More than anything, the lasting effect of the evening was wonder – that mere humans could have written so many beautiful, miracle songs. But that is the truth: Some 40 to 50 years after these songs were first written and recorded, they have lost none of their magic, none of their power to inspire, delight and amaze. Whereas so many songs from their era have been long forgotten, their songs remain beloved to those of us who heard them in their own time, and to the generations who have grown to love them since. The songs of The Beatles expanded the potential of the popular song in every way, and that expansion is still as timelessly inviting and exciting as ever.
The sheer multitude of songs is staggering. Had they written only “Strawberry Fields” and “Rain” they would have mattered forever. But those are just two of the profusion of songs they gave us, songs of every kind. Beautiful ballads, love songs, hard rocking rockers, old-fashioned fun, anthems of love and peace, they did it all and more, and it still resounds.
The place was packed. There was a big contingent of press, of which I was lucky to be included, a large bunch of celebrities, and a thrilled audience of devoted Beatles lovers, many of whom wore Beatles-inspired clothing.
“Is it seemly to tribute yourself ?” asked Sir Paul McCartney at the conclusion of this tribute to his former band.
The answer that Paul received from his friends, he said, was a big Yes. It is not only seemly, it is necessary! And they explained to him just how profound was this event, seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan that very first time – February 9, 1964 – just months since the greatest tragedy this nation had suffered in ages, the assassination of JFK. The Beatles showed us, as many said, it was okay to be happy again. It was okay to laugh, to sing, to dance.
And as Tom Petty said, the world was never the same after it. Suddenly kids all over the country were buying electric guitars, writing their own songs and starting bands. The British Invasion, as it was dubbed, was in full force, and The Beatles were at the forefront of it.
So recognizing the lasting and profound magnitude of this night on the American psyche, CBS teamed up with the Recording Academy on the night following the Grammys to present “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles,” a tribute to the 50th anniversary of this event, to be broadcast on the exact date of the anniversary, February 9th at 8 pm. Which also happens, coincidentally and conveniently, to be a Sunday night, just like the first time around.
To celebrate it, not only were both of the surviving Beatles present to listen and perform (Ringo and Paul), but many of the famous family members of The Beatles were also in attendance, including Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon, Olivia and Dhani Harrison, Paul’s wife Nancy Shevell, and Ringo’s wife Barbara Bach. Barbara’s sister Marjorie Bach was also there – she’s Joe Walsh’s wife.
The Beatles sat in the audience with their families during most of the show – as shown on camera repeatedly – until the end, when they took the stage.
Before that momentous event – a reunion of the surviving Beatles – there was an astounding cavalcade of talent doing the miracle songs of the Lads, including The Eurythmics (reunited for this event only!), Stevie Wonder, Dave Grohl, Alicia Keys, John Legend, John Mayer, Imagine Dragons, Katy Perry, Joe Walsh, Jeff Lynne, Pharrell Williams, Brad Paisley and more.
Several movie stars were also present to introduce the acts, including Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Kate Beckinsale and Jeff Bridges. Tom Hanks, who produced the recent CNN tribute to “The British Invasion,” was also in the audience with his wife Rita Wilson. Eric Idle – star of Monty Python and The Rutles – did a funny opening that played on the significance of the date, which wasn’t actually on this night but would be broadcast on that night – wrapped in beautiful Python humor.
The big question was not if the Beatles would play – that we knew – but what they would choose to perform from the astounding opus that is the Beatles songbook. Just what would The Beatles choose to be the very final song, the conclusion of this summation of their career? The answer is: “Hey Jude.” A beautiful closer, a song by Paul and so close to Paul’s heart that it rang with the same beautiful truth as the first time we all heard it, performed live on TV, in 1968.
And he performed it with Ringo on drums. Doesn’t get much better.
But before The Beatles took the stage, there were a series of performances, some of which were viscerally inspirational and beautiful, while others pointed to the inherent challenge of trying to perform material that is so famously and immaculately performed on record, and belongs intimately to our souls, that it’s hard to match. With the exception of Joe Cocker, few artists have ever recorded Beatles songs in a way that didn’t make us think, “Yeah, but it sounds so much better when The Beatles do it.”
But some artists are capable, including the great Stevie Wonder, who scored a hit with his deliciously soulful version of “We Can Work It Out” back in 1970, and didn’t disappoint on this night. He spoke of hearing The Beatles when he was still a kid – though a famous performing one – at 15 in Paris. He loved “We Can Work It Out” and said back then, “I wanted to do it more funky. Not that it wasn’t funky enough.” He showed us how it was done. But Stevie is a perfectionist, and after going through a wonderfully inspired take on the song, he said he messed up the start and would do it again. (He was the only performer in the entire show who did this). “So sue me, fire me,” he said before launching into another great performance. The audience had no problem listening again; it was one of the best moments of the night. The crowd leapt to its feet before it was over for a thundering standing ovation.
Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox of The Eurythmics, also showed how great artists can take a song and make it their own. Their choice: Paul’s “Fool On The Hill.” Asked prior to the show why they chose this song, Dave said, “Because we can do it alone. If you play with the band, you sound like every other act playing with the same band.”
Indeed, they did it not only solo – but starting starkly, with only the great Annie at the keyboards, playing and singing the song’s famous beginning. But as its momentum began to build musically, out strode Dave, clad in black like Johnny Cash, strumming an acoustic guitar – and the real synergy of the Eurythmics was felt. There are few singers with the power and passion of Annie Lennox, and teamed with Dave – not unlike the —- expansion of power when Paul and Ringo unite – the energy is astounding. Rather than seek to imitate the arrangement of the song, they made it wholly new and their own, and it was a revelation. Before Dave strummed the final chord of the song, the entire audience rose to their feet for a heartfelt ovation.
(The next day, in answers to my queries of fellow press folks about the show, I got the one word reply: Eurythmics.)
Don Was was the musical director of the evening, leading an astounding band of many of this world’s greatest musicians: Kenny Aronoff on drums, Steve Lukather on guitar, Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, and none other than Peter Frampton on guitar.