Beatles Atlanta show made history in more ways than one

As Sir Paul McCartney readies his young band for a trip to Piedmont Park Aug. 15, it might be a good time to consider sound.

Until the Beatles invented the stadium concert in August 1965, rock 'n' roll bands had not performed for 34,000 people at a time. (Click here to see concert memorabilia.)

Sound amplification across the musical spectrum was in its infancy. And the sound at the kickoff concert in New York’s Shea Stadium was lousy. Last month, playing at Citi Field, the stadium that replaced Shea, McCartney told the audience, “The first time we played here we couldn’t hear a thing because of all the girls screaming and the stadium sound system.”

In most stadiums the sound was equally bad. Except Atlanta.

Two songs into the 1965 Atlanta show, McCartney was shocked by the clarity: “It’s loud isn’t it?” he blurted out at the time. “Great!”

Beatles manager Brian Epstein later sent a note to the sound engineers declaring the Atlanta system “Excellent. Without question proved the most effective of all during our U.S. tour 1965.”

The show, the Beatles’ only appearance in Atlanta, went down in history as the only one in which the Fab Four could hear themselves over the shrieks of their frantic fans. How did Atlanta, a still-sleepy backwater in 1965, produce sound design beyond the ken of New York or Los Angeles?

Credit goes to a hi-fi store on Peachtree Street called Baker Audio, and its Georgia Tech-educated boss, F.B. “Duke” Mewborn. Mewborn handled sound for the show, and his set-up included something that every bar band uses today but was unheard of then: monitors.

Few musicians used monitors then because few played stadia, but also because of concerns about feedback. Aiming speakers back toward the musicians (and their microphones) would cause a feedback loop and sonic disaster, according to conventional wisdom. The Beatles had never seen them.

“There were no monitors anywhere else on earth at that time,” said Red Wheeler, a legendary Atlanta rock and roll sound man, now living in Vidalia.

Mewborn knew better. His cardioid mics had a restricted pattern that rejected ambient sound coming from the sides or below.

Of course there was still the problem of being heard over 34,000 sets of lungs.

In addition to selling records and hi-fi equipment, Baker Audio also installed public address systems in large public places, including the new home of the Braves, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. For special events at the stadium Baker had included four Altec 1570 field-level amplifiers, each cranking out about 175 watts of vaccuum tube-powered juice, or about 500 watts in all. These he used to power two stacks of Altec A7 speakers, each with 15-inch woofers. “It was state of the art,” said Cole Harrison, founder of Wizard Electronics, who was 14 years old when he attended that show.

“It was adequate,” said Mewborn, with typical understatement. He guesses the audience generated at least 100 decibels of scream, which is like putting your head next to a chainsaw. “We got over it, we were on top of it,” he says. “You could hear [the band] amidst the screaming.”

Today Mewborn, 75, retired from Baker Audio, has a 700-watt theater system in his East Cobb home, or slightly more wattage than he used to drive that stadium show. McCartney’s benefit concert at Piedmont Park this Saturday will probably use 300,000 watts of power, and several 18-wheelers to carry in the gear. (The 1965 gear arrived in a couple of pickup trucks.)

In any case The Lads and Epstein were happy, and proposed that Mewborn go on the road to handle sound for the rest of their shows. He turned them down. Said Keith Hicks, Baker’s current president, “[Mewborn] basically said he didn’t see much future in four guys with long hair.”