In the 1960’s how many people do you think there were in the entire world who had never heard of the Beatles? A half dozen cave dwellers maybe? – And me.
I confess I was too busy listening to, and learning from, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Errol Garner, and Dizzy Gillespie to bother with pop groups. To me, pop groups were just a bunch of musically illiterate kids banging away for the entertainment of an equally musically illiterate bunch of kids.
I was also very busy with my own career. At that time I was doing three TV shows a week in Wales, composing the music for the Revue ‘New Cranks’ and doing solo piano broadcasts on the BBC.
It was while I was in the middle of recording a solo piano programme for the BBC that one of their major producers, Dennis Maine Wilson, came into the studio. Dennis was of middling height – a thin, balding man of around 60 years of age.
The moment I had finished whatever it was I was playing, he shouted up to the producer in the production suite, “Can I borrow Dave for a couple of minutes? It will only be a couple of minutes I promise”.
My producer spoke back over the studio PA, “I’ll give you five minutes but that is all.
As we went up the stairs to the studio above, Dennis was explaining: “I’ve got this pop group upstairs and their manager wants to make sure everything is okay for tomorrow night. We’ve got this big show to do and I want to get all the balances right at this rehearsal. And by the way Dave, like most of these damned pop groups, I don’t think their guitars are in tune.
In the studio, Dennis introduced me to this shaggy haired quartet. He said, “I’ve brought Dave Lee up from the studio downstairs to help me get you boys in tune. Dave is a famous pianist”. Then he introduced me to them: “This is George, this is John and this is Paul and over there” (he pointed to the drummer), “that is Ringo – that is your name isn’t it?” Ringo nodded.
Whilst shaking their hands I explained that I am here only for a very short time. “Dennis wants me to check your tuning, so give me a chord in E please. I banged out the chord of E major on the studio piano in case they were too musically illiterate to know what I meant.
I was wrong. Not only did they know what I meant but to my surprise they seemed a nice refined bunch of guys.
Later, in the BBC canteen after my recording I was joined by Dennis, who thanked me for fine-tuning the guitars. (In actual fact, all I had done was tell John Lennon one string was a bit sharp – which he probably knew anyway. After all, this was only a rough run through to give the producer some idea of the kind of music to expect so there was no need to be meticulous).
As he sipped his coffee, Dennis said to me, “You know, I’ve produced symphony concerts, comedy shows, and serious political programmes. I never thought I would be lumbered with this pop music stuff” Then he added, “But you know Dave, I understand this bunch has a successful record out and apparently they are considered to be something really special”. Shaking his head he said ruefully he said: “Whatever happened to good music eh? Even now I’ve got to go back to discuss with their manager the order of the numbers they are going bang out, and. he’s not coming back until 9 o’clock so I’ll be here half the bloody night!”
Not ever having heard them, I asked him the name of the group.
He said, “They call themselves The Beatles. They spell it B-E-A-T-L-E-S, not like the insect” Then he asked me “David, you should know, are they really better than the all the other pop groups? They are supposed to be y’know”.
I replied as honestly as I could: “ I don’t know” I said. I’ve never heard them – or of them for that matter. But,” I added, “I suppose they are no better or worse than all these other groups”.
I was to learn just how wrong I was that very night. Over dinner, I mentioned the affair and in a joking way I said to my 12 year-old pop-music-loving daughter, Laura “You and your pop music. I had to tune the guitars of a pop group today. The Beatles – ha.”
Her knife and fork fell from her hands as she said “Did you say The Beatles?”
“Yes” I said. “Why? Are they important?”
She stared at me in astonishment. “Important? Daddy they’re only more important than the Queen of England that’s all”
And so I phoned Dennis Maine Wilson to ask if I and my daughter could come to the actual recording of the show.
This was how, on December 18th 1963, Laura and I were the only visitors sitting in the empty Lower Regent Street BBC theatre – apart from Brian Epstein, their manager, who was sitting next to Laura, as we listened and watched the Beatles record their Christmas show “From Us to You”.
At one point John’s guitar string broke and he gave me his guitar to tune the string in. As I handed him back his tuned guitar he offered the broken string to Laura – which she took with great pleasure. She still has it today, all these years later, as well as the autographs she got at the end of the recording.
They were very good to her. As I was talking with Ringo about the drumming genius of Buddy Rich, Laura was talking away with John Lennon.
As we left I remember them shouting “’Bye Dave, bye Laura”. My daughter clutched my hand and whispered to me, “They called me Laura”.