Memphians recall Beatles legend McCartney as he returns to the Bluff City

Paul McCartney last performed in Memphis during a 1993 concert at the Liberty Bowl.

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Paul McCartney last performed in Memphis during a 1993 concert at the Liberty Bowl.

When Paul McCartney returns to Memphis this weekend to perform at FedExForum, the crowd will be considerably older, the females less frenzied than the first time he played here 47 years ago as a member of the Beatles. Although Sunday’s stop on McCartney’s “Out There” tour marks only his second Bluff City concert (he also played solo in 1993 at the Liberty Bowl), everyone in town, it seems, has a story to tell about the legendary musician.

The Beatles performed two shows — at 4 and 8:30 p.m. — at the Mid-South Coliseum on Aug. 19, 1966, soon after John Lennon’s infamous comment that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus.” Tickets were just $5.50.

Photo by Robert Williams

The Beatles performed two shows — at 4 and 8:30 p.m. — at the Mid-South Coliseum on Aug. 19, 1966, soon after John Lennon’s infamous comment that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus.” Tickets were just $5.50.

For Memphians of a certain age, few memories are as vivid as those concerning the Beatles’ appearance at the Mid-South Coliseum on Aug. 19, 1966.

“It’s a day that will live in infamy for me anyway,” says Jody Stephens. He is the longtime manager of Midtown’s Ardent Studios and a bit of a legend himself as the drummer for Big Star, a group considered to be the Beatles of power-pop and the kings of all cult bands. Back in ’66, however, Stephens was just a 13-year-old kid, excited to see the Fab Four, who were playing a day-and-night doubleheader at the Coliseum.

Stephens’ older brother Jimmy was a fledgling garage band musician who’d gotten tickets to the Beatles’ evening show. But then the elder Stephens’ band got a gig that same night. “So we called the Coliseum and asked if we could swap out evening tickets for ones to the matinee,” says Stephens.

“We got our mom to drop us off early, and after we swapped our tickets, we snuck backstage. We’d already done that once with the Rolling Stones before.”

Unfortunately for Stephens, tensions and security were especially heightened after the Beatles had received death threats due to John Lennon’s infamous comments about the band being “bigger than Jesus.” Suddenly, as they nosed around the venue, the Stephens boys found themselves surrounded by Memphis police and barking K-9 units. “They treated us as if we were a major threat. It was pretty scary,” Stephens says. “But the worst part was they ended up taking our tickets away from us — they made us give them away and they called our parents to come get us.”

Instead of watching the Beatles that day, Stephens spent the afternoon at his father’s office.

“I hate to admit it, but I was bawling my eyes out ’cause we didn’t get to see the Beatles,” Stephens says. “I was devastated. I think both my brother and I have just finally recovered from that.”

The postscript came nearly 12 years later when Stephens ran into Paul McCartney while backpacking through Europe, following the breakup of Big Star. Coincidentally, this was about the time the cult of Big Star was just starting to bloom: That year, the group’s first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City, were reissued in the U.K. by the Beatles’ label EMI. “And I randomly I ran into McCartney in a small town called Rye that summer,” Stephens says. “I walked into this little shop, and there he was.”

Stephens started chatting with McCartney’s wife, Linda. “She asked what I was doing in England, and I told her I was on vacation, but that I was a drummer. She said, ‘That’s too bad, we just hired a new drummer a couple weeks ago. But let me introduce you to Paul and see if he knows anyone who needs a drummer.’ So I’m introduced to Paul and my legs are shaking. Paul says, ‘Oh, you’re from Memphis?’ — he was really impressed with that. We had a short conversation, and that was it. My head was spinning. I’d wondered what had just happened.”

Fifteen years later, Stephens would finally get to see McCartney perform during his 1993 Liberty Bowl gig. By then, McCartney had actually hired a Memphis drummer, Blair Cunningham, for his band.

Stephens would meet McCartney again just a couple of years ago, under somewhat unusual circumstances. “I was in Los Angeles for the Grammy weekend, at Clive Davis’ ‘Salute to Industry Icons’ party, and Paul was there. I don’t know if I should admit this, but I actually followed him into the men’s room to say hello,’ says Stephens, laughing. “I mean, I waited for him to wash his hands and grab a paper towel. But I told him I had just worked on a project with (longtime Beatles associate) Klaus Voormann at Ardent. He said, “Oh, yeah? Klaus is my man!’ And that was it — but that’s probably enough when you’re Paul McCartney.

“You know,” Stephens jokes, “if I can increase the frequency of these meetings with Paul, we might just become friends.”

Unlike Stephens, other Memphis kids did make it to the Beatles’ ’66 show, and many remained devoted lifelong fans, like Fletcher Terry. Terry is one of the habitués of the official McCartney online message board, and he has helped organize a gathering of fans from across the county for Sunday’s show. “There are people coming in from all over,” Terry says. “Some from California, some from Iowa, there’s even someone coming from Canada.”

Terry has seen McCartney six times over the years, and like many hard-core Macca-watchers, he’s buzzing about the set lists on the current tour, which have been heavy on Beatles classics and some rarely played numbers. “He’s been opening with a song the Beatles never really played live in concert, ‘Eight Days a Week’, and doing stuff like ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’ — songs that are typically associated with John Lennon,” Terry says. “So it’s cool that Paul is tipping to John and playing those songs.”

Terry and his group of fellow McCartney-ites will be spending the hours before Sunday’s show outdoors at the FedExForum plaza. The venue is staging a preconcert event and party featuring local pop band Jeffrey and the Pacemakers.

“I didn’t know there were like Paul McCartney-type Deadheads, who followed him around, but apparently there are,” says Pacemakers frontman Jeff Golightly. Known for his work in local outfits like Crime and The Everyday Parade, Golightly was too young to catch the Beatles in ’66, but did see McCartney play in 1990 in Lexington, Ky., and is excited to be part of the upcoming festivities.

He promises plenty of British Invasion covers for the Pacemakers set. “We’re going to do a lot of Kinks, Dave Clark Five and Manfred Mann,” he says. “We may even do a few Beatles songs, but we’ll probably stick to the Lennon numbers. I’ll let Paul do his own songs. Hey — he doesn’t do any of ours!”

Paul McCartney

8 p.m. Sunday at FedExForum, 191 Beale. Tickets: $57.50 to $250; available at the box office, all Ticketmaster outlets or 800-745-3000.

An official pre-concert party, featuring British Invasion tribute band Jeffrey and the Pacemakers, will take place from 5-7 p.m. at the FedExForum Plaza. Food, drink and merchandise will also be available for purchase.

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Comments » 1

hofner66 writes:

Nice article! Wife and I are looking forward to 'getting back' with Paul on Sunday. You folks, who have never seen Jeffrey and the Pacemakers, are in for a treat!

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