The tour that changed music forever

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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 touristic sections are filled with cowboy hats and boots, Grand Ole Opry concert replica posters everywhere and scores of Garth Brooks wannabees walkin’ the streets with six-string guitars 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 is the next big country star. Whether you are talking about your server at the Bluebird Café, the bartender at the Wild Horse Saloon, the tour guide at the Ryman Auditorium or the docent at the Country Music Hall of Fame, they all have aspirations of a future acceptance speech at the Country Music Awards on TV. Each has a big personality, not shy about sharing their deeply passionate songs written at a down time in their career journey, with any customer who will listen.

I get there 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 beefy dinners, 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 V-I-P!

One such night not too long ago, I was at a “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. (There’s no such thing as a local, apparently: Everybody is chasing their dreams there 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 flyer describing the day’s beer specials and entertainment lineup. I couldn’t believe it! It was Tommie 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 had with some of his other clients. After his set, he brought Tommy over to my table, and we chatted for over 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 over 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 Tommy and his contemporary hitmaker Chris Montez were scheduling their first tour of England celebrating Tommy’s smash “Sheila” and Chris’ million-seller “Let’s Dance.” It was set for March of 1963 and they were on to do 21 shows in 23 days … that’s how those seven-act, tour-bussed 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,” Tommy 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 just walking into the room,” he said.

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 went until 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 (and second single by the same name) “Please, Please Me” was released, and the world of music was never the same.

“So I closed the first shows, with Chris right behind me,” Tommy 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,” he 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. Paul and John always hung together and sat with each other on the bus. But we all knew that they were going to make it big in that states,” Tommy said. “There was a magic about them.”

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About Ron Onesti

Ron Onesti is the president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans and the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, chairman of Casa Italia and a board member of the Italian American Veterans Museum. He is the founder and president of Onesti Entertainment Corp., which runs five entertainment and dining venues across the Chicago area and produces concerts, special events and festivals nationwide. Among the latter are Festa Pasta Vino on South Oakley Avenue, Festa Italiana on Taylor Street and Little Italy Fest-West in Addison. He was inducted as a cavaliere into the Ordine della Stella d’Italia by the president of Italy

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