Ron Onesti: The tour that changed music forever
I just love going to Nashville. I mean, for the most part, it's really like you would think it would be … almost a "Hee Haw" parody of itself in some ways. The tourist sections are filled with cowboy hats and boots, Grand Ole Opry-themed replica concert posters everywhere and scores of Garth Brooks wannabes walking the streets with six-string guitars flung over their shoulders.
But it surely does have its own magic. And if you keep an open mind, you don't have to be particularly partial to country music to appreciate the historic nature and the sincere warmth of the Nashville natives.
Of course, what I like most about the town is that music is literally everywhere and everybody could be the next big country star. Whether you are talking about your server at the Bluebird Cafe, the bartender at the Wild Horse Saloon, the tour guide at Ryman Auditorium or the docent at the Country Music Hall of Fame, they all have equal aspirations of a future acceptance speech at the Country Music Awards on TV. Each person you meet has a big personality and is not shy about sharing deeply passionate songs written at a down time in his or her career journey with any customer who will listen.
I get to Tennessee at least a couple times a year for talent buyer meetings. It's great because during the day, we are all about business, making deals and coordinating schedules. But in the evenings, it's a beefy dinner, mugs of beer and live music all over the place! And I get to experience it with executives from agencies and management firms on Music Row, so it's all VIP!
One such night not too long ago, I was at a local honky-tonk listening to a couple of local duos doing their music just before the headliner was to perform. They were really good, as most of the "locals" are (although there's no such thing as a local in Nashville; apparently everybody is chasing their dreams and originally from another part of the country).
Then the headliner took the stage. He was a mature man, with a very familiar face. I picked up the flier describing the day's beer specials and entertainment lineup. I couldn't believe it! It was Tommy Roe, the 1960s million-selling heartthrob -- one of the guys who helped foster the Alan Freed Rock and Roll concept! "Very cool," I thought.
His bass player/manager, Rick Levy, recognized me from earlier dealings we've had involving some of his other clients. After Roe's set, he brought Tommy over to my table, and we chatted for more than an hour. It was hard to believe that the guy I was talking to, with so much energy and excitement about his present career, was selling out arenas more than 50 years ago!
One story really caught my attention. It was how he was at "ground zero" when the Beatles became an "overnight sensation."
It started in 1962 when Roe and a fellow singer, musician and hitmaker Chris Montez were scheduling a first tour of England together, capitalizing on Roe's smash "Sheila" and Montez' million-seller "Let's Dance." The tour was set for March of 1963 and they were to do 21 shows in 23 days … that's how those seven-act, tour bus packages did it back then. The guys hopped a plane to the UK without knowing who they would be touring with, or who their backup musicians would be.
"When we got there, the press met us at the airplane," Roe said. "That just didn't happen back then. The press wasn't interested in that 'crazy' rock 'n' roll thing. After we got to the hotel, these guys walked into the room, and we thought they were our backing band. It was actually shocking because they had these crazy haircuts. All of us combed our hair back, and they had bangs. We didn't know what to think, but we knew they were something special, even as they just walked into the room."
The Beatles were added to the bill as the band's first single, "Love Me Do," was gaining local momentum. The tour started on March 9, 1963, and continued through March 31. It was quite a whirlwind, and much happened that could not have been foreseen by anyone. On March 22 of that year, the Beatles' first album "Please, Please Me" (and second single by the same name) was released, and the world of music was never the same.
"So I closed the first shows, with Chris right behind me," Roe said. "But when the Beatles came on, it was clear that the tide had turned. You know those Beatles' movies where they are being chased all over the place by hordes of girls? Well, that's exactly how it was. The crowds were going crazy, and frankly, we were a little peeved. We were a little upset, but we weren't stupid. We switched the bill around and the Beatles closed the shows," Roe recalled.
I asked him about his recollections of the tour itself. "I'll tell ya, those guys were very nice. They were always asking questions. They even asked about chord progressions on 'Sheila' as they would do it as part of their set. Just as you saw them on television in the early days, that's how they were: sincere, funny and always goofing around, especially Ringo (Starr). Paul (McCartney) and John (Lennon) always hung together and sat with each other on the bus. But we all knew that they were going to make it big in the states," Roe said. "There was a magic about them."
So when I got home, I started the ball rolling, and contacted Roe and Montez. It took a couple of years, but I am now set to re-create that tour! Tommy Roe AND Chris Montez are reuniting for one night on March 13 at The Arcada.
I added a nationally traveling Beatles tribute band called "Beatlerama" to the bill for that Liverpool element! They will perform the set that the Beatles did on that original tour of 1963, including hits "Love Me Do," "Do You Want To Know A Secret," "Please Please Me" and "I Saw Her Standing There."
It is really somewhat difficult to grasp that the Beatles phenomenon began with a bus tour headlined by these two performers who will appear on our historic stage! After being a Beatles fan, uh, forever, my "six degrees of separation" between the Fab Four and me will be reduced to one on March 13.
Although we will be twisting and shouting, the music history clock will be turned back, and it will be 1963 all over again. Even though it's been 53 years, it seems like it was only "Yesterday."
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.