The Beatles invented the rock’n’roll tour in the summer of ’64

Q&A with Some Fun Tonight author Chuck Gunderson

Some Fun Tonight! The Backstage Story of How the Beatles Rocked America: The Historic Tours of 1964-1966 by Chuck Gunderson. For more information visit somefuntonight.com.

It was 50 years ago today that The Beatles performed at Empire Stadium in Vancouver as part of their first North American tour.

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Prior to their summer gigs the band had visited the U.S. East Coast in February to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show and do a couple of concerts in Washington, D.C. and New York City but that was just a taste of what was to come later in the year.

The ambitious itinerary, put together by their manager Brian Epstein, involved John, Paul, George and Ringo travelling 35,000 kilometres to perform 34 shows in 33 days in 24 cities. It was one long nonstop blur accentuated by the fact that Epstein knew almost nothing about North American geography.

The band began the tour at the Cow Palace in San Francisco on Aug. 19, 1964 less than 48 hours after a gig at Blackpool in the U.K. In between those two shows they spent almost 24 hours in the air including a fuelling stop in Winnipeg. Once they'd landed the boys and their entourage travelled for the rest of the tour on a 90-seater Lockheed Electra turboprop charter flown by American Flyer Airlines in a most non-linear fashion from coast to coast to coast.

Not big fans of flying to begin with The Beatles were living in an era when airplane technology was still in its conceptual infancy - things could go wrong and often did. On the '65 tour the same plane blew an engine while The Beatles were enroute to Portland, Oregon. In April, 1966, the AFA charter crashed while carrying military personnel killing 83 people.

Even with the best of planning there was more than a little shake, rattle and roll involved in getting from Point A to Point B. The day before their show at Empire Stadium The Beatles had partied long into the night helping Jackie DeShannon celebrate her 23rd birthday in Seattle. DeShannon, on tour as one of the opening acts, told an interviewer that she danced until 5 a.m. partying with the Beatles and the rest of the bands on tour in George and Ringo's suite at the Edgewater Hotel. Later that day everybody got on the plane for a short hop to Vancouver made longer by the fact that the pilot had not cleared customs correctly and had to return to SeaTac to complete paperwork. They touched down in Vancouver sometime around 6 p.m.

Because of their massive popularity and "unruly" fans The Beatles tour plane usually landed at secondary airports avoiding the expected huge crowds but also confusing transportation plans on the ground. In more than one city arranged transportation was waiting at the wrong location and sometimes people (Ringo, The Righteous Brothers) were forgotten in the haste to get moving. In Vancouver their plane landed at the RCAF base on Sea Island in Richmond before their scheduled concert but hours after their planned arrival. They drove around aimlessly killing time, got some burgers and shakes and headed for the PNE at the allotted time.

The show began at 8:15 p.m. with the Bill Black Combo, the Exciters, The Righteous Brothers and Jackie DeShannon all performing before The Beatles finally took the stage at 9:25 p.m. Chuck Gunderson, author of Some Fun Tonight, a new book that looks back at The Beatles recordbreaking run, talked to the North Shore News about what has been described as the first rock'n'roll tour.

North Shore News: Paul McCartney just closed Candlestick Park.

Chuck Gunderson: Yes he did. I really wanted to go to that show. I saw him in Salt Lake the week prior and I tell you for a guy 72 years old he really knows how to put on a great show.

North Shore News: San Francisco really bookended The Beatles experience in North America. They started there in '64 and had their last show there in '66.

Chuck Gunderson: And they were there in '65 as well at the Cow Palace. It was kind of the beginning, the middle and the end.

North Shore News: How did you get involved with writing about the tours?

Chuck Gunderson: Number one, I'm a huge fan. Number two, I'm a product of the sixties and my older siblings were spinning the records so it's sort of embedded in me. Number three, I've been a collector for many years and one of the things I like to collect is the North American tour ephemera. I've been waiting for someone to write a tour book and no one ever did so I thought you know what I'm going to do it. I've had a career in advertising and my passion is history. I have a masters in history so I just thought I'm going to use those skills and write it, research it and publish it myself. It's the book I always wanted to see come out.

North Shore News: Perfect time. It's the 50th anniversary of the first tour.

Chuck Gunderson: (This week) is the official anniversary of the tour starting with the Cow Palace in San Francisco. on Aug. 19.

North Shore News: I was just reading a chronology of The Beatles that year and wow what a whirlwind.

Chuck Gunderson: What's interesting about that is they did 34 shows, 24 cities, 26 venues in 33 days.

North Shore News: What was involved in researching your book?

Chuck Gunderson: It's about eight years of research. I always tell people that if The Beatles toured in the social media age we would have had everything, photos galore, we would have a lot more information. When I was researching the book I really had to dig in a lot of archives in universities, libraries and newspapers. I would be really excited when an archivist would tell me 'We've located photos from the Vancouver show or whatever' and they'd bring the folder back to the phone and say, 'Oh I'm sorry there's a note the photos were stolen' or they were lost in 1974. One of the goals for the book is I wanted to have lots of photos for every stop they made during the three years and I accomplished it which was a huge task. Most of the photos in the book are previously unpublished. I went through a lot of the photographers that shot them originally and a lot of them had passed away so they're not around. I went through every archive and depository I thought would have photos from the tours. I left no stone unturned so to speak.

North Shore News: A lot of the film footage you can see on YouTube looks like Second World War coverage, Pathé newsreels and stuff from another era.

Chuck Gunderson: Exactly.

North Shore News: Did The Beatles know what to expect from that first tour of North America? They were big in the U.K. Ed Sullivan gave them a taste but still it must have been quite a shock in August '64 when they landed in California.

Chuck Gunderson: You have to remember when they were playing concerts in the U.K. they were playing to an average of 2,500 to 3,500 fans. The largest number was 8,000 people at the Empire Pool in Wembley. They started this world tour before they came to America and they went down to Australia and they played to 12,000 people which at that time was the biggest but when they came to America it busted open. The first show at the Cow Palace had 17,000 people. What's interesting, in the tour planning before The Beatles even got here, Brian Epstein was offered some incredible venues in size - one of them Fenway Park 30,000 people, Tiger Stadium 50,000 people. He was even offered the L.A. Coliseum 80,000 people - Brian doesn't get a lot of credit for this but he could have gone for broke and tried to milk as much money out of the tour as possible but he did it a different way. What he did was really smart - he booked average size venues, sports arenas, outdoor amphitheatres. What he wanted to do was sell out the tour obviously but he also wanted the fans hungering for more when they came back in '65. The average size venue on the '64 tour was 17,000 people.

North Shore News: The '64 North American tour has been described as the first rock'n'roll tour. Elvis had already played stadiums - what was the difference in '64?.

Chuck Gunderson: Elvis played stadiums, he played the Cotton Bowl and things like that. I think the difference in '64 was the modern-day rock touring industry was invented during The Beatles tour. No one had ever done a tour of that scale and playing venues of that size night after night. Brian Epstein kind of invented things as they went along. Of course he had help from a New York talent agency called General Artists Corporation that helped him book the tour. The tour riders back then were archaic compared to now. Rock stars today want this, they want that, they want this kind of water. All The Beatles wanted back in 1964 were four army cots, a couple of cases of cold Coca-Cola, some clean towels and that was about it.

North Shore News: Airplanes and airports play a big part in visual documentation of the tour.

Chuck Gunderson: From London back to London in the 33 days they travelled over 22,000 miles. When booking the tour I think Brian Epstein thought the United States was the size of the U.K. It was a really haphazard journey they took. Thy started out west, went up north, then down south, back up north, across the country. It was really strange when you look at the overall tour. They put in a lot of miles on that tour.

North Shore News: Epstein seems to have been in total control of what was going on. He even agreed to add a show in Kansas City on an off day near the end of the tour.

Chuck Gunderson: They really relished their days off because they didn't have a lot of days off. A businessman in Kansas City, Charlie O. Finley, just didn't want to give up. He met Brian Epstein at the very start of the tour in San Francisco and he offered them $60,000, which was about twice what they got at the Hollywood Bowl. It was a great offer but Epstein said 'I'm sorry Mr. Finley but the tour is booked.' He met him again in L.A. and offered him $100,000 and Brian said, 'No I'm sorry the tour's booked.' Finley said 'OK, I'm going to make you one more offer' and he wrote out a check for $150,000 which was five times over the amount that they were getting. The big stars of the day, such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland were getting about 10 to 15,000 dollars a night, so when The Beatles came Epstein had heard about these guarantees and he told the New York talent agency 'When you go book my boys I want you to ask for double.' That was pretty ballsy at that time. They were getting guarantees of $25,000, $30,000, $40,000 so when Finley came in at $150,000 they just couldn't say no. It was the largest guarantee in entertainment history up to that point. Break down over a 30-minute show that's close to $5,000 a minute.

North Shore News: On the '64 tour the setlist didn't vary much. John would open with 'Twist and Shout' and Paul would close with 'Long Tall Sally.'

Chuck Gunderson: That's right. They would do the same 12 songs every night. In a couple of cities they added a song or two - in Las Vegas they added "Till There Was You." Charlie Finley actually asked them if they could extend the set considering he was paying them $150,000 and in true John Lennon fashion he looked up at him and said 'Chuck I'm sorry we only do 12.'

North Shore News: In Vancouver their time was very brief. Apparently they came in and drove around before the show and afterwards they headed straight off to Los Angeles.

Chuck Gunderson: Vancouver was known as a drop-in date but actually in the beginning they had actually scheduled to stay there. They were going to stay at the Hotel Georgia. Peter Hudson, general manager of the Hotel Georgia, had seen the chaos all over the world where The Beatles stayed and he literally spent weeks fortifying his hotel. He put plywood up at certain entrances, barbed wire on fire escape ladders. He wanted to be prepared when The Beatles came. They had to cancel their reservation and the reason for that was they had to play Seattle the night before and when they left SeaTac to come up to Vancouver half way into the flight the customs officials radioed the airplane and said, 'Listen you didn't get the customs forms filled out properly. You're going into another country so you better turn around we need to get these custom forms done.' They had to go back to Seattle and do the customs work and then fly to Vancouver so they are running late already. They land in Vancouver, they get in the cars to travel to Empire Stadium and they were hungry so they stopped at King's Drive-In and they got hamburgers and milkshakes for the road. When they finally got to Empire Stadium the press had been waiting and they were kind of put off. The Beatles had been late so they got there, did the press conference and then they did the concert in front of 20,000 fans. They caught a plane that night and headed back to L.A. North Shore News: The other acts on the bill included Jackie DeShannon. Chuck Gunderson: They had the same support acts for each stop on the '64 tour. They would open up with the Bill Black Combo. Bill Black wasn't actually on the tour he was sick at the time and he had to be replaced. Bill Black used to be Elvis' bass player. They stayed on stage and they were the instrumental part of the next support acts. The next ones to come out were The Exciters, they had a big hit called 'Tell Him' back then, after that were The Righteous Brothers and then Jackie DeShannon came on. It was about a two hour show and when The Beatles came on they played 30 minutes and it was over. Another interesting thing about Vancouver is Empire Stadium was the first outdoor show The Beatles had ever played in North America and it was a stadium. It wasn't as big as Shea Stadium but it was still a stadium.

North Shore News: It must have been one long blur for the band - was there anything that stood out from the chaos?

Chuck Gunderson: Well number one they made over one million dollars in advances which was incredible for that time. The tour was record-breaking, it was precedent-setting and it was money-making. The Beatles broke new ground on the '64 tour.

North Shore News: The '65 tour they went even bigger.

Chuck Gunderson: Because of the demand for tickets Brian Epstein decided to book bigger venues and if they came to an arena they would do two shows. They would do an afternoon show and an evening show which rock'n'roll artists do not do today. They did half as many shows as they did in '64 but made as much or more money.

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