Viewing a 1964 performance of The Beatles recently led me to appreciate even more the direct influence the late Bob Sullivan of Tannehill had on the Liverpool band's sound — including their breakthrough first hit record in England.
While listening to music on the internet a couple of weeks ago, something I hadn't seen before caught my attention — a clip of The Beatles performing on the 1960s American TV show called "Shindig." I'd never heard anything about The Beatles performing on the program, but there it was.
I clicked on the "Shindig!" performance and there stood The Beatles, with Paul McCartney breaking into his roughhewn vocal stylings for a medley of "Kansas City" and Little Richard's "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey." All right! the Liverpool lads were off to a rocking start.
The screen faded to almost black but I could see John Lennon changing instruments, setting aside his famed black Rickenbacker electric guitar.
When the lights came back up, Lennon now held an acoustic guitar — was that an Epiphone? — and wore a harmonica-loaded rack around his neck to hold the instrument in place so he could play it while strumming guitar. This could get interesting.
As I wondered what song they would play, he and McCartney leaned into the microphone and began the slow, harmonized intro to "I'm A Loser."
Wow! They were going to perform one of my favorite deep cuts by the Fab Four, one that had never been released as a single, although it had been part of a four-track EP release. A song that showed a heavy Bob Dylan influence, it marked a break from the early Beatles songs on themes such as "She Loves You," and "And I Love Her"
As Lennon strummed a G chord and McCartney's bass kicked the song into gear, Lennon began singing. I always got a kick out of the second verse: "Although I laugh and I act like a clown, beneath this mask I am wearing a frown." On "frown" Lennon hit a low G note, supposedly the lowest in his register.
On the chorus, McCartney leans in to harmonize, hitting a sped-up walking bass line, while Ringo Starr amps up the drumming. Lennon does a credible Dylan-like harmonica solo, followed by Harrison soloing on his big Gretsch electric, spinning out country-style licks, showing his Chet Atkins and Carl Perkins influences.
Lennon played harmonica on early Beatles recordings such as "Please Please Me," "From Me To You," "Little Child," and others. He pulled it out more rarely during their later phases. It's deep in the mix on "Fool On the Hill" and he used it one last time on "The Beatles," also known as "The White Album," on McCartney's "Rocky Racoon."
But he used it for the very first time on the Beatles first hit record in England, "Love Me Do." Here's how Bob Sullivan, one of the most highly-respected recording engineers ever, helped influence that sound.
Sullivan engineered the record “Hey Baby!” during a 1961 recording session inFort Worth, Texas. The record, sang by Bruce Channel, shot to number one for three weeks in March 1962. In addition to Channel's vocals, the song is memorable for the melodic harmonica riffs played by Delbert McClinton.
Sullivan's engineering put the harmonica squarely in front as the lead instrument — highly unusual for a non-blues record at the time and a bold move by Sullivan.
The song proved an international hit — so much so that Channel was booked to perform in England in 1962, including a concert involving Brian Epstein, manager of an up-and- coming group he signed earlier that year — yep, The Beatles.
Channel and McClinton headlined the June 21, 1962, concert at New Brighton. The Beatles had second billing and were reportedly honored to get it. What happened backstage during that tour is the stuff of legend — and I got confirmation straight from the source.
McClinton had remained a close friend of Sullivan, called "Sully" by his friends. I had the opportunity to speak with McClinton by phone from his home in Nashville after Sullivan passed from this life in April 2015.
“He was a good friend,” McClinton said. “I’ve known him since I was 19. He gave me insight about the music industry. He taught me things I still use.
“He was without a doubt the best man I have ever known — gentle, kind and a musical storyteller,” said McClinton.
McClinton still remembers in detail the 1962 recording session in Texas that produced “Hey Baby!” and his famous harmonica solo. McClinton said Major Bill Smith asked him to get some musicians together for the session and since McClinton played harmonica, he played it throughout "Hey! Baby."
With Sullivan working the boards, McClinton’s solo became the lead instrument and a part of rock ‘n’ roll history. Overseas, a singer and songwriter with that up-and-coming band listened closely.
When the record shot to number one, Channel embarked on a 1962 British tour to sing the big hit that Sullivan engineered.
“When Bruce went to England, they said ‘We’ve got to have the harmonica,’ so I got to go,” McClinton recalled.
“One night the Beatles were the opening act,” he said. “It was about a year before they conquered the world.”
As a harmonica player in1962, “I was a bit of an oddity,” McClinton said. And yes, he confirmed, he showed Lennon and some of the other British musicians how he played the harmonica. They were all learning as they went, he said.
“It was the infancy of rock ‘n’ roll,” said McClinton. “There were no precedents.”
Following that June 1962 harmonica lesson from McClinton, Lennon put his new-found technique to work a few months later by playing harmonica on "Love Me Do" — The Beatles' first record in England. It made it to no. 17 on the British charts — and The Beatles' journey to conquer the musical world took off in a big way.
Lennon would later have his own personal juke box, filled with his favorite records.
Nestled between "Long Tall Sally" by Little Richard" and "Positively Fourth Street" by Dylan — "Hey! Baby" by Bruce Channel and Delbert McClinton.
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com.