Charlotte still Beatle crazy after all these years

Since “The Ed Sullivan Show” introduced Americans to The Beatles on Feb. 9, 1964, the U.S. has gone through nine presidents and entangled itself in seven wars.

Memories have faded in the 50 years since then, in some cases becoming memories of memories. But ask enough people what they remember most about that fateful broadcast starring those “youngsters from Liverpool” – as the host referred to them – and a recurring theme emerges.

“My dad could not get over those boys with the long hair,” recalls Kathy Pulliam of Salisbury, 11 then and 61 now.

“My parents could not believe the ‘mop head’ hairstyles. I couldn’t either, then – but now they don’t look at all radical,” says Robert Vinroot, 70, of Waxhaw.

“I remember my mom commenting on their long hair,” says Marion Bruner of Charlotte, 12 then and 62 today. “She said they wouldn’t last.”

(Her mother, of course, was wrong.)

Seek out a YouTube clip of The Beatles’ mini-concert on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and what’s likely to jump out at you, of course, is not the hair. It indeed isn’t so radical anymore, especially if you’ve got a basic familiarity with Justin Bieber or Zac Efron or Miley Cyrus.

No, what will jump out at you is the volume of the screaming that begins a millisecond after Sullivan gets out: “Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles!” The screaming didn’t stop for more than five years; even after they disbanded in 1970 they continued to release hit records – in total, they scored 14 No. 1 albums and 20 No. 1 singles.

Rick Lipson, 57, of Charlotte was 9 years old when he went with his older sister and her friend to see The Beatles perform at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field on Aug. 21, 1966.

“I remember two things about it,” he says. “A limo (rented by his sister’s friend), and masses of screaming girls. ... Couldn’t hear the music at all. Just screaming girls, standing up, going crazy.

“But the fact that these guys in their early 20s could command such a large number of people – you knew something was special.”

John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr segued from those screams from Sullivan’s audience into “All My Loving,” followed by McCartney singing “Till There Was You,” followed by “She Loves You.” They wrapped the broadcast with “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

That night, East Mecklenburg High School graduate Rob Thorne (then 20) was watching history unfold at a friend’s house in Statesville, with seven members of his Charlotte-based beach music band, The Catalinas.

“It was quite eye opening to see that band,” he says. “I mean, our first reaction was, ‘Holy ----, what is this all about?’ Because they didn’t look anything like most people did. Didn’t sound like (anybody else) either. But I was hooked.”

Thorne bounced around various bands over the next decade and a half, but in 1979 formed The Spongetones with Jamie Hoover, Steve Stoeckel and Pat Walters. They found they had a knack for playing and writing in the old Mersey Beat style; eventually, The Beatles became their muse.

“We really started paying attention to the individual Beatles and their technique, and how they approached specific songs,” Thorne says. “We rehearsed like crazy for a couple months ... and (had created) an almost spot-on rendition of their arrangements.”

The Spongetones continue to reference John, Paul, George and Ringo in their concerts. They only play a few shows a year now, but you can catch them Feb. 14 at Smokey Joe’s Cafe on Briar Creek Road – and yes, they’ll cover some Beatles stuff.

The Beatles also live on in Charlotte through guitar teacher John Tosco, head of a nonprofit called Tosco Music Parties that hosts concerts at the Knight Theater in uptown four times a year.

His annual Beatles Tribute Night is set for June 14.

“Some singer-songwriters come out and do a faithful rendition of a Beatles tune,” Tosco says, “but others will do their own spin, like a jazz version or a bluegrass version or whatever. A barbershop quartet version. ... And it’s our most successful show. It sells out the fastest of all our shows.”

Tosco was just 5 years old when the British Invasion began 50 years ago. He was watching with his family in Fayetteville, but doesn’t recall much.

Clyde Luther, however, was 15. He remembers it well:

“I was a junior at East Mecklenburg High School, and my father was a minister. I skipped church that Sunday evening to watch the show. Severe would not do justice to the punishment I received for skipping church to watch those sinful musicians perform. The show was great, and worth every lash.”

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