque irreverence in elaborating on her guiding principle in approaching what’s often cited as the most recorded song of all time.
“It’s classic, but you can mess up something classic like a Caesar salad, and then you’re mad for the rest of the day because it was messed up,” she said. “So don’t mess it up!”
As for any pressure of singing Beatles songs with the two living Beatles looking on, Perry said, “I really think there was more pressure yesterday, no pun intended. Today, it’s just about being part of this great cast of characters and having fun.”
The aura of appreciation toward the Beatles extended from the show’s stars on through the supporting players.
“To be able to play a piece of music you grew up with is awesome,” said Annie Bosler, one of four L.A.-based French horn players brought in to replicate the signature horn part in “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” that’s part of McCartney’s set. “To get to play it in front of the guys who created it is just amazing.”
Last week producer Giles Martin, son of the Beatles’ original producer, George Martin, was observing the rehearsals and weighing in with advice periodically on song arrangements, melodies and harmonies.
“I’m here to make sure people don’t get too respectful,” Martin said with a wry smile. “People tend to get respectful around Beatles. They weren’t.”
Still, even though Grammy Awards telecast and Beatles special executive producer Ken Ehrlich was clearly enjoying himself during many moments in rehearsals despite the crushing schedule of putting together two major TV music specials simultaneously, he didn’t take the responsibility lightly.
“How do you appropriately celebrate what is arguably one of the four or five most important collisions of music and television in history?” said Ehrlich, who noted that he was a 21-year-old college student in Athens, Ohio, surrounded by an apartment full of classmates when he watched the Beatles on Sullivan’s show.
That telecast will be represented in the finished special with two or three full performances from it. Ehrlich also has filmed interviews with members of Sullivan’s staff who helped put the Feb. 9 show together 50 years ago and has located and interviewed some of the screaming girls who were such a critical element of the broadcast.
Ehrlich said that the anniversary special, shot Monday in front of about 3,100 people who paid from $95 to $495 to attend, with proceeds going to the Grammy Foundation or Grammy Museum, has been brewing for at least 10 years. “I started talking about this with [former Apple Records chief] Neil Aspinall around the 40th anniversary of the Sullivan show. But they weren’t ready to do it then.
“It’s been remarkable how this went from ‘Will Paul and Ringo show up?’ to them deciding they would perform to getting the call from Paul asking me, ‘Can we talk about what you’d like Ringo and me to do together?’” he said. “I was so overly cautious about never daring to ask them to perform together. So to get that call from him — I’m obviously thrilled they came to that conclusion.”
Early in planning “The Night That Changed America,” Ehrlich delivered a Knute Rockne-like locker-room pep talk to his staff.
“I got everybody together and I said, ‘Look, I’m not preaching to any of you, but we’ve been handed a sacred trust,” he said. “This is the Beatles — we’ve got to do this right. I’m not saying you guys wouldn’t, but we really do have a purpose here. So let’s not forget it.”