Beatles’ Atlanta performance still resounds 50 years later

When the Beatles played Atlanta on Aug. 18, 1965, the concert inaugurated the city’s brand-new stadium with a 500-watt salute heard around the world.

The British band was already the biggest act on the planet, dominating radio and record sales. Their guarantee that summer was $50,000 per performance. They had just played to 55,000 people at New York’s Shea Stadium — at the time, the largest-grossing concert ever — and to 17,000 at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.

As the concert approached, Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen prepared a key to the city for the visiting Britons. Legislators were photographed in Beatle wigs. Press coverage reached a crescendo on what the papers called “B Day.”

City planner Leon Eplan, who had helped Allen write a feasibility study for the stadium, was happy to see the facility earning money, since the Braves wouldn’t move from Milwaukee for another year.

But he wasn’t completely thrilled with the stadium’s final design, a perfectly round coliseum suited neither to baseball nor football. “I told them I felt the shape was probably good for two sports: one was chariot racing, the other was feeding Christians to the lions,” he said. “And neither one of those was revenue-producing.”

Dick Cecil, head of Braves Productions, had arrived in town ahead of the baseball team and aggressively courted the Beatles as part of his commitment to keep the stadium busy. Before their performance, Cecil left a dozen baseballs in the Beatles’ dressing room for the rockers to autograph. Cecil proudly handed out the keepsakes to other members of the Braves organization, including owner Bill Bartholomay, discovering later that some Beatles assistant actually did the autographing.

The sound system in Atlanta featured an innovation unused elsewhere: monitors. These allowed the musicians, for the first time, to hear themselves over the screams of their fans. Beatles manager Brian Epstein sent the engineers at Baker Audio a thank you note later, saying the sound was “Excellent. Without question proved the most effective of all during our U.S. tour 1965.”

F.B. “Duke” Mewborn of Baker Audio said he used four Altec 1570 tube amplifiers, generating about 500 watts in power, or slightly less than the power in Mewborn’s home stereo today. (When Paul McCartney performs nowadays he uses something like a 300,000-watt system.)

The Beatles offered Mewborn a position as the sound man for the rest of their tour, but Mewborn declined. According to Keith Hicks, Baker’s current president, Mewborn “basically said he didn’t see much future in four guys with long hair.”

Bob Hope, later the director of public relations for the Braves organization, was a 19-year-old usher at the show, and remembers that there were 15 rows of wooden sawhorses on the field between the audience and the performers. As the Beatles launched into “Twist and Shout” at the beginning of a 35-minute set, the sawhorses were enough, he said, to slow down fans who climbed the fence and tried to rush the stage. “We’d count how many they could get over before they were stopped,” Hope said. “I don’t think any got over more than 13.”

Judy Clark said she thinks she and her friend Elaine Atwood were the only students from their high school in Hiram who went to the concert. “People didn’t get it like we did,” she said. Sitting in the stands in a new skirt and top sewed by her mother, the 16-year-old Clark was determined to remember every moment, with the help of her Brownie camera. She saw other delirious girls with their heads in their laps, and she told them, “Sit up and look! You’re going to miss it all!”

Steve May, later an owner of Atlanta’s famed 688 Club, attended the performance, and it helped him develop an appetite for spectacle. At age 13, he already understood the elements of style: Dressed in Beatle boots, May scootered down to the stadium on his vanilla-white Vespa, which had been tricked out with 12 mirrors.

He traveled in a swarm of fellow scooter fanciers. “The cops would come chase us, but we never got caught.”

The opening acts for the Beatles included R&B sax player King Curtis and Cannibal and the Headhunters (“Land of 1000 Dances”). However, unbeknownst to Beatles manager Epstein, the local promoter also had added an area band to the bill: the Atlanta Vibrations. They were a high school surf-rock combo who’d recently won a battle of the bands sponsored by Thomas Organ. The Vibrations showed up early at the stadium, proudly wearing their collarless jackets and hauling their new Vox Super Beatle amps, provided by the music store.

Epstein told them to beat it. Then, fate intervened. John Lennon’s Vox organ was somehow damaged during the trip from Toronto, and there was only one other Vox organ in Atlanta. It was at Thomas Organ. The Vibrations sent a runner up to the Buckhead music shop to fetch back a working instrument.

Lennon used the borrowed Vox organ and Epstein let the Vibrations open the show. Spencer Kirkpatrick, later to form the influential Atlanta band Hydra, was the junior member of the group, and the lead guitarist. Standing on that stage, in front of 34,000 people, the 14-year-old Kirkpatrick experienced every emotion known to man, from terror to elation.

“I was about to pee down my leg,” he said.

The Vibrations played “Pipeline,” “Walk Don’t Run” and even an instrumental version of the Beatles tune “This Boy.” Then they listened to the rest of the music from the dugout.

Observing the reactions of the overexcited female Beatles fans, the freshman guitarist reasoned that rock ’n’ roll looked like a good career choice.

“We definitely had found our calling,” he said. “If this is what the music causes, we were in the right place.”

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