Hard day’s night for the Beatles, JFK and Harry Evans
The death of a president.
The birth of Beatlemania.
Like millions of other people, I know where I was and what I was doing on the evening of 22 November 1963. It was just seven days to my 23rd birthday and I was reporting on Beatles concerts at the Globe Theatre, Stockton-on-Tees and But later I was due to attend the annual Teesside Press Ball at the infamous Rex Hotel, Redcar, North Yorkshire.
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As the Beatles first concert ended shots rang out in Dallas, Texas and President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was also the night Beatlemania was born. The old theatre rocked as 4,800 fans shouted, screamed, stomped, wet seats and fainted their way through performances by the new pop sensations.
Nurses and ambulance medics treated several hundred girl fans who had fainted with the excitement of seeing the Beatles performing live.
Eventually, the second performance was abandoned and the Fab Four legged-it from their fans, as depicted in their hit movie, A Hard Day’s Night, released eight months later.
Earlier in the day the Beatles’ second album, With the Beatles, had been released on Parlophone Records and by the time they went on stage for their first concert, it had already clocked up world-beating advance sales of 300,000 copies. Their first album, Please, Please Me, remained at number one for the 29th successive week.
My colleague Guy Simpson, from the Northern Echo’s sister paper the Northern Despatch, had struggled with Tony Barrow, the newly appointed Beatles press officer, to organise an interview with the group between their performances. Although it was officially my night off, I was there to write a sociological “colour story” on the new pop music phenomenon. In the chaos around the theatre, I wondered how successful we might be.
I phoned the Northern Echo news desk from a nearby public phone box and told them of the lack of progress on the editorial interviews. I was told that US president, John F Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. The situation was still unclear, but obviously, the big story in tomorrow’s newspapers was not going to be The Beatles.
Concurrently with my call to the news desk, the Echo Editor, Harry Evans, was being chauffeured to the press ball, his first since his surprise appointment. He got as far as Stockton on Tees when a radio news flash on the JFK shooting made him instruct his driver to race back to the office. Shortly afterwards, the BBC confirmed President Kennedy had died as a result of the shooting. Harry saw it as a major, major story and planned rolling coverage across multiple editions, with backstories, library images and strong editorial comment.
The print union FOCs decided to co-operate with the changed schedules and an extended print run. Journalists and sub-editors rolled up their sleeves in expectation of a busy night ahead.
As ever the open-plan newsroom was bustling. The shirt sleeves up arm waving was a norm as Harry deployed subs on the news feed from Dallas, comments from political leaders around the world, archive material. There was a local angle too because Darlington had been chosen by the US car firm, Chrysler as the location for a new engine factory.
A new frontpage for the Northern Echo was required as rival national newspapers would probably not be able to replate their front pages and get copies to readers in northern counties. The Echo could also replace existing inside pages with comprehensive coverage of the assassination. This could mean valuable extra sales and prestige with a commemorative edition of the historic event.
Any editorial produced that night on Beatlemania wasn’t going to get much coverage in the JFK special edition Northern Echo.
“We made it to press on time. On every November night of the shooting, I again feel the chill of the loss of the prince of promise. From this day… to the ending of the world, it shall be remembered.”
Harold Evans, Editor of the Northern Echo
Meanwhile, back in Stockton and 22 miles away from the frantic Northern Echo newsroom, my wife Christine kitted out for the press ball in posh frock, killer shoes and hair shaped into a beehive (yes, that’s what they did in those days), stayed close, as Guy and I crept backstage to flush out the Beatles.
In readiness for the press ball later, Guy and I were wearing dinner jackets and bow ties and, aided by the general chaos, we blended nicely with the theatre management who were dressed just as formally – as was the case in those days. That kept the group’s fearsome roadie Neil Aspinall off our backs as we sauntered around back-stage, part of the scenery, smartly dressed infiltrators seeking whispered words of wisdom from any or all of the Beatles.
We found them resting in their over-crowded, makeshift dressing room, otherwise known as the theatre manager’s office. John Lennon was the nearest Beatle because he was leaving the scrimmage. In a prescient moment, I told him President Kennedy had been shot, but as he didn’t react I assumed he hadn’t heard me. He had, because, minutes later, he told the Vernons Girls as they were going onstage that “John Kennedy has been shot.” Vernons leader, Maureen Kennedy didn’t believe him: “Oh John that’s sick.”
I have wondered since that night what she might have said 17 years later when she first heard John Lennon had been shot by another loner with a gun in trigger-happy America?
With the second show underway, Christine and I returned to the auditorium where the supporting acts were building-up to the Beatles. It became noisier and even more chaotic. It seemed to me the fans might become uncontrollable when the main attraction took to the stage – so there might be a bigger story as a follow-up in Monday’s Echo.
Based on the earlier concert, I reckoned we might see a 30-minute onstage performance from the Beatles, but a girl fan leapt on stage, hugged George Harrison and was heading for John Lennon. Bemused security guys panicked and dragged her away as thousands of teenagers screamed their adoration, for the group – not the security lumps who were keeping them apart.
There was equal panic backstage. Without warning, the stage curtain dropped and the music ended as the Beatles were told to leg it. As depicted in the first Beatles movie, they leapt into their limo to escape their screaming fans. The group were driven back to the Eden Arms Hotel, Durham, where they stayed over the weekend as a frantic press pack searched for them.
The next morning’s Northern Echo had blanket coverage of JFK’s death and the North East readership was probable the best informed in the north on the death of the US president. UK national papers were hours behind with their coverage, but their main editions in London and the Home Counties were able to take advantage of the six-hour time difference with Dallas.
There were five paragraphs on Stockton’s Beatlemania in the Teesside edition of the Northern Echo and I didn’t recognise words I had written. I didn’t care. I had seen the Beatles in action twice in one night. I was a fan. The Sixties went on to be the best time in history.
Homeward bound at the end of that day
Christine, Guy Simpson and I left The Beatles mayhem for the press ball in Redcar, parking on the promenade some distance away from the Rex Hotel. Press balls are an opportunity for local cops to get their own back for critical newspaper reviews of their crime-solving. Roads leading from venues staging boozy events – Henley Regatta is another example – tended to be well patrolled at closing time, but breathalysers were way in the future. The chief constable, police chiefs and civic leaders attending the dinner can be blue-lighted safely home if necessary. Press and others had to run the gauntlet.
I guess it was the social event of the year for Teesside, not just for the local press, but all the mayors, MPs and industrialists, many of whom were looking forward to some face time with the new editor of the Echo. They sensed he intended shaking things up in this tight-knit region. However, Editor Evans was stuck at the office producing a master-crafted newspaper the press ball guests would be reading in the morning.
Guy, Christine and I were late, due to our Beatles diversion and gave apologies for our editor and colleagues who might not make it all on such a busy night.
Some journalists would probably leave soon for an early start on the production of Saturday evening papers to follow-up on the JFK story. The next Northern Echo was, of course, Monday morning. I planned to go in earlier on Sunday afternoon as the story would be just as hot on Monday and Harry Evans ever keen to follow-up on the Saturday issue. There might even be a slot for a Beatles Concert Chaos story?
The happenings in Dallas were obviously the big talking point in the Rex ballroom, but we were in a bubble so far as live information was concerned. No mobile phones in the Sixties, no 24-hour tv news stations, BBC radio might have stayed on air, but we didn’t have a trany radio. How did we manage without them?
A group of us leaving the press ball after some hours of downing pints of Newcastle Brown Ale (Wor Broon” in Geordie) were likely prospects for a little police drink-drive interference. So we kept the noise levels down. But, there was some funny wiggly walking from Christine as we made our way along the Redcar seafront. I swear we’d agreed she would be the designated driver. I think she may have been on the brown stuff.
“Yes officer – I’ve had a few. The body beside me is my dear wife. She’s the designated driver, you know.
– Rehearsed response, as police blue light closes in…
I managed to get her into the passenger seat and did a pre-check with sidelights and rear lights and then the headlights before starting the engine. I checked my mirrors, gripped the steering wheel tight and slowly headed homeward with a “take-it-easy” 45-minute journey time. There is a stretch of road passing by the ICI chemical works where flared-off gas soared into the night sky, but I concentrated on my driving.
I looked across at Christine, who by now had slid into the seat well and would not be visible through the car windows. My next rearward glance revealed a distant blue flashing light, but approaching fast. Don’t panic, grip the wheel and stay inside the centre line…by now the police car was within 50 yards.
It flashed by me at a speed that suggested my driving had escaped suspicion, a minute or two later he’d slipped into a lay-by and I saw another car had been pulled over. Phew, what an escape. “Yes officer – I’ve had a few. The body beside me is my dear wife. She’s the designated driver, you know.”
We arrived home safely and I assisted the “inert wife” into our rented place. It had been a hard day’s night all right… for Harry Evans and my newsroom colleagues, the Beatles and their entourage, and for the family of the dead president.
But, that’s where we were when JFK was shot dead in Dallas, Beatlemania started its sweep around the world and everybody remembers what they were doing at the time.
Don’t miss in Ancestry Stories. Sir Harold Evans own version of the JFK night: Death in Dallas, deadlines in Darlington.
When Sir Harold Evans died in September 2020, age 92, my personal tribute to him in The Times Obituaries detailed his news foresight and production skills in reporting on the death of JFK as a running story across multiple editions of the Northern Echo. I must have got the words right because it struck a chord with many Times readers – it was the highest rated tribute. One reader commented: “What a great first-hand account! Harold Evans was a great journalist and decent man”.
The word “Beatlemania” had been used in headlines in the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror in the weeks leading to the Stockton on Tees concerts. The biggest incident so far had been the all-day blockade of the London Palladium by 1,000 of their fans. The group rehearsed their appearance on ITV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium and then made a dash for it. The Beatles status as a new pop phenomenon was confirmed after the Stockton on Tees mayhem. Beatlemania dominated the airwaves and media for years.
Newcastle was the next stop on the Beatles tour. Philip Norman, another 22-year-old Northern Echo staffer and Dave Watts from the Darlington Despatch managed to sneak interviews with John, Paul and Ringo in their lounge at the City Hall venue. George was enthralled by The Avengers, showing on their tv set and refused to get involved with any press interviews.
Paul even allowed Philip to hold his trademark Hofner violin-shaped bass guitar and told him he “Only paid 52 guineas (£54.60) for it as I’m a skinflint.”
Philip Norman joined the Sunday Times and went on to make a career as a renowned showbiz biographer including writing the world-wide best-seller, Shout, recounting the Beatles and their generation. Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, Buddy Holly, Eric Clapton and Elton John were among the pop gods who got the Philip Norman treatment. After John Lennon was killed, Yoko Ono invited Philip Norman into their apartment in the Dakota Building in New York from which emerged a controversial interview in the Sunday Times and later, the definitive biog of John Lennon.
“Skinflint” Paul McCartney went to become the first pop billionaire when his spending spree on music rights, added to ongoing royalties on Lennon-McCartney compositions, made him rich beyond his dreams.
Best seats tickets for the Beatles last tour of 1963 were 10s 6d (50p) and would cost £8.84 today. A Beatles Rubber Soul mono LP, priced at £1 when released in 1963, would be £17.69 today.
Newcastle Brown Ale, first brewed in a city centre brewery in 1927, remains a local favourite, despite now being brewed in Yorkshire and having had the alcohol strength lowered after police filled their cells nightly with drunks succumbing to its potent 6.25% BV. The Geordie brew is a big success in America – the favourite beer of Clint Eastwood – but it’s now not brown in colour.