It was 50 years ago ... when Ed got the band to play

Jan. 30, 2014 @ 08:14 PM

Fifty years ago next month, an estimated 74 million television viewers were introduced to The Beatles when they performed on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” For a lot of Americans who were teenagers then, and for many born after World War II, The Beatles’ arrival on these shores also marked the beginning of musical dreams.

Local guitarist Willie Painter is one of many. His day job is communications center manager for the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, but music fans know him as the guitarist for the blues-influenced Willie Painter Band. Painter was born in Dallas, Texas, and was 8 years old in 1964 when his parents took him to a Beatles concert there. “It was extremely loud,” Painter remembers. “There was a kid who was blowing a whistle behind me that drove me crazy.” He did manage to hear the songs over the screams at times, and the experience “kind of stuck with me.” Painter comes from a musical family, but with the Beatles, “I knew what I wanted to do.”
Durham songwriter Nancy Middleton was born in 1964, but The Beatles had a profound effect on her songwriting. She is working on a new CD, and is “pulling from my well of songs that influenced me through my life,” which includes Beatles and rock from the 1970s, Middleton said. She is the youngest of four siblings, and “according to my family the first song I sang as a toddler was ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.’”
Middleton, Painter and an entourage of local musicians will perform a tribute to the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ arrival at Cats Cradle Feb. 9. That same night, CBS will air a tribute to the anniversary, and in New York a commemorative committee is planning several events. Chapel Hill publisher Algonquin Books has released a book related to the anniversary (see accompanying review). 
After the initial mania subsided, The Beatles confounded their skeptics as they matured as songwriters and experimenters with sound. Once considered a threat to song standards, their music now has a stature equal to the Great American Songbook, with musicians of all genres arranging and performing their songs.
The Cat’s Cradle concert will pay tribute to songs from their full career. The first set will have songs from the beginning to about 1965 or 1966, although there is no strict chronology, said tribute organizer and guitarist Danny Gotham. Gotham will lead that first set. Painter will lead the second set that will focus on the music of roughly 1966-1970. Among the other performers are Chris Stamey, Rod Abernethy, and Rebecca Newton.
Beatles fans can expect some surprises in the performances, Gotham said. “When I came up with the idea of this, my thing was, there are a lot of these Beatles tribute groups who try to get it to the letter … and I have no problem with that,” he said. “Another way of paying homage to this music is to say, If The Beatles were still a viable band, they would still be reinterpreting this music,” Gotham said. “If you do it in true Beatles fashion, you do it in your own way.”
As if to prove the point, at a recent rehearsal at guitarist Lance White’s home in Orange County, Painter sang “All I Want To Do,” and half-jokingly tacked on what he called “a Vegas ending” after the final verse.
Janet Place handed out some charts of “Things We Said Today,” a song she said is one of her favorites because of its minor chords. It’s also a good vehicle for vocal harmonies, and everyone at this rehearsal joined in harmony while Place took the lead vocals. The guitarist Stan Lewis took the lead vocals on “Act Naturally,” a Buck Owens song that The Beatles recorded.
That the band recorded a country song was emblematic of their eclecticism. Gotham remembers the band’s set list for the first Sullivan show included “All My Loving,” “She Loves You” (both Beatles originals) and the standard “Till There Was You.” That list “pretty much tells you the whole story,” Gotham said. “There they were playing original stuff. They were playing rock and roll, but they had one ear” in show tunes with more complex chords, a harbinger of things to come.
Producer George Martin should be credited with guiding their growth as musicians. Martin “is as integral to their sound as anybody,” because he was willing to help them explore their penchant for new sounds, said Painter. Gotham cites “Tomorrow Never Knows” (which uses tape manipulation and voice altering) as one example of Martin’s influence. “What he did with them … there’s nothing that can even come close to it. You can’t underestimate his importance to the whole thing. When they were together with George Martin, it was this thing called synergy. It’s just a mysterious thing, and it happens very rarely.”


Go and Do
WHAT: Fab Four at Fifty, a Beatles retrospective
WHEN: 7 p.m. Feb. 9
WHERE: Cat’s Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro
ADMISSION: Tickets are $10. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Kidznotes, a nonprofit music education organization. To purchase, call 919-967-9053 or visit