A Pop Music Milestone: The Beatles Meet Elvis
The Beatles had longed to meet Elvis Presley, one of their most influential rock and roll muses.
Six days after the Beatles’ landmark concert at New York’s Shea Stadium on Aug. 15, 1965, the band and the traveling entourage embarked aboard their chartered aircraft for a flight to Portland, Ore. As the aircraft, a four-engine turboprop, neared Portland, fear gripped the passengers.
“Oi, look!” George Harrison shouted and pointed at the outboard engine on the right wing. “The bleedin’ thing’s on fire!” British journalist Chris Hutchins included George’s reaction in his account of the incident years later.
Simultaneously, American TV journalist Larry Kane woke up and later asserted that both pilots were in the rear of the cabin chatting with John Lennon and Paul McCartney and had left the automatic pilot in charge. Kane yelled at them, “There’s a fire in the right engine.”
Kane later described how the incident ended. “A half-hour later, smoke still pouring from the engine, the plane landed in a sea of foam and an army of firefighters.”
While nearly everything about the Beatles in 1965 was dramatic, Kane and Hutchins shamelessly embellished the aircraft incident. The Associated Press, corroborated by The Oregonian newspaper, reported only a minor problem: “It caused momentary panic but was found to be only oil leaking onto a hot engine. There was no fire.”
Later, the Beatles played two shows at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum. Beat Generation Poet Allen Ginsberg attended one of the shows and later wrote about the experience, especially the young audience’s reaction the Fab Four.
A single whistling sound of ten thousand children’s larynxes asinging pierce the ears.
The Beatles began as the Quarrymen in 1957 in Liverpool, England, and by 1962 they had a record contract and dropped drummer Pete Best for Ringo Starr. By March 1963, the Beatles’ “Please, Please Me” had reached the top of the UK pop charts.
On Feb. 9, 1964, the mop-headed lads led the “British invasion” of the American pop music scene with a performance on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” and the broadcast drew a TV audience of 73 million. Nielson declared the viewership the largest at that point in television history. On the same trip, the band played a concert in Washington, D.C., and two shows booked by promoter Sid Bernstein at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
The Beatles first full-fledged American tour began later that year with a show in San Francisco on Aug. 19. Over the next 31 days, they played 32 concerts in 23 cities.
Buoyed by that success, manager Brian Epstein looked for large, outdoor venues for the 1965 North American tour. “Realizing the potential to make profits and history,” recalled Kane, who accompanied the Beatles on the 1964 and 1965 tours, “Epstein took a big gamble in 1965 by booking the Beatles into a huge new facility in New York City, Shea Stadium, for their first live event.”
Following the Portland aircraft problem and concerts, the Beatles flew to Los Angeles in a replacement plane and arrived in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 23. In a rented hillside home, they settled in for a scheduled five-day respite from flying and singing.
The first four days in Beverly Hills featured invited guests such as David Crosby and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, folk singer Joan Baez and actor Peter Fonda, as well as helicopters full of teenage girls hovering overhead. Also, the rest break marked a change in the Beatles’ drug experiences.
Half of the band had resolved to introduce the other half to LSD. “John and I decided that Paul and Ringo had to have acid,” George recalled, “because we couldn’t relate to them anymore.” Harrison explained in “The Beatles Anthology” that LSD had changed John and him so much that they wanted the others to share the wavelength.
“We got some in New York,” Lennon said of the LSD. “It was on sugar cubes and wrapped in tinfoil.” Paul declined, but Ringo, Crosby, McGuinn and tour manager Neil Aspinall downed the sugar lumps. Another manager, Mal Evans, passed so he could handle curious reporters, especially Don Short of London’s Daily Mirror. The group worried that Short, who had coined the term Beatlemania, might notice and report the escalation from weed to acid.
But the week’s highlight came on the evening of Aug. 27. The band members had longed to meet Elvis Presley, one of their most influential rock and roll muses. “We just idolized the guy so much,” Lennon said years later. Now was the chance.
Hutchins had brokered a meeting four days earlier between Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and Epstein. The two men agreed that the Beatles would visit Presley’s home in Bel Air, a few miles west of the band’s rented house. Elvis was in Hollywood finishing the filming of “Paradise, Hawaiian Style.” Hutchins accompanied the Beatles that evening and wrote of the epic meeting in his 1994 book, “Elvis Meets the Beatles.”
The Beatles fought their nervousness on the way to Bel Air by smoking marijuana and had the giggles as they entered the house about 10 pm. They found the King and Priscilla Beaulieu, his future wife, on a horseshoe-shaped couch. Elvis wore tight slacks, a red shirt, and a high-collared jacket. Twenty-year-old “Cilla” wore heavy makeup and a mini-dress, and her black bouffant hairdo towered over her head. Paul thought she looked like a Barbie doll.
The early moments were awkward as the Beatles quietly arrayed themselves around Elvis, who finally broke the uncomfortable silence. “If you guys are just gonna sit there and stare at me, I’m goin’ to bed. . . . I didn’t mean for this to be like subjects calling on the King. I thought we’d sit and talk about music and maybe jam a little.”
“That would be great,” said McCartney, sensing a way out of the mess.
“Somebody bring in the guitars,” Presley said to his entourage, the so-called Memphis Mafia. Soon the performers were exploring common musical ground and swapping anecdotes about touring. Presley showed McCartney his newly acquired skills on the bass guitar, and received encouragement in return.
Lennon began pricking the happy bubble by chiding Presley about the fluff songs in his movies. “Why have you dropped the old stuff,” he asked, referring to Presley’s breakout hits.
“Listen, just because I’m stuck with some movie soundtracks doesn’t mean I can’t do rock ‘n’ roll no more,” Elvis said irritably. “I might just get around to cuttin’ a few sides and knockin’ you off the top.”
After a few hours, the Beatles walked to the limos, and Parker said to Hutchins, “Tell the fans it was a great meeting.” Hearing that, Lennon interjected, “Tell them the truth — it was a load of rubbish.”
A postscript to the Presley-Beatles meeting arose when Elvis met President Richard Nixon at an Oval Office grip-and-grin session in 1970. Presley suggested to Nixon that the Beatles were anti-American and used drugs. “I felt a bit betrayed by that,” McCartney said in “Anthology,” and pointed to the large number of prescription drugs found in the King’s body after his death. “It was sad, but I still love him, particularly in his early period.”
The band traveled by chartered bus to San Diego the next day, Aug. 28, and cars full of avid fans chased them along the freeway. Two concerts followed at the Hollywood Bowl, a large outdoor amphitheater, on Aug. 29 and 30, each to capacity crowds of 18,000.
At San Francisco’s Cow Palace, the tour’s last stop on Aug. 31, the band gave two concerts in the vast indoor arena. The opening acts at each were the same as at Shea Stadium 16 days earlier. During the second show, fans spilled through barriers and rushed the stage. The Beatles retreated backstage until security officers had regained control.
The Beatles departed New York for London on Sept. 1. The band reportedly grossed $357,000 during the tour, a sum equal to $2.6 million in 2014 dollars.
Beatles press agent Tony Barrow told Kane nearly 20 years later that the Beatles enjoyed the 1965 tour more than the others. “They were suddenly playing at being superstars. The boys were all smiles . . . they were happiest in 1965.” Barrow added, “1964 was tough, 1966 was forgettable because they were ready to stop touring, but 1965 was the best for them, I would guess.”
For an overall perspective, experts have noted that The Beatles’ influence on the world’s popular music has been profound. USA Today’s former music critic, Edna Gundersen, offered her take in 2012. “No other entertainers in history have been as popular, as influential, as important or as groundbreaking. . . . The band hijacked the entertainment media and transcended music to become a chapter in world history.”