Beatles in Flight
In the late evening of Sept. 15, 1964, Delta Airlines ramp agents Noel LeBlanc and Albert Jacob were preparing to complete their shifts. The clock was about to strike midnight, and all of their flights were in. Servicing the Delta aircraft that flew in and out of “Moisant” – New Orleans International Airport – was a routine, almost robotic task for these young men.
LeBlanc and Jacob found ramp work after hours to be a quick route to easy cash. New Orleans International Airport is and always has been a bounty for charter operations, giving the ground crews and airlines extra work. The early morning of Sept. 16 was no exception. However, the ramp service that the pair provided on this date would become ingrained into their memories and would in similar fashion be forever preserved in local airport-employee folklore.
As the pair prepared to end their shift, about 25 minutes away in the sky over New Orleans, Capt. Pres Cooper, commanding an American Flyers Airline Lockheed 188 Electra, radioed to New Orleans Lakefront Airport with customary instructions for an arrival that had come to resemble a military operation. In this case, a helicopter was waiting to transport some VIP passengers directly from the airport to their hotel on the outskirts of town, the Congress Inn, located on Chef Menteur Highway. Unfortunately, the chartered helicopter was suddenly grounded by a mechanical problem. Cooper was advised of the circumstances and told that a fleet of limousines had already been summoned to the airport and would be waiting to meet them.
The circumstances grew more chaotic and out of control as the 25 minutes rapidly elapsed and the Electra prepared for landing. A restless, barely controllable crowd of teenagers had gathered at Lakefront Airport and was awaiting the airliner’s touchdown. A second call was made to Cooper to advise him of the situation, only this time there was an unexpected twist. The limousines had driven to the wrong airport – New Orleans International. To save precious time, Cooper quickly diverted there after being assured in the midst of this confusion that the limousines were actually at the airport.
LeBlanc and Jacob were settling down, preparing to clock out, oblivious to the events taking place in the air above them and across town at Lakefront. While changing out of their uniforms in the Delta ramp break room, they received a call from a friend at the general aviation terminal asking for their help with a diverting Electra. They were happy to make a few bucks before going home. Cooper, appreciative that his passengers had learned to capitalize on the few precious hours of sleep and solitude afforded to them on these late-night flights, brought the AFA Electra to a smooth, soft landing shortly thereafter.
The ground crew, unaware of who was on board, followed instructions to guide Cooper to a secluded spot on the west end of the airfield. The limousines and several police cars pulled into place as the Electra’s wide prop blades rotated to a stop. The pair, overcome with curiosity, prepared the air stairs.
Jacob and LeBlanc quickly found themselves shoulder to shoulder with John Lennon. Then Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr joined Lennon on the tarmac, accompanied by their overworked and exhausted manager, Brian Epstein, and road managers Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans. Occupying the Electra’s other 92 seats were numerous reporters who, although invited guests of Epstein and press officer Derek Taylor, would have to await their own ground transportation. The band and its accompanying entourage were quickly whisked away after LeBlanc and Jacob assisted them with their luggage. Selected cases of equipment stored in the cargo bins were transferred to the limousine trunks.
Whether the helicopter’s mechanical problem was real or, as many suggest, an elaborate hoax to distract the awaiting riotous fans, remains in debate. No one seems to recall all the facts, although landings had been suddenly switched to neighboring airports elsewhere on the tour. The excitement was enormous 40 years ago during August and September 1964 as the Beatles made their first tour of America, following their introduction on “The Ed Sullivan Show” six months earlier.
In many ways New Orleans became a part of the culture of the ’60s and one might say ceremoniously inaugurated into the decade by the appearance of the Beatles at City Park Stadium – now known as Tad Gormley Stadium – that evening. Almost 12,000 New Orleanians, most of them screaming teenagers and accompanying parents, packed the stands Sept. 16 to hear a concert that lasted less than a half hour. The Beatles were physically in the city for less than 24 hours.
The Beatles began their eventful stay in New Orleans by traveling in a motorcade from New Orleans International Airport to the Congress Inn. In nearly every city on the tour, the Beatles encountered problems reserving hotel rooms; most major hotel chains feared damage to their property by the mobs of teenagers. As a result, the Congress Inn, today the site of a nursing home, became the focal point of worldwide rock ‘n’ roll attention that evening. Brian Epstein was horrified to learn that the hotel was a single-story building and found little comfort in that their rooms’ windows had been boarded with plywood.
In a sequence of events not unlike the film “A Hard Day’s Night,” the band had been taken from a concert at the Cleveland Public Auditorium directly to their aircraft for the two-and-a-half-hour flight to New Orleans, remembers Eva Van Enk, a flight attendant on the Beatles’ chartered airliner during the 1964 and 1965 tours,
“The airplane served as both a platform for interviews to the lucky few members of media that flew with them, and a rare opportunity for sleeping,” she recalls. “The faces of the reporters were constantly changing from city to city. Brian Epstein maximized exposure with exclusive interviews between cities. But no one was allowed in the Beatles’ lounge area in the rear of the plane, and they came out when they were ready. As flight attendants and crew members, we were the only ones allowed unrestricted access.” Once on the ground, the motorcade from Kenner to eastern New Orleans took about 45 minutes. Following episodes (which the band had become accustomed to) during which their limousine became separated from the motorcade and even collided with a Kenner Police Department escort vehicle, the band went directly to their rooms, remaining there until the customary, late afternoon pre-show press conference.
Mayor Victor Schiro arrived at the Congress Inn by late afternoon and greeted the Beatles in the lobby of the hotel. The press conference began as Schiro presented the Beatles with a key to the city and proclamation declaring Sept. 16, 1964, “Beatles Day” in New Orleans. The official proclamation signed by the Beatles has long since disappeared, but copies bearing a photograph of the Fab Four with Schiro were made available to City Hall visitors. After signing the proclamation, Lennon set the tone by returning Schiro’s pen, saying, “Your pen, your Lordship!”
The New Orleans press conference was unique in that, according to several sources, it was the only press conference on the tour that was filmed by a Los Angeles newsreel agency. Unfortunately, like the mayor’s proclamation, the newsreel remains unaccounted for but hopefully has not been lost to history.
The expected comical remarks delivered by the band following each question were in abundance. Typically asked about haircuts, favorite things about America and the lunacy that followed them wherever they went, each Beatle responded in kind. McCartney was asked, “What do you expect to see in Dallas?” to which he replied, “Oil wells.” Harrison was asked, “What do you think of topless bathing suits?” and replied, “We’ve been wearing them for years.” Asked about his biggest problem with the visit to America, Starr threw back, “The quality of your tea.”
Lennon was asked if the United States was “reaping the harvest of the musical garbage it had exported to England”; he replied, “Quite true!”
Another bond in the relationship between the Beatles and the city of New Orleans is that one of their opening acts was Clarence “Frogman” Henry. Henry had joined the tour two weeks earlier in Philadelphia, replacing the Righteous Brothers, who complained to Epstein that audiences shouted, “We want the Beatles!” throughout every opening performance. Henry happily accepted an invitation to perform in 15 of the 24 cities on the tour. While in New Orleans. the Beatles had one request. They wanted to meet their idol, Fats Domino. Domino graciously met with the band in the dressing room at City Park Stadium just prior to the performance.
The band’s respect for Henry and Domino underscores the fact that in the late 1950s, the Beatles – as individual teenagers, especially Lennon – asked merchant sailors returning to Liverpool from the United States to bring back rock ‘n’ roll records. As a major Southern U.S. port, New Orleans offered English sailors easy access to the local record labels. As a result, more than half of the songs performed by the Beatles through 1964, prior to Lennon’s and McCartney’s epic songwriting, were in some way associated with the music of New Orleans. The local influence on their early songwriting is equally obvious.
Immediately following their meeting with Fats Domino, the Beatles ran onto the City Park stage. The concert began after 9:30 p.m. The noise of the screams, from the moment they appeared until long after they departed the stadium, was so deafening that no one in the stands could hear the music. A recording of the concert, of unknown origin, eventually surfaced. It was broadcast by WNOE-AM radio station on the 10th anniversary of the concert, long before the station’s transition to a country-music format. Although the songs are inaudible, the recording microphone was close enough to the stage to capture the band’s remarks between the music.
Their frustration with the chaos that followed them is obvious in the recording. At the start of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” about halfway through the 10-song concert, about 100 teenagers broke through the police barricades and ran toward the stage. The police pursued and tried to restrain them.
Lennon remarked, “We’d like to continue with our next number … if you would stop playing football in the middle of the field.” Just before performing the song “A Hard Day’s Night,” Lennon again exclaims, “For our next song … for those of you who are still alive … !” Finally McCartney introduced their last song, “Long Tall Sally,” by saying, “We’d like to thank everybody for coming, including the football players.”
Memories abound from the fans and fan chaperones who attended. Dr. Robert Marino, an anesthesiologist at Ochsner Clinic Foundation, played escort for his younger sister Beth and several of her teenage friends. Marino recalls the time spent at the concert was “one big noisy blur.”
“We were sitting at the opposite end of the stadium from the Beatles,” Marino continues. “You could not hear a thing from the time they ran on the stage, which was on the other side … the open end of the stadium. No one was on the field at first, then suddenly it was complete chaos.”
Beverly Nugent, today an adolescent mental health counselor, was escorted to the concert by her mother, who had also driven her teenage daughter to the Congress Inn on the night the group arrived. But all she saw at the motel were limousines.
Native New Orleanian Bruce Spizer, a tax and estate lawyer, has published authoritative books on the history of the Beatles. His knowledge about and collection of Beatles memorabilia is so well noted across the country that when Capitol Records produced the Beatles’ One CD in 2000, the company approached Spizer to supply missing copies of the 45-rpm record sleeves used when the records were originally released. He has been a guest on National Public Radio and various other programs throughout the country.
Spizer’s books are meticulously researched and clarify numerous misconceptions about the Beatles’ entrance into the American market. One of the most misunderstood is that the Beatles’ popularity was the result of the country mourning the assassination of President Kennedy. Spizer notes in his most recent book, The Beatles are Coming, The Birth of Beatlemania in America, that with or without the mood of the nation following the death of the president, popular music in the United States was ready for a band with the talent of the Beatles to take to the airwaves. Like Elvis Presley in the 1950s, the Beatles provided the right combination of traditional rhythm-and-blues and a continuing evolution of a new sound to attract the attention of fans.
Following the Beatles’ appearance in New Orleans, the original plan was to use Sept. 17 as a rest day in the city, then continue the tour with a concert in Dallas on Sept. 18. However, money intervened. Kansas City promoter Charles Finley, the owner of the Kansas City A’s baseball team, offered Epstein a last-minute $150,000 to add a Kansas City stop, which Epstein accepted. The extra performance was scheduled for the open date, one of the few on the tour. The Beatles left immediately following the City Park performance. The sum was the highest paid to any entertainer to date for a single performance. As a result, their planned day off in New Orleans was scratched in favor of a two-day stay at a private ranch owned by their charter plane operator, Reed Pigman, following the performance in Dallas.
Three of the former Beatles would return to southeastern Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. John Lennon did not perform outside New York, but George Harrison visited the state, with a stop at the LSU Assembly Center during his 1974 concert tour. Ringo Starr performed at the Grand Casino Gulfport on Aug. 15, 2003.
The most frequent visitor to the city has been Paul McCartney. In early 1975, McCartney called on the assistance of Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn, using their Sea-Saint Studio on Clematis Avenue in Gentilly to record the album Venus and Mars with his new band, Wings. The studio produced the No. 1 hit “Listen to What the Man Said.” McCartney has also visited the city unannounced; he is occasionally spotted by fans at local music clubs. McCartney has made two concert appearances in the city, one on April 24, 1993, in the Superdome. His most recent appearance was Oct. 10, 2002, in the New Orleans Arena.
For all subsequent visits, their flights landed in New Orleans as scheduled.