A Pop Music Milestone: The Beatles at Shea Stadium
The Shea Stadium concert was the first stop in an 18-day, 11-city tour that showcased the Beatles in front of a total of 300,000 adoring fans.
On a hot and muggy evening 50 years ago this month, four mop-haired young men walked across the top of New York City’s Pan Am Building and boarded a waiting helicopter. A few minutes later, the aircraft carrying the Beatles—John, Paul, George and Ringo—approached Shea Stadium at Flushing Meadows, Queens. There, 55,600 screaming fans, the largest crowd in show business history, waited in frenzied anticipation of their arrival.
The undisputed leaders of the British Invasion were about to launch their second sortie onto American soil, one year after their initial 1964 tour. The Shea Stadium concert was the first stop in an 18-day, 11-city tour that showcased the Beatles in front of a total of 300,000 adoring fans. The Shea concert generated the biggest crowd and biggest hype during the trip, and the event helped cement The Beatles as music’s most influential rock & roll band.
Moreover, the tour itself became important in other ways. First, it reflected The Beatles at the apex of their career together. In his 2005 memoir, “John, Paul, George, Ringo and Me,” Beatles press agent Tony Barrow wrote of the significance of the 1965 concerts. “This was the group’s brightly-shining summer solstice, after which all the Beatles’ days would insidiously grow a little darker.”
Second, Beatles biographer Bob Spitz described the impact of the 1965 tour as “a giant step toward reshaping the concert business. For promoters everywhere, the Shea Stadium concert was a major breakthrough. It freed them from the constraints imposed by a gym or cinema, thus turning a pop performance into an event.”
SAFE AT SECOND BASE
Hundreds of nearby people watched as the helicopter touched down near the stadium. The Beatles and a small entourage that included British photographer Bob Whitaker walked to a Wells Fargo armored car for the trip to the nearby stadium. In the book “The Beatles off the Record,” Whitaker later described the scene around the truck: “It had no windows and the kids were hammering it on the outside and rocking it.” Once safely inside the stadium gate, the drivers gave the singers brass badges labeled, Wells Fargo Agent. Each pinned it on his tan, military-style tunic, which became known as the “Shea Jacket.”
As the Beatles made their way into the New York Mets locker room, the opening acts were underway — the King Curtis Band, Cannibal and the Headhunters, Sounds Incorporated and the Discotheque Dancers, and singer Brenda Holloway.
Shea was circular ballpark, but with an opening between the foul lines in the outfield, and people completely packed its four tiers of seats. Security forces confined the hysterical Beatles fans, predominately teenage girls, to the grandstands to protect the Beatles. Promoter Sid Bernstein had a stage erected at second base, and police roamed both the infield and outfield.
While in the locker room, the band chatted with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. When the Beatles moved to the third-base dugout, the crowd noticed the commotion and unleashed a hurricane of noise. The Fab Four were “gobsmacked” at the sight of the crowd, as Barrow later recalled. George Harrison, in “Off the Record,” described his reaction: “It was terrifying at first, but I don’t think I have ever felt so exhilarated in all my life.”
Ed Sullivan, who had hosted the Beatles on his TV show the previous year, mounted the stage and took the mike from Bernstein. “Thank you very much Sid. Now ladies and gentlemen, honored by their country, decorated by their queen and loved here in America, here are The Beatles!”
Emerging from the dugout, with Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney carrying their guitars, drummer Ringo Starr led his partners in looking up in awe at row upon row of screaming young people. “Their immature lungs produced a sound so staggering,” wrote The New York Times’ Murray Schumach from the press box, “so massive, so shrill and sustained that it quickly crossed the line from enthusiasm into hysteria and was soon in the area of the classic Greek meaning of the word pandemonium—the region of all demons.”
Paul broke into a run, and soon, the three guitarists had plugged into their amps, and Ringo sat behind his Ludwig drum set. Paul repeatedly shouted “Hello” into the mike. But the three others couldn’t hear him over the incredible din, and the din-makers couldn’t hear Paul. Seeing that any opening talk was impossible, the band quickly launched into a punchy cover of “Twist and Shout.”
“Well, shake it up, baby, now (Shake it up, baby)
“Twist and shout (Twist and shout)”
Throughout the first number and the second, “She’s a Woman,” the crowd noise kept the Beatles from hearing their own instruments. Dave Schwensen, in his book, “The Beatles at Shea Stadium,” told of the band’s dynamics. “George and Ringo concentrated more on trying to hear what they were playing and John bashed away on his rhythm guitar. Paul continually moved about his side of the stage singing and playing his bass to every fan in every section of the stadium.”
“We couldn’t hear anything above the screaming and crying, including ours,” spectator Eve Hoffman told Schwensen. “From where we sat, The Beatles were the size of ants.”
As the Beatles moved on to “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” “Ticket to Ride,” and others on their 12-song set, kids began to leap onto the field and start running toward second base. Police intercepted all immediately, save for a teenage girl. She dodged the cops and bee-lined toward Lennon, who seemed to wave her on. When she was tackled, John shouted into the mike, “Ahhh . . .”
The band set aside one song for Ringo, “Act Naturally,” a country hit by Buck Owens.
“They’re gonna put me in the movies
“They’re gonna make a big star out of me.”
The band finished with “I’m Down,” the recording of which had featured John on an electronic organ, but this was his first live performance. “I really didn’t know what to do, because I felt naked without a guitar,” Lennon recalled in “The Beatles Anthology.” He bounced about the organ, sometimes using his elbow or foot to play, a la the great rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, and said of his mate, “George couldn’t play for laughing.”
The Beatles played only 37 minutes that night, but Bernstein’s gross gate receipts totaled $304,000, reportedly a world record for pop music events. The Beatles’ share was $180,000.
Both the gate and the reception were giant leaps from the band’s humble origins. Moreover, the age of stadium rock had arrived.
ON THE ROAD
The day after the Shea concert, the Beatles welcomed fellow entertainers to their floor at the Warwick Hotel, including Del Shannon, Bob Dylan and the Supremes. The Motown girls, all dressed to the nines in prim dresses, hats, gloves and wraps, had a rough go of it.
“The first thing I noticed,” Mary Wilson recalled, “was that the room reeked of marijuana smoke, but we kept on smiling through our introductions.” Wilson, in “Off the Record,” added that it was “the coolest reception we’d ever received. We felt like we had interrupted something.” George later told Mary years afterward of his reaction: “We expected soulful hip girls. We couldn’t believe that three black girls from Detroit could be so square!”
The next day, Aug. 17, the band and handlers flew on a chartered Lockheed Electra, a four-engine turboprop, to Toronto for two shows at the Maple Leaf Gardens. The following day the Beatles played a concert in front of 30,000 at the new Atlanta Stadium, which would become the home park of the Atlanta Braves the following year.
The group then flew to Chicago for a double-header at the home of the White Sox, Comiskey Park, on Aug. 20; the nightcap drew 37,000 fans. Next was a performance at Metropolitan Stadium near Minneapolis-St. Paul where the Minnesota Twins played. The next stop would be Portland, Ore., and everyone expected a safe, uneventful flight.