I was busy at work on a sunny Monday afternoon in late January when I got the call; friends visiting from Texas had an extra ticket available for the taping of The Night That Changed America: A GRAMMY Salute to the Beatles and wanted to know if I’d like to attend. As a lifelong, card-carrying Beatle freak, I practically leapt out of my chair and sped down the freeway towards Los Angeles. (Well, as much as anyone can “speed” down an LA-area freeway during rush hour.)
I soon found myself seated inside the cavernous Los Angeles Convention Center, feeling at once apprehensive, excited and nostalgic as I gazed at the huge set – decorated with images of the Beatles’ US albums – waiting for the show to begin. My apprehension was due to the fact that some decidedly “non-Beatley” artists were scheduled to offer up versions of fab four tunes in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. How would such diverse artists as Katy Perry, Keith Urban, Imagine Dragons and a reunited Eurythmics handle classic Beatles tunes we all know and love? That apprehension was tempered by the thrill of the thought of seeing Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr perform together, and realizing that there were sure to be some special “guest stars” who hadn’t been announced.
My fears regarding the contributing artists were allayed once the nearly-four-hour-long taping began; with the exception of Katy Perry’s uninspired reading of “Yesterday” (the song’s emotional depth seemed to be beyond her grasp), everything was genuinely entertaining or better. John Mayer and Keith Urban’s duet on “Don’t Let Me Down” featured some fiery guitar interplay, Imagine Dragons’ all-acoustic, yet still reverent “Revolution” was quite fetching, and Maroon 5’s takes of “All My Loving” and “Ticket To Ride” were a nice reminder that they launched their career as a Beatlesque pop band called Kara’s Flowers. (A bevy of A-list Hollywood actors acted as MC’s throughout the evening; the only truly annoying moment of the entire night came during Johnny Depp’s ridiculously overwrought introduction of one of the acts.)
Later in the program, the previously unannounced surprises began: Dave Grohl and Jeff Lynne stormed through an appealingly raucous “Hey Bulldog,” followed by Lynne handling the lead vocal on a wonderful version of “Something,” where he was joined by Joe Walsh and Dhani Harrison on guitars. After a particularly rocking “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (featuring Gary Clark, Jr., with Walsh on lead guitar and Grohl slamming the drums), Stevie Wonder led the house band (which featured guitarists Peter Frampton and Steve Lukather) through a funked up “We Can Work it Out.” During the performances, it was sweet to see shots of Paul and Ringo in the audience (with their wives), seemingly enjoying every second alongside Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, and Olivia Harrison.
All of the above acts would have made for a grand evening, but the best was yet to come. After a set change (vintage Beatles videos were shown on two huge screens during these changes, making the four hour taping go by rather quickly) and a heartfelt introduction from actor Jeff Bridges, Ringo strolled onstage and sang “Matchbox,” “Boys” and “Yellow Submarine” (manning the second drum kit for “Boys”). It was a typically genial, All-Starr Band-type performance, but Paul would then take the stage with his band and up the ante considerably, rocking out on “Magical Mystery Tour” (sadly cut from the television broadcast), “Birthday,” “Get Back” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” It was great to hear Paul in such good voice, and even though he expressed concerns to the audience about paying tribute to himself, he seemed to be having a ball.
Once McCartney launched into “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” everyone knew what was coming, but that didn’t make it any less spectacular when Ringo came back onstage and sang “With a Little Help From My Friends” while standing next to his longtime mate. I alternated between chills and tears watching the two of them sing, play and interact, while at the same time smiling broadly and thinking about what an incredible impact four lads from Liverpool had on me and millions and millions of others all around the globe. “We were in a band. It’s called The Beatles,” Ringo said towards the end of the evening. “And if we play, John and George are always with us. It’s always John, Paul, George and Ringo.”
To close out the proceedings, Ringo hopped behind the drums and joined Paul and the rest of the evening’s performers for a glorious, sing along version of “Hey Jude.” It was a perfect ending to a truly magical, once-in-a-lifetime evening, and one I’m immensely grateful to have experienced in person.
– John M. Borack